Teaching skills without content

“Emma Bryant” (a pseudonym) teaches at a New Tech public high school — one of 62 in 14 states — devoted to “21st-century skills.” Knowledge? Not so much, she writes on the Common Core blog.

We practice project based learning, utilize the latest technology, and hold to a mission of helping our students acquire “21st century skills.”

Innovation, collaboration and critical thinking are stressed, leaving little time for literature, history, poetry, music or theater.  The theory is that “most content, after all, can be Googled.”

Roughly once a month we present students with a new project which must result in a “product.” According to our model the more “real world” the product, the better. Real world, meaning the product mirrors what could reasonably be demanded in a corporate setting — from a redesigned company logo and slogan to a promotional video or a press release.

Students work in small teams to complete projects, with each team member receiving the same grade at the end. After all, it’s not about what individual students learn but the final product. Students are assessed on a handful of learning outcomes — collaboration, communication, innovation, work ethic, technological literacy, information literacy and content. Content usually makes up between 15 and 30 percent of a student’s grade.

In a 21st century classroom, “content is a shopping list of rubric indicators to be applied to the product.”

For example, students might work a quote from a short story into a reworded company slogan. Or perhaps they might work with Photoshop to create a company logo depicting an event from European history. They might write a press release in the style of a founding American document or create a user’s manual for a product using a particular rhetorical device mentioned in our state’s English Language Arts standards.

Teachers don’t teach content directly. Students are supposed to learn in teams or on their own with little or no direction from the teacher.

Dialogue, questions, critical thinking, and debate surrounding content are low on the list of things you will see in a 21st century classroom. And so students end up with convoluted ideas about history, a cursory understanding of and appreciation for literature, and a shaky foundation in math and science.

Also see Critical Thinking: More Than Words? in Ed Week’s Leader Talk.

About Joanne


  1. Content doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just “googling” information is not going to provide the context of that information – that requires reading and studying the sources of the information.

    The above cites an example where students might create a “logo depicting an event from European history” – but if they don’t actually study European history, how are they going to discern what would be an appropriate event, let alone an appropriate logo?

    “Critical thinking” implies that one has information about which one can think critically.

    Collaboration is vastly overrated. Innovation and critical thinking are woefully misunderstood by the ed school pedagogues.

  2. I agree, Lee. Effective readers and thinkers use existing knowledge to make sense of new information. One of the key problems for too many students these days is they lack much existing knowledge, and thus the synthesis that guides innovative critical thinking is inhibited.

    I am a big supporter of schools developing marketable and work-based skills – but teachers need to provide the context and background, and students need to be encouraged to develop a large base of core knowledge. They simply aren’t getting it in their environments these days.

  3. Certainly at the ES-MS level, almost always at the HS level and usually at the college undergrad level, groupwork amounts to pooling ignorance while wasting lots of time. ( I wish the ed world had some appreciation of efficiency.) There’s a reason that seminars used to be restricted to advanced undergrads and grad students; they’re useless if everyone doesn’t have the depth of knowledge to make meaningful contributions and appropriate analyses.

  4. It’s interesting that the proponents of project-based learning can’t see the project-based learning that already occurs in schools — engaging in conversation in foreign language classes, researching and writing term papers in history and English, labs in science — how are these not projects? At the elementary level, the projects are shorter and more embedded in daily activities, but they are there — science observations, art projects, math games — but, as the above posts indicate, they are highly dependent on already-learned skills and content. Either in the sense that they require those skills and content to be already learned, or in the sense that they are used as motivation to continue learning skills and content.

  5. Great. Critical thinking with an empty head. Just what the world needs more of.

  6. Yup, most content CAN be Googled but when it isn’t, very bad things happen. You take much longer to accomplish anything valuable and you don’t have the background to decide if what you have done is worth anything.


  7. I recommend that people click the second link, the one labeled “21st century skills”, and scroll down and read comments from both teachers and students. Emma’s experience may not be typical at all with project-based learning. I haven’t examined the issues fully, but just wanted to point out that there is another side to the story.

