Horses and Carts

by Robert Pondiscio
September 16th, 2009

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.


  1. Well-said, Robert.

    The point must be made that content is paramount.

    Another point that must be made is that thinking skills without a robust knowledge-base are IMPOTENT. By age eighteen all kids have done tons of analyzing (e.g. which course of behavior will maximize my fun without gettting my parents on my case), but that mental exercise does not make them one whit more capable of analyzing a patient’s illness or the quality of a legal argument or the feasibilty of a foreign policy proposal. Doctors, lawyers and government bureaucrats must internalize reams of knowledge for their thinking skills to start to become truly effective.

    Comment by Ben — September 16, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

  2. My previous comment applies:

    I don’t see how any lesson related to the underpinnings of a Venn diagram will do the dastardly things that have been asserted here. Who says that skills are added at the price of removing content? How will learning how to use a Venn diagram supplant the consideration of content understanding, particularly if a basic understanding of using Venn diagrams (and to be specific, these kinds of skills *without* the relevant content are not really being taught as critical thinking skills at all) can help students pick up and analyze content more effectively?

    I can’t find anything at all on the P21 site asserting that content is unimportant, and by “content” I mean the actual content standards, not your “content is content is content” argument. It’s framework emphasizes the importance of the core subjects that we are already teaching, but extends the focus to 21st century skills as well as knowledge. Venn diagrams without any important content to organize is an incorrect extension of their model, and really, doesn’t equate to critical thinking but fosters more lower-level learning designed to teach a simple set of steps rather than a method to analyze or problem-solve. It also assumes you can use a good amount of time for teaching the basic idea of Venn diagrams, which is kind of silly since graphic organizers themselves are made to be easy to use and quick to learn.

    It is a false analogy to say “which pulls what? The horse or the cart?” P21 seem to be advocating, “What will get you to the goal faster: a horse pulling a cart, or the cart by itself?”

    Comment by Chris Smyr — September 16, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

  3. Chris:
    I appreciate the time, care and obvious passion you put into your posts on this blog. But, dude…did you even READ my post before you wrote your comment?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 16, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

  4. Did you read mine? I gave a few responses to your assertion and faulty logic. I’ll even make a graphic organizer out of them:

    Opposing Argument: P21 is pushing skills instead of knowledge, and this creates …(long list of negative effects)…

    Response 1: P21 is *not* arguing that skills should supplant knowledge, but that skills *and* knowledge should be the focus.

    Response 2: A simple lesson on how to use a Venn diagram would not need to take up much time at all away from learning content; practice can even be had with the subject content being taught

    Response 3: P21 relates specifically to learning core pieces of knowledge, and are not proposing “content is content is content”

    Response 4: To say that a Venn diagram will be the focus without any rigorous content knowledge degrades the skill to lower-level learning, which is not what P21 is advocating for when they refer to “21st century skills”. Drawing circles is not such a skill. The circles have a purpose, and that purpose is critically analyzing the content at hand.

    Response 5: The analogy of a horse and cart is a straw man argument considering the previous 4 responses. The issue is not about one or the other, and it’s not even about which should come first. It’s about pushing for both in our classrooms.

    Comment by Chris Smyr — September 16, 2009 @ 11:07 pm

  5. One of us is having reading comprehension issues and I don’t think it’s me. I thought I couldn’t be clearer that the difference between P21′s version of “content” and those who favor a more traditional academic approach is the orientation. Nowhere did I state or imply that P21 argues that skills supplant knowledge. Indeed, I was being quite sympathetic to what I took to be their obvious and understandable confusion at what the content folks are complaining about. That’s Response 1. And failing to grasp that makes your Response 2-5 beside the point. The fundamental point is not whether you can teach skills in the absence of content, Chris. No one is arguing for that. The issue is how valuable it is to treat content randomly, not sequentially.

    There’s clearly a need for both. And it’s quite workable if you build upon a solid, sequenced curriculum.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 16, 2009 @ 11:14 pm

  6. Chris:

    Would you try this thought experiment?:

    Student A has twelve years of intensive training in critical thinking skills. The content of this “thinking skills” curriculum is breakfast pastries.

