Thursday, June 13, 2013

Why Content Matters to the 21st Century Teacher

When I began seriously thinking about entering the teaching profession, I never thought I would actually need to justify the need for content.  In fact, the reason I initially went into education was the instill in my students the same love towards country and knowledge of history I had been given when growing up.  It was second nature to me.  American History was something I was dedicated to, almost like a religion.  It remains something true and dear to me.

My family celebrated July 4th with birthday cakes, firework displays (which we would attend, not handle directly), and BBQ's.  We visited DC almost yearly.  I passed the Princeton Battlefield (famous from the American Revolutionary War) on my way to school for much of my childhood.  I lived in a home that was previously owned at one time by the President of the Princeton Theological Seminary and  afterwards by Nicholas Katzenbach, LBJ's Attorney General.  It contained Biblical carvings in a study, a servants quarters, and a secret closet for bootlegging.   I grew up going to Monticello and other Presidential estates.

I was brought up in a town that celebrated its history frequently with parades, street fairs, and an incredibly active historical society.  Woodrow Wilson's old home was not too far away nor was Albert Einstein's.  Princeton University takes up literally 3/4 of the town and there is a large alumni presence scattered throughout the remaining area.   When my parents bought their home on Library Place, we discovered the kitchen had an orange sink (one of Princeton's colors) and found yearly around reunion time people placing flags from their windows and dressing in orange and black suit jackets, wicker hats, and other apparel.*  Tiger gear was available at nearly every store in town.  Princeton University History, town history, and more general American History were intertwined.

Upon entrance to Columbia University's Teachers College, I began taking courses towards my degree in Gifted Education.  While I really enjoyed my course work with Professor Borland, I did not enjoy as much my work towards certification in social studies.  In fact, when took courses in the Social Studies teaching department, I was less than inspired.  All around me, people were putting down subject specific expertise in favor of skills, as if they were mutually exclusive.  This bothered me.  While I certainly did not expect my future students to have an encyclopedic knowledge of American History, I certainly hoped they would know major facts at the end of the courses I was to teach.  I simply did not buy into the notion that the main focus should be on skills to the compromise of facts, of content.

The argument used to combat what I believed often went like this and still continues to this day, "Why teach kids something they can just look up on the internet?  Why not just show them how to learn it on their own?"  I understood the desire to teach a person to fish, so they could feed themselves instead of simply teaching them about fish.  I got that.  I still agree that is essential. I chose the school to attend for my first year in Israel for that reason, I wanted to learn how to learn on my own.   However, I look at all classes as if they are a foreign language.  In the acquisition of foreign language, a student needs to know the vocabulary in order to have the conversation.  I want all of my students to be able to converse in anything and there is a basic, fundamental level of knowledge needed in order to do so.  That basic level of knowledge is the vocabulary of a successful person in American Society, or more likely Global Society.  While success can be defined in many ways and certainly not every student will need the same skill set, I believe there is a basic level of education all of our citizens need to be productive in American society.  Dewey, explained this accurately when he said that, " [history and geography] supply subject matter which gives background and outlook, intellectual perspective, to what might otherwise be narrow personal actions or mere forms of technical skills"
(Dewey, 1916, p. 208)  Further evidence can actually be used to support the necessity of content based education from scholars like education professor and scholar E.D. Hirsch to the late renowned Columbia University professor and historian, Richard Hofstadter (Anti-Intellectualism in American Life).  The current movement towards a common core is evidence of this belief brought into action (albeit dumbed down).

So then you might ask, if I am so obsessed with content based education, why might I consider myself a radical teacher?  Am I just a 1950's style teacher using 21st technology?  I would answer emphatically, "No."  While I greatly enjoy teaching the decade of the 1950's and admire a lot that was produced and developed during that time, I no longer can say with all honesty I am that kind of teacher.

I'd propose there is actually no division between the two (skills and content).  They are one and the same.  They are dependent on each other.  They are two halves of the exact same coin.

