Finding the Right Balance Between Transferable Skills and Content Knowledge

A central component of Vermont’s proficiency-based graduation requirement set within the Educational Quality Standards (EQS) is that students must demonstrate proficiency in both content knowledge AND transferable skills.  Most schools in Vermont have embraced the inclusion of transferable skills, but how this shift is framed varies considerably from district to district. Some districts have struck a balance between content and skills, while others put content in the backseat.  The successful implementation of proficiency-based learning hinges on how districts approach the skill vs. content debate.

Over the last decade or so, there has been an increased focus on transferable skills, sometimes called 21st century skills.   This emphasis makes sense and plenty of research over the last few years has shown these skills are necessary for students to be successful in college, careers and as citizens.  Being able to problem solve, communicate, collaborate, and be self-directed are critically important, especially with the changing landscape of available jobs.

Requiring educators to teach AND assess transferable skills can be a heavy lift.  To incorporate more standards into an already full curriculum requires something to give.  Many teachers in Vermont are struggling to implement transferable skills in their classrooms.  There are numerous potential reasons for this struggle, one of which is that the subversion of content to transferable skills goes against teacher beliefs and values about what is important for students to learn.   If content takes a back seat, this can be alarming to some teachers who value the content that they have historically taught.

At the high school level, content is king.  Many high school teachers went into teaching for the love of their subject. Teachers have assessed transferable skills such as collaboration, communication, and others for some time.  However, the active teaching of these skills alongside ongoing feedback is not as common. Though there are ways to assess transferable skills through content, such as using the content as a “vehicle”, sensitivity to content should be considered.  Eclipsing content knowledge for the sake of transferable skills will not support the successful implementation of proficiency-based learning in Vermont schools.

I know my position may not be popular with some.  However, I’m certainly not the only one with this perspective.  The well known education researcher E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (2016) writes in his recent book Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, that schools in the United States have gone down the path of “skill-centrism” which has led to the “dilution of the curriculum”.  Hirsch argues that though skills are important, they are useless without some level of content or “domain knowledge”. Going against what many believe, he states that “When looking anything up, there is simply no substitute for already possessing a lot of knowledge relative to the subject” (Hirsch, 2016, pp. 83).  Hirsch’s thesis centers on the importance of content knowledge to apply skills. At no point does he dismiss the need for skills, such as problem solving, but emphasizes that the current thinking that content knowledge is irrelevant is short sighted.

So, what is the takeaway?  Simply put, skills are important, but so is knowledge.  When framing the shift to proficiency-based learning, it is important to emphasize the importance of both content knowledge and skills.  Education leaders should be aware of the possible pitfalls of undermining the role of content. Like many things in life, balance is the key.  

AndrewAndrew Jones is the Director of Curriculum for Mill River Unified Union School District in North Clarendon, Vermont.

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