Are You Teaching Content Or Teaching Thought?


Are You Teaching Content, Or Teaching Thought?

by Terry Heick

Thinking is troublesome.

For one, it is an intimate act splicing time and space. It is done right here, but it spans moments in the pasts and reaches out uncertainly towards moments in the future. Put another way, you think in a singular, precise space about plural, imprecise times.

It also resists uniformity (and education loves uniformity). Thought hinges on schema (familiar forms and patterns we then impose unfamiliar data to make sense of it), and emotion (in part, our internal response to the former). It is as diverse as character, experience, and affection. It’s like defining art, establishing criteria for beauty, or causing love

And whether it knows it or not, education has a thinking problem.

The Nature Of Thinking

Part of it is due to thinking’s oily skin.

What does it mean to understand, show curiosity, or think? We have tests to try to measure, but the assessment of thought isn’t the priority, but rather grasp of content–and this is another problem.


One common response is to choose a handful of actions that indicate thinking–“power verbs”–that we hang on the wall. We then form short response questions asking students to “Analyze,” and “Evaluate,” and feel bloody well that we’re rigorous.

But in this circumstance is thinking useful, or critical? Think about the fact that we promote “thinking strategies,” which makes as much sense as a five-star restaurant promoting “cooking strategies.”

Shouldn’t a school fail to function without urgent and divergent thinking? Shouldn’t a classroom fall flat on its face when it’s not there? The way education is currently designed, the answer is no. We reteach, intervene, and remediate. Einstein’s definition of insanity seems apt here.

If our job is to teach skills, facts, and concepts–crystallized intelligence–then thinking is simply a tool, and our curriculum is content.

If our job is to teach critical thinking, design, and problem-solving–fluid intelligence–then thinking is our collective circumstance, and our curriculum becomes thought.

So, which is it?

If Curriculum Is Content

As an industry, our collective performance is far too mediocre to dabble here and there. When we make content proficiency our goal, all of our resources are applied there. Every unit we plan. Every walkthrough observation. Every PLC meeting we attend. Every PD we have the pleasure of experiencing. Every piece of technology we buy. Every grant we write.

We align everything in pursuit of that goal.

If our curriculum remains content, then we simply need to decide what our terms of success are, and continue to experiment until we turn all the little bar graphs that display all the data from all the assessments from red and yellow to green and blue. Or change our terms for success–new cut scores, softer assessments, etc.

Either way, critical thinking is necessarily secondary–a pathway rather than a destination or playground. And that’s okay as long as we’re on the same page here. As long as that’s what we want.

But if our curriculum is thinking–if our job is to, excuse the convenient phrasing, teach thought–then the classroom floor beneath us tilts right and then left, and our goals as educators change in important ways.

To learn to think, students need powerful and inspiring models that reflect the design, citizenship, creativity, interdependence, affection, and self-awareness we claim to want them to have.

To teach careful, creative, and truly innovative thinking, students need creative spaces and tools, and frameworks to develop their own criteria for quality and success.

They need dynamic literacy skills that they practice and build upon endlessly.

Not projects that have creativity and design thinking added on, but projects that can’t function without them.

And they need control of it all.

Units–if we use them–aren’t planned backwards from standards, but thinking habits, self-direction, and intellectual urgency. If our curriculum is content, these are simply a means to a different end. Not priorities, but feel good phrasing we add to school mission statements and casually drop in parent conferences.

As teachers, we have an intimidating–borderline overwhelming–index of academic standards that every student needs to master. But as both an industry and a culture, we complain that students “can’t think for themselves.”

So which is it–should we teach content, or teach students how to think? This isn’t a false dichotomy; we can teach both thinking and traditional curriculum–teach one through the other–but it just might be that we’re trying to serve two masters and failing both.

Changing Curriculum Forms In Response To Changing Times

How would curriculum change if our priority was on critical, creative, and collaborative thinking?

What role would existing content play?

How would it change the kinds of interactions students have with ideas–and one another?

Would this be easier to assess, or more difficult? Would assessment continue to be central to how we drive learning, or would something else act as the catalyst–collaboration, creativity, ideas, models, etc.?

What does the reality of the modern age of information–this age of Google–suggest that we “teach”?

Do students need teachers less in such a context, or more than ever?

How should curriculum respond to a new world? Can we simply “update” things as we go, or is it time for rethinking of our collective practice?

