First, some historical background...
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, two plans were introduced for creating the legislative branch of the government. One plan, the Virginia Plan, called for representation based on state size/population. While large states favored this idea, smaller states did not and an alternative plan was presented, the New Jersey Plan. The New Jersey Plan called for equal representation for each state.
Ultimately, a compromise was reached (called the The Great Compromise or the Connecticut Compromise of 1787) which established a bicameral legislature with one house of equal representation (The Senate) and the other house based on population (The House of Representatives).Ok, now you may be wondering, "How does this apply to education?"
Well, as I read Seth Godin's Stop Stealing Dreams, I couldn't help but wonder if the debate over HOW and WHAT schools should do is not too unlike the debate held in 1787. The delegates to the convention in 1787 were trying to basically accomplish two things: fix the obviously flawed Articles of Confederation and establish a form of government that would sustain itself and the ideals upon which the young nation was founded. While both sides debated over the pros and cons of each idea, ultimately what worked was the synthesis of the two by creating two separate bodies that are established to basically accomplish the goal of one branch of government - the legislative. Sure, each house has its own specific functions, but in the end, they both are responsible for creating laws.
Schools serve to educate students. That is the primary function of every school - to be a place where teaching and learning take place. This concept is universal and applies to any school, system, or district. However, factors such as culture, economics, environment, region, etc. contribute to the fact that not all schools, systems, and districts are the same. Thus, these differences can greatly affect the resources available, how schools operate, what is valued, and what is taught. In other words, how to support teaching and learning may take different forms given the factors associated with any one school, system, or district.
What is becoming clearer to me is that the debate over how schools should operate consists of two basic groups. One group (I'll call it the "content" group) focuses on the delivery of basic skills and the learning of factual information. This group, generally, relies heavily on testing to determine if enough factual information has been learned. The other group (the "skills" group) places more value on the learning of skills. This skill-focused group is more likely to emphasize the need to guide student passions and interests. Discovery of the world through experience and investigation is a key component and value of experience is not measured through testing, but through a "portfolio" of growth over time.
The struggle between deciding whether schools (and school systems) should be organized around a "content" or "skills" based curriculum will likely never be truly resolved because most people see value in both camps (even if they do not want to admit it).
There is comfort and security that comes from knowing our schools are making sure students learn certain, specific factual elements. This is supported by the idea that most people need to know the "whats" when faced with long term, difficult, and uncertain outcomes. A child's education is a long term item (life-long) that provides no guarantees to parents for success, and often involves new unfamiliar topics. In this situation, knowing "what" is taught (content) can be comforting.
On the other hand, the world is changing and we are responsible for helping students prepare for THEIR future (not ours). This preparation involves opportunities to build and refine the skills needed to be a contributor in a increasingly connected world. There is uncertainty in this camp also, so there have been specific skills identified to help guide schools in their effort to help students develop. These are generally known as the "21st Century skills" and they include the C-words: communication, collaboration, creativity, character, and critical thinking.
Some schools do "content" well, but do little to address "skills." Some schools do "skills" well, but struggle to demonstrate "content" learning. I suggest that both of these types of schools are like the Articles of Confederation. There are too many elements missing to make either very effective for what schools need to do.
Instead, schools should look to adopt their own "Great Compromise" and seek a bicameral approach to their responsibilities. Good schools set up systems and operations that address and allow for both the "content" and "skills" to be taught and learned.