An Educator's Perspective: Switching From Content to Skills

One thing I have discovered over the years, not only as an educator, but in life in general, is that you can't be afraid to start again. There is a fear that drives people to quit the second that something doesn't work out. It gnaws at us and tells us that we should give up, we are never going to fix it, make it work, or solve the problem. It breaks us down and tell us that we have failed and that giving up is the only option. Mainly it tells us that starting over will just be too painful because there is a good chance we will fail. It sends us resistance and tells us that we should quit. And while The Borg might say that resistance is futile, I believe that fighting the resistance is the only thing that keeps us moving forward. It is the thing that drives change and the reason why people are successful.

The amount of times I have had to start again in my life is laughable and I bet if you thought about how many times you have had to do the same, you would be surprised to find that you have tried and tried again more times than you had imagined. You have been working out problems from the time you were an infant and the only thing that ever caused you to stop trying at something, is that it hurts when you fail. But that pain is only a temporary blip in the bigger picture of your life, of your dreams, and of your road to success. When babies are first learning to walk, sure they get frustrated, but I have never seen one give up. If they did, we would have a whole lot of people still crawling on their hands and knees because learning to walk was taking too damn long. When Tesla and Edison were working on turning electricity into light they didn't give up the first, second, or even hundredth time. They kept going until they found a solution and they learned from every failure that they encountered.

The thing about starting over, is that every time that you do, you are starting out with an extra foot in the door. You are starting with new knowledge that you didn't have the last time you started. There are many successful people out there that have comments about success. Michael Jordan, Oprah, Einstein, and Walt Disney all have been quoted saying something about 'failure as success' or 'failure being a teacher.' They all understand that no matter how many times you stumble, trip, or fall flat on your face, the only important thing is how you get back up and keep moving forward. Its not the failures that matter, it's what we do with them that make the most difference.

I have stood in front of both my own children and my students many times, telling them that the only thing that matters is that they try, that they don't give up. I believe it, wholeheartedly, and I believe that the effort and the grit to keep going even among numerous pitfalls and back-steps is the most important part of education, of life long learning. It is what teaches us that those failures only hurt for a little while, and the reward at the end is that much more worth it.

Unfortunately, today's education system does not seem to be set up for students to take the risk of failing. It does not reward students who see the value in trying at something even if it doesn't turn out perfect or if they don't get a perfect grade. It devalues work and values perfection. It doesn't nurture the students who cannot and will not get it right the first time, but are so willing to put in the work to get there. Instead, our curriculum is designed to reward students who have perfect attendance, who do not struggle with the material, and who consistently are able to maintain "good grades" because of the many privileges that they already have. We are still stuck with a curriculum that asks students to master facts and content rather than skills and traits that will allow them to be successful in any area they choose because it is based on their tenacity, their gumption, and their individual skills.

From Content to Skills Based Curriculum

Educators are no stranger to flexibility and change, even before COVID-19 forced them to completely adapt their ways of teaching. Having to adapt our schedules, our lesson plans, our grades, our lunch times, and even our personal lives, is part of the course. But public education itself, has not been nearly as flexible when it comes to adapting to the changing needs of our students. Its' past time to do so.

One of the first things that I think educators and districts can do is to make the switch from content based curriculum to skills based curriculum. Although the best option would be for all school districts to change their curriculum maps to focus on skills rather than content, it is possible for individual teachers to adopt this mind set and model this type of learning in their classrooms.

In the current curriculum model, most public school students are sitting in subject based (i.e, English, Math, Art, Science, etc.) classrooms, where they are learning content by learning facts and taking tests that require students to show what they know about the particular subject. They go from one subject to the other and nearly everyone in the class takes the same test at the end of the Unit which they are graded on mastery or not, and then they move on. Many of these classrooms are beautiful, wonderful learning environments where students feel loved and there is a lot of learning going on. Unfortunately, no matter how great an educator you are, this content based curriculum model is going to fail many of your students no matter how hard you and they try. There are a few reasons why.

Learning Doesn't Happen in a Bubble

When the curriculum is based on learning and mastering specific grade level content, then students learn how to memorize facts and regurgitate information like who were the countries involved in WW2 or why do animals use physical adaptations to hide from predators, rather than learn skills like peer communication and critical thinking. Although these are great facts to learn, they should not be the basis of the curriculum. The basis should be the skills they are learning, such as communication and critical thinking, while gaining the facts and information in the process. In a content based curriculum, subjects are not as interconnected as they are in the real world and students start to learn in a bubble that only includes the one topic and themselves. This is not how humans learn. Humans learn best when they can make connections to the material that they are learning, so this means we learn better when subjects come together and we can see similarities between what we are learning and what we might already know.