What would you want for your own children–a curriculum of content, or a curriculum of thought?

And is it up to educators to decide? Where are parents and communities? Do they understand these shifts? Shouldn’t they? What’s at stake if they don’t?

Teachers are forced to squint at 21st century learning frameworks, Ken Robinson videos, Common Core standards, technology initiatives, and dozens of other “pushes” and make sense of it all with students increasingly numb to their efforts.

So let’s be clear once and for all–in a public forum and accessible language that our local communities understand–where our priority lies.

Image attribution flickr user :::[email protected]:::; Are You Teaching Content, Or Teaching Thought?


  • Hi Terry,

    I’m thinmking, and reading about aspects of this topic too. The tension and strain in the conversations between Papert, maker type, self-directed critical thinking autinomous learner advocates, and advocates of instructor centred, traditional expertise transmission get the foundations right types.

    The conversation is in tension, often. They are often presented as mutually exclusive, and as opposing, rather than necessarily complementary trends.

    And the conversation is muddied, by rhetoric, at times, by ardent belief, by poorly chosen policy decisions, by hype, uncertainty, passion and fear. And to be clear here, I’m not suggesting your post is muddying the conversation, or is in anyway representative of the above. That’s a description of an aspect of the ongoing debate, which, too often seems to be you are with us or against us, either or, one or the other, and artificially binary in nature.

    I’m with Albert Bandura on this. In his seminal works on self-efficacy, he claims that we need to structure learning initially, it needs to be targeted, achieveable, and characterised by corrective feedback, and it needs scaffolding and support. And, as our learners come to expertise in a particular area, we need to remove that scaffolding, and let them play with the knowledge in ways and projects that make sense and meaning to them.

    We know, failrly clearly, that there is a link between domain expertise, and playful creativity in that domain. There’s a fair amount of evidence to indoicate that’s the case. Claims that schools kill creativity are not supported by studies which look at, and determine that, in fact, creative play, for example, is more prevalent, more creative and more practised after school start age than before. We also know that the more domain expertise someone has, the more playful and creative, in general, they are likely to be in that domain. Both of these, together, indocate that traditional schooling has, in fact, perhaps facilitated, and not killed, creativity.

    We also know that the more domain knowledge a person has, the easier they find it to gather more knowledge in that area (and, to a degree other areas, the quicker they are to read, and the easier they find it to leanr from reading), and the more likley they are to remember what they have gathered. Builidng on a firm foundation of knolwedge means you remember more, and learn much faster. And we know that this prior knbowledge is important in determining how achieveable a person thinks a task is, in how difficult they think it will be – one of the key predictors of how successful or unsuccessful that person will be at a task – and is absoluterly key in determining how much support they need, in general, to learn efficiently, well, and maintain motivation.

    And we have plenty of evidence to indicate that scaffolding, support, and direct instruction that is well designed is a good way to develop this initial domain knowledge. It;s key here to note that we are talking about developing initial domain knolwedge.

    We also know that advanced self-directed learners are not born, they learn to learn. Learning literacies are learned, techniques, skills, evaluative choices, sourcing, judgement and application are learned skills, and we know that modelling these skills, and, as with all domain knowledge, instructing in them, is a good way to start to develop them.

    If we want to help develop autonomous, self directed, creative learners, with good, effective, and efficient skills, and learning techniques and habits, with good knwoledge of their subject areas, we need to start with instruction, and, at some stage, move to production.

    If we want to encourage expertise, critical thinking, knowledge transference, and creativity, we should probably initially concentrate on content. The basic principles, the domain expertise, are key to the development and expression of that creativity. Knowing how and when to shift those goalposts as our learners eveolve and adapt, to maintain and adapt challenges as both achievable and sufficiently difficult is key. And knwoing when and how to shift from consumption to production, and what the balance needs to be is also key to educational design.

    These are not exclusive, paradoxical, or contradictory. Good instruction forms the basis on which creativity and excellence builds. Creativity, production, and student driven apllication and experimentation forms the later theatre in which these base skills, domain expertises, and metacognitive abilities come to expression, become more permanent, and translate, potentially, into the critical and creative thinking we all desire.

    It’s not an “either or” conversation. It’s a “both, if, and when” conversation.

