Thinking critically about content

Twenty-first century skills, the subject of three recent reports, require deep understanding of subject matter, writes Dan Willingham on Britannica Blog.

Shallow understanding requires knowing some facts. Deep understanding requires knowing the facts AND knowing how they fit together, seeing the whole. It’s simply harder. And skills like “analysis” and “critical thinking” are tied to content; you analyze history differently than you analyze literature.

The 21st-century skills boosters usually acknowledge the content problem, but don’t address it, he argues. “You can’t have one without the other.”

Clarion calls for more attention to 21st-century skills brings to mind a familiar pattern in the history of education: pendulum swings between an emphasis on process (analysis, critical thinking, cooperative learning) which fosters concern that students lack knowledge and generates a back-to-basics movement that emphasizes content, which fosters concern that student are merely parroting facts with no idea of how to use their knowledge, and so on.

Everyone knows students need both knowledge and skills, he writes. But somehow the pendulum always swings too far one way and then too far the other.

Update: Here’s an anti-knowledge argument from a Brit, who says kids can look up facts on the Internet.

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