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"Skills Courses" vs "Content Courses" Dichotomy No Longer Applies

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2013

January 11th, 2012

When I was still teaching college composition, I was irked by my courses being described as "skills courses" to distinguish them from "content courses," the REAL academic courses. The content courses were the research courses where big ideas were discussed. College composition was sometimes called a "service course." I am using the past tense, but I suspect the same terminology is still used and the same attitudes persist.

But the concept of "content" and all the apparatus around it are no longer valid. Knowledge is changing so fast now that a term such as "content" that implies stasis and ownership, that implies knowledge is a commodity, is completely out of date.

No longer is it appropriate to just tell the content to students because, now that change is so rapid and prevalent, the students must learn to live with knowledge that is constantly changing. They must learn the skills of developing knowledge in their field themselves. The skill of memorization, necessary in a tell-and-test pedagogy, is not as important as the skills necessary to scholarship in that field. Students are now expected to be able to DO something immediately when they get a job. They are expected to show evidence to prove that they can DO something. And they are expected to continue to learn how to do new things.

In other words, in those vaunted "content" courses, the focus has to move to "skills." Ah ha, now all courses are skills courses. And where has the dichotomy gone?

In teaching a skills course in a field, a context and background still need to be provided. As Robert Kegan says, there must still be an "informational phase" in a transformational course.

But the informational phase now is not the end, but the means. The informational phase of the course is preparation for the real work of the course, the problem-solving or the case study or the experimentation. Students will know they have to understand the concepts, methodologies, argument structure, data sources, etc in that field in order to do the transformational work of the course. Their motivation is not to listen so they can pass a text, but so they can do the real work of the course.

Faculty members who have been teaching skills courses all along -- including science courses involving lab work and other active learning courses -- have always been involved in theory: in writing, for example, understanding the concept of "pre-writing" as a set of activities that help move a novice writer from writer-based writing to reader-based writing. At best, these faculty members work within a framework of rhetorical theory and discourse theory. The difference from "content courses" was always that these faculty members were not just talking about theory, they were applying it, to develop the skills necessary for their students to succeed in life. To the extent that writing teachers DO talk too much, students don't develop those skills.

In the end, the electronic portfolio is the instrument needed to support the transition form "content" to "skills" in all courses. The electronic portfolio allows students to manage their evidence and to continue to learn from their evidence so that they are at the center of their own learning. The learning experience in a transformational course using electronic portfolios is appropriate to today's world: the skill to keep learning is critical to success. Electronic portfolios allow faculty members to put into practice learning theories and practices to develop that skill.

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