Sunday, February 11, 2007

Skills and Content

This weekend sparked by our professional conversations around our clear expectations of what needs to be taught in an annualized high school, I began looking through books I have in my home library. I remembered reading something by David Ackerman dispelling some of the myths of content driven instruction and the assumptions educators hold when down playing skills based learning. Although I know of no classroom that can teach either of these devoid of the other; I find often that content driven instruction is seen as a higher priority and therefore a more valued product when it comes to “grading” our students. In an annualized school where mastery of a skill is valued the following excerpt (from Integrating Thinking and Learning Skills Across the Curriculumn by David Ackerman and D.N. Perkins) might be something we would all wish to consider:

"The Entrenchment of the Conventional Paradigm

We can see that a rich meta-curriculum awaits any educators concerned enough to pursue it. However, if experience with education teaches us anything, it is that change often comes hard. Successful change demands appreciating the forces that foster and inhibit innovation. Among those forces are an array of beliefs about the adequacy of the conventional paradigm of education, that defend it even as they petrify it. While this is a large topic, for present purposes four familiar “misconceptions” seem especially worth commentary.

Misconception 1: Students already have these skills. Sometimes educators feel that there is no need to cultivate certain familiar skills, such as everyday decision making or problem solving. After all, these are part of life; why should they require schooling?

This posture is understandable, but it does not accord with research into the difficulties students and adults actually experience. Commonplace thinking processes, such as decision making, are often handled poorly; people commonly make decisions without searching for creative options. Also, people usually tackle problems without analyzing their essence, a powerful move that often reveals “back door” solutions. Just because students “get by” with decision making and other familiar skills does not mean they need no help.

Misconception 2: The subject matters already embody these skills. It is often believed that nothing specific need be done about many symbolic and thinking skills. Surely students can learn good writing by reading the great models of writing in the curriculum. Don't history books discuss the causes of events and encourage students to explore them? And, for those who do not catch on, well, what can you do?

Unfortunately, the circumstances are not so straightforward as these points suggest. First, abundant evidence shows that learners who do not catch on spontaneously often gain substantially from efforts to spell out the principles involved; it's simply not the case that students, even when well motivated, automatically learn to their capacity. Many of the examples of symbolic and thinking skills that students find in their texts are implicit models; research indicates that students often do not recognize the significance of the models but can do so with more direct help from the teacher.

In addition, content as usually taught simply does not embody many of the skills we would like to cultivate in students. History, for example, typically is taught as the story of what happened, not as a chain of human decision points or the manifestation of complex interacting systems. While students get ample exposure to narrative and descriptive organization, they get hardly any exposure to close argument or to forms of symbolic representation such as concept maps.

Misconception 3: Skills are for elementary education and content for secondary education. Perhaps this is not so much a misconception as a tradition. Although the statement certainly reflects practice, few would defend it. Plainly, young children have the capacity to learn a great deal of content, and older children often show substantial shortfalls in higher-order skills. The two mesh so nicely that there is little point in segregating them from one another. Indeed, this point leads to the next.

Misconception 4: There is a time and resource competition between the curriculum and the metacurriculum. Most often, this surfaces as a commitment to coverage. How can I cover the textbook if I take time out to do concept mapping or decision-making activities?

To be sure, there would be a genuine time and resource competition if one set out to fill hours a day with metacurriculum content in place of curriculum content. But this would actually be difficult to do even if you wanted to: You can't pursue decision making or concept mapping very far without addressing contexts of decision or concepts to map, and those contexts and concepts might as well come from the curriculum. No doubt, it is possible to have an imbalance. But the basic answer to this concern is that a well-designed metacurriculum is highly synergistic with the curriculum. Far from undermining students' learning of content, it deepens student understanding and retention.

A broad generalization from considerable research speaks to this point. There have been many efforts to enrich the curriculum with thinking skills or other metacurricular treatments. Sometimes there are marked gains in content-oriented measures; sometimes there is no significant difference in comparison with control groups. But it is very rare that there is less content learning in the innovative group. In other words, the metacurriculum often helps content learning and rarely does harm. The illusion of covering less is just that—an illusion. Perhaps fewer pages have been read, but the knowledge gains are almost always about the same or better. The topper, of course, is that gains in understanding and insight are often much greater with the innovative approach than with the standard one.

In summary, a number of reasons for supporting the conventional paradigm do not appear to be valid. Of course, even if all educators came to a more enlightened perspective, there are still many forces that stand in the way of integrating the curriculum with the metacurriculum, not least of them the additional effort required from teachers who are already overworked.

Accordingly, the integration of thinking and learning skills across the curriculum must be cultivated not just through argument and inspiration, but through systematic examination of options and techniques that can make it practical on a day-by-day basis."

Excerpted from : Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation

Edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs

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