    And at the heart of it is the student. Who they are, what they need, what do they already know, and how does that shape them, me, and the conversation we are having, and how that alters our pedagogy, and how they change over time. Pedagogy must be responsive to students, as they are probably the largest variable that changes overt time. What is needed at one stage – modelling, good direct instruction, expert corrective feedback – is precisely what is probably not needed so much, or perhaps at all, at another.

    Thanks for posting. I’m drawing my thoughts together here, and your post has really helped me with that, in terms of the breadth and depth of your post, and questions that you pose. I think my post touches on some of the things you talk about, apologies if some of it is a little off topic, or point.

    • Keith–

      Great response. I am an emotional and rhetorical person by nature. Guilty there.

      As to your comment, it is indeed impossible to be creative with what you don’t “know”–so asking students to creatively apply mathematical principles they don’t understand, for example, is asking for frustration.

      But what about sheer creativity?

      I think I made it easy to be misunderstood. I am not suggesting that content and powerful creative thinking are mutually exclusive. This is more of a conversation of priority and purpose–what we’re trying to do as a profession. Schools–most public schools in the US anyway–are required by law to promote mastery of content-based standards, not creativity, innovation, critical thinking, self-direction, long-term and purposeful data navigation, etc.

      I also believe a scaffolding, feedback, and a “more knowledgeable other” all can be powerful influences on learning. Some of this has to do with age; younger students need an interesting mix of freedom and support. Older students–around 13-14 and up–need similar diversity, but different mixes and tones. Modeling seems to be fairly universal. The classical, trivium approach actually parallels this quite well.

      It’s hard for me to see that schools promote creativity. I do agree that initial domain knowledge–the background knowledge that act as building blocks to shift to that production you mentioned–can come from school, but curriculum and instructional design are often at odds with creative expression.

      The fact that students often can’t create when given that freedom may have as much to do with their own habits–being accustomed to learning first what is expected of them and being driven by that rather than the potential application of an app or idea–than content knowledge, but I admit to not being aware of what research says here.

      Your last paragraph–the student–is incredibly important. Who they are, and what they understand about themselves and how they relate to the world around them. That, to me, is as much a catalyst for creativity–and the need for creativity–as solid background knowledge. Creativity is more of a tone or belief, reflecting what a person thinks of themselves and the world–and what the world needs from them.

      If you’d like, flesh out your comment above and email it to me and I’ll share it as a post. This is an important idea for educators to consider.

      • Hi Terry,

        and thanks for the encouraging and engaged response. There’s a lot to think about in what you have said.

        First off, I’;d love to guest post, as it were, and I’ll work on something and send it on. It might be a while, as I have a deadline, but I will email something that’s polished, and, hopefully, interesting.

        I didn;t take it that you were arguing for the separation of content and creativity – though in parts your post read along those lines. In other parts your post is an open question, and ij other parts it seems to be suggesting compromise or balance.

        I read it more as a description of different contexts, tensions, and different ways of resolving those tensions, rather than something prescribing a particular solution, and more as an invitation to contribute, and engage with the questions as you see them rather than as any sort of prosrciption.

        I’d agree, there are tensions between creativity and cointent driven curricula. And I;d bet we have a similar perspective on quite a lot of those conflicts. Sometimes the focus on the gradable end result, for example, straightjackets educators into particular streams, sometimes inspection regimes that lack insight into pedagogy, or meaningful classroom interactions railrod educators further, and sometimes shortsighted policy adds to that. And, there are times when content becomes king, which is a huge problem.

        I think we probably agree on large parts of how the end points for students need to look. In many cases, we should be focusing on putting them in places where they can play with, deploy, and make with the knowledge, and we engage with that process in more, or less structured ways as the students needs dictate.

        Amnd there’s probably common ground in terms of how we think we should be preparing students. My feeling is that even if we are taking an initially instructor led stance, that our aims in taking that stance are probably ideally geared towards engendering the skills which will allow us to relax that significantl;y over time.

        If we want our students to develop the types of critical liuteracies we both seem to be talking about, beginning with direct instruction is a good departure point, but aiming towards the deployment of those literacies in personally meaningful ways would seem to be key to their long term retention.

        In short, support your novices, and set your experts, to a greater or lesser degree, free.

        Thanks for the post, the encouragement, and the reply, and I’ll work on something to mail as soon as I can.

