Practice Makes…

Posted by on May 15, 2009


The average American student will take American history at least four times in the span of his or her education.  How many of those people can now recall why the Battle of Quebec, fought in 1759, was an important event in American history?

I was talking about this concept with a teacher this week, and his response was, “Ah, a perfect point for why we need repeated practice.  Just like in sports, there’s a lot of value in having our students repeat content, like repeating a skill in practice for any given sport.  If we repeat it enough, each time the student will get it a little better than the time before, and eventually he or she will master it.”  A little paraphrasing there on my part, but the essence is captured and preserved entirely.

This conversation immediately brought to mind the recent tension between the content-focused camp versus the skills-based camp.  And that gave me pause to reflect.

In my estimation, this is one of the foundational, keystone issues we’re facing in education today.  Do we focus on the skills of learning how to learn, or do we focus on the content that we believe students need to know in order to be able to apply skills contextually?  Or, as many advocate, do we need to accept these two aren’t mutually exclusive and strike a balance between the two?  Balance sounds great, but if we’re going to advocate for balance, that means we’re accepting that we need some foundational level of content with which to bestow upon our students.

How do we decide what constitutes the foundational content knowledge?

Just this morning, Karl Fisch posted these thoughts which show how so much of the content we typically classify as foundational is becoming even more immediately available, if such a thing is possible.  If content is that at the ready, do we continue spending time trying to get students to repeat until “mastery?”

For the record, the Battle of Quebec in 1759 was the turning point in the French and Indian War (part of the Seven Years War for friends across the pond).  The outcome of the war gave England control of land that sustained people who would eventually revolt and form their own country- America.  Most history teachers find this of paramount importance, and worthy to be committed to memory.  I’m willing to bet at least a few of you easily found the information using Google.

So, I’ll repeat.  How do we decide what constitutes the foundational content knowledge that every student should know without assistance?  Should there even be such a thing?

Thanks to Nathan Dainty for the Flickr image.


  1. wmchamberlainn
    May 15, 2009

    If we teach the skills needed for the students to learn through the content we want them to know, it is a win-win situation. We couldn’t be very successful with giving students content if they are unable to learn it. We couldn’t be very successful if we taught students how to learn, but didn’t teach them content our society considers important. So, teach them how to learn and then point them toward what to learn.

    Maybe the discussion should be more about what we consider learning to be and/or why we teach the content we do.

  2. Chris Lehmann
    May 17, 2009

    I think skills require frequent practice. When I was in the classroom, my students read and wrote for me every night. If you want to be a better writer, write every day. (Hm. Wish I did that these days. About that blog…)

    I think we need to think about foundation skills and do those over and over in multiple contexts if we want kids to get them.

    (And yes, this is a very short answer to a very good and complex question.)

  3. Kelly Hines
    May 17, 2009

    I think you’ve brought up an excellent question here. When I’m thinking of which element is more useful to me now, it’s truly a combination of my content knowledge and ability to apply acquired skills. But in terms of continuing my learning in a daily basis, I feel that a strong skill set is what helps me the most in an unfamiliar situation. To me the question is: why does everything in education tend to be a reflection of a pendulum swing? I believe that an integrated approach to giving our students a strong content knowledge base, while developing their skills to be self-sufficient and empowered learners. is the best way to go.

  4. Steve Ransom
    May 17, 2009

    I think this dichotomy is somewhat of a straw man. We cannot think without a foundation of knowledge… That doesn’t mean a disconnected collection of facts, figures, and dates though. Those kinds of bits of information can always be looked up. In all honesty, I could not have told you in detail why the Battle of Quebec, fought in 1759, was an important event in American history. But what is more important is an understanding of the French & Indian War, and more so, the conflicts, issues behind those conflicts, and lessons learned in America’s battle for independence. Those things are less easily googleable and are required to do a efficient search in the first place. Those are the things to have in one’s mind in order to have a meaningful conversation on related topics and issues or to situate related information. Knowledge chunks are the tools that our mind thinks with… the framework upon which new information is built through a cognitive framework that Piaget identified of assimilation and accommodation.
    Diane Ravitch wrote about this very issue in a blog post not too long ago (, citing Hirsch and Willingham’s ideas that skills and knowledge are inseparable – “People do not think in the abstract; they need knowledge—ideas, facts, concepts—to think about.”

    So, is it a failure that after all of these years that I couldn’t explain why the Battle of Quebec, fought in 1759, was an important event in American history? I don’t think so. Should schools simply be repeating the facts year after year to drill them into our heads so that hopefully we don’t forget them? I don’t think so either. Should we remember and be able to communicate the “big ideas” (issues/concepts/problems…) upon which those facts were situated and be able to quickly find those facts if needed. I think so.

    On a personal note, history for me was taught as an act of memorization of dates, places, and names (and I’m from Québec, btw). Therein lies the crime in all of this, for when those decontextualized bits of information fade away in memory, they leave no meaningful foundation upon which students can retrieve and situate them when necessary.

