Monday, September 19, 2011

Content vs. Skills

E. D. Hirsch Jr. waded into the story of declining SAT scores this week with an op-ed in the New York Times on "How to Stop the Drop in Verbal Scores." Hirsch claims that the drop stems from a move away from content-rich elementary school reading curricula and toward an emphasis on reading and writing skills, divorced from anything larger.

This is the whole anti-worksheet sentiment that rears its head fairly frequently in education circles. I can, of course, sympathize. Especially since I write content! There are amazing writing and vocabulary lessons to be gained from reading interesting books. Reading books also allows you to absorb a lot of core knowledge about history, civics, science, etc.

However, just like the widespread progressive educator idea that children will simply discover the rules of mathematics by looking at different problems and talking them over, I know from personal experience that this doesn't always happen. I read everything under the sun as a kid. What actually allowed me to make a living as a writer, and make writing feel easy, was learning rules of grammar and why they exist. I'd look at incorrect sentences and correct ones and see why certain things worked better. I memorized these rules. And while I break them all the time (I just started this sentence with an "and"!) I know I am choosing to do so and generally do so for effect.

The reality is that as people learn, they need both content and skills. This doesn't have to be a battle over every individual class. I was thinking of this while pondering Princeton's relatively recent writing requirement. The problem was that even young people who were capable of getting into Princeton arrived unable to construct an academic paper. So the freshmen writing seminars would give them the skills necessary to do this. The problem that such a program always struggles with is that the professors who teach these courses want to teach specific content areas -- their areas of expertise. So is the emphasis on the subject matter or the writing skills?

Ideally, people should get both. The Hirsch argument is that many disadvantaged children never get the core knowledge that their more advantaged peers show up with. Skills are useless apart from that. But content without skills isn't that helpful either -- as anyone who's struggled to write a paper that actually expresses what she means to say knows.


Anonymous said...

I think the original NY times piece is a bit ironic, to improve the score in a said TEST, the solution is to have less training on skills of test taking. Very funny.

Improving content is sure a good thing, but it will has even less effort on improving test scores than skills.

Robert Pondiscio said...

I've never heard Hirsch advocate content only and no skills. His point as long as I've known him has been that cognitive science has demonstrated that skills like creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, etc. are not formal, transferable skills. They can ONLY be taught within a particular knowledge domain.

So content vs. skills is a classic false dichotomy. They are joined at the hip and cannot be separated. If someone says (and so many do)"content doesn't matter. What is important is teaching critical thinking and problem solving," they are engaged in wishful thinking. It doesn't work that way.

Bottom line (and this has been Hirsch's POV for over three decades): if we want kids to be broadly competent, they must be broadly educated. There are no shortcuts.