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So What do Students Need to Learn?

March 6, 2011

Where is she going?

The most recent edition of Educational Leadership is full of excellent articles.  I began last week reading the first three:

  • What Students Really Need to Learn, by Lynne Munson
  • Building on the Common Core, by David Conley
  • The Humanities: Why Such a Hard Sell?, by David Ferrero 

Each article covered different ground, although there were some common themes that surfaced.  David Ferrero raised the question in his article, “what is the purpose of school?”  David Conley and Lynne Munson debate the relative importance of covering content versus focusing on skill development in the 21st Century classroom.  What is the value of our standards and testing culture?  Is it sufficiently engaging enough to hold the interest of the IGeneration student.  How does all this connect to school’s purpose, especially as it related to educating the whole child?

I have been involved in a number of different forums regarding 21st Century teaching and learning.  Here are just a few of them:

  • Ken Kay, former Director of Partnership for 21s Century Skills, workshop at the NSDC 2009 annual conference in St. Louis.
  • Westminster’s In-service day in 2009 on 21st Century teaching and learning.
  • Solution Tree’s, 3-day summit on 21st Century Classroom in October 2010.
  • Westminster’s Board of Trustees’ Education Committee (ongoing)
  • Innovation summit at Hathaway Brown School in October 2010

In all of these forums, we have debated what are 21st Century skills and is it more important to focus on skill development versus covering content?  While these two questions are important, I wonder why we seem to always come back to these questions.  Is it all in the name, 21st Century skills (see blog post at It’s About Learning, What’s In a Name?)?  For some reason this name engenders a defensive position on the part of many educators.  

In her article, What Students Really Need to Learn, Ms. Munson, President and Executive Director of Common Core, discusses the reasons why the United States is not doing well on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), as compared to many other countries.  While the US focus on standards and testing is somewhat unusual, as compared to other high-performing nations, she does not believe that factor alone accounts for our poor performance as a nation. She believes it is more about the curricula we expect to be taught in our schools and the nature of the content we teach.  For example, in only three US states are students required to take a foreign language, while almost every country, especially those doing well on the PISA, demands that their students become proficient in more than one language.  Ms. Munson outlines other content-related examples that she believes illustrate the real problem on page 12 of the article.  (See the website at Common Core for more information about their curriculum mapping project).

In contrast to most other countries that perform well on the PISA, US students spend an inordinate amount of time preparing to take tests focused on their acquisition of basic math and reading skills, which she believes has “dumbed down the curriculum.”  She also points out that:

so have trends such as the 21st Century skills movement, which promotes teaching students skills in entrepreneurship and being media savvy in a manner that is disconnected from content of any significance.

So from Ms. Munson’s perspective, content from all the disciplines must serve as the foundation of what students need to know.  Skills, while important should not trump content mastery.  As the President of Common Core, a non-profit research organization, she writes:

Common Core advocates a renewed focus on content knowledge and warns against overemphasis on skills alone.

I will part ways with Ms. Munson on this point.  I think her perspective on the topic, content vs. skills, is confusing.  Is it about lacking “content of significance” or as she states later in the article, “Yet in the United States, we consistently devalue content mastery as a solution to raising student achievement.”  Content of significance and content mastery are two very different ideas.  If we compare P21, 21st Century Fluency, 21st Century Schools, and Nancy Wasler’s work in HEL it is clear from all four well-respected and vetted perspectives that content is central to their model.  They all advocate mastery of content that is significant and relevant to students.

Comparison of 21st Century Skills

David Conley, in his article Building on the Common Core, advocates for:

creating the opportunity for U.S. schools to move beyond test-prep instruction that fosters shallow learning.

In adopting the Common Core standards, Conley advocates

moving classroom teaching away from focus on worksheets, drill-and-memorize activities, and elaborate test-coaching programs, and toward an engaging, challenging curriculum that supports content acquisition through a range of instructional models and techniques.

The research on learning and the brain is telling us that students learn best when they can organize related pieces of knowledge into a more complex, patterned web.  Understanding requires that students develop schema that connect pieces of knowledge in their brain together.  Making connections between ideas promotes storage in long-term memory. 

complex, nonroutine uses of information signal to the brain that something is important and needs to be integrated more fully into the brain’s cognitive structures.

Conley proposes that we should focus on five cognitive strategies in our development of curriculum.

  • Problem formulation
  • Research
  • Interpretation
  • Communication
  • Precision and Accuracy

He believes that content and skills are intimately tied together.  You cannot have one without the other and you cannot emphasize one without focusing on the other.  He states it this way:

To succeed with key content and key cognitive strategies, students need proficiency in a range of academic learning skills and behaviors.

For him the skills are

  • Goal setting skills
  • Study skills
  • Self-reflection skills
  • Persistence with difficult tasks
  • Belief that effort trumps aptitude
  • Time-management skills

Finally, David Ferrero asks the question, “what is the purpose of school” in his article, The Humanities: Why Such a Hard Sell.  Historically, our society has seen school fulfilling the purposes of advancing personal growth, assuring economic stability and preparing students for civic responsibility.  Ferrero believes that we have lost out bearings with regard to the personal and civic mission of schooling.  Schooling is mostly focused on the economics of education, “credentials and competitiveness.”  He writes,

we should take care to speak forthrightly about the full range of benefits a broad basic education seeks to provide.

There is much to be said when a school’s mission states that we believe in “educating the whole child.”  However, if we are interested in educating the whole child, doesn’t that mean the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, kinesthetic, and creative dimensions of the student.  If so, then the curriculum of school should focus on the humanities, arts, math and science, physical and emotional well-being, and much more.

  • It is not sufficient to be a test-prep culture that defines students by their test scores in math and reading.
  • It is not sufficient to think of school as a place where you learn content.
  • It is not sufficient to think of school as a place where you develop 21st Century skills.

Schooling, a place where education of the whole child should take place, is about helping students learn about themselves, learn about the world in which they live, learn to develop the skills they will need to be successful and productive, and learn relevant and engaging content that will prepare them for their lives ahead.  All disciplines have a roll to play in this endeavor.

Ferrero states his point clearly when he writes:

The relevance of the humanities rests on a broad understanding of humanism, an orientation toward teaching and learning that goes beyond workforce competency and credentialing to encompass personal and civic dimensions of life.  If educators take seriously the idea of the whole child, we’ll need to work to preserve and perpetuate that humanistic spirit.  Just don’t expect a lot of policy support for it.

So what is the purpose of schooling?  We are at the crossroads in education.  With all the turmoil in WI, OH, CA and other states, educators need to take control of the message.  We have not always had a seat at the table of education reform.  It is about time that we step up and take reponsibility for the conversation that is about our profession and about the precious lives of the students we serve.  Let’s not let the politicians or corporate executives tell us what the purpose of schooling should be.  We should answer that question clearly.  I think these three authors put forth some interesting ideas for us to consider.

We must be prepared to help the little girl in the photo figure out a path to the future that will lead her to a rich life full of possibilities.

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