    Student B spends twelve years listening to lucid lectures on science and history. He takes notes and completes multiple choice tests, but NEVER has any explicit training in critical thinking and is never asked to demonstrate critical thinking, just comprehension of the lectures.

    Which student is better educated?

    Which student will be able to form sound judgments?

    Which student, in all situations outside the realm of breakfast pastries, will be the better critical thinker?

    I would say the answer to all three questions is Student B. It seems to me that knowledge is the SOUL of education. Critical thinking skills are inborn and then empowered by knowledge. Teachers do not impart these skills (though they may refine them perhaps). Teachers can induce students to practice these skills, but this practice does not make them higher-powered thinkers. It’s knowledge that makes them high-powered thinkers.

    Venn diagrams are all well and good –I like them because they help clarify knowledge and thus help the brain retain knowledge — but content is paramount.

    Comment by Ben F — September 17, 2009 @ 12:27 am

  7. But nowhere does the idea of “treating content randomly” come into play with P21, at least not by their mission and framework. The rest of my responses are surely worthy of a reply, as they are indeed addressing your message and tone of how a skills-oriented classroom is undermining content, when it does not.

    Just the fact that you are quoting “content” shows you seem to want to imply that rigorous content is somehow unimportant to P21. I don’t see why this is being brought up. Were skill standards introduced, they would not offset the goal of content standards, and actually both could be taught simultaneously.

    Ben: You are highlighting the straw man in these arguments. Why are we comparing a student who is critically analyzing “breakfast pastries” versus one who is listening to “lucid lectures”? Give a reference that shows how P21 is undermining content knowledge by adding a focus on critical thinking skills and removing it from knowledge. There is nothing to suggest that they are intending to change education into a thinking exercise on bakery goods.

    (As a tangent to the point, I wouldn’t be so quick to label Student B as a symbol of a better education, since “lucid lectures” are surely just the thing to make a whole slew of his classmates resent school. Many kids don’t do “lucid lectures” very well.)

    Comment by Chris Smyr — September 17, 2009 @ 2:26 am

  8. Chris,

    If we aren’t going to use lucid lectures as the delivery model to provide a sequence of relevant knowledge in a timely manner, what would you suggest?

    I believe that the students who resent “lucid lectures” do so because they lack the background knowledge to make the lecture sufficiently lucid.

    Robert and Common Core want everyone, not just those who are lucky in the households they were born into, to have access to that background knowledge.

    Comment by Student of History — September 17, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

  9. This was a tangent to the true point of this discussion, but if you are trying to defend an education full of “lucid lectures” as one worthy of emulation, discussion is a lost cause.

    The point here is that a classroom where critical thinking skills are used to refine and further support content acquisition should be the goal, and indeed it is P21′s goal.

    Comment by Chris Smyr — September 17, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

  10. Robert,

    Our efforts to persuade Chris seem to be foundering.

    You concede that teaching thinking skills and content are both important. Might this statement obfuscate matters somewhat? Because really, a thinking skills curriculum is going to yield lame thinkers, don’t you think? And a content-rich curriculum will yield capable thinkers. Immersion in content fertilizes the creative, lucid thinking that the P21 people want, whereas the plausible-seeming thinking skills route yields, ironically, the hapless, confused, unimaginative, limited thinking that the P21 people ostensibly wish to avoid (but perhaps they really want to cultivate unfree, gadget-purchasing zombies).

    A mixed curriculum will produce good thinkers only insofar as it teaches kids something about the world; the skills practice part is mostly a waste of time except to the extent that it helps solidify mastery of the content.

    Comment by Ben F — September 17, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

  11. You are not persuading me nor P21 proponents because you are continuing to create your own straw man arguments about P21 to cut down, and not citing the evidence at hand. I think this is why the P21 guys were scratching their heads, not because your logic is somehow above them.

    Comment by Chris Smyr — September 17, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

  12. A factual discussion of our concerns with P21 and specifically questioning Chris’ points which he then refuses to discuss is the antithesis of the straw man fallacy we are being accused of.

    How did we get from lucid lectures being an effective delivery model to convey background information to an education “full of” them as if that was it?

