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Thursday, 22 October 2015

Content mastery versus Skills?

Last week on a trip to India, I was visiting a close friend's house. Her son, who is in the sixth grade at a local Indian school, was in the middle of his end-of-term exams. While I was sitting in the living room, I happened to see her son's Chemistry text book lying on the table, so I picked it up and flipped through it. It was packed with information -- and fairly sophisticated information at that. It had chapters on valency, the periodic table, elements and compounds and mixtures.

Honestly, the book scared me on a number of levels. To begin with, my mind automatically began comparing the volume and complexity of the information in the book to that of the PYP (Primary Years Program for the IB), which is the curriculum that my own kids use and that many international schools use. The PYP has interdisciplinary units that focus less on voluminous or complex content but more on skills and interdisciplinary connections.

As I was looking at the text book, dense with complex information, I wondered aloud whether it made sense for young kids to learn so much content. "When else will they have the time to learn all this stuff?" my friend responded. "When they're older and they specialize, they just won't have the time to gain a broad base of content. And, because they're tested on this stuff so frequently, they will actually remember it," she added.

In schools across Asia, including local schools in Singapore, kids engage in a content-rich curriculum where they memorize vast quantities of information. In contrast, more progressive Western schools devalue content in favor of "skills" such as research, presentation, speaking, group work, reading, writing and technology. Which approach works better? What's actually better for kids? And is there a perfect balance, a perfect middle ground that could combine the two?

My friend defended the content-rich approach in Indian schools saying that it gave kids the foundation and framework that they need to make sense of new information that they encounter. If a kid has a strong and wide knowledge base, he will be able to understand and appreciate new knowledge because he has a context for it. In contrast, kids who get very little content don't have this contextual framework. And, as she insisted, now's the time...when else will kids have the luxury of learning about everything from ancient Egypt to the way plants breathe to the properties of different elements?

Are interdisciplinary units that focus on project based learning, often with limited or superficial content, always the better way to go? Could students in IB schools benefit from more complex content and more traditional assessments? Is there a better way to combine a skills-focused interdisciplinary curriculum with a content-rich curriculum so that kids get both skills and content? I left my friend's house wondering about it.

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