Skills vs. Content

When I was seven and in the throes of wrestling the times table to the ground and taking its lunch money, I remember saying to my teacher, the long-suffering Ms. Ellul, “Why do I need to learn this? I can just use a calculator.” She told me I needed to learn it because I wouldn’t always be carrying a calculator around in my pocket with me. I’m sure she feels very silly about that statement now.
The internet and the development of internet-capable portable devices (or “smartphones” as reasonable people call them) means that our interaction with information has shifted dramatically. All of us have - at our fingertips at every moment of every day - a wealth of information that outstrips anything that any of us could learn in a lifetime. In this information-rich environment, what’s a teacher to do?

One of the trends in education right now is to talk about teaching skills rather than content. I’m sure all of you are in favor of skills, but you might be a little worried about the idea of not teaching content. It sounds a little bit like your student may emerge from school not knowing anything.
For many of us, the process of our own education involved a great deal of information acquisition. I myself can still recite the quadratic formula in a monotone drone, as learned in algebra in eighth grade, though I promise you I haven’t found myself solving a quadratic equation in many years. You may recall memorizing dates and names and events in history classes, drilling them into your mind so that if you were asked at a cocktail party when the War of 1812 ended, you could say, “1814, but the last battle was fought in 1815 because they hadn’t gotten the memo.” This type of education is now less necessary, not because the War of 1812 or the quadratic formula aren’t important or even because the cocktail party circuit is less busy, but because information is always available to us, whether we happen to be lugging our textbooks around for reference or not.
The shift that has to be accomplished in education is a shift away from memorizing information and towards manipulating information. This means that teaching has to shift as well. While content will, of course, still be taught, it’s content as an instrument rather than content as an end in itself.
Let’s think about a geography teacher whose job once was to make sure that students had memorized information like the major exports of Czechoslovakia and the population of Yugoslavia. While a teacher today would still discuss demographics and economics, it would not be with the objective of having students memorize a static set of information, but rather for them to gain an understanding of what the information means and how it can be used to create greater understanding. A teacher might shift the time she spent helping students develop mnemonics to remember information to teaching them about information sources where they can access the information when they need it and how to interpret it.
Content is still there. Students still learn content (and they still need to learn content), but the focus has shifted. The goal isn’t just to know some particular set of facts but to be able to use those facts meaningfully as well as to learn processes to use information and apply it to novel situations. And for all you third graders reading this, here’s some bad news: you still have to learn your times tables.
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