How About Skills First Then Content Later

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Students in class |Photo by euractiv.co

For a long time, disciplinary content was king. Now just about everyone agrees that students should learn skills, but what is lacking is how to integrate skills and content.

One of the oldest and most boring debates in the education system is about skills versus content. For years, teachers, administrators, and education researchers have debated between skills and content. Which one is more important for students to learn?
The apparent truth has proven surprisingly sturdy.
But if a consensus has emerged in this long-standing debate, it is one that pushes against an either-or approach.

I would argue – and I do not think many people would disagree with me on this point – that skills versus content is a false choice; students need both. John Schlueter, an instructor of English at St. Paul College wrote, “Classrooms must move beyond being places where content is delivered and become places where students learn how to process that content” Content is present in both cases. What matters is whether we merely “deliver” it or teach students the skills that allow them to put that content to use.

Research suggests that skills by themselves – isolated from knowledge of disciplinary content – are very difficult, if not impossible to teach. We learn important skills through practice in specific domains and transferring those skills to other domains is not straightforward. Similarly, content without the skills to apply it is mere trivia. What good is it to know a lot about a subject if you do not know what to do with that knowledge?

Therefore, we need both skills and content. The big question then should be: Which one has a priority in our thinking? The way we conceptualize our tasks can have a great impact on teaching. While rejecting the skills/content dichotomy, I think it is important that we focus on skills first, and let content follow.

The content-based curricula do not give room for skill development |Photo by opinionnigeria.com

When we define our courses by their content, we almost necessarily force ourselves into a “coverage” mindset. Many teachers still show up to class with plans that list the topics they only go over. By focusing on what material to cover, or even on what content students need to learn, the danger is that students are just told the material – which is, after all, the most straightforward way to get it to them. But knowing pretty confidently that just telling students information is not a very good way to help them retain it.
Focusing on skills induces active learning strategies, the sort of classroom activities that researchers have found to be most effective for long-term learning. When we create time during class hours where students can practice a certain skill, we almost automatically ensure that they become active learners. When we prioritize skills, we ask “what will students do today?” instead of “what will I cover today?”. The former builds active learning into the approach, no matter what content is being covered.
This approach is not choosing skills at the expense of content; it is not one or the other. Luckily, when you lead with skills, it is easy for content to follow. Courses need to include skills that students can practice. Teachers should design activities that help students learn how to execute those skills on their own.

Children having a skills training session |Photo by Digital Education Africa Network

If you want students to practice the skill of revision, have them revise one of the course readings according to a set of specifications. If you want students to practice making a computational engineering model, have them try to project what happens to a bridge when an earthquake of a certain magnitude hits. If you want students to work on their research skills, have them find, compare and evaluate two sources with opposing views on that week’s topic. By putting course content to use, students will learn that content more easily – and will be more likely to retain it as well.

It is not difficult to integrate content into skills. It is much easier to start with skills and then add content than it is to do the reverse.

The skills-versus-content debate is not something we need to fight about anymore. Students need to understand important course content and develop the skills to apply that content critically. We need to Tweak the way we approach courses. Thinking about skills first will ensure that students learn both skills and content in a way that will stay with them for the long haul.

I see no reason to say the current school system is at all effective. An intelligent student who is comfortable just reading books can also study practically but a student who learns better practically, will not be able to study properly by just reading books. So, education should be skill-based rather than knowledge-based so that it will be easy for all students to study faster and understand better.

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