Bringing Content Back
June 2, 1997
by Jerry Morris
For decades, educators have watched fisticuffs erupt between process and content. Process involves methods, strategies, and techniques for diagnosing and solving problems. Content involves the facts, knowledge, and ideas needed before a solution can be achieved.
In the left corner wearing white trunks is process. In the right corner wearing black trunks is content. It's the 10th round of a 12-round fight, and content is bleeding, bruised, and ready to go down for the count.
Content used to be a contender in education and still is in most fields of endeavor. For many years, textbooks guided the content students learned. Teachers used similar texts, and learning proceeded in a logical manner. Many teachers have stopped using texts, in part because some textbook writing seems to have been handed over to people who used to write manuals on how to assemble a gas grill in 127 easy steps. Since then, curriculum and content have gone in more directions than Don King's hair.
Process, on the other hand, is in its salad days. Education reform has required teachers to continue their education and to update what has been espoused by teacher training institutions for years - more process.
Teachers are taking more courses than ever on such topics as cooperative learning (a group of students working together and learning from one another), thematic instruction (learning in math, history, language, and science comes from a single theme such as dinosaurs), portfolio assessment (don't use grades, keep a portfolio like an artist does), multiple intelligences (the theory that students have different talents), hands-on learning (it's not real unless you can touch it or make it - a big hit in health class), and critical thinking skills (the notion that you can plug in a thinking process to solve myriad problems). These are but a few.
You don't see many courses in specific disciplines. This is because such courses would violate some of the educational Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not teach facts. Thou shalt not drill. Thou shalt integrate disciplines.
This all sounds reasonable and has been swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the educational community. There's only one problem. We're getting beat up on the tests. When results were bad on standardized multiple choice tests, the messenger was shot, and the experts advocated authentic assessments. Authentic assessments more closely resemble essay questions, but unless there are multiple readings of many essay answers, their fairness is questionable. These readings require trained staff, time, and consistency. Results of authentic assessments have been similar to those on multiple choice tests.
This testing business leaves us with a monstrous dilemma. How do we prove to the public that we are educating the students?
If you want to become a stockbroker, a lawyer, a commercial truck driver, a ship's captain, or an engineer, you study a specific content. You gain a great volume of knowledge and then process it. After the learning, you can analyze, synthesize, and make judgments and evaluations. You also have a better chance of passing the test. The test is usually half or more multiple choice.
Educational theory rests on quicksand. It assumes that problems can be solved using strategies, techniques, and thinking processes without having solid background in a given area. If your car is running poorly, do you want a mechanic who has critical thinking skills, or do you want one who has knowledge and thinking skills? The same could be said about your heart surgeon, lawyer, or plumber. Good thinking usually comes from good information.
In our schools, content and skills need to be agreed upon and progress step by step from kindergarten to grade 12. This percentage would allow for the diversity of our cultures and regions and the artistry of our teachers, and it would give all students a chance to learn, to think, and to be successful on a big-time test. There are many in the educational community calling for this specific content. Chief among them is E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
Process needs to pick content off the canvas and embrace it. The respect must become mutual. The future of public schools rests on this partnership and this balance.