A who’s who of educators and reformers have signed a letter from Common Core reminding the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) that attempts to teach skills apart from knowledge have failed repeatedly. Randi Weingarten, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Dan Willingham, Diane Ravitch, Checker Finn, John Silber, Kevin Chavous and Whitney Tilson are among those urging P21 “and other advocates of 21st century skills to reshape their effort by putting knowledge and skills together at the core of their work.”
Under Lynne Munson, Common Core has done a bang-up job raising questions about the value and validity of P21′s advocacy. But as surely as the sun will rise in the East tomorrow, P21 and its advocates will scratch their heads and say, “But we do think content is important and we’ve said so consistently.” To a certain degree, they’re right. The difference is one of orientation–whether you take a skills-oriented view of teaching and learning or a knowledge-based orientation. The case needs to be made that a skills-based orientation puts the cart before the horse. It’s possible P21 might even agree. If skills are the cart and knowledge the horse, they have no reason to insist on going first.
Let’s say your goal is to teach a critical thinking skill like comparing and contrasting. You might ask your student to fill out a Venn diagram. Students might compare and contrast deserts and tundra; others will look at igneous and sedimentary rock, or the two houses of Congress. A content advocate will look at what you’re doing and say “See! You don’t care about content!” Confused, the skills advocate will reply in dead earnest, “What are you talking about? It’s geography! It’s geology! And civics! That’s content!”
In a skills-oriented classroom, content is content is content. It’s a mere delivery mechanism for the skill. It could just as easily be apples vs. oranges or baseball vs. football, since what matters is the skill. If the content drives the instruction, however, you might assign the compare and contrast exercise as an organic part of your unit on colonization, perhaps asking students to compare English and Spanish settlements in the New World. The skill serves as a way of thinking about and organizing the content, which is seen as intrinsically important.
This is not an arbitrary difference. Those of us who favor rigorous curriculum make the case for a clearly defined, grade-by-grade, sequenced core curriculum for many reasons: it boosts reading comprehension by building background knowledge, it eliminates gaps and repetitions and helps address issues associated with student mobility. Without an agreed upon sequence, a student might end up studying the rain forest three times in elementary school and never get the Bill of Rights, for example. Broad background knowledge also helps create critical thinkers and problem solvers. But the sequence matters. With a sequenced curriculum–the horse before the cart–you get all those good things AND a framework for teaching skills effectively. Put the cart before the horse and you have incoherence, superficiality, gaps, repitition and confusion.
As advocates for a rich, robust curriculum, we need to start making the case not just for rigor and common knowledge, but for a sequenced curriculum. Otherwise 21st century skills advocates will continue to scratch their heads and say “but look we agree with you about content” and both sides will continue to talk past each other.