Content Knowledge Makes Learning Possible

Commentary, Education, Michael C. Zwaagstra

There is a longstanding debate among educators about the importance of specific content knowledge in the curriculum. Generally speaking, progressive educators favour a non-content specific learning process while traditional educators say there is a defined body of knowledge that all students should master.

The 21st Century Learning movement, with its emphasis on non-content specific skills, such as critical thinking and creativity, is the latest manifestation of the progressive approach. A number of provinces, most notably Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario, are currently making substantial curriculum changes to reflect the priorities of the 21st Century Learning movement. If this trend continues, content knowledge will receive less emphasis in schools than it does now.

However, this shift away from content knowledge should give all Canadians cause for concern. The reality is that content knowledge is essential in all subject areas and at all grade levels. There are several reasons why this is true.

First, content knowledge is needed for reading comprehension. Give students an article to read about a topic they know nothing about, and they will struggle to understand it. However, they will have little difficulty reading an article or book when they already possess background knowledge about the topic. The more they already know, the more effectively they can read and understand. Simply put, reading comprehension depends on background knowledge.

Second, content knowledge makes critical thinking possible. In many schools, the development of critical thinking skills is considered more important than the acquisition of specific content knowledge. However, this assumption overlooks the fact that critical thinking cannot take place in the absence of specific content knowledge.

As a case in point, consider the recent proposal by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario to remove Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from public schools. Is this a good idea or not?

In order to think critically about this question, you need to know a lot of things about John A. Macdonald and the cultural context he lived in. Macdonald is considered a Father of Confederation because of the very important role he played in bridging the divide between anglophones and francophones in mid-nineteenth century Canada. He also spearheaded the construction of the CPR railroad, which brought additional provinces into Confederation, and fiercely protected our country from American military aggression. These are significant accomplishments.

At the same time, Macdonald was a deeply flawed man. He drank too much, took bribes from railroad companies, brazenly handed out plum patronage jobs to his political cronies, and created a residential school system that harmed many Indigenous people. These flaws cannot be ignored. Rather, they must be weighed against his accomplishments.

Of course, we can only determine whether Macdonald’s accomplishments outweigh his flaws if we know something about them. This is why content knowledge is so important. People cannot think critically about something they know nothing about. While subject-specific content knowledge does not guarantee critical thinking, it is a prerequisite for critical thinking to take place.

Finally, content knowledge empowers students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Far too many students come to school from low socioeconomic status homes where they have not had the same learning opportunities as their more affluent classmates. As a result, they enter school at a significant disadvantage. However, schools can largely compensate for this gap by ensuring that all students receive content-rich instruction from an early age. Providing all students with content-rich instruction is the key to empowering those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Protecting content knowledge in schools begins with provincial education departments. Instead of reducing or downplaying the subject content in the curriculum, education officials, especially those who write curriculum guides, need to ensure that content in all curriculum documents and at all grade levels is substantial and logically sequential. Whether the subject is math, science, English language arts, or social studies, there is no excuse for providing teachers with nearly content-free curriculum guides.

At the school division level, superintendents and principals should set a tone of support for content-rich instruction. Content-rich instruction may not be as flashy as some of the alternatives, but it is a whole lot more effective.

Students deserve the best education that teachers can provide. Knowledge is a powerful thing and good teachers know how to make their subjects come alive. By restoring knowledge to its rightful place, we can help ensure that all students receive a top-quality education.

Michael Zwaagstra is a Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a public high school teacher, and author of Content Knowledge is the Key to Learning.