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As we come closer to the end of the, “What is a R.E.N.E.W.E.D. T.E.A.C.H.E.R.? Series” we focus on the letter C.
As a RenewED Teacher, we should ALWAYS prioritize…
“CONTENT, CONTENT, CONTENT”
As defined by edglossary.org, content knowledge, “refers to the body of knowledge and information that teachers teach and that students are expected to learn in a given subject or content area, such as English language arts, mathematics, science, or social studies. Content knowledge generally refers to the facts, concepts, theories, and principles that are taught and learned in specific academic courses, rather than to related skills—such as reading, writing, or researching—that students also learn in school.”
Based on this definition, content seems to be the core of teaching and learning. It is the “WHAT” of the puzzle. We can build the best relationships with students, have the most well behaved class in
the school, show up early and stay late everyday, love kids with the greatest amount of compassion and logic, be the neatest, most organized and creative teacher in the building, but without a deep level of content knowledge and strategies to present that content in meaningful ways, we are still ineffective. I don’t want to swallow this pill anymore than any of you, but as Bill Gates said, “Content is King.” If you’re a lady, go ahead and say, “Content is Queen!”
Content is important for three reasons including behavior, communication, and making sense of and connecting to the world.
Content Often Drives Our Behavior
As a student and as an adult, I can recall being disengaged and bored in school or during a course when I did not have the background knowledge or experience to relate to a topic of discussion. Our students behave in similar ways, by talking, being off task, or many times by acting out to avoid learning or looking ignorant all together.
Having knowledge or lack their of in a particular subject can drive our behaviors positively or negatively. I have heard teachers say they are glad their grade level is departmentalized, and that they only have to teach reading or math because they did not “like reading” or, “sucked at math!” It seems students and teachers alike get anxious about the subjects they are less comfortable with. But as I wrote on Day 9, we have to experience a level of discomfort in order to grow, and on Day 4, it is important to take initiative and educate ourselves on those things we don’t know or else we fail ourselves and our students. If we don’t take initiative to gain knowledge about things we are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with, how can we expect our scholars to do so? This is their life almost everyday at school. Let’s show them how to navigate the world by making good choices when content knowledge is the only way to thrive and survive.
Content Helps Us to Communicate Ideas about Varying Subjects
For the teachers that teach in isolation, we do our students a huge disservice. I am sometimes guilty of that myself, so no judgement here. As a National Board Teaching Candidate (No, I am not certified…YET.), I am aware and learning more about how
“accomplished teachers value the relationships among subject areas, using those relationships to forge multiple paths to knowledge…[and to] recogniz[e] how knowledge is established within and across subject areas [as something] crucial to the instruction of logical reasoning.” (National Board, Proposition 2).
Many people assume content knowledge is just about facts, and that we should not teach facts because it does not teach students how to become critical thinkers. Many people think facts are things that need to be memorized and used only for standardized testing. But my question is if you don’t know anything about the basic facts regarding content in a particular subject, how can you formulate a critical thought to help build understanding, and later communicate it to someone else effectively? Content including some basic facts (and some need to be memorized), is the basis of teaching and learning.
I personally have a difficult time teaching concepts and skills I am unable to help students relate to the real world. I always ask myself why do students need to know this? If I cannot find a logical answer, I will do research and ask around before I teach it. Otherwise, I may not do my best teaching it because in my mind, I will believe it’s not important for them to know, and I could be wrong.
Last year, I struggled with teaching the powers of 10 in math. The concept itself is easy. The hard part was finding something relevant and meaningful to teach and reach my students. As I was planning a science lesson on Astronomical Units and how far each planet was from the sun, I finally found a way for my students to practice and understand why we may need to know and use powers of 10. The distance from Earth to the Sun is
referred to as the Astronomical Unit (AU) and is 150,000,000 km. Why write 7 zeros if we can write 15×107? They saw this as a short-cut for writing large numbers, and they were right! Thank goodness for that astronomy course I dropped in college after 2 weeks. I learned something! This, some research, and reaching out to others allowed me to teach a cross-curricular lesson and help my students discover how math and science are interrelated.
Content Helps Us to Make Sense of and Connect to The World
Throughout my years of teaching, I have often wondered how and why the content knowledge of my lowest performing student was so much different than my highest performing student, and why there was such a huge difference in how they demonstrated what they learned or did not learn, as well as major differences in their behaviors. I don’t have all if any of the exact answers to these wonderings, but through some research, content, context, and being able to connect play huge roles.
As a college sophomore and junior, I was an Americorps member of Jumpstart. Jumpstart’s mission is to provide “language, literacy, and social-emotional programming for preschool children from under-resourced communities and promotes quality early learning for all.” I start here because language, literacy, and social-emotional development (connected to behavior) is a child’s first experience with how they learn and comprehend content within given contexts.
Read it again… Let it sink in… Got it? 30 million fewer words by age 3!? This quote is from a landmark study done by the late University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, and can be found in the book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young Children. There is even more telling in addition to this famous quote, and can be found here. “The researchers found that, on average, children from professional families heard more than 2,150 words an hour. Those in working-class families heard about 1,250 words. Children in families on welfare heard little more than 600 words an hour.” This is not just a word gap, it’s a content gap. When students are not hearing words or communicating with others, they are not learning content or gaining experience with people and the world. “Dale Walker, an associate research professor in early language and communication” who worked with Hart and Risley did a follow-up study, and learned that “vocabulary gaps in preschool predicted 3rd grade gaps in language-test performance.” In her words, “What I found in visiting those children from kindergarten to 3rd grade was, those who had heard the least were still at a disadvantage years later.[…]I always knew where to find them; frequently, they were in the hallways, for behavior problems.”
Making sense of the world begins prior to students entering school. We know this, right!? Therefore we know that many of our students from low income communities enter our classrooms with word, vocabulary, and experiential gaps. In essence, we know that they are unable to make more sense of the world than many of their peers because they are lacking some specific content. As educators, we cannot afford to contribute to these gaps because we know it then changes from a content gap to an achievement gap. It is our duty to learn who our students are and what they know or do not know and can and cannot do. It is further more our responsibility to continue to learn and study what they are supposed to know, and then work with families and community organizations to insure they learn it. This is what we do daily, teachers, and we know the mission is not easy. It’s important that we never give up though.
In closing, I feel that teacher Daisy Christodoulou, and the author of “Seven Myths of Education,” which was adapted by the American Educator as “Minding the Knowledge Gap: The Importance of Content in Student Learning” summarizes why content knowledge is so important in these three quotes:
As RenewED Teachers, we have to keep content at the forefront of what we learn so that our scholars learn to manage their behaviors, communicate effectively, and make sense of and connect to the world.
As we continue to learn and grow together, I am interested in your thoughts and ideas regarding content as well. Feel free to respond to these three questions. On a scale of 1-10:
- How well do you think you know the content you teach?
- How well do you think you are able to connect one content area to another?
- How important is content to you?
Leave your digits and thoughts in the comments! I cannot wait to hear from you!
(Here are my digits: 6, 6, 10!)
Until then, Happy Teaching!
Krystal L. Smith, The RenewED Teacher