      • It is possible to be creative whatever one knows. Wrong, perhaps, but creative; at about 4, I wondered where pineapples came from. I had realized they didn’t come from cans, and a childish logic convinced me they were a kind of apple that grows on pine trees. One can imagine what I thought an electric plant was after I heard about a strike at one.

        I also learned on my own to count to a hundred in one breath and a thousand in two; having counted to ten, I need thereafter count only tens to a hundred, and only hundreds to one thousand. A similar method applied to a graphing assignment some years later got me a zero and dissuaded me from any further interest in math classes.

        That leads me to something teachers may miss when dealing with uncooperative children; withholding desired items or activities is often used as an alternative to more drastic penalties, but a clever child will learn it too well. Wishing to punish an adult he believes has wronged him, he will withhold what the teacher wants, and homework assignments may not be forthcoming. This is in my experience more likely if the student has already passed a test on the subject matter, and issuing failing grades for not turning in the work puts his teachers effort at risk. It can also cause bruises, after word gets to a parent.

    • Your response is very well written and brings up some great points.

      As an educator, I believe that in order to teach a student cognitive learning strategies (how to think and how to think creatively), we must 1st give him/her a wealth of content knowledge as a foundation. Too often, I have seen students knowledge acquisition limited by their decoding abilities. We need to focus on the knowledge that can be gained in the early grades, not only through independent reading, but also through speaking and listening. Failing to do so means missing a critical opportunity for students to later practice their critical thinking and problem solving skills. It is difficult to synthesis information without some degree of background knowledge.

      As a parent, I focused my childrens’ early years on content knowledge, especially in the areas of Science, History, and the arts. In their later years, I focused on their skills to take what they had learned and apply it to various situations. I used this as a platform to model my expectations as a parent and to learn more about what was important to my child/teen.

      • Hi Keri,

        Thanks for the reply, and the positive comments.

        I think the focus you describe in teaching your own children is probably a good, and succinct description of how content,domain knowledge and factual foundation provide the basis for later critical thinking.

        The teaching you describe, in a few short sentences is pretty much what I tried to describe in a lot of long paragraphs.

        Critical thinking and creativity are built on the basis you describe, and built. We know that people become critical thinkers in the domains where they have the basic knowledges, and where critical thinking is demonstrated and practised. And, depressingly, we know that the transference of critical thinking into domains where people don’t have the factual basis tends to be limited.

        I think the process you described catches all that in a succinct nutshell

  • A Curriculum is a guideline. What are the goals?


    “In the Australian Curriculum, students become literate as they develop the knowledge,
    skills and dispositions to interpret and use language confidently for learning
    and communicating in and out of school and for participating effectively in
    society. Literacy involves students in listening to, reading, viewing,
    speaking, writing and creating oral, print, visual and digital texts, and using
    and modifying language for different purposes in a range of contexts.”

    The Curriculum does NOT teach content or thought.

    It’s a GUIDELINE.

    However, it goes along with the syllabus (contents/outcomes) developed in agreement with the Curriculum.

    Having said that, multiple-choice exams are not conductive to the thought

    Multiple-choice are only useful as class exercises with a specific purpose in
    mind: “do I know the rule” (grammar/maths/chemistry/etc)

    Multiple-choice exercises test the memory not the thought process.

    “HOW” one sequences, models, tests the units = support/build/shape the thought process.

    Yet, the system is rigged due to one fundamental lack of evolution. Writing and
    Reading have always been given more WEIGHT than Listening and Speaking.

    It’s time to move forward and consider ALL ABILITIES.

    Speaking should be given as much weight as Writing.

    Listening should be given as much weight as Reading.

    Theory yep …but come down and get dirty on the ground: Students will teach you too, Mate.
    They have brains!

    • Thanks for sharing your thinking. I was using the term curriculum to refer to the content students are supported to master–the packaged and designed learning experienced that promote mastery of academic standards.

      Put another way, what students are expected to learn.

      And yes, equity and balance in curriculum is important, if for no other reason than they all feed one another.

  • Terry, If you haven’t already, browse for the books and vids of Edward de Bono. He’s been teaching the specific skills of thinking since before 1970 when I first found them. Not just ‘lateral thinking’ but ‘organisation’, ‘action’, ‘finding’, etc. Bruce (Tomo) Thomson NZCE Telecom, Online writer, presenter. New Zealand

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