Content Knowledge Vs. 21st Century Competencies: The Battle Begins

I had an interesting conversation today with @tstarkey1212 that began with a question from @appeducationfox regarding how to respectfully reply to teaches who don’t have time for tech with students, and ended with me questioning the dichotomy of knowledge and competencies.  And the battle between content knowledge and21st century competencies was spawned.  The conversation spanned a few different educational areas but these two focuses (knowledge and competencies) continued to be in opposition to one another.  For example, we “debated” which focus would provide students with better future prospects; whether or not a content focus creates students who expect answers rather than students who discover answers; whether or not competencies should be the focus of education; and whether or not content is only beneficial for standardized tests or whether it serves another function.  Each of these ideas kept coming back to content knowledge being at odds with 21st century competencies.  By the end of the conversation, I think both Thomas and I had some points to reflect upon.  This post is the result of some of my reflection.  I know I will have a lot more to do on this issue.

My journey into 21st century competencies is summarized here, along with some of my concerns with how we are evaluating students.  I have a hard time separating the use of standardized tests from what our current education system is.  I see the tests as the main focus for the government and, unfortunately, for many boards, admin, and teachers.  Whether my teaching focus is on content knowledge, as mine was for the first several years of my career, or on 21st CC, as the latest several years of my career have been, these standardized tests have been the bane of my teaching.  I don’t understand how the Alberta PATs (grade 3,6,9) and DIPs (grade 12) relate to what I’m teaching.  I know the “what” is the curriculum, and that this is also used to create the PATs and DIPs; however, where I teach my ELA students that writers write from a personal desire to express themselves and readers read with a personal context (I find new meaning in texts every time I reread them based on personal context) the standardized test expect students to identify “the correct” multiple choice answer as determined by a group of expert ELA teachers, in a timed test situation, without the option to read and reread or discuss or research or defend their answers.  For me, these tests are the epitome of “Content Knowledge” as opposed to critical and creative thinking, collaboration, and contextual information.  One of the questions Thomas asked during our Twitter conversation was “Do you find that teachers where you are equate knowledge with ‘stuff needed to pass standardized tests’?”  My answer was a resounding YES!  I know I do.  I believe that in order for my students to do well on these tests, they need to strictly focus on the knowledge-based questions they will be asked, that they must be taught NOT to think for themselves or to bring themselves to the texts they read.  And I’ve refused to teach that.  Of the five major ELA General Outcomes, the diploma exam focuses on two, and barely scratches a few of the “less important” (IMHO) outcomes of a third.  Curious as to what has been left out?

  • Students will listen, speak, read, write, view and represent to explore thoughts, ideas, feelings and experiences.
  • Students will listen, speak, read, write, view and represent to manage ideas and information. (inquiry and research)
  • Students will listen, speak, read, write, view and represent to respect, support and collaborate with others.

What’s left out are the hard-to-assess-with-a-standardized-test-non knowledge-outcomes.  What’s left out are the outcomes that ask students to think for themselves, to inquire and question, to collaborate.  What’s left out are the outcomes that begin to address what students need to be able to do in the 21st century.  So my answer to Thomas today was this:  “The fact that inauthentic standardized tests exist, perpetuates a negative equation of knowledge to the test.”  I believe that the very existence of these tests suggest that testing is the point of knowledge.  This is what our students come to believe, and many teachers as well.  Teachers teach to the test.  The test focuses on a small portion of the curriculum but is used to rank districts, school, teachers, and students to the tune of 50% of a grade 12 student’s final grade.  Teachers prioritize the curriculum to try to determine which outcomes are worthy of focusing on (for the test), suggesting that the other outcomes are not necessary.  The standardized test sacrifices competencies for the sake of inauthentic assessment of content knowledge.

My conversation with Thomas has led me to question how I truly view knowledge. What if I got my wish and inauthentic standardized tests simply vanished from existence?  Would knowledge then be given a place of honour in my teaching practice?  The obvious answer is “Of Course!”  I teach ELA because I love ELA.  I crave a well-written text, characters who make me cry or cry out in rage (though if anyone else is around I’m only crying because there’s dust in my eye), poetry that can make me see the beauty in our all-too-often selfish world, and persuasive texts that make me question my perspectives.  I relish the opportunity to create these texts myself.  I NEED to be able to share these passions with students.  It’s why I wanted to be a teacher.  I shudder to think that my students may not see the necessity of boasting of the knowledge of how to correctly place a semicolon in their writing, or that they lack the knowledge to comprehend an allegory from Greek Mythology.  I will admit that knowledge is not merely a requirement for career paths but also for witnessing the beauty of the world around us (and for you math teachers *yuck* I can now begin to understand your abhorrence with me for not knowing my multiplication tables–perhaps I’ll cherish the opportunity to gain this knowledge just as a means of self-improvement). For this realization, I owe you a sincere “thank you,” Thomas.

