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Long careers provide opportunities to look back, and I found myself doing a bit of that of late. It’s not so much to reflect on what I’ve learned as what I still don’t know. What still puzzles me about teaching and learning? What remains unanswered, important but not yet resolved? For the most part it’s been a good exercise, but I’ve gotten frustrated, agitated, even a little angry about several things and one of them is content. Our thinking about it is all wrong.
We’ve got too much content jammed in our courses, plus many of us are teaching students less well-prepared to handle it. I expect that lots of heads are nodding. Luckily, I write for an audience that cares about learning and understands the importance of strategies that engage students. Even so, covering the content confronts all of us with a vexing set of issues.
Content matters—it’s the brick that builds big knowledge houses. My dismay rests on our failure to explore the changing role of content plays in our courses and the educational experiences of students. The explosion of knowledge in all our fields and the easy access to it provides mountains of information and misinformation. We are well beyond where we can teach students everything about anything. Today what students need to learn is how to sort, integrate, analyze, and assess content—and the fixation with coverage fails to address either of these new realities.
In my collection of more than 600 articles on teaching and learning (these are the articles I deem excellent, worth keeping and writing about), three pieces explore the problems and issues related to content coverage. It may well be the most neglected topic in the teaching and learning literature. Other than complaining about how much there is to cover are content-related issues a regular part of our conversations with colleagues or at department meetings? Is it a topic regularly covered in professional development programs?
Across the years there has been an increasing recognition that non-stop lecturing is not the best way to engage students. A sizeable cohort of faculty now cover the content but feel guilty that they aren’t doing more active learning. Unfortunately that guilt pales when compared to the angst that occurs when faculty attempt to cut content.
We are pretty much stuck individually and collectively. A faculty member who wants to downsize can trim content here and there but big cuts are out. Colleagues who teach the next courses depend on content coverage in the previous ones. And although students may aspire to take easy courses, they are an absolute no-no for those who teach. There are standards to uphold and rigor to maintain—lots of content can accomplish both.
For years I’ve been trying to raise what seems to me the obvious question. How much content is enough—in courses for non-majors, in courses that introduce the major, in survey courses and capstones, in labs, studios, online—indeed in every instructional setting? Although tacit, the assumption that more is always better prevails. Yes indeed, more knowledge is preferable to less knowledge but the more-is-better belief assumes that coverage grows knowledge. The more we cover, the more they learn. The evidence debunking that assumption has become large, convincing—I would call it compelling.
What will it take to move our thinking forward? Banishment of the word “cover” when it’s attached to content? It is a metaphor that reinforces the idea of a quick trip through the content domain, see a little and don’t stop a lot, arrive breathless, hopefully with a few snapshots that remind us of the trip. “Uncover” is a better description of what we need to do with the content—to reveal parts of it. Monahan writes about the teacher as curator, that expert who can put together a collection of content, not the complete works, but a strong selection that’s representative. Way back in the 80s Knapper and Cropley characterized content as the means, not the end—the means we use to develop learning skills. They saw learning skills as more enduring than content, and a college education as an experience that equips students for a lifetime of learning.
When I look back, I’m dismayed and perplexed by how little our thinking about content has changed. What in the world it will take move us to a more productive place?
Reference: Knapper, C. K. and Cropley, A. J. Lifelong Learning and Higher Education. London: Croom Helm, 1985.
Part of the problem is our willingness to accept the label “content.” Content is amorphous and imprecise. Brains are built to conceptualize and to link concepts into powerful explanatory networks of principles. Change content to concepts in this article and see how it sharpens the discussion and points to a solution.