Content versus Skill: The Great Showdown

Let the great showdown begin. In one corner we have the big C––Mister Content himself, the master of details. Watch out, he’s got quite the arsenal, he can keep ’em coming. In the other corner, the up and comer, the man with many tricks up his sleeve, Missssster Skills. He may not have the fire power that Content has, but watch out, he’s adept at changing it up and adapting to whatever Content can throw at him. You can almost taste the tension. Let the battle begin, let’s see who will reign supreme. Ding……

Ugh. Why? Why are we framing education in the 21st Century as a boxing match? The number of times I’ve heard lately that content is dead and that skill reigns supreme is worrisome. I find this assumption almost humorous because it’s wrong––wrong I say, completely wrong. Interestingly, where are the defenders of content? Have you been silenced or are you just not playing along?

I’ve met/heard teachers and administrators suggest that content is no longer as important as skills, that content is truly only necessary because it is a means to an end––skills. The argument, in part, is that our curriculum in British Columbia is too full and that we can’t possibly learn it all and build on all those important skills, which in the long run are more important because (a) who will ever remember all those details anyway, and (b) it is the skills that will help students think and become life long learners and wholesome contributors to the modern knowledge-based economy.

Sure, while I agree that our curriculum is full in some courses and that a trimming would be helpful, I don’t agree that content is dead. Far from it. Why must we frame things with polarizing Bushisms: “You’re either with us or against us”. You’re either with Content or with Skill. Well I propose a radical idea: Why not give both equal weighting? Soviet Union leader, Khrushchev, once stated, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you” (I know, I know, you’re probably wondering where this is going, but hear me out, this is an example of why both content and skill are equally relevant). In short, the West initially misinterpreted and misunderstood Khrushchev’s message in 1956. Instead of interpreting his words as a statement of inevitability––that the Soviet Union will eventually attend the West’s funeral service when capitalism ultimately fails, the West viewed it as act of aggression––that the Soviet Union will cause their burial.

My point: First, anyone reading this needs to know the historical facts of this period to understand the context of my argument. As well, at some point students and adults alike need to have a shared knowledge base and understanding of our history––if for any other reason, to communicate past successes and failures to avoid repeating mistakes. Second, those interpreting Khrushchev’s message in 1956 had to be careful not to make assumptions or rely on a simple translation. They needed to apply their critical thinking skills and perhaps collect more information before making any rash decisions during a very tense historical time, for the purpose of ensuring our future global security.

“Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.”

The truth is, history is on our side and we need to both know it and understand it. For instance, take Khrushchev’s quote. It “popped” in my head while writing this post. It  “popped” because my brain was able to retain and retrieve this historical fact. Ergo, because I know the particular details of the Cold War (content), I can therefore understand its context and greater significance (skill). We need to dispense with both this notion of the boxing match, and this pointless idea of one laying supremacy over the other. They are both very important and essential ingredients in education. Mind you, I would personally give content the edge––an importance level of 51% over skill’s 49––but that’s just my particular bias. No matter. You can’t have one without the other. While we need the horse before the cart, we need both the horse and the cart.

I recently had back surgery and I couldn’t help think about the prodigious amount of detailed knowledge that my neurosurgeon has about the body. His knowledge is based on content. He needs to know intimately my body, err, the human body, in order to be a good doctor. At the same time, if he is going to push the boundaries of medicine, he needs to tap into his critical thinking skills. Content and Skill should not be considered mutually exclusive. They should be by default, mutually inclusive.

Before I wrap up, two assumptions exist about this debate that I find troubling.

First, there is a great deal of talk around our “knowledge-based economy,” and yet we seem to be counter-intuitively de-emphasizing facts and information. According to the dictionary, facts and information are a part of knowledge. So why this boxing match and the dumbing down of content? I believe what’s happened in the past few years is that content has become so readily available and easy to access online that content has therefore lost its sheen, its importance––it has become, dare I say, pedestrian. Information has been liberated. Everyone today can be the knower; just google it. For instance, it has become almost a daily experience while teaching that a student will put his or her hand up and state, “Mr. Chubb, did you know…”. This is wonderful and I hope it continues, but what I am finding is that students lack the bigger picture because they are missing other important contextual details––thus, possibly drawing false conclusions. This is my chief concern. History teachers already know how easy it is for students to draw conclusions based on limited information; they witness this in their classrooms. When our students become adults and future leaders they need to have sufficient background knowledge when making important decisions. Case in point: Many years after the Vietnam war, former Secretary of State, Robert S. McNamara, stated in his book In Retrospect, that America was fundamentally ignorant of Indochina’s history, and that if they had known more and understood the unique geopolitical dynamic in that region, then perhaps America would have drawn a different conclusion and never would have been there in the first place.

Second, those in the Skill corner argue that there is no need to espouse factual details because they will forget it anyway, or that the sheer volume is simply overwhelming and impossible to memorize. As well, why memorize when you can just easily look it up? I believe this argument to be a failure to understand the power of our magnificent brain. Yes, it’s true that I don’t remember every single detail I’ve been taught or book I’ve ever read. However, this misses the point. It’s another classic all or nothing argument. I have remembered a large portion of it; and sometimes it’s just a matter of recall, where all I need is my memory jogged and then it all comes flowing back. Besides, what’s the alternative? How will anyone be able to have an impromptu political debate about anything if individuals are too busy needing to constantly “google” it?

When I had back surgery a couple of weeks ago, and before I went into the operating room, I put a lot of faith into my neurosurgeon’s content knowledge and skills. I counted on him to fix me. While I was anaesthetized and don’t remember the particulars, I don’t believe that while he opened me up, next to him lay his “how to” guide or textbook on back surgeries. Surely he had already learned and memorized the procedure before picking up the scalpel. But then again, how am I ever to truly know.