Often we hear about the importance of content vs. process when we discuss the way our students learn and curriculum. Too many times the fight becomes a “one versus the other” idea, when that is the furthest thing from reality. When many feel that the notion of learning “content” in schools is not as valuable as it once was, they often refer to the “doctor analogy” which may go something like this:
If I am heading to the doctor, I want to know that they did really well in school and thoroughly understand the practice of medicine before they perform on me. I do not want someone not understanding the human body and then operating on me.
I was totally surprised when this same analogy was used in the book “The Power of Pull” (I definitely recommend this book) by the author, John Seely Brown, when discussing the idea of “tacit knowledge”. He defines “tacit knowledge” as the “know how” rather than the “know what”. The following analogy from the book explained it clearly:
Much knowledge starts as tacit knowledge. A good part of it is eventually codified into explicit knowledge, although all knowledge ultimately represents some blend of explicit and tacit knowledge, for not all tacit knowledge is codifiable. Imagine instructing someone on how to ride a bike—something that you learn by doing, rather than by reading a set of instructions. This is not a left-brain task. Or imagine trying to perform brain surgery after having read all the books you can find on the subject. The books are the explicit knowledge telling you what to do—which is eminently necessary—but knowing how to perform this kind of surgery critically depends on an extended apprenticeship process in which tacit knowledge gets communicated through observation and participation on the periphery of these operations. That’s the whole raison d’être of apprenticeship, including the medical residency: learning by doing under supervision.
Here is the thing with doctors. I definitely want them to have the knowledge that is needed to perform complex procedures, but when it comes to them performing these complex procedures, I also want to know that I am not the first person they are cutting with a scalpel. This also goes for nurses who are putting any type of needle in my skin. Practice lots before you get to me!
“Any education environment that only emphasizes one or the other is failing the human brain,” Medina continued. “If all you do is create a database and memorize something, you are in danger of creating robots. If all you do is improvise, you are in danger of creating kids who only play air guitar. You need to have both a database and the ability to improvise off of it.” (Quote from EdTechMag)
Now it is not that schools have not been implementing the process before, but in reality, many have been especially content heavy in the past. Now with content being readily available and free in many different places, skills to successfully use that content are becoming more crucial to our society. It is not one or the other; there just needs to be a shift to focusing on more process in our classrooms.
Encouraging this opportunity to take part more in the process will inevitably have some risk, so as an educator, it is essential that we create an environment that builds trust. Brown also refers to something that has been so vital to the success that we have seen in schools when acquiring this tacit knowledge:
Accessing this kind of knowledge typically requires long-term trust-based relationships. Trust is necessary because of the inevitable fumbling that occurs as we try to express and share tacit knowledge. Without trust we may lack the respect for the other needed to stay with them as they fumble. Trust also fosters the shared understanding that makes it easier to access tacit knowledge. This suggests that one key dimension of the Big Shift is a movement from a world where value is concentrated in transactions to one where it resides in large networks of long-term relationships…Core participants tend to focus on transactions rather than investing in the long-term effort to build sustainable, trust-based relationships on the edge.
The relational aspect of this is crucial to our students and school communities. Not only in the aspect that we feel comfortable in failing (like falling on our bike), but that our kids are able to ask us questions along the way. The more we are able to explore anything, the more thoroughly we understand it.
So in the ongoing battle of “content vs. process” we have to realize that there is no fight at all. For our students to be successful, they need to have knowledge, but more importantly, they need to know how to put it to work. The “knowledge” component of Bloom’s Taxonomy is at the lowest end, but is it not still a component of how we learn? If I get on a bike, I still have to have some understanding of the parts before I learn to ride. More importantly though, kids have to be able to get on the bike, be allowed to fall, get back up, and go until they get it. We just have to know that sometimes they need our hand guiding them, and sometimes, we need to just be able to let them go on their own.