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The Content Conundrum

Schools are increasingly pursuing a wider range of learning goals for their students, which is a good thing (mostly). They are trying to bring more so-called “21st-century skills” into their curriculum, at a time when those skills are increasingly valued and rare in the world.

However, hours dedicated to learning 21st-century skills create a time crunch unless less one of two things happen: less time is spent somewhere else in the school’s schedule, or the traditional content delivery has 21st-century skills so seamlessly built into it that it doesn’t diminish the rate of knowledge acquisition of the traditional content. The latter option amounts to wishful thinking, for the most part, because it’s hard to focus on two cognitive operations or tasks at once. The dream of essentially doubling the value of instructional time (sidestepping the time tradeoff of traditional content and 21st-century skills) will go unrealized most of the time.

Schools will have to do what all of us have do with our limited time resource: make a deliberate, strategic, and hard choice about what will most influence future success. We need to look at our mission and our values and the promises we make to stakeholders. We need to allocate time bravely, putting it where it will have the most impact down the road. That’s going to be hard, especially for schools who have traditionally used “academic rigor” as the core of their value proposition.

If you know of a school that is navigating the content conundrum well, please let me know so I can learn from them.

P.S.: Not making a choice to pursue one of these options is a choice in itself, not one likely to create the best outcomes for our students.


  1. “Though Gen Z can be less focused than their Millennial counterparts, in school, they will create a document on their school computer, do research on their phone or tablet, while taking notes on a notepad, then finish in front of the TV with a laptop, while face-timing a friend.” (George Beall) Perhaps part of the issue is that it is not necessarily that “it’s hard to focus on two cognitive operations or tasks at once,” but rather that today’s students may have a greater ability to do so than their teachers and students from earlier generations. We should also not discount our ability to adapt and change – communicating quickly, typing with thumbs, would have been unheard of a couple of decades ago.

    Acquiring a base level of traditional content is critical, but more important in the age of information overload is knowing how to use the resources available to find the content. The key instructional piece, which would seem to mesh with Darrow School’s project based approach, is not the content piece, but the motivational one – inspiring and allowing students the freedom to pursue the content that they need or in which they are most interested. The big benefit from focus on the motivational aspect is happier children:

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