Educators have long debated the importance of specific content knowledge in the curriculum. Progressive educators generally favour a non-content-specific learning process. Traditional educators say all students should master a defined body of knowledge.
The 21st century learning movement, with its emphasis on non-content-specific skills, such as critical thinking and creativity, is the latest manifestation of the progressive approach. A number of provinces – notably Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario – are making substantial curriculum changes to reflect the priorities of the 21st century learning movement. If this trend continues, content knowledge will get less emphasis in schools.
This shift away from content knowledge should give all Canadians cause for concern because such knowledge is essential in all subject areas and at all grade levels. There are several reasons why.
First, content knowledge is needed for reading comprehension. Give students an article to read about a topic they know nothing about and they’ll struggle to understand it. But they’ll have little difficulty reading an article or book when they possess background knowledge about the topic. The more they already know, the more effectively they can read and understand. Reading comprehension depends on background knowledge.
Second, content knowledge makes critical thinking possible. In many schools, the development of critical thinking skills is considered more important than the acquisition of specific content knowledge. However, this overlooks the fact that critical thinking can’t take place in the absence of specific content knowledge.
As a case in point, consider the recent proposal by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario to remove Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from public schools. Is this a good idea or not?
In order to think critically about this question, you need to know a lot of things about John A. Macdonald and the cultural context he lived in. Macdonald is considered a Father of Confederation because of the very important role he played in bridging the divide between anglophones and francophones in mid-nineteenth century Canada. He also spearheaded the construction of the CPR railroad, which brought additional provinces into Confederation, and fiercely protected our country from American military aggression. These are significant accomplishments.
At the same time, Macdonald was a deeply flawed man. He drank too much, took bribes from railroad companies, brazenly handed out plum patronage jobs to his political cronies, and created a residential school system that harmed many Indigenous people. These flaws cannot be ignored. Rather, they must be weighed against his accomplishments.
People can’t think critically about something they know nothing about. While subject-specific content knowledge doesn’t guarantee critical thinking, it’s a prerequisite for critical thinking to take place.
Finally, content knowledge empowers students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Far too many students come to school from low socio-economic homes where they haven’t had the same learning opportunities as their more affluent classmates. They enter school at a significant disadvantage. However, schools can largely compensate for this gap by ensuring that all students receive content-rich instruction from an early age. Content-rich instruction is key to empowering students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Protecting content knowledge in schools begins with provincial education departments. Instead of reducing or downplaying the subject content, those who write curriculum guides must ensure that content at all grade levels is substantial and logically sequential. Whether the subject is math, science, English language arts or social studies, there’s no excuse for providing teachers with nearly content-free curriculum guides.
At the local level, superintendents and principals should set a tone of support for content-rich instruction.
Students deserve the best education teachers can provide. Knowledge is powerful and good teachers know how to make their subjects come alive. By restoring knowledge to its rightful place, we can help ensure that all students receive a top-quality education.
Michael Zwaagstra is a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a public high school teacher, and author of Content Knowledge is the Key to Learning.