Fascinating post — and responses — over at Common Core’s blog. The organization, which advocates for content-rich curriculum and teaching has found a mole and invited her to blog about her experience teaching at a New Tech High School, a hotbed of the 21st Century skills movement.
With 62 schools in 14 states, New Tech’s mission is to help students gain both ”the knowledge and skills they need” but teacher Emma Bryant says don’t be fooled, it’s really all about the skills. “We practice project based learning, utilize the latest technology, and hold to a mission of helping our students acquire ’21st century skills,’” she writes.” And what does that look like, exactly?
“Roughly once a month we present students with a new project which must result in a “product.” According to our model the more “real world” the product, the better. Real world, meaning the product mirrors what could reasonably be demanded in a corporate setting — from a redesigned company logo and slogan to a promotional video or a press release. Students work in small teams to complete projects, with each team member receiving the same grade at the end. After all, it’s not about what individual students learn but the final product. Students are assessed on a handful of learning outcomes — collaboration, communication, innovation, work ethic, technological literacy, information literacy and content. Content usually makes up between 15 and 30 percent of a student’s grade.”
Content, as she describes it, takes a backseat to the student work product. Emma’s students “might work a quote from a short story into a reworded company slogan,” for example. ”Or perhaps they might work with Photoshop to create a company logo depicting an event from European history.”
“Apart from being grafted onto ‘real world’ products, content is rarely discussed in the classroom. Instead, students deal with content in teams or individually, with little to no scaffolding from the teacher. Dialogue, questions, critical thinking, and debate surrounding content are low on the list of things you will see in a 21st century classroom. And so students end up with convoluted ideas about history, a cursory understanding of and appreciation for literature, and a shaky foundation in math and science.
Just as fascinating as Emma’s post is the comments it has engendered on Common Core’s blog. Several New Tech teachers have complained strenuously–some earnestly, others sarcastically. All take issue with the idea that the schools are giving short shrift to academic content. “If Ms. Bryant feels that content is pushed aside in her classroom, perhaps she should turn her critical eye toward the curriculum she creates and how it is implemented in her classroom,” writes one.
But it’s worth asking why teachers are creating curriculum at all, and whether this doesn’t bolster Emma’s claim that content is fungible and skills non-negotiable. If you view a subject–any subject–as a body of knowledge to be studied and mastered, then “coverage” (a dirty word among progressive and skill-driven educators) leading to deep appreciation and understanding matters. A curriculum–a coherent grade-by-grade overview of all the topics within a discipline that students are expected to know– becomes very important. It’s not something teachers are expected to create, but rather to use their creativity and skills to deliver. The students’ ability to produce a “product” become a means to demonstrate mastery. Put the emphasis on the skills and products, however, and the content becomes merely a delivery mechanism–something the product is “about.” If teachers are creating their own curriculum, then is it not perfectly obvious that they view the content as unimportant or secondary to the skills being taught?
I have written previously my belief that this is not some nefarious scheme to devalue content. Rather, I tend to think that 21st century skills advocates are genuinely perplexed by the criticism that they do not value content. After all all of those products produced by project-based learning are about something. And that’s content, right? Not exactly. The disconnect comes down to coherence. Critical thinking, language development, vocabulary growth and many of the most desirable ends of education are “domain specific.” You cannot be an all-purpose critical thinker or problem solver. These “skills” are largely a function of the depth of your knowledge of a particular subject or domain and do not readily translate from one domain to another. Thus any attempt to privilege or emphasize skills at the expense of coherence or rigor is doomed to produce less than complete understanding–and less than compelling “products.”
As always, the issue is not content vs. skills as an either/or proposition. Both are essential and desirable. It’s a question of which is the horse and which is the cart–and which is most likely to succeed in producing the desired results we all want for kids.
Update: Joanne Jacobs joins the fray.