Friday, February 19, 2010

Content in the 21st Century

While a part of a pretty interesting panel discussion on "The Future of Teaching" at the EdSocialMedia Summit the other day I made the mistake of suggesting that teachers in the 21st century might need to be smart about content, along with other things like mind-brain-education science, child development, and curriculum and assessment design (along with technology tools, of course).

A fellow panelist was quick to take issue with that assertion, taking my meaning to have been that teachers would continue to be the fonts of all knowledge, lecturing their way back into the educational past.

Fortunately I had the chance to correct this notion, saying in my best Constructivist way that the necessary skill will be in know where the resources are and how to find them.

But I've been thinking about this, and I guess I'm going to stick with the essence of my original statement.

True learning, true mastery, is about nuance, about the dimensions of complexity and perspective that are part of deep understanding. I'd be hard-pressed to swallow an argument that master teachers need not be masters of the material they teach, darned near as excited by and engaged in their material as they are dedicated to the success of their students.

I hate to bring this up, since it doesn't gibe with many formulations of what 21st-century teaching should be, but a whole lot of successful people in many fields eagerly cite the teacher who inspired them. The stories break down into two categories: the Teacher Who Believed in Me and the Teacher Whose Love of the Material Made Me Love It, Too. Teachers who communicate optimism and passion to their students make a difference in students' lives. In particular, the Teacher Whose Love of the Material Made Me Love It, Too is a master of content, able to share knowledge in an exciting and compelling way.

Then, too, do we think that primary grade reading teachers ought not be experts in their field? Or teachers in the STEM fields, where our national anxieties focus on content knowledge deficits, real or imagined? Shouldn't even the mellowest "guide on the side" in a history class have a pretty subtle understanding of content in order to design and evaluate projects that bring students to deep and meaningful mastery of both the knowledge and concepts involved in topics like, say, the Civil Rights Movement, rivalries between Athens and Sparta, or the rise and fall of the Moghul Empire?

I had a flash as I was thinking about this that some of the most strident tech evangelists may have so internalized the notion that the medium is the message--a concept that works as we contemplate television drama or check our Facebook pages--that they have lost sight of the essence, the gravitas, and the grandeur of actual knowledge. Perhaps they believe that content knowledge is only memorizing facts, dreary and mechanistic mental drudgery of the most "industrial" sort. I bet, however, that they would be unhappy without their own expertise and a reason to share and apply it.

Educators are fond of Oliver Wendell Holmes's idea of "the simplicity on the other side of complexity"--which I take to be a kind of Zen-like deep understanding of difficult things that enables those who have it to see, and express, these things in a way that clarifies them for the rest of us. Those who have this capacity are the kinds of content experts that we are eager to listen to and learn from (and to hire, if we're being practical).

So let's not undervalue content knowledge. In good educators it has never been nor ever will be just about piling up facts and formulas; it's always been about using deep knowledge to pique, to provoke, and to inspire. All the social media in the world can't do this unless there are substantial skills, knowledge, understandings, and habits of mind to givee the learning context and authenticity.

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