Sunday, May 19, 2019

What's the Point of Content?

Last week I was talking with a humanities teacher, Josh, as we got coffee in the faculty room. He was lamenting the pace of class in May, as he tries to get through all of the content for his course. It reminded me of a conversation with a student we had years ago in our team-taught humanities class. We had just delivered a speed-lesson on the Middle Ages in Europe, covering in 80 minutes what historians have spent careers thinking and writing about. A student stopped us at the end of class, panicked, and said it was too fast, that there was no way she could remember it all. We told her that was okay, that the point wasn’t to remember it all.

“Then what’s the point?” She had asked.

I don’t remember how we answered at the time, but as Josh and I walked down the hall with our coffee, we laughed about the absurdity of thinking students will truly learn all that we cover. If we define learning as being able to not only remember content for the short term, but to build knowledge and be able to use that knowledge at some indeterminate time in the future, then I imagine we would all be surprised (and a little bit depressed) by the tiny fraction of our teaching that leads to actual learning.

Most students (and some teachers) believe that all of the content in a course is of equal importance. We have trained our students to think this--sometimes implicitly (through our assessment practices), and sometimes explicitly (by saying they have to know it all).

Picture a traditional content test in a course with conventional grading practices, a test that most of us have taken (or given) in the last half century. There may be multiple choice questions, all worth the same number of points, and maybe some short answer or fill in the blank questions, also all worth the same amount of points. When we get a grade on that test (let’s say an 80%), that’s because we got a certain number of questions wrong (doesn’t matter which questions). This assessment is implicitly telling our students that all of the content being tested is of the same importance--two students could get the exact same grade for knowing (remembering) completely different content.

But all content is not of equal importance, right? We all make choices and prioritize based on internal and/or external factors. Regardless of our discipline, we all have content that we think (or we’re told) is most important or that we are most passionate about. This is where many of the conflicts come from in our departments and communities. Who decides which content--out of the vast and ever-growing pool available--is essential? What biases exist in choosing which content we select (or are told to use) for our courses? Content for science classes in Vermont and Mississippi is not the same; what students are taught in Texas about history, may be different than what they are taught in Oregon; the required reading in 8th grade in DC is likely different than the required reading in the same grade in New Hampshire. And within each of these disparate classrooms, what we each choose to spend more or less time on (and what our students ultimately take away with them) is likely part biased and part arbitrary. We are kidding ourselves if we try to argue that all of our course content is of equal importance.

So what if we were honest with our students about this? What if we were completely transparent about our content and our expectations?
Super important sidebar: Our district is standards-based, and our learning targets are skills, not specific content. It’s easy to hear this and think that we don’t value content, or as some have even said, that we don’t teach content anymore. But the opposite is true. We value content so much that we decided to use what we know about the brain and learning to instruct and assess in a way that maximizes knowledge. Here’s an excerpt from chapter 2 of The Standards-Based Classroom: Make Learning the Goal (Corwin 2018) that discusses the difference between content and knowledge, an important distinction in this discussion: “It’s important to understand the difference between content and knowledge. Content is what’s available, the pool of rich, engaging, relevant information, texts, examples, and events we have to choose from when determining how to best help students demonstrate understanding and skill; knowledge is what students know at the end of the learning, the content that they have made their own and will be able to use. Knowledge takes time to build. It takes activating prior knowledge, determining relationships and relevance, practicing with ideas individually and collaboratively, and deep understanding.” Skills cannot be taught and practiced without content. Skills cannot be assessed without content. So the idea that it’s one or the other is ridiculous. Schools that choose to have skill-based learning targets are not doing so at the expense of content; they are doing so in order to improve the content acquisition that leads to knowledge and fluency.
Okay, back to content and transparency. What if we talked to students about how content is chosen in our classes? What if we talked to them about bias in content selection? And what if we told them that not all content in our courses is created equal? In thinking about our own teaching, we came up with three distinct purposes for our content instruction or delivery. These are rough at this point, but they show what we’re thinking:
  • Content Exposure: the goal is not to learn the content, but to be exposed to it so that you get an overall sense of the content and have the opportunity to determine specific interests that you may decide to return to on your own.
  • Contextual/Conceptual Understanding: the goal is to understand and remember the larger concepts of the content; you may need to look up the details later, but you will remember how this content fits into the larger picture or systems.
  • Depth of Learning: the goal is deep and sustained learning--you will learn, remember, and be able to use both concepts and details about this content
Imagine being able to talk with students about your course using these levels. You could assign a reading that is meant to Expose the student to a variety of content--and ask them to select a few specifics that are of interest to them for further independent exploration. You could develop an activity that has students determine the major Concepts in a set of content, or ask them to place the content in Context of previous learning. Then you could dive deeply into the content that you, as the expert, determine is most important for Depth of Learning (or that you, the person, is most passionate about); or, you could ask the students to choose content that they want to learn deeply about based on earlier Exposure). By naming the purpose for the content we are using to practice and demonstrate our skills, we may be able to target our instruction and maximize learning. This would also, of course, force us to examine our assessments to ensure that we are asking students to demonstrate their learning in a way that matches our purpose.

We’re not proud of covering the European Age of Exploration in 80 minutes. But when we think about why we made that decision years ago, it was so that we could spend almost an entire quarter on the complexity of the Mongols and the historical, moral, and contemporary implications of their civilization. Because we made choices about where we would skim across the surface and where we would dive deep, we were able to slow down and fully explore one area--using vast amounts of rich, engaging content to learn and practice important transferable skills (see this link for our Mongol unit scales and benchmark sheets). If we can be more transparent with students (and ourselves) about the why and how of our content selection, coverage, and use, maybe we will have a better chance of ensuring that our teaching leads to learning.

So happy May everyone, and Josh, good luck with World War II in a Day!


  1. Yes. Exactly. Agreed. There is so much content to cover, why not cover that which we chose in a way that fosters further learning.