The Chicken or the Egg?
The age old causality dilemma of “the chicken or the egg” is no doubt familiar to most anyone reading this post. We could all get lost trying to decide which is the cause and which is the effect. This particular scenario seems to best represent my recent thoughts concerning the need to provide students with the time, opportunities and learning environments necessary to practice the 4 C’s. Communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity are readily accepted as cornerstones of the 21st century skills students will need for their future. These “soft skills” are a common topic of tweets, blog posts, books and articles, however, when making the case to teachers and school leaders about WHY these skills are important, I consistently receive a few common, yet valid, concerns.
Teachers often express that students are coming into their classrooms each year with limited basic content knowledge. This, in turn, requires an intense focus on ensuring that students learn the vast amount of material required for the current year, as well as any deficits or weaknesses they may have from the previous year. Of course, there will never be a perfect scenario in which all students arrive with the exact same abilities or knowledge in any given content area and this fact is generally understood as part of the landscape of public education.
Teachers understandably feel pressure to cover the material that will allow students to be successful on a standardized test at the end of the year. This often manifests into the belief that the only way to successfully cover the required content standards is to deliver the material in a straightforward, efficient manner. When students are initially introduced to new subject matter, teachers have the option of delivering content in a variety of ways. A few options include lecture, small group, individual or video/online delivery of instruction. However, when instruction stops at this stage, deeper learning typically will not occur. At this point teachers must cease to be knowledge providers and take on the role of a designer of learning experiences. They must know their learners’ needs and prepare the learning environment in a manner that encourages communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity within the content.
Although a certain amount of regression is to be expected over the summer months, maybe we should be asking ourselves “why” students seem to be showing up with limited content knowledge each year. I can assure you that when asked, the previous year’s teachers will attest to the fact that they did indeed teach the standards, leaving us all to scratch our heads and wonder how students can consistently forget so much over the summer. Perhaps the rush to cover the content in an efficient “check it off, I’ve taught it” way, results in learning that exists solely for taking, and ideally passing, the test at the end of the year. After all, our learning culture promotes this by celebrating or lamenting over the state test results each year. This perceived urgency and importance to get students prepared for the test, inhibits instructional practices that are designed to encourage meaningful, relevant student learning experiences. Learning should allow students to make valuable, interdisciplinary connections which will require schools to abandon the silos of isolated subject content. This type of deeper learning will increase retention of content standards and allow students to use and apply the acquired knowledge in other settings.
So, this is where the ‘chicken and the egg’ scenario plays out. Do students need to know the content thoroughly BEFORE they can think about it critically and discuss it, or does the act of thinking and discussing the content LEAD to the type of transfer that students will need to create and communicate their learning about the content? The answer to this question may rely heavily on your learning philosophy, but perhaps we can come to an agreement that BOTH are necessary. Well designed learning experiences that regularly encourage higher order thinking skills by promoting the 4 C's allow students to internalize and connect their learning in a way that will stick with them for the test at the end of the year as well as carry over to the following year.