I'm fascinated with the immersion model in foreign language education.  When I was shopping around for a school for my daughter to attend, I did not make Modern Hebrew fluency a major factor in selection.  Yet, now, having chosen a school that happen to have an immersion model, I see my daughter, granted a 5 year old, incredibly literate in the Hebrew language.  The promise immersion education holds in elementary school foreign language acquisition is limited only by imagination.

Why can't we have students acquire knowledge of other subjects in the same model?  Immersion in history, English, Math, Science, and Judaic Studies as well.  This is why the year in Israel is so meaningful (albeit not necessarily long term for all ) for many of our students.  The Beit Midrash experience, enveloping students in "learning by doing" enables them to couple the skills with the content instead of artificially divorcing the two. No one would claim content was placed on the back burner in the seminary/yeshiva year.

I think the current movement away from facts, from essential knowledge rests on the assumption that since, as a society, believe in educating EVERYONE we cannot realistically expect ALL student to know what we want them to.  So, rather than elevate our programs to prep kids for college and/or careers, we should restructure what education means to make education something everyone can acquire.  I think this is really apologetics.  This is essentially saying, "the poor, feeble minded students who we are forced to teach won't be able to cut it, so let's not require one of the hardest parts of education to be included in education."  This is really bigotry.  We need to start really believing kids are smarter than we think they are.  I've seen "special ed" students carry on an amazing discussion and debate about European imperialism and its effect on Chinese nationalism and culture (in a class with 35 students, 20 without IEP's).  I've seen a kid who was functionally mute and severely disabled write a fantastic essay on the effect of intercontinental railroad on transcontinental communication.  I've seen "average" kids take ownership over conferences and run websites (which requires a lot of knowledge to do), track purchases, and organize programs that were on par with anything given at Columbia.    So, I hate the idea of thinking of our kids as "feeble" or "unteachable."  Everyone can learn and it is our duty to teach them.  Granted there may be different ways to reach different kids (for another post), but the task remains.

One way to effectively break down the division between skills and content is to make sure to scaffold key skills in each unit of study throughout the year.  By weaving skills into every unit of content study, the skill itself becomes a method to teach material and the material becomes a vehicle to create meaningful skill acquisition.  For example, when teaching about nationalism, I use fairytales.  My "skill acquisition goal" is critical reading and analysis.  I do this by having students read the traditional versions of fairy tales.  Then, I have them create their own versions of these stories representing the quintessential difference between European 19th century nationalism and American nationalism of today.  Later in the year, I have them refer back to the differences in nationalism when discussing the differences between the American and French Revolutions.  They use this to help reflect on the current political differences between Continental nations and Anglo-American ones.  All the while, I have scaffolded through Bloom's Taxonomy to reach the top.  I didn't compromise either skill or content.

This is precisely where Grant Wiggin's notion of UBD, or backwards planning becomes so key.  In planning the educational experience our students partake in, we must create road maps for them to drive along the way.  We must have a clear destination or a host of locations for which the student must travel.  Ultimately, the student will become a confident driver, knowing how to use a map, knowing where he/she wants to go, and taking steps to make that happen. If this is the task of a high school, the task of the elementary school is to simply teach the student how to drive and how to read the map.  By the end of high school, we hope our students can draw their own maps.

To this effect, we must make sure our teachers are both subject matter experts and experts in the craft of teaching.  It is a mistake to hire a teacher who is either one or the other.  Creating cultures of learning in schools starts with hiring faculty that embody this.  We need our faculty to model this culture and be engrossed in constant self-evaluation and assessment.  I will talk more about this next week!

As always, I'd love to hear from you.  Thank you for the many emails I received this week.  My email is jennilevyesq@gmail.  Feel free to post here responses or continue to email me directly.

A core component, which I must make sure is properly articulated is that I only refer to meaningful content.  Too often when educators talk about content, they are really referring to material covered by teachers in a rote way that seems unnecessary for college and career preparation.  That form of content is problematic.  I am not referring to that.  We, as educators, need to clarify what is important to for students to know and what is extraneous.  There needs to be alignment between a school's vision and each and every class in a school.

* Confession- I have an orange bathroom in my Teaneck home today!

Hofstadler, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life can be found here: