best practices

Content vs Skills: Knowledge is the Key to Education

August 18, 2019

It seems strange to make a case for knowledge-based education in schools. Many of us grew up thinking that schools were where you went for knowledge. Supermarkets were for food. Playgrounds were for fun. Movies were for escape. And schools were for knowledge. But that hasn’t really been the case for a long time. 

In the middle of the last century, we started making schools the place for skills. We replaced knowledge—stories, information, just the facts, ma’am—for developing cognitive skills that were supposed to be better than knowledge. It was a sort of a theory based on teach a person to fish and you don’t have to bother with the story of a fishing trip to catch the great white shark who almost ate your boat.  

The truth is that Jaws has more to teach us about fishing—respect for nature, awareness of limits, checking arrogance, we’re all part of somebody’s food chain—than learning how to cast a line or, in school terms, reading a caption of a picture about someone casting a line.  

In other, dryer words, we learn through experience (always the best) and stories. Skills are great. We need them. We want them. But diagramming a sentence does not float the boat the way a good fish story does. Sorry, went back in the pool. 

It’s the stories that drive the skills, not the other way around. In her recent book, The Knowledge Gap, Nancy Wexler surveys cognitive scientists who now say that “the most important factor in comprehension isn’t a set of generally applicable skills; it’s how much background knowledge the reader has about the topic.”  

Knowledge is an equitable transaction. The more you read, the more you know. Skills, however, depend on social structures, family dynamics, and ultimately socio-economic elements that tend to privilege kids from already highly educated and prosperous families. 

Wexler goes on to say that the benefits to knowledge-based education pay off in history and science. “The fact is,” she writes, “history is a series of stories. And kids love stories. . . . When young children are introduced to history and science in concrete and understandable ways, chances are they’ll be far better equipped to reengage with those topics with more nuance later on. At the same time, teaching disconnected comprehension skills boosts neither comprehension nor reading scores. It’s just empty calories. In effect, kids are clamoring for broccoli and spinach while adults insist on a steady diet of donuts.” 

That’s a great summary of what we’re doing at Midgard. Most textbooks are full of the empty calories of disconnected facts. Ours, loaded with essential stories, are much healthier for growing minds.

Image Credit: Bui Viet Trung

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