Engaging Students through Rich Academic Content

During an interview with Michael Shaughnessy published in Ed News ten years ago, E.D. Hirsch stated, “Children go to school for more than a decade because learning is gradual, and there is a great deal to be learned—especially in matters relating to general knowledge and the buildup of vocabulary. If the specific content for each grade level does not build on what went before and prepare for what will come after, there will be big gaps and boring repetitions. Those are the conditions that now prevail in [most] schools. A great deal of school time is being used unproductively . . .”

Hirsch’s observations have only grown in relevance over the last decade. Recent studies have shown student engagement steadily declining from 80 percent in elementary school to 60 percent in middle school to only 40 percent in high school. Given this trend, teachers and administrators need to do more to offer students rich and engaging content that keeps learning relevant and encourages the mastery of skills. As Hirsch also observed in the same interview, “Critical thinking skills cannot be learned in the abstract. They always pertain to concrete knowledge of subject matter . . . teaching content is teaching skills . . .” And when both the teaching of content and the teaching of skills are coordinated, student engagement elevates. That’s why at Crossroads Academy we spend a lot of time examining and choosing to teach the most beneficial content while scaffolding the necessary skills to maximize their impact. So by the time one might typically see a decline in interest in the middle school years, the opposite becomes true: students are more engaged and more likely to develop the foundation of knowledge that leads toward lifelong curiosities and interests.

There’s been a lot of debate about the best curriculum and pedagogies since Hirsch formulated his theories on the benefits of Core Knowledge in the 1980s, but we know now that having explicit content standards that build in a thoughtful sequence for each grade is a key to success. Armed with a core set of knowledge in history, science, literature, math, and the arts as a foundation, students will tap into the relevance of what they are learning while becoming prepared to master the content and skills they need to be successful in the future.

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