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Content, Process, Skill: Heuristics for Evaluating Educational Foundations

One of the biggest misconceptions underlying problems in education is that education is, at its core, simply the accumulation of content: memorizing facts and formulae somehow makes an education. Blame standardized testing if you like, since it’s much more cost-effective to test for content than for processes or skills. For the present argument, where the blame should fall isn’t important. What’s important today is the distinctions between content, processes, and skills.

It’s Thursday so I guess I’m using this photo again (I like it)
Photo by Michal Jarmoluk

This distinction becomes even more important right now as educators are trying to assess what can be done remotely, asynchronously, etc and what must be done face to face, synchronously, etc. At a macro level, we’re having to reassess what the function of the educational institution itself is in education: what makes a school? Why is a school important? At a micro level, we’re having to assess what our classes are at their most fundamental in order to assess what level of risk is acceptable for them to carry out their purpose. And one tool we can use in these fundamental assessments of our own curricula, programs, and institutions is the distinction between content, process, and skill.

Content, then, is discrete facts and knowledge. It’s knowing the dates of the American Civil War. It’s being able to define key terms, like rhetoric or metonymy. Content does matter; content helps frame understanding and allows us to talk about ideas and meaning. Without content like vocabulary, formulae, etc to build on as a foundation, much of education grinds to a halt. But content also can be stored easily, even entirely apart from students and teachers. Content can exist on a shelf, to be accessed as needed.

In my composition courses, for instance, students need a certain level of content: they need to know terms to identify parts of rhetorical situations, they need to know terms to describe writing processes, etc.

Content waiting to be learned.
(Image via Stocksnap, as usual)

Processes are series of predictable steps that we learn to go through on command. Learning a process is learning, for instance, the scientific method in a lab class, or an order of operations in a math class. In a lab class where the goal is specifically to learn a process, it’s not terribly important whether the lab itself is mixing a chemical with a reagent, or if it’s testing the navigation of a fruit fly. What matters is that the students practice and demonstrate the process of conducting an experiment and properly documenting it. Likewise, it’s not important what numbers are in an equation, only that students demonstrate the process of solving it (hence, “show your work.”)

In my composition courses, there are certain processes that students need to learn. They need to learn how to receive feedback (I tell them, for instance, to read backwards: read the summary note at the end first and then look for the detailed line edits and comments). They need to learn how to use a database, which is a process. It doesn’t matter what topics they’re searching for on the database, only that they’re learning how to expand and limit results with the tools available through a fairly predictable series of steps.

Skills are much more flexible things altogether. Skills are the ability to problem-solve in real time for certain kinds of problems. They’re the ability to adapt processes by understanding not only how to do them but what they mean. Skills involve, for instance, combining equations together in novel ways to calculate the amount of materials needed for a new construction, or to use the scientific process to solve a problem, rather than simply repeat an experiment. Most skills have some kind of analytical and critical thinking component. Consider even the “workplace skills” that seem mundane and are often treated as binary know/don’t know: coding in C++, for instance, is not just content or processes, but combines content and processes into the ability to analyze and solve problems as the occur.

In my composition classes, students are acquiring digital literacy skills: the ability to encounter new material on the internet in their daily lives and analyze it according to critical thinking processes, and even reproduce or generate new digital media. They are learning writing skills: the ability to consider their own strengths and use those to solve new problems in new rhetorical situations. (I should note when I say “new” I mean “new to the learner” generally, not necessarily “never seen before”)

It’s worth noting that these three things build on each other in a cyclical manner: you need content to learn processes, and processes to learn skills, and you need skills to create new processes or revise old ones, and you need processes to create or revise new content.

This works pretty well, especially for conveying content, but also for many processes and skills.
Image via Stocksnap

If, as many people believe, education is just a content delivery system, then online-only is just fine for everything. In fact, it’s likely the superior system. For content, online courses probably offer deeper learning environments, not shallower. In an online course, students can review material more readily, skip over the content they’ve already mastered more quickly, spend more time on the content they struggle with, etc.

Online-only is also adequate for a lot of processes and skills, but here the matter gets muddier, so here the argument for the necessity of face-to-face instruction gets a little stronger. For my classes, online-only is fine. Writing is something that can be done remotely, and feedback on writing is often delivered remotely anyway (and has been for a very, very long time), so remote instruction is more than adequate. All content, processes, and skills can be modeled, practiced, executed, and evaluated remotely very easily. In fact, it’s very much a replication of real-world writing environments.

However, there are other things that can’t be taught remotely. For instance, consider the fencing classes I took as an undergraduate. We had a textbook (a very well-written textbook written by our professor!), and it had all the content we needed. We had reading assignments out of it and even quizzes on the content. But that was our homework, because there was no point in spending much class time on the content, when the course mostly focused on processes and skills. Processes included lunges, ripostes, and parries. We practiced these in isolation on command, as one often does with processes. These had to be adjusted in face-to-face instruction, where our instructor could, if needed, correct our very posture physically, so we could build the right muscle memory. However, we could practice these processes on our own just fine too; they didn’t require an opponent or an observer to practice. Skills, on the other hand, required face-to-face instruction. In order to solve the sorts of problems that fencing skills solve (that is, how to use physical and mental processes unique to fencing to best an opponent doing the same processes), it was necessary to practice against opponents: sometimes classmates (usually for practice), sometimes the instructor (usually for evaluation).

Some things, mostly skills and some processes, require face-to-face instruction.
Photo by Chuttersnap from StockSnap

I don’t mind if a journalist never interviews an informant face-to-face in their journalism classes; they can do their work just fine without, even though face-to-face interviews are certainly a resource that many journalists rely on. A programmer or a designer can certainly master their skills in online environments with no detriment to their professional capacities. But I think we can all agree that some things should be face-to-face; we don’t want nurses who learn how to take blood pressure strictly as content rather than as practiced skills, and to practice those skills requires actual patients (whether their classmates or patients in a teaching hospital). We want our field scientists trained in the field; a chemist needs access to a lab, a geologist needs access to samples, a musician needs access to ensembles, etc in order to learn the skills that we expect of them.

There is no one-size-fits-all-disciplines answer to how to safely conduct education right now. There will, however, be a reckoning in all disciplines that requires returning to fundamentals and thinking about the purpose of each class, each lesson plan, in order to justify whatever risks and methods are used to teach it. In that evaluation of what we teach, why we teach, and how we teach, we’re going to have to ask what parts of our curriculum teach content, processes, and skills. And then we’re going to have to evaluate the processes and skills in particular to determine if those are things that can be taught remotely or that truly do require a specific setting for learning.

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