Skills vs. Content: How might the Prince of Denmark react to such a thing?

While driving in the rain down the 401 to return to Peterborough, my compatriate and I babbled with giddy excitement of two dorky teachers who had just been given “the secret”… secret to what though? So many things had been thrown against the wall, so to speak, and what was left was a mosaic of ideas, technology, pedagogy but, most of all, inspiration.

One thing in particular stood out to me, and it came from a video interview with Tony Wagner from Harvard University: “The knowledge you have DOES NOT MATTER”; it’s the skills that matter most. Producing critical thinkers who are adaptable and flexible is what I should be striving towards… I said to myself, as my brain oozed out of my ears at the end of the day.

But what does that mean in an English classroom? A classroom with laptops, cell phones, smart boards (well, not my room, but I hear they’re cool:), and sleepy boarding students on a Saturday morning asking themselves, “Am I really in class on a Saturday?” What does it mean in a School going through a pedagogical and philosophical transition, one where accountability and professionalism now go hand in hand? I suppose that is my ‘Essential Question(s)’ as I head towards a new unit formally known as “Hamlet”, like a speeding train with no brakes but with one direction: forward!

What I realize after listening and thinking (and tweeting) is that I shouldn’t be merely focused on ensuring that my grade 12 students understand Ophelia’s ‘Willow Song” speech, or the relationships between Laertes, Fortinbras, and the middle aged Prince (nothing wrong with middle aged by the way!). No, instead, I should be empowering them with SKILLS… the ability to identify rhetoric, style, tone, diction, through the magic that is Shakespeare’s verse. Yes, we will meet the wayward Prince and his devious uncle and scandalous mommy-dearest, but what might be more important is to ensure that my cherubs of knowledge are able to recognize those characters’ traits and attitudes and archetypes in other pieces of literature — not just in Shakespeare but in many different genres.

My transition to the new world of thinking in regard to the teaching of English is slow but with an open mind. I loved my English teachers back home in Huntsville High School, but that style of teaching might be akin to the rotary phone: yes, it still works, but it only does one thing, and I barely remember what it sounded like. Give a student the skills they need and it won’t matter if they remember Ophelia’s speech at the end of the day; what matters is they appreciate and recognize her words for what they are: beautiful.

3 thoughts on “Skills vs. Content: How might the Prince of Denmark react to such a thing?

  1. Brent Hurley, you are NOT a rotary phone! haha! Love the metaphor – a true English teacher. I’m teaching Romeo and Juliet to grade 10s, and I am focusing on skills to help them connect and relate to the content and themes. For example, ‘contstruct Romeo’s Facebook’, or create a series of tweet by Juliet to her Nurse about R+J’s first kiss, etc…

    It’s skills based – because we use decoding tools to understand the content, and then really try to connect them with the content through technology.

    I love your excitement and can’t wait to hear more!

  2. One thing that strikes me as I come back to this post again Brent is what do kids need to know in your English class now, in a month, in 1 year, 5 years and 10 years from now? Really, I do get concerned with conversations that Prep schools only need to focus on what kids need in college. I think our job is to help get kids ready for life. Problem solving, creating, communicating, collaborating…these are the areas for us to focus on.

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