Fractured Skills

by Robert Pondiscio
February 24th, 2011

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.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rita Solnet and Robert Pondiscio, Coopmike48. Coopmike48 said: Fractured Skills « The Core Knowledge Blog – [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Fractured Skills « The Core Knowledge Blog, The Core Knowledge Blog -- — February 24, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

  2. @Anthony How to fix it? Persistence, my friend. Persistence.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 24, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

  3. “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.”


    Yet somehow, the debate continues.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 24, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

  4. The “project method”, which is at least one form of “problem based learning”, made quite a splash in 1918 when William Kilpatrick wrote about it. One would think that in the intervening years it would have either taken over education or have been relegated to just one more fad in the dustbin of history. And yet it is repeatedly trotted out as a hot new idea, as new as tomorrow.

    Does it work? I suppose it does in a sense, but I’ve never thought it could be made to work very well. And I think that explains why it’s always a shiny new idea. If it doesn’t work, then why doesn’t it? Well, why should it? These are not easy questions to answer, but I have given it a try, at least for the teaching of math, in an article, “Problem Based Learning And The Nature Of Mathematics”. It’s at

    Comment by Brian Rude — February 24, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

  5. Persistence is also the dogma of the “other side.” Project-based/discovery/inquiry/constructivist education has a history going back 100 years now. If a movement can survive a century with essentialy no evidence of success, why should we think it will ever end? Progressive education is basically a zombie.

    I think we need to admit that the philosophical beliefs behind such instruction will never end. As has been said in many realms: For those who believe no proof is needed, for those who don’t no proof is every enough. We can’t rationalize or use evidence to convince those who think content and facts and coverage are archaic at best and discriminatory or racist at worst. Its not about facts or proof or evidence any more. So what do we do?

    Comment by Matt — February 24, 2011 @ 7:43 pm

  6. This statement captures the essence of the whole discussion of core v. skills.
    “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.” An educated individual cannot function without competency in both areas.

    I’m afraid we are headed to a point where the only content a student will need to know is their password.

    Comment by Bill Oldread — February 24, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

  7. A decade ago the district where I teach 7th grade English hired a crusading superintendent who abolished the two-year geography curriculum that had
    existed for over a generation in favor of a project-based, history and geography combined inquiry model made up by the teachers themselves without benefit of texts. The social studies teachers thought this was stupid, but who listened to them?. (This is “Curly’s Law” in action: it holds that, in Education, the stupidest idea always prevails.) The dopey press, as always, asked no critical questions but instead gave the idea a glowing promotion because it suited their predispositions. I should add that in the elementary grades social studies texts were also shelved and same project and inquiry scheme, made up on the spot by the teachers, was substituted. One result? In a move that only Curly’s Law explains, the district continued to enter the National Geographic Geography Bee each year after the new curriculum was installed, and for the past two years I’ve kept records of our Bee at the middle school. The performance over the two years has been identical: with our best and brightest kids competing, it took 14 questions before a correct answer was recorded, and this because the format had switched at question 14 to a map-reading exercise where a pitiful handful of questions were answered correctly. Crowd control was difficult both years as many in the audience of sixth, seventh and eighth graders thought it hilarious that our supposed best and brightest appeared to be so ignorant. The snickers and giggling eventually erupted into widespread laughter as the trail of wrong answers lengthened. In the end, the best that could be said was that the least geographically ignorant won the contests. Almost the whole vocabulary of geography is lost on these poor kids with all that entails for their general literacy. And remember, these contestants represented our very best students—in all the projects they did from first grade on up, these top students were the ones in the groups who did most of the work! Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck!

    Comment by bill eccleston — February 25, 2011 @ 11:32 am

  8. 1. Project based curriculum = collectivist thinking with content a serendipitous by-product.

    2. Content mastery 1st + integrated skills practice = independent thinkers capable of categorizing, analyzing, and synthesizing what they actually know and remember.

    1. = Cart before the horse progressive, theoretical mode.
    2. = Horse before the cart traditional—the proven way.

    Comment by Fred Strine — February 25, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

  9. Re: (Robert’s comment and Paul’s reinforcement of it) “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.”

    My sense is that that you CAN be an all-purpose critical thinker or problem solver BUT NOT UNTIL you achieve deep knowledge. Deep content knowledge is a prerequisite to higher-order thinking, not a replacement of it, and under no circumstances can deep content knowledge be replaced BY it.

