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Liz Sarles's picture
I fell in love with the subject of history when I was a sophomore in high school and that love has guided my professional development for the last 25 years. As much as I enjoy reading, researching...
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Content Versus Process: What Matters More?

Last year in a faculty meeting, I listened as a senior administrator denied the importance of content as part of a high school education in today’s world. It was August of 2017, only days after the events of Charlottesville, Virginia and the subsequent debates about the meaning of the Confederacy and its leaders in the contemporary era.

This administrator explained how he needed no content base to understand the white nationalist rally or the counter-protestors or the emerging controversy over statues of Robert E. Lee. “I can Google Lee or the Civil War or White Nationalism or Charlottesville. So can our students,” he claimed, “We don’t need to teach them about those things.” Skills and processes – the abilities to think, critique, write, argue, analyze – are far more significant in this digital age, he postulated, and should be favored over facts.

I sat through this meeting feeling attacked on a professional level and frustrated on a personal level. I am a Social Studies teacher by trade; if content matters not, then what exactly should I be doing in my classroom? I also believe firmly in the importance of learning history – the present and future are routed in the past, and only with a careful study of what came before us can we truly comprehend the events of today and tomorrow. History helps us understand and explain the actions of people and societies. Perhaps more importantly, history makes us better people – it teaches us about morality and citizenship and decision-making, and by doing this pushes us to make the world a better place.

In no way am I trying to deny the importance of process. Teaching skills within the History discipline is vital. We should be pushing questions of how and why instead of who and what, and we should certainly scaffold our classes so that critical thinking and analysis are celebrated. To be an able historian is to possess certain skills – assessing evidence, interpreting a diversity of voices, crafting oral and written arguments, knowing how to marshal evidence in defense of an assertion and analyzing bias and position. If we as teachers only taught content and pushed rote memorization of names and dates on our students, then we would be doing them a mass disservice. What can they do with a list of names if that is all they know?

In my mind, content and process are inextricably linked. The question “Which one matters more?” is not the one we should be asking. Rather, we should focus on how content and process are related and in what ways they drive each other forward.

Yes, we possess the tools to find facts within seconds if we desire. Yes, devices such as computers, tablets and smartphones turn us into encyclopedias of sorts, as we can access all kinds of information instantly. I watch as my own children become versed in the landscape of the digital age and delight in immediate gratification of their queries. Just last night, as my eight-year-old son organized his baseball trading cards, he asked if he could use the computer to look up the best baseball player in the world. He typed in his question, and seconds later believed he had his answer (Mike Trout, BTW). He closed the computer and returned to his sorting, now happy that he had the card he desired and knew its trading value.

My son’s quick search and then confirmation of information demonstrated to me how and why content and process need to be considered a team. Ollie (my son) looked at the first site that came up on Google, wrote the name down and then ended his search. He doesn’t possess enough content knowledge to know if Trout is the correct answer or what is meant by the descriptor “best” or how to assess value. In terms of skills, Ollie has yet to learn how to engage in an effective Internet search, how to judge a site’s worth or how to compare information gleaned. In order to best answer the question he posed, he needs content (background on baseball, players and statistics) and process (comfort with search engines, site assessment and research skills).

Let’s go back to the debate about statues of Robert E. Lee and whether he should be celebrated as an American war hero or lambasted as a beacon of slavery and oppression. With no knowledge of the Civil War, Lee’s service in the American military or choice to support the Confederacy, it would be challenging to offer any sound critique or insight as to how he should be remembered. Imagine hearing about the rally and protests of Charlottesville with no background knowledge about the historical context for such opposing points of views – how can you grasp fact versus fiction? How can you understand the debate or offer a valid opinion on developments on the ground? Even if you want to take the position that interested individuals can initiate an online search as a means of accessing information, those individuals would uncover a myriad of sources and positions that are rife with bias and/or fiction.

I disagree with the assertion that content has no place in today’s classrooms. Without a content base, we don’t know what questions to ask or what information to trust. We are flying blindly as we sit in front of our devices, unsure of how to begin our searches, what should guide them and how to assess truth and meaning. Content forms a platform for process – it allows educators to better teach important skills like critical reading, persuasive writing, public speaking, argument construction and effective researching. So too does it combat ignorance and uninformed bias, ensuring that our students are more tolerant, open-minded and engaged citizens.