Process and content: education needs both

We live in a world where information is being generated at such a rate, and existing knowledge being challenged so readily, that the best education we can give children is to teach them how to learn. They simply cannot memorise content any longer. More important than knowing information is knowing how to look it up and apply it. This is the true skill of the lifelong learner.

This is one of the key tenets of the Shuttleworth Foundation’s view of education for the 21st century, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree. However, this is not a new perspective. The assertions above were made by William Heard Kilpatrick of Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1925. He pushed for a “progressive education” that set aside the teaching of facts and figures for the fostering of critical thinking in learners.

The 1940s video clip below is a wonderful piece of history, providing a summary of progressive education. The contrast of this approach with the existing educational practices of the time is significant. A critic of the new way warns that such revolutionary ideas “caused a softening of the fibre of Greek education 2,500 years ago and played a part in the decadence of Greek civilization.”

While the philosophy of progressive education is something with which I agree, it is also important not to be wholly celebratory about it, as in the video. Education is highly politicised: the pendulum usually swings from extreme to extreme. In the case of South Africa it swung from a highly instructionist model to a post-Apartheid constructivist outcomes-based education.

Perhaps the best option lies somewhere in between, drawing on either approach as it is best suited to the content at hand. For example, the instructionist approach is best for learning times tables, whereas the constructivist approach offers an appropriate way to learn fractions, as learners experiment with physical objects (2 sticks out of 4 is the same as 1 stick out of 2).

Ten years ago an essay was written — in a deliberately dramatic tone — that bemoaned the progressive approach and how it left learners all clued up on process, without any content knowledge. The author of Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach states that Kilpatrick “forged the central educational fallacy of our time: that one can think without having anything to think about.” The essay makes interesting points, but is again wholly celebratory about good old-fashioned instructionist learning. (In a world gone crazy, isn’t it necessary to return to traditional, trusted ways?)

I am really beginning to believe that the answer lies somewhere in between, tending more towards the constructivist approach, but not without a necessary does of content. Content provides the material with which to develop the higher order thinking skills. Yes, content may change, and yes, it may be easily looked up on the internet, but it is still necessary. Without it we might be teaching children to talk without the need for words.

2 thoughts on “Process and content: education needs both

  1. People learn, gain insight, through reflection on their experiences, which requires considerably more than mere memorization of facts presented during instruction. Students may reflect on the process, as well as the content, of instruction received. The Twilight’s Last Gleaming On Public Education discusses the potential, challenges, and obstacles currently littering the public education landscape. You may view a portion of this intriguing, socially relevant, and enlightening novel online by contacting the publisher at, clicking on their Bookstore link, then Searching by title. Navigating the plot to a well-c0nceived and logical conclusion, the author strives to leave the reader with a sense of time well invested in the reading of this story, which contains many of the elements commonly found in just about every school system throughout the United States. Check it out for yourself, then see what you can do to improve the current situation.

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