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Most content can be Googled.

    But that you can type in a word and hit enter does NOT mean that what comes up will be relevant or accurate.

    And how are you to know? As I said elsewhere recently — Wikipedia is great for STEM and logic/set theory, but it really sucks for humanities. Maybe it sucks less for history, but even there it’s superficial.

  9. We practice project based learning, utilize the latest technology, and hold to a mission of helping our students acquire “21st century skills.”

    Anyone who can read this sentence without their bs meter screaming is officially beyond help.

  10. Mom of 4:

    Great point about seminars.

  11. Mark Roulo says:

    “Wikipedia is great for STEM and logic/set theory, but it really sucks for humanities.”

    Even Wikipedia can’t speed up the time it takes to learn something like abstract algebra. In many cases you can look up facts. If you want to be able to *use* those facts for anything non-trivial, then you still need to actually learn the subject matter. Which takes time. And takes a lot longer if there is no foundation upon which to build

  12. Michael E. Lopez says:

    True… if you don’t know what you’re trying to do, having the formulae at your fingertips is useless.

  13. Another day, another Gates Foundation-funded initiative that you’d swear was designed to harm public education, not improve it.

    Wake me up when they start offering content-less curricula and “schools of one” at Lakeside Prep and Sidwell Friends.

  14. Reason # 4,666 why my child does not attend a government school.

  15. J. D. Salinger says:

    Want to explain more what you mean, jab?

  16. Ah, the specter of group work rears its head yet again. Why teachers haven’t caught on to the typical scam yet is beyond me: The one kid who cares about their grades and is smart enough to do so does all the work, and everyone else coasts by on their output.

    I guess, in a sense, that is exactly what they want to prepare the next generation for. They’ll certainly be practiced at living on the spoils of the producers in society.

  17. “the more “real world” the product, the better. Real world, meaning the product mirrors what could reasonably be demanded in a corporate setting — from a redesigned company logo and slogan to a promotional video or a press release”

    Actually, in the real business world the product (or service) usually involves something more than the logo, advertising, and press release….Unless you are engaging in outright fraud, you need to have something real to promote.

    “Word people,” like those who dominate so much discussion about education, may find this point a bit difficult to grasp…

  18. Should we teach content or skills?

    One skill that would be good to learn is the either/or fallacy.

    Content or skills? The two are not mutually exclusive.

    The real question, is it time for a midcourse correction?

    Based on what I’ve seen, I’d say yes.

    As a parent, I’m dismayed by some of the content-lacking assignments my son has in the humanities. I think it would be good to nudge the pendulum back toward content.

    But with the AP science classes there is a definite overemphasis on useless memorization. They’ve turned out more to be classes in memorization than science. My son used to love science, but not now.

    I’ve lived abroad where schooling was absolutely nothing but lecture, note taking and a final exam. In these cultures, they was no such thing as forming a line at the post office. If you wanted stamps, you pushed and shoved your way to the window. And if you wanted to speak at a meeting to complain about how the CIA was behind most of the country’s woes, your voice had to be the loudest because they lacked the experience of one person speaking at a time–unless that one person had a gun.

    The skill of working in a group and respecting leadership rather than fearing it are things that need to be learned. We take it for granted that you form a line at the post office, but in fact, it’s learned behavior.

    Having these skill is good for democracy in addition to being good for business.

    From what I’ve seen, as a parent and a teacher, I think we’d do well to make the correction to move back toward more content (in the non AP classes.) But if go too far in deemphasizing the teaching of skills, critical thinking and group work, we’re not going to like the results.

    What’s called for is balance.

  19. Richard Aubrey says:

    The less content somebody knows, the more dependent they are on others’ asssertions about reality.
    IOW, prepared to be hornswoggled.
    Just a coincidence.

  20. FuzzyRider says:

    I do not generally associate ‘innovation’ with ‘groups’. Groups tend to want to rein in the innovators, in my observation.