Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 29 seconds

Revisiting the Content Question

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 29 seconds

When I first started teaching, I thought there was something weird about me. I was always thinking about “how” I wanted my class to go, rather than “what” I wanted students to learn… I found this continued with me even when I created a formal syllabus with learning outcomes, etc. I found I was constantly modifying what I was doing in response to learners (don’t most educators do this? why don’t we talk about it more often?)

I’m an educator who’s all about process and not content, about spontaneity and not planning, about the big picture and not the details, about experience and not measurement. That’s not to say I do no planning, use no content, see no details and measure nothing. It’s to say those are not my primary focus, not how I approach education. This is partly philosophical, but it is primarily a reflection on my own teaching, which (thankfully) found resonance with some educational philosophy through curriculum theory (I will always be grateful to my PhD supervisor Alan Skelton for introducing me to this field). But this approach also intersects with elements of some other people’s philosophies – people like Dave Cormier, Jesse Stommel, Jim Groom and Mike Caulfield (although I’ve never heard any of them refer explicitly to curriculum theory per se). And that’s the part where I think reflective teachers often reach these conclusions on their own (it’s nice they’ve got a name for it in the theory, too, though, but much more “true” to the theory that teachers would be able to figure it out without needing the theory – that’s what process is all about – the teacher’s pedagogical judgment as they respond to their learners in context; or that’s how I understand it anyway).

I started writing this post to help me reflect on something Jim Groom had said and written, about his views on content, and to also help me clarify my stance on it, as well as to respond to what David Wiley had written about “content as infrastructure” (which Jim was responding to, years later, in his post y/day), and continue a conversation that’s been going on between Mike Caulfield and myself distributed across different spaces (he finally suggested we take it to my blog, and this post was already in draft form anyway, so here it is).

I don’t want to repeat stuff I’ve written before. But I’ll just summarize briefly: I think that we often have a lot more to learn from embodied knowledge than any canon of knowledge, and that any choice of content is an expression of power and privilege; I think educators should be more mindful of how they choose readings/content, should stop focusing on volume and start focusing on reflection and experience of students as they interact with what they read. And I touch upon the curriculum theory aspect of focusing on content here, but much more extensively in my thesis as well.

David Wiley says “content is infrastructure” , Jim Groom disagrees, as do I. I don’t mean to offend David Wiley, I have tremendous respect for the work he does. I don’t know what his current thoughts on these matters are. I think he might be arguing something different from what I am responding to, or it might be that his years focusing on OER gives him a different perspective than people who are only teaching on the ground… I don’t know. But here are my responses to his argument. This is not a journal article (neither David’s nor mine) so I’m happy for folks to point out gaping holes in my response.

Let’s look at David’s argument. He says “content is a critical part of the infrastructure of education” – but that’s not the same as saying it is the infrastructure of edu, right?

He asks earlier:

“If the content base from which we all teach and learn – the internet, textbooks, library books, journal articles, etc. – were ’significantly damaged or destroyed,’ is there any way to imagine that this would not ’cause serious disruption’ to all education, both formal and informal?”

Uhh my answer to that is pretty simple: we would learn anew from our experiences. Isn’t content really just how some other folks have captured experience and documented it? Sure, if all the content in the universe were magically destroyed it would be tragic, we’d lose direct accounts of history, mathematical formulae, etc., but that’s not the point. The point is, in our current learning environment, is content the most important thing upon which everything rests? Is content the infrastructure or foundation without which no learning would happen? I think not. I mean, I understand that if we put a group of people together in the room and they learned just by talking, that’s not a dismissal of content (they each have some content in their heads from previous learning, right?) – but David Wiley seems dismissive of narrative forms of learning, so I think he does not consider these discussions to be substantive enough. I might have misunderstood him, though.

[It’s like if you accidentally lose all your family photos, you can still reconstruct your memories and feelings of those evens with your family, even though the physical photos are lost]

But back to losing all the content: Think mathematical formulae. If you’re in an exam where you need to use a formula but can’t remember it, what do you do? You derive it, or if that doesn’t work, you experiment to try to find it. Yes, all that depends on assumptions of previous content, too, but my point is that the derivation process, knowing how to is more central than the content, knowing that, because it can take you further than the content.

And because these days content is relatively abundant and accessible, thanks in part to the OER and open education movement (of which both David and Jim are huge proponents) there is less of a need for pre-determined and canonized content, and more a need for digital literacy to filter through content and find what learners need, so they can then adapt, remix, re-purpose and create what they want out of it. The process of all that is the learning, in my opinion, not the input or output “content”.

David’s second point uses the metaphor of roads as infrastructure for transportation. Metaphors are problematic, but let me say that when the roads are blocked due to snowstorms, people still find ways to communicate e.g. Phone lines. Phone lines use a different infrastructure, right? When they are down, people might find another way, etc. But to use the roads infrastructure, i think it’s just not the right metaphor. Mike Caulfield also seemed to think so. I won’t repeat his entire comment, but you can find it on Jim’s blog and my response to it.

Mike Caulfied, on Jim’s blog, makes a very good point (which he’s made quite often, and is a very salient point, but is rarely taken up by folks!) that we sort of need to stop generalizing across disciplines, and I take this further that we need to stop generalizing across contexts. What works for one discipline, at one level, might not work for another discipline, or even the same discipline at a different level or in a different context. Sure, there are some pedagogies that will work well for maths courses and literature courses, but not all pedagogies, and not all courses. Mike & I agree on my suggestion to replace “content is king” with this:

Context is King

Mike cites Justin Reich :

“education tends not to exhibit “law-like” behavior.” (emphasis mine)

I think talking about process is exactly that: not expecting any law-like behavior, but rather living in the moment, in this classroom, with these students, in this context, doing things together… There might be content floating around there, but it’s not where the learning is happening. The learning is happening by the learners as they “do” something.

