What to Think and How to Know

Yes, it is the old debate regarding what a classroom needs to focus on: content versus skills. This debate must really stop because it is a false dichotomy. We need both. The much more important discussion is how one relates to the other so that the time spent by a child inside the classroom becomes much more worthwhile. Paul Cancellieri, a middle school science teacher, wrote the following in TeachHub.com:

Above copied from TeachHub.com
"Paring down state science standards in favor of more depth and greater comprehension" does not really mean cutting content. Greater depth also means deeper content. Hence, paring down here implies that the old curriculum is a mile wide but only an inch thick. The volume of content is therefore decided not just by the breadth alone but also the depth. Increasing the depth while decreasing the breadth does not necessarily decrease the volume. In fact, it can get bigger, if we make, for instance, the depth 4 times deeper and the breadth only half as much.

In the discussion of content and skills, it may likewise be useful to find out how each one is acquired. For example, how does a child develop scientific thinking (skills) and how does a child acquire scientific knowledge (content)? The previous article on this blog, "Developing Scientific Thinking" offers a clue. Content seems to be taught while skills are caught. A teacher can provide knowledge then through direct instruction while helping a child develop skills by example.

The main reason why content versus skills is a false dichotomy is the fact that these two are related. Determining the relationship between the two, content and skills, is useful for designing a more effective curriculum. One area that has been recently studied is the relationship between vocabulary (content) and reading comprehension (skill). A paper scheduled to be published in Child Development examines how scores in vocabulary and reading comprehension tests vary with years of instruction. The paper, "Developmental Relations Between Vocabulary Knowledge and Reading Comprehension: A Latent Change Score Modeling Study", has the following abstract:

This is a longitudinal study involving about three hundred students from first to fourth grade in elementary schools in the Leon County School District in Florida. By following the vocabulary and reading comprehension scores of the students through four years of elementary schooling the following possible relationships between vocabulary and reading comprehension can be ascertained:

  • Correlated but uncoupled - In this scenario, children develop both vocabulary and reading comprehension at the same time. Growth in both are correlated but not because one causes the other, but because they both rely on an outside third factor.
  • Unidirectional coupling (Vocabulary to Comprehension) - In this scenario, growth in vocabulary leads to better reading comprehension.
  • Unidirectional coupling (Comprehension to Vocabulary) - In this scenario, better reading comprehension leads to growth in vocabulary.
  • Bidirectional coupling - In this scenario, the two, vocabulary and comprehension, work side by side, causing growth in each other.

And as the above abstract states, this study finds a unidirectional coupling (Vocabulary to Comprehension). The authors conclude, "...this study supports the idea that growth in reading comprehension depends in part on vocabulary knowledge." The authors also make it clear that due to the study's limitations, a bidirectional coupling can not be completely dismissed, but it is certain here that content affects skills, providing us with a strong evidence that content versus skills is truly a useless debate.