    A good teacher uses lecture to ground the reading and class discussions to compare, contrast, and synthesize content from the teacher, the books assigned, and the ideas of fellow students. The breadth and depth of individual knowledge in the classroom aids the calibre of the learning for everyone. Sequencing means that relevant connections between topics and subjects can easily be made by the less than brilliant and that the understandings will last and can be built upon.

    Chris – you are the one refusing to offer evidence, answer well grounded, respectful points directed to the concerns you raised, and creating straw men to swing at. Why?

    What delivery model do you advocate to provide factual content to students? If you really believe that there’s a false controversy between content and skills, why avoid answering this critical question?

    We genuinely want to understand how you advocate students learn the “things” they will need to know to have something that ties them to the world they live in and will need to learn a living in and the world that came before them.

    Is that why we can’t have an effective discussion over how to deliver content to students? Are the skills for most students just to be grounded in the personal experiences of each student?

    Comment by Student of History — September 18, 2009 @ 8:45 am

  13. The thought experiment incorrectly phrased the debate between two students, one who focused only on thinking skills, the other who listened to lectures for 12 years but was never asked to demonstrate critical thinking. There is nothing to suggest that one of these is actually what P21 is advocating for, which is the fallacy.

    I frankly don’t want to get into the separate discussion of why
    “lucid lectures” all the time is a bad thing, because I don’t even know why that has to be argued. It’s not a matter of whether students have the knowledge to understand the lectures, but the fact that no one wants to be talked to all the time, and many just won’t learn that way (short attention spans, varied levels of English ability, not enough practice to apply the content, etc…). All of my experiences in my classroom and with talking with other teachers– many also teaching different grades– supports that. I’m sure I could find research studies to support it, too, but again, I’m not interested in this particular debate as it takes away the focus from the current discussion.

    To the question of “What delivery model do you advocate to provide factual content to students?”, I’d say, not just lectures, but also all of the other activities and lessons that teachers use to create a more hands-on approach to learning which also incorporate elements of critical thinking. A lot of teachers do this anyway, without the advocacy of P21. I think P21 is just trying to make it more common in classrooms.

    Comment by Chris Smyr — September 18, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

  14. Chris,

    I’d love to know how you or other teachers who feel they’re successful at creating critical thinkers do it. I hear from my colleagues all the time, “We’re all about teaching critical thinking, not just facts.” And until a couple years ago, I would have uttered the same platitudes. But now I wonder: have I ever really TAUGHT a critical thinking skill? I have given opportunities to USE them, but that’s not teaching them. And what evidence is there that this practice has made my students BETTER critical thinkers? Which tests or other evaluation instruments show this? If a student writes a brilliant comparison of Maya and Aztec religions, is this because the student has had to do similar comparisons of other religions in earlier history classes, or is this mostly because he’s learned a lot of details about each religion? I would guess it’s about 10% practice at organizing a comparison essay and 90% knows a lot about the subject. Which is better preparation for analyzing a medical dilemna –a year of acquiring knowledge plus a year of thinking skills exercises on miscellaneous content, or two years of acquiring knowledge? It seems to me that it’s KNOWLEDGE that enables the doctor to make cogent analyses; having had a lot of practice on thinking skills avails him not at all unless he has the relevant knowledge about that condition.

    In short, I’m not convinced that “teaching” critical thinking leads to critical thinking. It seems to me that, counterintuitively perhaps, teaching organized bodies of knowledge leads to critical thinking.

    Comment by Ben F — September 19, 2009 @ 10:31 am

  15. If a student writes a brilliant essay, it’s not just because he knows his facts, but because he’s had practice writing essays. Your 10-90 estimate is way off– ask any English teacher, or for that matter any secondary teacher. It’s the reason that all teachers are considered primary language instructors, to give kids practice with reading and writing in different subjects.

    Your medical dilemma example is also incorrect on a couple levels. One: a med student has already achieved a heightened level of critical thinking, so that a year of critical thinking focus without content would be silly, making it an inappropriate analogy for K-12 students. Two: the third option that you left out, and the one P21 is advocating for, is to teach content for the two years but with a curriculum imbued with critical thinking practice: mind mapping, essays, debates, and any kind of practice where higher-order thinking occurs.

