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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Content Rules

"Content is King," used to be the buzzphrase of the digital economy. It meant that if you had a valuable property such as Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, or Major League Baseball you could feature it across all sorts of media platforms. The various forms of media provided the space, your content, your brand, was the real attractor. That phrase is no longer quite so popular in the digital world, in the web 2.0 everyone is filling up digital space with content, but it is the rare creation that catches everyone’s attention. We have content sprawl, a kind of white noise of content, which brings me to the subject of this blog.

The Times reports today that "Focus on 2R’s Cuts Time for the rest." The article covers a new report on how NCLB’s focus on writing and math leaves less time for "science, social studies, art and music, gym, lunch and recess." This is exactly the point I made in my first blog on this site — on the crisis in Social Studies. While the new report apparently shows progress in the right direction — last year’s year’s results showed that 71% of elementary schools reported teaching less of at least one content area to make room for basic skills, while this year’s put the number at only 44%. But the apparent gain is just that, apparent: last year districts that changed instruction at all were counted, while this year if a school’s content instruction time declined by less then 10 minutes a day, that was not seen as significant. You tell me, can whoever filled out these forms really callibrate a change down to the minute? I can’t help suspecting that the Department of Education, which came under a lot of heat for last year’s report, found a way to make this year’s look better.

Margaret Spellings, the secretary of education, argues that this shift to skills is good — since kids can’t handle content without the ability to read and do math. I would argue the reverse: kids have little incentive to learn skills unless they have a goal — something they want to understand, to master, to build, to change, to fix, to solve. And, most obviously, while it is true that a kid who cannot read is limited in what s/he can learn, that is such a minimum standard that to cause a change that impacts somewhere between 71 and 44 percent of all kids in America in order to ensure that those who are really falling behind catch up is, at best, well-intentioned but wacky. It is using the bluntest of instruments to solve a social problem.

I say content rules because schools need to give students a sense of what matters, what is important, of the foundations of ideas, knowledge, thought and inquiry that are the basis of civilization and culture. Grappling with content trains young people to select from the media sprawl, to recognize quality, intellectual integrity, rigor — in a word, truth. We need content in schools to help create readers, citizens, who can find the nuggets of gold in the stream of junk. Precisely because kids are overwhelmed with media options and flooded with skills-based worksheets, content really is king.


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    The problem (and I suspect that it will take a major pendulum swing to fix it) is that skills and content are so separated. Kids can learn to read (and think and write and…) from all sorts of materials: interesting nonfiction, Harry Potter, or a well-done Internet site. (I spend a third of the year teaching all my language arts through a study of the Pilgrims, for instance.)

    I’m also concerned that those entering the teaching profession these days have not been taught themselves in more organic ways and so buy into the need to teach language arts skills in very narrow and scripted ways.

    My hope is that eventually there will be a shift back to more progressive thinking in education. But who knows when that will be?