  5. Ira Socol
    May 19, 2009

    I believe in foundational structure. Especially for history. Students should understand paths, they need not have instant recall of facts. And we learn paths by telling stories.

    There is a reason British and Irish kids know history MUCH better than Americans (see if you doubt). Especially in early years, history, literature, and culture are integrated in oral education. Narratives, great narratives, exciting narratives, become the heart of the educational process.

    Here, history is taught like sports are by bad youth coaches. Of course there is the one ten year old who’ll practice shooting free throws six hours a day. We take that exception and build entire US educational policy around that. When in fact the other 99 kids need to learn that the game is fun and interesting. Once they are hooked, they’ll practice what they need.

    Anyway, I watch US schools teach dumbed down, disconnected everything. Reading is a worthless skill which makes kids miserable. History is boring unconnected facts. Math is memorizing useless sums and products. Nothing is connected, nothing connects.

    We teach American history four times and get nothing because we do it so badly, every time.

  6. Ben Grey
    May 20, 2009

    Thank you everyone for the comments. All brilliant as always.

    WM- I think one of the more difficult questions is, though, how do we choose the content we want them to learn? Many people have been pushing on this issue, and we hear everything from, “Kids shouldn’t memorize state capitals anymore” to “Kids should know every element on the periodic table” to everything in between. I agree entirely that content and skills work symbiotically, but I think the difficult part comes when we try to strike the balance of how much we focus on each.

    Chris- And I think many agree with you. I hear advocates suggesting we repeat the practice of skills through the engagement of content. However, there are those, like the person I referenced in the post, who think content is a skill, and thus, bears repetition. I’m not sure I can agree with that, but I can certainly agree with the need for skill practice.

    Kelly- Ah, the pendulum. Neither of us is near our retiring years, and yet, already we’ve seen the great pendulum swing to and fro. The only counterargument to your position is that skills alone won’t get you where you need to be. If you don’t have a foundation of “pegs” upon which to hang what your are new learning, you won’t be able to engage or understand the context of the content when you are applying your skills. I think, as you stated, though, that if we have the requisite learning skills, ideally, we can learn what we need in any given context. I certainly hope that is the kind of education my son gets.

    Steve- The interesting question for me when I hear the “foundation of knowledge” argument is, “How do we get that foundation in the first place?” If we require the foundation to learn, then how did we learn to get the foundation before we had it? Good point about decontextualization. That’s why I do believe in philosophies like Grant Wiggins’ Understanding by Design.

    Ira- I always enjoy your comments. It takes me a few days to digest the wisdom, and even after that, I still find myself asking many questions. Thanks for that. I agree entirely; it’s about the connections in history. It’s our story told that yields the outcome of where we’re at presently. It’s a complex, complicated, wonderful story of triumph, tragedy, despair, and so much more. We certainly lose that when we reduce it to a series of disconnected dates on a timeline.

  7. Steve Ransom
    May 20, 2009

    I think we get the foundation through experience. This starts from the day we are born. Those experiences are the building blocks upon which more experiences can be made sense of. Good parenting (and good teaching) is all about allowing and providing valuable learning experiences, while questioning and wrestling with making meaning out of them. By the time kids come to school, those with experiential poverty have much more difficulty learning, as they don’t have the foundational experiences upon which to continue building.

    Toddlers don’t learn how to finger paint by listening to an adult talk about it. They don’t learn concepts of size, shape, balance, texture,… by listening to adults talk about them.

    Foundational concepts should be those experiences that allow us to learn (make sense of) more… to go farther; deeper. Discrete facts do little to help most naive learners learn more.
    … but , good luck in generating a list of what these are 🙂

  8. Frances Bell
    May 26, 2009

    I am a new visitor to yout blog (via Twitter) and I enjoyed reading this post after the literacy post I think that the two posts are related. What I liked about the literacy post was its sense of the need for reapplying important concepts and skills in new contexts. That’s also what is important in this discussion – and it reminded me of a recent experience when revisiting the beautiful ruined abbey Rievaulx I noticed that the ‘take’ on the Reformation was much more nuanced that the ‘corrupt monks removed from cushy life’ version that I recalled from my last visit in the 1970s. In my convent school history classes, we had received a slightly different view of the Reformation from that posted on the descriptions on 1970s signs at Rievaulx. What was significant for me was that the disjuncture between the two versions I received encouraged me to find out more about the history of the time, and to be critical of what I read. That was my learning moment.
    One of the great things about the Internet is that cultural stereotypes that were buried in text books or visitor centres (for specific audiences) are now exposed and re-examined. English Heritage tries to deal with the issue of slavery and its relationship to the wealth that built many of the houses it preserves.
    Knowledge is provisional and contested, and the challenge for teachers is to help learners to deal with that dimension of knowledge.


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