Coming back to a reality that still worships inauthentic standardized tests is hard for me, but I love my job, so I am forced to ask myself how I can continue to hold knowledge in high esteem while not falling into the traps set by testing.  I think the answer may be found in ending the battle between content knowledge and 21st century competencies and finding some common ground where the two can work together.  I do believe that much of the knowledge we expect kids to know can be “looked up.” However, I also believe that we can’t be looking up everything all the time or we risk looking incompetent (likely because we would be).  Consider this video shared with Thomas and me by @appeducationfox.

What would this video look like if the job candidate had been educated in a solely 21st century competencies classroom?  Would it really be that much different?  Reading and writing skills would suffer, basic mathematical equations would be time consuming, and science concepts would be unknown.  Clearly the two must work together.  I also believe that knowledge is tied to testing in the minds of students, even though it is the basis for life-long learning.  Education has become (or maybe always was) about testing and specific career prep.  In recent years we’ve tried to tell kids that school is about learning, but we haven’t separated it from the traditional methods of education.  The result is students who are beginning to hate learning.  I speak here from experience with my own children.  They used to love learning and school.  Now they view learning as something that should only happen at school (which every year they dislike a little bit more).  Just the other day, talking with my son at home about using his iPad more for learning than for games, he retorted that learning is done at school and home was the place for having fun.  I was repulsed.  Learning should be a life-long activity, embraced at every opportunity.  Learning should be fun.  My son has separated the two, and I blame a content-focused system that doesn’t value learning as a life-long goal but rather as a levelled activity, grade by grade.

So how can knowledge and competencies work together?  Where is the common ground?  What do our students need?  I’m sitting here thinking about what practical application this is going to have in my classroom when Easter Break is over.  I know I need to put some more emphasis on the knowledge, not that I haven’t been teaching it, but to actually make it more obvious to my students.  They need to understand that knowledge is important.  However, I also need to make it clear that it’s not knowledge OR competencies.  Everything we’ve done all term is still important.  I also think that I know exactly how I’m going to do this.  Before the break my students handed in a (more) authentic assessment task.  The focus of this task fit in with an ongoing term-long project where students are creating a meaningful opinion to share with others.  This assessment task was meant to highlight the importance of understanding the purpose of the writing.  Ironically, looking back at the project and rubric, this focus was not even mentioned.  Sure, we discussed purpose and studied a few texts with this focus.  Yet, my assessment of this task was 100% on 21st century competencies, linked back to the curriculum, and not on the knowledge I needed my kids to know:  That purpose will be shown through the presentation choices they make.  Skimming through their work, I know this is a problem already.  I received a few letters, and many academic essays, all of which seem to have the purpose of stating/explaining/defending a theme song choice for the film, but the presentation does not match the purpose at all, nor is it authentic to the situation.  I failed to put enough emphasis on the knowledge that was needed to produce authentic work, choosing instead to focus on the competencies that were needed.  I will need to correct this major oversight on Monday and use this work as a rough draft.

As a conclusion, I’d like to quickly share a chart from Alberta Education’s proposed Curriculum Redesign.  I’d like to discuss this shift in much more detail sometime soon, but for now, this visual depicts what I believe should be the common ground for knowledge and competencies.

curriculum shift

While the content-focus is lessened, so is the prescriptive curriculum and summative assessment.  What this means to me is that the knowledge the students and I deem as important (local decision making) will lead to greater depth of study and formative assessment.  There will be less focus on testing and more focus on learning.  This should benefit both sides of this battle!

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2 thoughts on “Content Knowledge Vs. 21st Century Competencies: The Battle Begins

  1. Pingback: Two Birds, One Stone: Critical Thinking and Collaboration Activity | A Ship at Sea

  2. Pingback: Why Do We Make Students Write Essays? | A Ship at Sea

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