    I am a big fan of both Robert and Paul and the critical thinking that marks posts from both of them, but my experience teaching both high-achieving and struggling students informs me that there is some sense of translation…at least once a certain level of knowledge has been reached. The more students know, the more able they are to value knowledge in other domains, precisely because they see what knowledge allows them to do (in argumentation, analogy, transformational thinking, etc.). Content knowledge and critical thinking then are able to progress in tandem, parallel, leapfrog style, what-have-you, so long as neither leaves the other behind.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — February 26, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

  10. @ Carl I posted this in the comments at Common Core’s blog, but it seems germane to your point, so I’ll repost here:

    As teacher’s we’re so used to thinking in terms of Bloom’s taxonomy — knowing at the bottom, creating at the top — that it’s easy to think the act of creating a product is superior to “mere” knowledge and understanding. But not all acts of creation are created equal. If you stop to think about something you’ve created, say, a paper or article, my hunch is if you think of your best work, it will be on a subject you have genuine expertise in.

    I’m a reasonably facile writer. My best writing is about the subjects I know best, and I’m at my absolute best when I can involve secondary subjects about which I have substantial knowledge to draw parallels and make analogies. Within the last year, I’ve also helped out on writing projects about which I do not have substantial background — a piece concerning issues facing international refugees, for example, and another on the business climate in Korea (don’t ask). I turned in decent work, technically proficient, but on these subjects I simply don’t know what I don’t know. My “voice” lacked confidence. I learned only what I needed to know to produce the “product” and nothing more. If I were to be graded on this, I’d get decent marks. But I still lack the depth of knowledge about refugees and Korea to produce anything of true substance or value. In short, I can parrot back things and use my writing “‘skill” to create something of interest, but I’m not in the position that I might be when writing about education, to add value, shed light or create something original.

    That’s a profound difference. As a technically skilled writer, I can produce a cogent summary–-a press release, a brochure or an advertisement, for example–-on a wide variety of topics given some amount of time to read up. But anything I’ve ever written that was worth reading, which added to a reader’s understanding, was a product of my personal knowledge and expertise.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 26, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

  11. Carl and Robert,

    This discussion reminds me of an example from Don Hirsch’s last book on the content knowledge of cricket.

    While I have average intelligence (by some accounts) and am a knowledgeable sports fan, Hirsch could have been writing about nuclear physics in his cricket paragraph. I had no idea what he was talking about and would have been hurting if tested on the subject matter.

    Prior knowledge and/or personal experience is indeed huge.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 26, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

  12. Essentially, students are fact and event deficient. Is it a Google effect? We have no doubt faced a major cultural shift, but evidence exists to demonstrate there are other more prominent factors that are effecting student learning: standardized testing mania and party poltics to be exact.

    With all the emphases on test scores, the phenomenon of content gets further exacerbated. Diane Ravitch’s book, The Language Police, does an excellent job of describing why content standards lack depth in events and specifics. This book will give you an eerie sense that 1984 is upon us. The culprits? The extreme left and right wing factions. “Righties” want no mention of evolution with a good dose of intelligent design. “Lefties” insist on zero traditional and neutral language: no working dads and moms that drive bulldozers. Essentially, the textbook companies are legalphobes. They self-govern themselves to avoid anything in the least controversial from either the left or the right philosophies. Hence, we get texts that literally twist facts to make things kosher and that’s why content standards that are vague and noncommittal to specifics.

    What do you get from this phenomena? Idealism gone wrong. We’ve lost our “common core”. We need to get it back for the sake of saving our education system.

    This is SCARY. It’s a fundamental problem to school reform. We need to allow local communities the power to decide what parts of history they want their kids to learn. We need local communities standing up and demanding historically accurate curriculum and literature that’s rich in tradition and content. This dialogue needs to be occurring more than test scores. It’s exactly why students are losing interest and aren’t retaining much of anything. It’s the elephant in the room as far as I am concerned, standardized testing simply distracts us from real educational progress.

    Comment by Clarky — February 28, 2011 @ 9:01 am

  13. @Robert (#13) and Paul (14): We are fully in agreement that content knowledge is sine qua non. I may have been unclear on what I perceive as a difference between our philosophical positions, which does have some substance: I think that once a student is able to value content and has a grounding (I don’t know quite how to quantify this minimum “activation energy” for scholarship, to use a chemistry term), he or she CAN generate worthwhile momentum in general critical thinking that will (I idealistically believe) propagate further interest in both gaining content knowledge and thinking critically.

