I find it interesting the degree of consensus apparent in America's education discourse today. Much is said about how 21st century learning is all about creativity, critical thinking, curiosity and character. Everyone's growing interest, from Barack Obama on down, is in "STEM" (science, technology, engineering, math). While many private sector people are still excited about using data to personalize instruction, few people anywhere endorse the current regime of standardized testing. Finally, with the availability of flipped classroom software, iPads, Kindle, google and video games, everyone seems to want to do away with the textbook.
Yet it seems we still have a fundamentally unresolved issue. That is, what information do students need to learn, and how should they learn it?
It's easy to say (as Tony Wagner does in Thomas Friedman's op-ed this weekend), that most of the information we teach students in school they will "never use" or they can easily look up online if/when they need it. But when you look more closely at the discrete nuggets of information we teach, it starts to look less trivial. Do we really think students should not learn basic information about American history or biology?
Indeed, the original decision to include information in the curriculum was independent from the core objectives of the oft cursed industrial model of education. In fact, teaching information is based on a fundamental understanding about learning: information provides the schema for analyzing claims, creating ideas, and expressing oneself. Students don't need to learn all the information out there, but there is a minimal level of knowledge necessary for intellectual reasoning and core skill competency.
We should think twice before we launch a crusade to eliminate all the content from the curriculum. In fact, it may not matter so much what content we teach, so long we (a) teach facts (b) teach enough of them (c) teach them effectively and (d) don't let the information instruction overwhelm teaching critical thinking, literacy and creativity.
Enter new concept: multi-layered learning. In multi-layered learning, student experiences draw from content and skill instruction simultaneously. Good teachers have been doing this forever, but intentionally structuring pedagogy to couple skills and information together offers greater promise for driving achievement in both. Multi-layered learning takes what would otherwise be trivia, and makes it information relevant for application.
Two models are particularly effective in delivering multi-layered learning: game-based and project-based learning. Both models provide some level of structure with elements of choice. Both models have a fundamental orientation to information, while calling upon the learner to do something. Both of these models are highly interactive, involve individual and group learning, and connect discrete skills and knowledge to larger learning objectives. Even mini-games that emphasize drill and practice are an important part of preparing students for 21st century challenges--these games can be a fun and effective way to teach foundational information without using class time, therefore making learning in school all the more rigorous and meaningful.
Let's forget the idea that education will ever be easy. It won't. There is no panacea, short-cut or simple answer. Information, skills, and understandings all matter. If we can do more to build our instructional practice around multi-layered learning, we will have a better chance of engaging students in their learning and providing them all they need to succeed in the future.