    If the options are 1) continue teaching content without practicing skills, or 2) continue teaching content while practicing skills, it is obvious which one will more likely lead to critical thinking. In fact, I find it hard to understand the implications of your argument, that teaching critical thinking doesn’t foster critical thinking at all. And book learning without practice does? Getting students to use these skills requires a conscious effort by the teacher to prepare students for higher-level learning. It doesn’t just happen on its own.

    Comment by Chris Smyr — September 19, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

  16. Yes, critical thinking just doesn’t happen on its own. This is why before schools were created and critical thinking taught and mastered, human beings were unable to innovate and solve problems. This is why were unable to organize ourselves into communities, build shelters, domesticate animals, hunt in groups, and develop agriculture.

    What? Oh…never mind.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 19, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

  17. The more and more I think about the teaching and learning of critical thinking the creepier I feel about it. I don’t like the implication that schools or teachers SHOULD be teaching students how to think. It seems very Orwellian to me, as if it is possible (or even desirable) to force a student to think, or make connections, or even analyze in a set way.

    Example: A common “21st Century Skill” and/or critical thinking skill is the evaluation of sources for value. Many/most teachers I know hammer on the weakness of Wikipedia, even groan when it is brought up. However, at least one study showed that Wikipedia is as good as a famous hard bound encyclopedia ( So if a student where to critically analyze the value of Wikipedia as a source, what would happen if their analysis disagreed with the teacher and they got punished for it?

    Comment by Matt — September 19, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

  18. By Robert’s logic, we should just close schools altogether and let education sort itself out. After all, look at how far we progressed before they came along!

    By Matt’s logic, teachers should stop teaching altogether, lest their internal bias corrupt our children further. Should we tell them to stop forcing content on students as well? The very idea that all schools should have students read “1984″ seems very Orwellian to me.

    Of course, teaching critical thinking doesn’t actually imply there is one single, correct way to think, and the Wikipedia example only underscores the need for evaluating sources for value and utilizing multiple points of reference, which is exactly what needs to be taught, particularly in this internet age where students go off and try to cite twitter.

    Comment by Chris Smyr — September 19, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

  19. Nice try, Chris. Concede the point that “21st century skills” are neither new, nor do they have to be explicitly taught in order to occur in all cases, and let’s move on.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 19, 2009 @ 8:24 pm

  20. Sure, without schools, people were able to critically think as well, and do all those fine examples you put forward, like hunting and gathering. But I’m quickly losing faith in your ability to put forward good-faith arguments when hunting and gathering is your example for why teaching critical thinking is unnecessary.

    Hunting and gathering, surprisingly, did not require such an extensive and technical skill set as, say, being an informed member of a 21st century technological society where problem solving and scientific thinking are increasingly becoming necessary in our way of life, for little things such as job security, and for big things such as preventing climate disaster.

    Getting *all* students up to par with such a lofty goal as the latter example will not happen if we leave learning these skills up to chance and fail to promote the practice of such in the classroom. There has been no cogent argument yet that has shown why combining rigorous content with critical thinking in the classroom will have a deleterious effect on our students, or why we should treat skills differently from content (should we not teach content, knowing that some could certainly obtain it on their own? Hunter-gatherers turned out alright!). There’s only more to gain by incorporating P21′s framework.

    Comment by Chris Smyr — September 19, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

  21. Chris, you have proven yourself not only nuance averse, but humorless as well. Look, I’m content to let you have the last word, since you’re wedded to a particular point of view and you’re making points that are not responsive to the discussion. I’m content that a fair-minded read of this thread will show that nowhere in it did I state or imply that “teaching critical thinking is unnecessary.” Neither did I state (nor do I in fact believe) “combining rigorous content with critical thinking in the classroom will have a deleterious effect on our students.” Quite the opposite in fact. Lastly, your notion that “problem solving and scientific thinking are increasingly becoming necessary in our way of life” is silly. They have *always* been important to human progress. The idea that we have somehow found ourselves in an unprecedented set of historical circumstances that requires brand new skills and abilities displays an ignorance of human history that no amount of critical thinking will overcome.

