CONTENT is KING. Or maybe not? (part 1)

I suggested, in last Wednesday’s post about the consummate awesomeness of organizing all lesson planning around teams of teachers, that having the teams themselves wasn’t sufficient. The amazing thing Corbett is doing, in my mind, is both who and what: they combine team-planning with a specific method of planning —

they put the question of “what to do in class” after the question of “what is amazing about this content?” That is, they don’t explicitly talk about the form of instruction (game? debate? art project?) before nailing what the beating heart of the story is.

(This is one of the central characteristics of “Imaginative Education,” an approach coming from Kieran Egan and the rest of the Imaginative Education Research Group at Simon Frasier University in Vancouver, B.C.)

Ooh how I love thisBut why, precisely?

At first, I thought we might distill it (with apologies to Bill Gates, and the Internet as a whole) quite simply —

Content is king.

That is, I thought that IE’s wonder might come by getting teachers and students deep into the heart of academic subject-matter. And it’s there, I thought, where the wild things are — where the excitement and pleasures of learning reside.

I think this is a little right, and a little wrong.

First, the rightness of putting content at the center of pedagogy:

Teaching the “content” of the world is the one thing schools are charged to do that differentiates them from all other societal institutions — from the scouting and television and summer camps.

Schools, to be clear, do a lot of things: they socialize kids with one another, prepare people for careers, and teach us all not to wipe our noses on our sleeves (shout-out to my second-grade teacher!). Thus, the school overlaps with other institutions — we can, for example, have productive discussions about what our school can learn from the Green Berets, or from (gods help us) a nineteenth-century free love commune, or from whatever.

But at the end of the day, I’ll suggest, a school is fundamentally about doing something else: engaging academic content, which is to say bringing the swirl of the external world to the consideration of five-to-eighteen year olds.

So, again, my initial theory as to why what Imaginative Education says (and what Corbett Charter School does) strikes me as so amazing is that it doesn’t allow us teachers to skate on the surface of content, but to dive right in.

There’s a problem with this idea, however: content can be dead.

That is, content can be dull, dreary, meaningless. It can be any other nasty adjective we’d like to apply to it. Focusing on content can lead us to a pointless, thirteen-year trudge through minutiae.

And we’ve all experienced this sort of education. (If, someone, you’ve avoided this, watch 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Ben Stein’s immortal lesson on the Hawley Smoot Tariff.)

This charge has led many to de-emphasize rich content, in favor of thinking skills or child-centered learning, or practical skills.

(I don’t, for the record, mean this as a criticism, though I have my criticisms of these movements. Educating is hard, and one mussn’t be too ornery.)

I’ve been drawn, in the past, to those who oppose this rising tide, and attempt to bring “rich content” back to the heart of schooling.

A contemporary leader of the “content = king” paradigm is the wonderful E.D. Hirsch, whose thinking I have a complex relationship with. His popular work includes The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and the series What Your Nth Grader Needs to Know.

Hirsch is vexed by the contemporary movement to replace rich content (myths and historical accounts and literature) with what he sees as soulless skills (“finding the main idea” and “making reader–text connections” and similar bilge). Here, I largely (entirely? vociferously?) agree with him.

He’s done wonderful work in arguing, from the work of cognitive psychologists, that specific knowledge is crucial for higher-level thinking. Want to be a powerful reader? Learn stuff! Want to be a masterful writer? Eat the world, and ruminate on it in your writing!

(If you’re interested in his argument here, you’ll want to check out cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham’s wonderful Why Don’t Students Like School?)

There were a few years in which I found this compelling. But I’ve slowly circled around to the idea that idea that Hirsch’s conception is simply not enough. Rhetorically, it’s open to complaints that schools “teach dead content” and “engage rote memory.” Practically, it doesn't guarantee that classrooms won't devolve (under the control of less-than-inspired teachers) into a succession of "one damn thing after another.”

If we want to put content at the center of schooling, we need to nest it in something bigger.

On Tuesday, I’ll sketch out a better way — what, I think, IE and Corbett is doing that is so wonderful.

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA