The Anti-Content Mindset
The Root Cause of the "Math Wars"
Knowledge Transmission vs. Discovery Learning and "Process Skills"
When Secretary of Education Riley called for a truce in the "math
he characterized them as "bickering" over details. But this isn't a
about details. It's about the primary mission of American public
The ongoing strength of any society depends on the quality of the
tradition of knowledge that is passed on from generation to generation.
American schools need to teach children the core content associated
the foundational knowledge domains of English, mathematics, science,
and geography. But our self-described "reformers" reject the very
concept of knowledge transmission, refusing to recognize a common core
of knowledge that all kids should learn. This is strikingly evident for
math. They propose state "math standards" that conspicuously avoid
content. Where's the math? There's glowing praise for "discovery
learning" and general, content-independent "process
skills". You'll find several examples of "activities for student
But don't look for specific, content-related learning goals associated
with these "activities".
Reformers say knowledge is changing too fast and there's no point
"old facts". They say they want to maximize "understanding" and develop
"powerful thinking skills". They appear blind to the fact that both
and thinking depend fundamentally on remembered content:
Consistent with their rejection of knowledge transmission, reformers
been forced to redefine the meaning of "teacher" and "test". "Teachers"
are now to "guide" and "create rich enabling environments for student
not impart knowledge or skill (the old dictionary definition of
"teach"). They have redefined "test" to mean "find out what each child
has personally discovered", not what the child has failed to learn.
call it "authentic assessment".
- "Understanding" is a complex, poorly understood process whereby
relates new information to other information already present
in the mind. Understanding is most difficult when the mind is initially
empty of content relative to a newly-encountered knowledge domain.
becomes gradually easier as we remember (store in the brain) more and
domain-specific facts and skills.
- All experts share the need to remember a vast amount of
is narrowly relevant to their targeted knowledge domain. Their
knowledge base allows them to "think powerfully" relative to
problems, but not necessarily relative to problems outside the domain.
- The primary reason that poor, inner-city kids have so much
school is that their brains have been deprived of content. They have
acquired the background knowledge they need to help them "make sense"
the "new" content presented in school. Put them in a core knowledge
and eventually they fly.
The anti-content mindset accounts for the dismal performance of
kids in international tests. Our Asian and European competitors still
in knowledge transmission. They know there's been no significant change
in the core knowledge associated with the foundational knowledge
Their kids are learning the "old facts", and their college graduates
now filling our nation's professional and graduate schools.
E. D. Hirsch Explained How It All Started
In The Schools We Need & Why We Don't Have Them Professor
D. Hirsch, Jr. explained the origin of anti-content thinking:
- Approximately 100 years ago, teacher-training institutions were
concerned with teacher mastery of subject matter. Content was primary
teaching methods were secondary.
- With the development of universities, teacher-training
absorbed as "schools of education" and lost responsibility for content.
No longer responsible for content, teacher trainers disparaged
of content and elevated the importance of general, content-independent
Beginning eighty years ago, the anti-content ideas of Columbia
College Professor William Heard Kilpatrick began to dominate American
- For example, teacher trainers would no longer teach history.
the responsibility of the history department.
- In his 1918 article, "Project Method", Kilpatrick argued that
is changing so fast that no specific subject matter should be required
in the curriculum. He also claimed that following the project method
develop "critical thinking skills".
The Relentless Assault On the Concept of a Shared Tradition of Knowledge
Although the anti-content philosophy is over eighty years old, it was
held in check until the 1960's. But we now have more than 5 million
who are directly employed as part of our American education
Many of these accepted the anti-content gospel and never experienced
process of "going deep" into a knowledge domain. At best they are
These self-described "reformers" are threatened by knowledge experts
empowered by the devaluing of knowledge. Over the last forty years they
have labored to undermine the concept of knowledge transmission,
promoting social changes that trash the very concept of a shared
- They demand that we celebrate "diversity" and discard the
Rather than working to achieve a common basis for mutual understanding,
we are now to "value" all differences and never expect a "meeting of
minds" when the minds reside in individuals who differ by race, sex,
religion, nationality, or sexual preference.
- They endorse the anti-truth philosophies of "postmodernism",
and "constructivism". All these reject the traditional belief that
people can come to the same shared understanding of subject matter.
theories say that all knowledge is inherently subjective, a matter of
opinion, and impossible to share.
- They tell our children to trust only their peers and challenge
authority, including that of their parents and (amazingly) their
- They caution teachers not to pass on "their knowledge" to
say each generation must discover its own truth.
- They claim that traditionalists want to indoctrinate kids with
knowledge, a tainted creation of Western Civilization and dead white
- They have told parents to expect that the way a subject is taught
be "very different from the way they were taught 20 or 30 years ago".
the parent don't understand what's going on, they are to have faith in
the "professional" educators, and stay out of their way.
- They claim that specific content standards, dictated by others,
teacher low-level "delivers" of knowledge, not respected
Making Matters Worse: The Shrinking Supply of Qualified Teachers
For the last eighty years American teachers have been trained to value
"process", not content. Yet, over these years, the nation has been
with many dedicated teachers who have viewed teaching as a calling and
who have educated themselves in one or more content areas.
the percentage of such qualified teachers is regularly decreasing:
- Smart women can now become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and
They are no longer waiting in line to join the teacher pool.
- There is an increasing awareness of the political reality of
Well-qualified applicants can find ample opportunities elsewhere.
- The "solution" of decreased class size tends to force the rapid
of unqualified teachers.
The anti-content mindset attracts the incompetent.
- Reseach shows that the quality of the teacher is much more
the size of the class.
What's the Solution?
- We need specific, grade-by-grade content standards for all the
knowledge domains. The content must be teachable and measurable.
- We need to support teachers who are happy to "deliver"
lesson plans, with clearly identified learning objectives for every
We should eliminate teachers who continue to claim the right to "teach
as they please", ignoring those paying their salaries.
- We need clear standards-based student materials, carefully tied
- We need our kids to understand that everyone is expected to do a
amount of work, and, as children, their business is learning. The rest
of society is paying (over 600 billion dollars annually) for their
of study and preparation for life. If they refuse to do their "work"
are cheating society.
- We need to harness the power of modern information technology and
the knowledge transmission process. This isn't about firing teachers.
about developing interactive software to support the teaching of
content. Think of it as the logical evolution of textbooks.
- Finally, we need to organize and encourage the hidden army of
who secretly object to the reformers' agenda. They know it's wrong and
"roll their eyes", but remain silent, not wanting to be labeled as
or worse. Many of them think the situation is hopeless.
William G. Quirk, Ph.D.