    The floor is yours, my friend. Proselytize to your heart’s content. But please excuse me if I busy my mind with other things. In the future, I might suggest that you respond to the comments and ideas as they are presented, not as you pretend them to be.


    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 19, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

  22. You wanted me to “concede the point that ’21st century skills’ are neither new, nor do they have to be explicitly taught in order to occur in all cases”, but you wanted such concession after an example one could only take to be nonsensical. Yet if that was your only counterargument to my previous comment explaining that critical thinking does not happen on its own in a classroom, what would you rather me reply to?

    The entire crux of your initial post is based on distortions of the P21 framework. 21 comments later and you still don’t seem to understand that, and have refused to respond to critical points that I’ve raised regarding your phrases such as “content is content is content” and analogies of horses and carts.

    Your final paragraph chides and condescends, but it’s really just a cue for an exit from an uncomfortable discussion that seeks to probe your perspective on an issue that there shouldn’t be so much disagreement on, since you fundamentally accept that “combining rigorous content with critical thinking in the classroom” is a positive thing.

    Critical thinking has always been important, but its necessity is increasing by orders of magnitude as we utilize more technology and science in our everyday lives. There is no comparison between now and the hunter-gatherer days for how necessary critical thinking is, and for the need to make sure that *all* citizens have and utilize these skills.

    Comment by Chris Smyr — September 20, 2009 @ 1:29 am

  23. Chris,

    You really have been insufferable and demonstrate the P21 emphasis on empty rhetoric over substance.

    You engage in the behavior that you then accuse others of: strawmen arguments, failure to offer specific evidence, distortion of the other’s points and condescension.

    Thanks for your time. This has been quite illuminating. You have provided the perfect illustration that the skills debate for many of its proponents will not be conducted in good faith.

    This discussion reminds me of the ed prof in California telling a Cal Tech physics professor that the physicist didn’t understand critical thinking skills.

    Comment by Student of History — September 20, 2009 @ 8:34 am

  24. Hunting and gathering, surprisingly, did not require such an extensive and technical skill set as, say, being an informed member of a 21st century technological society where problem solving and scientific thinking are increasingly becoming necessary in our way of life, for little things such as job security, and for big things such as preventing climate disaster.

    This is pretty much false. Hunting and gathering required a much more extensive skill set than living in today’s society, at least for the vast majority of people. In today’s society, there are lots of people who can function and survive but who don’t really know how to do much of anything other than type and enter things into Excel. They don’t have to know where their food comes from, what animals are edible, and which parts, and how to prepare and cook them, and where and how to find them, and how to avoid predators, and which of 1,000 plants are edible or medicinal or poisonous, and how to deliver babies, and how to make tools and weapons by hand, and how to find water, and how to build shelter, and how to make clothing and shoes.

    The vast majority of the people in today’s society who supposedly have “critical thinking skills” would last about a week in a hunter-gatherer society. They wouldn’t have the background knowledge or the thinking skills to survive.

    All of this is a side point, of course, but I am always peeved by the assumption of intellectual superiority compared to people who had to learn vastly more about the world just to survive.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — September 20, 2009 @ 9:31 am

  25. But it’s true, hunter-gatherers wouldn’t have known how to come up with a mind map, whatever the heck that’s supposed to do. I bet they wouldn’t have known how to diagram sentences either. So we’re clearly smarter than they were.

    Comment by Anonymous — September 20, 2009 @ 9:34 am

  26. Student of History: Please elaborate on my straw men arguments. Give an example. I’m pretty sure I explained about what the thought experiment entailed when you last commented about it. Robert asserts he never implied “teaching critical thinking is unnecessary,” yet that was immediately after he brought up hunting and gathering as an example of why critical thinking can happen on its own and doesn’t need to be a focus in the classroom, as silly of an example as that is. Robert also asserts that he has no problem with combining content and skills in a classroom, yet he writes about the “orientation” of importance and how a “skills-oriented classroom” diminishes the rigor of content, even when that’s not what P21 is advocating, nor does it make sense that skills practice without good content has anything at all to do with 21st century skills.

