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Skills v Content

Educators often debate which is more important, skills or content. I see it pop up in education journals, in department meetings, and Twitter threads all the time. At The True Corrective, we think asking whether skills or content are more important is the wrong question. We don't believe there is any situation in which a teacher would actually have to make such a decision. In all situations, content can be taught through the teaching of a skill. One never needs to be sacrificed for the other. So, when teachers are designing lessons, the question is not, "Which is more important, the skill or the content?" The question is always, "What content is best suited to teach the skill I want the students to learn?"

In reality, you can't really teach any content without teaching some kind of skill. Even if you are just teaching straight facts, the students are practicing the skill of memorization. What is important is that the teaching of skills does not occur simply by happenstance, but that we are deliberate and thoughtful about it.

This is where being "skill-directed" comes into play.


At The True Corrective, when we say our instruction is "skill directed", we mean that in lesson design the teaching of skills comes before the teaching of content; it takes the priority. It doesn’t mean that one is more important than the other. It simply means that one is used as the starting point in designing the lesson.

Putting content first, instead of skills, has led to the current broken system of video lectures, textbook

readings, and slide presentations. These are the instructional techniques employed by people who put content first, and they are nothing more than simple information-delivery systems. I will admit, they are certainly some of the most efficient ways to deliver gobs of information...but that’s precisely the problem. When did efficiency become the goal in the education of our children?

“Let’s stuff as much information as possible into their little heads as quickly as we can.” Who decided that was a good idea?

In skill-directed instruction, the primary goal is for the student to learn and practice a skill, a skill they will need to thrive as adults. Skills such as reading comprehension, source analysis, weighing evidence, and drawing conclusions.

But wait, Mr. Garrison, what role then does content play in instruction? Answer: content is the vehicle for acquiring skills. The acquisition of the skill is the main goal. The content is what you use to do it.


When your instruction is skill-directed, it doesn't mean you are teaching skills instead of content. It means that when you design your lesson, you are intentional about what skill you are going to teach and how you are going to teach it. And you make those decisions before you decide on the content. Let's suppose, for example, the topic of your lesson is the Mongols (one of my all-time favorite things to teach). There is so much content available for the Mongols.

The Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue, part of the Genghis Khan Statue Complex, is a 40-metre (130 ft) tall, stainless steel statue of Genghis Khan on horseback and the world's tallest equestrian statue.

You're not going to teach all of it. You have to discriminate. You are going to have to choose certain things, and leave out others. How do you decide what to leave out? Being skill-directed means, when you begin to write your lesson you first choose the skill you are going to teach. Maybe you haven't explicitly taught data analysis in a while. So, you make data analysis the skill goal of your lesson. Next, out of all the things you could teach about the Mongols, which content would be the most useful to teach that particular skill? Well, maybe you use tables of the estimated number of deaths resulting from the Mongol military campaigns, comparing them to those of other military engagements in history. Maybe you give your students data of average rainfall in Mongolia, average temperatures, elevation gradients, etc., and a chart of the total land area of various empires.

Consider all the content about the Mongol Empire that analysis of this type of data can lead you to in that lesson. If you know the history of the Mongols, you know what I am talking about.

This is what it means to be skill-directed. If you do not become skill-directed as a teacher, your students are, at best, practicing skills in your lessons incidentally. When you are teaching skills haphazardly, more often than not, the only skill your students end up actually practicing is memorization. They don’t enjoy the content, they are not engaged with it, and they have forgotten it 5 minutes after they turn in the test.

Content matters. But it is a tool. We should use it as such.


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