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Content Knowledge is Dead

I heard Susan Jacoby, author of “The Age of American Unreason,” on the radio the other day using meaningless statistics about teenagers (and adults) ignorant of basic bits of content knowledge. Sure, it’s a little offensive that people can’t point out Iraq on a map when we’ve talked about it for six years. But, I think calling alarm to content ignorance is missing the whole point. In fact, it’s the problem.

The emphasis on content knowledge IS the problem. Students have always thought content knowledge was irrelevant a la Mark Twain. Why? Because we forget. Because there is no point other than that the teacher makes us. Because, especially nowadays, I can just go look it up when I need it.

We don’t need content emphasis revival. For example, I can’t identify the President of Australia. I just made a request for that information and got it in less than 8 seconds (PM John Howard followed by Kevin Rudd), 7.9 of those seconds were filled with me going to my browser and carelessly misspelling the word Australia. In technology, we worry a lot about how fast our servers respond to requests. There is a more than significant portion of the world’s smartest people trying to get bits of information in front of everyone’s face, upon their request, faster than ever before. Let me make a bold statement that the educational community will not internalize for another 50 years: Content Knowledge is Dead.

Yet, states everywhere are mandating a mind numbing sequence of content standards in what some call the accountability movement. Politicians hear alarms going off, like 80% of 16 year olds believe the War of 1812 was in 1898; their reaction is to demand that teachers teach every bit of content that anyone might think is important for any reason. One problem – teaching all of that is impossible. Another problem – even if you succeeded the students would forget most of it.

So, if content knowledge is irrelevant, why does everyone think education is so important? Because the side effect of schooling is that a minority of students along the way manage to develop an internal schema for information discovery, processing, communication, application and evaluation. A minority of those students manage to pick up some processes and methodologies for taking creations and delivering them to entities that might pay for them. And, who knows, they might pick up some useful tips on filing their taxes and voting.

My point is that if content knowledge is dead, the emphasis should be on teaching those side effects that have come to be called Procedural Knowledge. When students can generate questions and identify problems at point A and make end products using standard (or innovative) procedures that contribute value to others at point B, and they know all the steps in between for the core disciplines, students will be little content knowledge processing machines and all the more inspired while they are doing it. Who knows? They might even remember how long the Hundred Years War lasted.

10 Responses to “Content Knowledge is Dead”

  1. Andrew February 24, 2008 at 9:49 pm #

    Ummm… PM(Australia) has been Kevin Rudd since late November 2007.

  2. admin February 25, 2008 at 11:54 am #

    Andrew, thanks for catching. I was thinking this might have undermined my point, but then again it also is a good example of the procedures related to “peer review!”

  3. stephen lyle March 1, 2008 at 1:22 pm #

    Nice post. My two favorite bits:
    1. “…develop an internal schema for information discovery, processing, communication, application and evaluation.”
    2. “Procedural Knowledge”

    I hadn’t heard the term Procedural Knowledge applied to the learning process of cataloging information. I’ve been a long-time advocate of teaching not only the ability to process knowledge, but also the simple fact that this is what we do. I think kids should be more aware of the fact that learning is a psychological phenomenon about which we know some things (though there are certainly still huge gaps in our understanding). It’s tremendously helpful for to recognize that when I’m learning something new, I’m first just taking a bunch of information and shoving in a mental “junk drawer” where it’s largely unorganized. Then, as I become more familiar with the subject, I’m able to start sorting through those bits of information and organizing them according to meaning, importance, and relationships to other pieces of information. Eventually, I have a something like a mind map where all the data fits somewhere in a bigger picture, and I have several brain paths back to any piece of information, helping me with retrieval at a later time. But when it’s all new and very confusing, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like it will never make any sense, where many learners (adults in some of my training classes included) give up. Knowing the process, or even just that there IS a process, makes the application of that process to any given learning subject so much easier.

    Of course, in order to learn the process of learning and information processing, you must have content with which to practice and develop the Procedural Knowledge. And it’s a fairly decent idea to have some standards for that stuff. But simply evaluating whether content knowledge can be regurgitated tells us nothing about whether students have developed the facilities for true learning.

    It’s too bad all the stakeholders in this educational accountability movement can’t see that we’re really just testing memorization, and hoping that Procedural Knowledge comes about, as you say, as a by-product. Sure testing for Procedural Knowledge would be more difficult, but now that we’ve got testing going on at many levels and we’ve been many years and effort into standardized assessments, I think it’s about time thought about improving what it is we’re testing and how we’re doing it.

    Heck, we ask our schools/students to demonstrate adequate yearly progress, why not our regulatory educational institutions as well?

  4. mpstaton March 3, 2008 at 11:11 am #

    Well, if we applied the same standards and procedure to our state institutions we would take them over within five years. Then we’d probably fumble on the turn around.

    My favorite part of your post: “Of course, in order to learn the process of learning and information processing, you must have content with which to practice and develop the Procedural Knowledge.” True, and if teachers feel that their content is the content on which they are practicing a much more important lesson, you’d probably get better learning outcomes.

  5. Ed June 13, 2008 at 6:03 am #

    There must be something to this rant of everyone who blogs on education. I can’t see it, can’t see why everyone feels they have to write the same thing. But, there it is, and here it is.

    What you describe are the basest levels of learning. But learning can be higher. The most interesting things I learn are often the things I figure out myself, walking in a park or driving down the Interstate, or mowing the lawn.

    Some of these things are deductive – if a=>b and b=>C, and a is true….etc.

    But many are inductive.

    Either way, I get to these conclusions by knowing and then piecing together a lot of different facts.

  6. admin June 26, 2008 at 12:06 pm #

    Hi Ed! Good calling me out on it.

    What you say is true. Many students develop the procedural knowledge of navigating multiple texts, comprehending and retaining ideas, mastering new skills, and commanding information for higher purposes. However, many students do not develop those procedures out of the content-based learning model.

    You are correct, content knowledge is not dead, but as a blogger that gets happy when there’s more than fifty visitors to my blog in a day, it’s no harm to be a little sensational.

    thanks for your comment. look forward to connecting with you in the future.

    – Michael

  7. Ed June 30, 2008 at 1:42 pm #

    50… 🙂

    BTW, I do rails…or try. Which I think is how I found this.

  8. mpstaton July 6, 2008 at 2:14 pm #


    What do you work on?

    – Michael

  9. Jagrin December 2, 2008 at 9:46 pm #

    In order to make education meaningful we need to be able to create standards that will actually work. Most of today's standards are there because students need to pass some standardized tests. Students spend all of their time preparing for these tests that it takes all of the fun and creativity out of the learning process. Teachers need to be able to put the fun and creativity back into education so students will actually want to learn, instead of feeling forced.


  1. Procedural Knowledge « Once a Teacher…. - September 24, 2008

    […] reminded me of a post by Michael Staton in February called “Content Knowledge is Dead”. I don’t completely agree with this statement, but I do agree that there must be a change in […]

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