Content Should be King in Schools: Curriculum guides need to focus on content

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra, Saskatchewan

Suppose you join a discussion about something you know nothing about. How much weight will your opinion receive? Probably not much. Even if you follow proper conversation strategies such as remaining on topic and keeping your comments respectful, your input will not be valued when you are completely ignorant about the subject at hand. Most people recognize that content knowledge is essential in most discussions.

Knowledge is also important in areas such as reading. If you read a newspaper or magazine article about hockey, you are likely to understand it if you are familiar with the rules of hockey. In contrast, someone who knows nothing about hockey will probably not benefit much from reading about last night’s game. If you need to Google basic hockey terms such as offside, icing, or penalty box, your background knowledge of hockey is likely insufficient to understand the article properly.

The importance of content is strongly supported by experts such as cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. He regularly conducts research on the role of consciousness in learning and found that background knowledge makes it easier for us to learn as it frees up space in our working memory for tackling new concepts.

Given the importance of broad-based factual knowledge, it is imperative that schools ensure students become knowledgeable citizens. However, this is unlikely to happen when some of the best-known thinkers in education regularly downplay the importance of knowledge and focus instead on the so-called process of learning.

For example, Alfie Kohn is a well-known author and speaker who opposes any attempt to make content the focus of the curriculum, which he derides as the “bunch o’ facts” approach to education. His books are widely influential among teachers and he is regularly invited to speak at teacher professional development sessions. Last month, for example, he presented his ideas to educators in Red Deer, Alberta at an event sponsored by the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

The romantic progressive ideology Kohn promotes is widely taught in the education faculties that train teachers. It should come as little surprise that romantic progressive ideology influences the standards contained in provincial curriculum guides. As a case in point, English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum guides have lots of edu-babble in them but not much content.

Their extensive length and verbosity notwithstanding, most ELA curriculum guides are little more than empty shells. While these guides encourage students to “enhance the clarity and artistry of communication” and “celebrate and build community,” most do not prescribe any specific books or authors for all students to read. As a result, schools miss out on the opportunity to ensure all students share some common background knowledge.

Fortunately, some educators are pushing back against this worrisome trend. In his book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, former school administrator Mike Schmoker skewers ELA curriculum guides for their “bloated, confusing, [and] poorly written” standards. He concludes that “Language arts, more than any other discipline, has lots its way.” He proposes the removal of meaningless verbiage from ELA curriculum guides. In its place, curriculum guides should list the titles of books and articles each student must read, specify the number and length of papers required from each student, and identify the evaluation criteria for student work.

It does not mean teachers should lose all teaching discretion. In fact, Schmoker and other advocates of core-knowledge, such as E. D. Hirsch, suggest that only about half of the reading materials and assignments need be prescribed by the curriculum. Teachers would select the other half. This approach appropriately balances teacher professional autonomy with the need to uphold a consistent standard for all students.

Schmoker offers a similar critique of curriculum guides in science and social studies. He notes that the excessive use of hands-on experiments in science means students spend too little time reading and thinking about important scientific concepts. As for social studies, Schmoker contends curriculum guides in that subject are often filled with meaningless verbiage that obscures important historical content. This is unacceptable.

The best way to prepare students for the 21st century is to make sure they are immersed in a content-rich curriculum that provides them with the background knowledge they need. This will only happen if we move away from the failed romantic progressive ideology and adopt an approach that restores content to its rightful place.

When it comes to 21st century education, content should be king.