We have to talk about content

When everyone seems to agree that it’s more about how we learn and not what we learn, here comes someone to complicate it all again…

Sometimes I think that this talk about educating for the needs of the 21st century will only end in the 22nd century! The feeling is that when we finally think we have found the way to make learning something mutually constructed, and when the active approach becomes richer and more interesting, other questions and obstacles emerge.

So there is no point in trying to ignore these complications because all the complexity is, in fact, part of this century and of the demands that, after all, we seek to meet. Did it sound too complicated? Let me try again.
The very emergence of other possibilities, new problems and questionings are in themselves typical of our times. Edgar Morin has already warned us about this, but there are many more people attesting that flexibility, adaptability, and creativity are skills that we have to keep at hand (and in our minds) at all times. If you want someone to learn these skills, you better start applying them in your practice.

There is no use in pretending that once we have found a solution we can just follow the recipe. And to keep with the recipe analogy (I must be the only person in the world who doesn’t cook but loves a food analogy!), think of a delicious cake. Many times you follow the recipe precisely and the cake doesn’t turn out well. Other times you go crazy, throw in more of this and less of that, and in the end the cake is fantastic. If someone asks you how exactly this happened, it will be hard to explain. Most likely there are some factors that don’t work the same way for everyone, even if you follow the recipe to the letter.

The proportions of the ingredients, the type of your oven, how you mixed the wet and dry ingredients (by hand, with a mixing tool, with a special spoon…) and, let’s not forget, the quality of the ingredients may have influenced the result. Not to mention that there comes a time when you’re so comfortable with that recipe that you embody your favorite cooking star and go around replacing everything, with the greatest mastery.

Learning to me looks a bit like that, both in the way we teach and the way we learn, especially when we think about personalization. Of course the script for cooking or teaching-learning does matter, but that doesn’t mean that the ingredients (content) themselves and the interaction between them don’t play an important role.

Photos by Tima Miroshnichenko in Pexels.com

I was totally convinced that the way the learning process happens can guide everything else in terms of engagement, effectiveness and meaning. And obviously I’m not going to simply delete all that I’ve been learning . In fact, it all continues to make sense. What changed is I began to realize that even teachers and facilitators, who design the most beautiful and remarkable teaching experiences, need to pay close attention to the content that is going to be used to achieve the learning objectives.

Let’s have some more examples, and this time I promise to leave the whole cooking analogy alone and do some light self-propaganda instead. I am very excited about writing and designing a course for teachers about the Brazilian author Machado de Assis (Descomplicando Machado). Maybe you don’t know, but I love reading Machado de Assis and talking about him. The course wants to bring together teachers who love the writer, others who ignore him, and those who, like many students, find him boring and difficult (I confess that here I had to ask heaven’s forgiveness just for writing such a thing!).

Well, if my goal is to make teachers so passionate about Machado de Assis that they infect their students with this passion, the course will have to be interesting, affective and effective. But I will also have to bring a collection of Machado’s work that demonstrates how passionate he can be. For example, if I arrive with A Mão e a Luva (one of his early works) it will be difficult to sell my fish (oops, nothing to do with food. This is just a popular saying…). It is necessary to curate the work properly and especially to help by suggesting/provoking several possible readings of that work. The ‘aha’ moment is one of the most exciting things in this process and it will only happen if the right works are selected for the occasion.

It is important to stress again and again that content alone does not result in learning, but neither will a course designed with the most engaging active methodologies be able to motivate and actually teach if the content is not up to par.

Besides, even in customized teaching (we’ll talk more about personalization here on the blog), when in the role of tutors we simply lead students in their interests and according to their level of aptitude, it is still necessary that the content is somehow categorized in terms of complexity and how it dialogs with other topics and how certain topics may be grouped into mini-blocks.

In short, I even believe in splitting topics and have used this feature a lot, but at some point we need to recognize that different content can be housed within the same topics. Also, you have to take it upon yourself to evaluate the quality of the content. Imagine a history topic whose references are not properly documented, or a scientific piece of knowledge that is not evidence-based, properly recognized and proven. The research and learning interest must always come from your students/students. On the other hand, you cannot exempt yourself from evaluating content.

And to finish, here’s one last cooking reference, I swear! No cake, no matter how inspired you are, will be good and healthy if one of the ingredients is expired or adulterated. Do you see the parallels here? Now I hope you can reflect on this post, preferably by eating a delicious cake! 😉

*This text first appeared on this blog in Portuguese. press here if you want to check the original post.

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