If we want students to retain information and gain valuable skills while doing it, we must have a curriculum that allows them to see how the different subjects are related and how they can connect to their own lives.

Reading and Math are Not Separate Skills

Because reading and math are at the forefront of education we have come to believe that in order to learn other subjects, students must master these skills above all others. And while reading and math are invaluable tools, they are not the end all be all nor the only skills worth praising and raising up in our schools. When we continuously punish our students for not performing to "grade level" in reading and math, we teach them that education is not for them because they will never succeed where their peers are succeeding. They start to see themselves as either "good" or "bad" at school or that they "suck at math" or "they are bad readers." The problem is, that none of these are true.

They may be bad at school, but that is only because school has become bad for them. And no kid actually sucks at math or is a bad reader, they are just constantly punished in these different subjects because they could not perform at their grade level. Nothing in education research tells us that students are cognitively the same across the same age, and yet our curriculum demands that they perform this way or they will suffer the consequences. They are being punished for a system that we created for them. There is a terrible cycle in learning once frustration sets in, that makes students fail because they can't perform and can't perform because they fail. And every teacher knows that students who are not on "grade level" for reading, will most likely struggle in math, science, social studies, and all of the humanities. This is fault of the content based curriculum, not the cognition of the student necessarily. The more front loading and scaffolding we do for students gives the more prior knowledge and connection they will have when performing reading and math skills.

Assessment Should Be Varied

Testing. Good lord, testing. No one is a fan of standards based testing, and most people dislike tests. And while I think that content-based assessments absolutely have their place in education, they should not be the focus of how students are mastering the content. Data is important, and its good to know where your students are in regards to benchmarks such as number sense or literacy skills. But data is just that, it should help you guide your curriculum,guide your lessons, not be the only evaluation of your students. As we know, students are all different. They have different gifts, strengths, and weaknesses, and they all learn and engage with content differently. This is no different in how they show what they know. Some students are really great at multiple choice tests and some do awesome when they have to explain their answers in an open ended way. But what about your students who know the material, and could explain it to you with words, but struggle writing their thoughts down? What about your students who worked their tails off, but simply bombed a test? Rubrics and project based learning are great strides in the road towards skills based curriculum, but the grading policies in most school districts is still weighted to value test scores above all else.

Students should be engaging with the content in a way that allows them to work through problems and show what they know about the topic as an individual rather than taking an often one-size-fits-all test that favors students who happen to be good at retaining facts and details.

Education Should Value More Talents

Just as with testing, content based curriculum favors a certain type of student. It rewards students with perfect attendance, students who are great at following a direct path, and students who are great at memorization and recitation. These are great skills but they are biased in the way that they penalize the students who don't fit this mold. Just like I mentioned earlier, it doesn't value risk takers. It doesn't value students who have learning disabilities in math, but could outrun, outmaneuver, and out jump any kid in the entire school (that is until they can be of a valuable asset to the school with their athletic abilities.) A switch from content to skills doesn't mean that the students who are already succeeding will lose that, it just means the students who were not being allowed to let their light shine, will be able to be valuable members of their learning environment.

Confidence gives way to better learning and when we change the curricular focus to valuing mastery of skills rather than mastery of content, we create more problem solvers who are more willing to persevere with the content, and to find content that truly excites them. Skills based curriculum focuses on the way we learn rather than what we learn, so that learning takes place more naturally in every subject. It allows for a more individualized approach to learning where students meet content goals at their own level and master skills that every person needs to succeed in school and life. Skills based curriculum allows for students of all talents to succeed.

I'm always careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when rethinking public education. There is a lot of valuable research that has been done over the years to explain how children learn and the best methods to use when building literacy, math skills, and other content. Math alone lends itself to a whole lot of questions and problems when thinking about skills based. But with so much adaptive reading and math programs out there, and the amount of information that is literally at our fingertips, there is no reason we should be valuing the accumulation of facts over the mastery of skills like financial common sense and multimedia analysis. I believe the change cannot come fast enough.

If you want to read more about skills based curriculum check out these other sites

Eat. Write. Teach: Developing a Skills Based Curriculum

Skills Based Learning

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