    Stuart Buck: That people today wouldn’t “last about a week in a hunter-gatherer society” doesn’t prove that our society today necessitates fewer critical thinking skills for our continued survival. You are free to upset yourself over the example, but asserting hunter-gatherers required a more extensive skill set in terms of critical thinking is a misleading statement. Today we have occupations where people are pushing the frontiers of science and technology to places we’ve never been. Informed members of society need to critically examine the importance of such and the effect it has on society, so that they can contribute through informed voting and advocacy. Many utilize computers for tasks and computations far beyond the ken of society thousands of years ago, and have to do so for their day-to-day job.

    There are orders of magnitude of efficiency required in our society that did not exist before; that many of us do not know how to “deliver babies” is not a sign that we were smarter back then. It just means that, as our emphasis on efficiency increases, that we designate these tasks to different people. Doctors “deliver babies” but are also tasked to many other necessary jobs involving health while at the same time contributing to our knowledge of medical science. This arrangement is much more efficient than the alternative: giving everyone a basic, lowered understanding of everything required for personal survival. It also requires higher-order thinking to contribute to designated jobs at a much higher efficiency.

    That some people still only know how to “type and enter things into Excel” is exactly the problem. We need a society where everyone critically analyzes policies and understands the impact of technology and science, but that we clearly don’t have that yet doesn’t imply that it is unnecessary, given our increasing ability to cause ruin to ourselves with bad science and misuse of technology. Our growing focus on global awareness requires, instead of the hunter gatherer days where we’d work mainly toward our own survival, that we figure out new ways to contribute to *everyone’s* increased survival, happiness, and way of life.

    Comment by Chris Smyr — September 20, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

  27. Chris, looks like you are a fellow science teacher.

    How do you respond to this piece in the current edition of Educational Leadership:

    “I can say without hesitation that knowing how to apply the scientific method in one field does not take you far when you go into another. In the same way, I would argue that quasi-mystical belief that students need to “know what scientists do” is misguided. There is, in fact, no magical scientific method, no silver bullet that once mastered, will enable someone to easily acquire knowledge of new science. If you expect your students to know molecular biology, you have to teach them molecular biology. You don’t teach them physics and hope that this knowledge will help them understand stem cells. It won’t.”–James Trefil and Wanda O’Brien-Trefil

    I find it hard to believe that being able to use and understand the scientific method isn’t a “21st Century Skill.” It is basically a way to critically analyze knowledge and information. But as the authors argue, critical thinking and analysis, even amongst great thinking scientists, is narrowly contained in a specific area of content. Not even the greatest Nobel Prize winning Physicist is going to be adept at judging the validity of a study on genetics or molecular biology.

    Comment by Matt — September 20, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

  28. Fifteen years ago when I was teaching in high school we were expected to teach skills. Supervisors waxed eloquent about the wonders of thinking skills. I took a course in “teaching thinking skills” and another in using group work; I liked the concepts but realized that we were being taught to use each technique all the time. There was no place for content. As a faculty we studied the ASCD publication “Dimensions of Learning.” This was all process; when there was content it was used to “teach” the skills and process. So my experience tells me that 21st century skills are nothing new.

    Furthermore, a hundred or so years ago when progressive theories were new, the mantra was: Everything is changing and we must teach children how to get along in this new world. We can’t continue in the old ways that will no longer work! This “new education” has brought us to the place we are today.

    Nevertheless, skills and techniques should be communicated to students. However, they do not consist of “material” to be taught; rather for the most part they are habits. Habits are not acquired by talking about them, but by using them–for schooling, the way for students to use them is by the study of content, that is, information about what the world is. This is what I have tried to describe at educationgoalsandmeans

    Comment by Susan Toth — September 21, 2009 @ 8:12 am

  29. Matt: I think it emphasizes the need to teach critical thinking (the scientific method) in the context of rigorous content. It’s not a magic bullet but it’s certainly necessary.

    Comment by Chris Smyr — September 21, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

  30. Maybe Confucius says it best, “Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.”

    Comment by Anonymous — September 23, 2009 @ 9:27 am

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