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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.