    Robert humbly points out his inability to produce at a professional level in any field in which he is not expert. No argument there. But I assert that for a student level of performance — not the same as a professional’s — adequate value can be created without necessarily reaching for the standard that you expect of yourself. Kids don’t have to be ready for that. They can, however, edge themselves up the critical thinking scales on a variety of topics, learning all the while to self-assess the extent to which they HAVE and that to which they NEED MORE content knowledge.

    We do it all the time. Paul is wary of overstepping his bounds in cricket, Robert is circumspect with regard to his knowledge of Korea, and I am humble about my management of both; we are metacognitive in a way that a teen probably isn’t…yet. We all have such a respect for knowledge that we can make a judgment on our readiness, because we know what it means to be “prepared” for substantive commentary in a field. I’m not saying “Don’t know anything.” I’m suggesting that there’s space below the professional level, in which students can still exercise themselves in critical thinking. They will overstate, and they will needs be vague, and they will develop uninformed analogies, and so on. That’s where the educator comes in, to provide assessment on achievement, direct them toward better resources, point out logical flaws. I’m comfortable with this, as long as the remedy is to guide the kids back into study and thinking instead of proffering empty praise for underinformed commentary.

    As I said above, I believe it is possible to develop skills in critical thinking that are extensible beyond any particular discipline, and that so extending compounds both one’s ability to keep learning and keep improving as a critical thinker. I repeat, though, that even if you disagree on this point, we all seem to agree that achieving a significant baseline of content knowledge is a prerequisite before any critical thinking can be possible.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — March 1, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

  14. As a history teacher, I know just how politicized the question of core content is. If I tried to teach in the Bible Belt the content I normally include, I suspect I’d be fired. Also, in American history, it is rare for a teacher to be able to address topics related to events in the last 50 years, simply because there is too little time in the school day/year to do so. Not to say that everything is equally important, but there is so much included in the state frameworks, that I do get to choose. So I focus on topics that stretch students’ ability to think historically and I make them write about difficult topics. I suppose I could get them to identify who Sam Houston was, and what a swell system capitalism is, but I’d rather they learned about the Panic of 1873, the Homestead Strike, Frick, Pinkertons and scabs. And that’s why I don’t teach in Texas!

    Comment by Matt — March 4, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

  15. Content Vs. Product- (The horse/cart dilemma);

    When I have read this discussion which was a strong spot of light on our teaching practices, I really thought about my classroom practices. Because sometimes it is really hard to balance between the content/product weights in our classroom practices. Specially that I am teaching physics, and the our curriculum design is really vague about both weights, which should come before the other, which is more critical than than the other, and which is a perquisite (the content or the skill)?

    I think it requires a deeper look into our curricular differentiation and setting clear goals and targets out of strong power standards that controls our teaching targets. The detailed curricular plan would answer many questions related to the content or product priority. The power standard would give a clear picture about our primary objectives and our complementary ones. Our students’ readiness, interests, and learning profiles will also play an important role in deciding the context of our practices.

    This post really made me think of revising my own practices and to reconsider some curricular goals and objectives.

    Comment by Shady Elkassas — March 12, 2011 @ 5:40 am

  16. I can truly appreciate the value in this post. It is full of assumptions in order to be successful. The students are assumed they they have a genuine grasp onthe content in order to preform the skill. If there isn’t even the slighest mini lesson to formally introduce a skill how can an effective educator confirm that a student has LEARNED a skill making logos is not necessarily a life skill as it is more a creative arts skill. Assessming the knowledge gained cannot be seen in a logo! How absurd to assume that students are learning when the skill aren’t truly being applied in class. Granted I’m sure there are a plethora of hands- on activites and “differentiated instruction” going on in some form, but can these student fairly be assess on the objectives and indicators in place by their state guidelines. What does the curriculum look like advance markers and crayons? Seriously I value education and can appreciate teaching cross curriculum, however it just seems in my opinion no teaching and true assessment style learning is being done. I don’t know maybe it’s just me!

    Comment by Ariane — March 16, 2011 @ 9:28 pm

  17. A great tool to have for curriculum and content can be found in the Habitat for Humanity website. It offers lesson plans, worksheets, assessments, online courses and other resources to teach all ages about housing issues around the world. If you would like to learn more please go here:

    Comment by Habitat For Humanity — March 24, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.