Content Knowledge: Effective Teaching for the 21st-Century Learner:

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

An effective teacher must master the professional skills necessary to deliver a high-quality 21st-century education to their students. In this blog post, I will discuss the importance of content knowledge.

There is an ongoing debate within education circles as to the appropriate place of content knowledge in the curriculum. Those who take a more progressive position contend that content knowledge should not be the primary educational outcome. Students should be engaged in learning and applying the 21st-century skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. Educators who hold this view argue that schools need to produce students who are flexible thinkers and who are able to adapt to their quickly changing world, not be weighted down with unnecessary “facts.” Further, what information is required can be quickly “Googled” using smartphone or computer technology, freeing the student to engage in more worthwhile endeavors besides “memorization and regurgitation.” The other, more traditional point of view argues that schools should focus on teaching students content. This is because they believe that our society has a defined body of knowledge that must be passed on from generation to generation. E.D. Hirsch points out that “all human communities are found upon specific shared information,” that in order to fully participate in contemporary society, one must be familiar with the background information of which most writers and speakers assume their audience possess. In other words, citizens must not only be able to read and write, but they must also have cultural literacy if they are to become fully participating members of society. According to this view, schools should play an integral role in the process of transferring this knowledge from older generations to newer ones. In addition, teaching content knowledge is integral to the process of acculturation, or assimilation of the dominate culture. In this view, teachers help students in their development and understanding of American history, democratic institutions, language and traditions to build a cohesive civil body politic.

The Miriam Webster dictionary defines teaching as "to cause to know something." And as the adage goes, "you can't teach what you don't know." That is why content knowledge is important, especially in the upper grades, where content becomes more specific and specialized, requiring a deep understanding of the discipline. According to the National Research Council, "Teachers' capacity to pose questions, select tasks, evaluate their pupil's understanding, and to make curricular decisions all depend on how they understand the subject matter." Further, research indicates that teachers with strong knowledge of their subjects yield more significant student academic outcomes than teachers without in-depth content knowledge (Baumert, Jürgen & Kunter, & Mareike 2013). Research indicates that content knowledge is essential for reading comprehension. This is because going beyond the decoding of individual words, students must be able to make sense of what they read. Students are more likely to comprehend what they are reading if they know something about it. The more content specific knowledge the student has the better they will read, and the better they read, the more they will learn. As cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham explains:

Research shows that reading depends on broad knowledge of all subjects: history, science, mathematics, literature, drama, music, and so on. Furthermore, it makes sense that subject matter knowledge be sequenced. It’s commonly appreciated that mathematical concepts build on one another, and they are easier to learn if they are sequenced properly. The same is true of other subjects. It’s easier to understand why the last remnants of European colonialism crumbled in the 1950s if you know something about World War II. It’s easier to understand World War II if you know something about the Great Depression. And so on. So the content that students will learn in the earliest grades is hugely important. It’s the bedrock of everything that is to come (Willingham, 2015, p. 102-103).

Albert Einstein said that “creativity is more important than knowledge.” And as we have seen, the 21st-century skill of creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking are the new currency of the knowledge economy. But as psychologist Robert Sternberg points out “one cannot apply what one knows in a practical manner if one does not know anything to apply.” In other words, content knowledge is not a zero-sum game in which it is all one thing or another. Teachers should balance the teaching of critical content knowledge with the skills and dispositions to extend their thinking beyond the simple recall of facts and be able to apply, analyze, connect, create, critique, synthesize and evaluate what they have learned. As education author and executive director of No More Marking, Daisy Christodoulou, points out “… if we fail to teach knowledge, we fail to learn” and “factual knowledge is closely integrated with creativity, problem-solving and analysis. It allows these skills to happen.” The key is to find the right balance, and this is why teaching is a craft, because it takes time, reflection and experience to know when students have mastered enough content to move on to more intellectually stimulating work. But to be clear, both are necessary to an effective 21st-century education.

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