I’ll talk about David’s third point to illustrate. He talks about how revolution in edu cannot happen without OER (but that more is needed e.g. Low bandwidth, etc). This argument seems tautological to me, but for the sake of argument, let me just say: it’s not OER that’s causing the revolution. It’s people. People creating content, people whose attitude is to share, to discuss openly. It’s the people and not the content. This reminds me of the hole-in-the-wall experiment. If you believe in it, even if you believe the kids learned all that on their own using a computer, the content on the computer was created by people. And the only way we will have more content is via people (unless we’ll have a computer program that spews its own content, and even then, a person will have designed the program or neural network or whatever it is).

Now here comes the confusing part. After all this talk of content as infrastructure (which to me implies content as being the most important and necessary cornerstone of learning, David Wiley steps back a bit and says it is part of the whole:

To say that content, and therefore these projects, are necessary but not sufficient conditions is not to say that content is unimportant. Anything but! Every piece of the system, including content, is critical – as Paul taught the Corinthians:

“For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body”

But he does not specify which body part content will be. Is it the heart with which nothing would function? The brain that directs (I think not, content is too static for that)? The blood that flows thru the veins, pervasive everywhere? The metaphors started giving me a headache at this point.

But in defense of David Wiley, I think Jim & I find ourselves responding the idea of pre-defined content used in a learning situation, whereas David Wiley, by focusing on OER, is talking about a more dynamic form of content that allows learners to interact with it and make it into something new. He’s really arguing for the importance of OER as content, not just any old static content out there. I think.


So I think the crux of our disagreement with David Wiley, then, is whether it’s the people/community/process that are more important or the content. Or actually, we (Jim and I) would be saying that content is secondary to community/process. i.e. content is not the infrastructure of learning when we teach, in our context. But as Mike Caulfield says, we cannot necessarily speak for every other context. It’s hard to keep reminding oneself not to do that (generalize about one’s own context).


It’s actually quite funny that Mike talked about edu not exhibiting law-like behavior, when he’d earlier posted this little formula:

(Where I want to be) – (where I am) = learning that needs to happen.

But of course, it’s not really a formula. It’s just saying a generic truth(?) about learning: that it’s the space, I guess, between where we are (in terms of knowledge) at one point in time, and where we become (more knowledgeable) at another point in time. Learning is what fills that gap. But it doesn’t tell you how that gap gets filled, so it’s not really a prescriptive, but a descriptive statement.


As I wrote on Jim’s blog:

So what is the infrastructure of learning? Somewhere between our brains and our processes of learning, no? And that combo is the community of learners, but can sometimes be a connection between my brain and the author of whatever i am reading, with whom i have no “community” relationship…

So I’m not sure what the infrastructure of learning is… This blog is long enough as it is… but here again is my suggestion on Jim’s blog…

Context is King

No wait, that’s both sexist and elitist. Let’s revise this…

Context is Everything  [when you’re discussing education]

8 thoughts on “Revisiting the Content Question

  1. Good content Maha 🙂

    Content depends entirely on context for defintion. I am never sure what is meant by content. So I invariably end up asking…

    Are we talking about instructions, books, articles, games, photocopies, audios, videos, everything on the net, student produced content, the content of the ministerial guidelines for teachers (in this case content is an expression of power)?

    Are we talking about the structure of the learning space?

    Disneyland is full of content – that might be considered as a learning environment.

    Are we talking about education or training?

    Learning the highway code in order to pass a driving test is not the same as receiving education to become a reflective teacher.

    Learning the highway code with no practical driving lessons is probably a bit of a waste of money.

    Is education a question of selection or a question of empowerment?

    How will we be spending our time in our education/training?

    What skills, competences, literacies, roles, will we be developing?

    If we mean by infrastructure having access to ideas, concepts, experiences, etc etc of course it is important to learning.

    If we haven’t worked out that content expresses social relations more than anything else then we are not going to get very far working out how to develop relationships between learners and those ‘experts’ (or other individuals) who express their ideas, skills, competences, literacies, roles, through such containers of potential meaning.

    Where I get very discontented is when I see teachers and learners reduced to dependence on publishers’ text-books/moocs/courses which artificially stunt growth, stilt interaction, and remove all spontaneous thought or action from a group of humans in order to make money out of them and then give them a badge for being ‘good consumers’ I mean good teachers/learners (of course).

  2. The way I think of content is that content is what allows us not to start at square one each time. So when Jim narrates his teaching process and I can learn from his mistakes without repeating them, that’s content.

    The math example is actually great. So if I didn’t have a textbook I’d try to derive it, just like you say. Which is OK is we’re looking at ratios. But when we come to calculus we’re looking at something it took Issac Newton (among others) to invent.

    Likewise, in the humanities we can’t move to having a critique of Gramsci without first reading Gramsci.

    Content allows us to enter into a cultural discussion without setting the clock back to Plato and re-deriving post-structuralism in steps. Imagine if no texts explaining curriculum theory were available. You could probably derive it from other people who had read the texts, but it would be pretty hard to get at it with much depth without at least a few written explanations.

    And despite Jim’s insistence of content as a product, the use of the Hackers book, the use of the Ted Nelson videos, etc., in his class argues that a rich selection of content matters — it’s just not *defined* at the beginning of the class.

    And I’d argue that if you want to do that — let the class wander and find their texts — that you need an even *richer* store of content to mine, right?

    1. Hey Mike, I’ll slightly disagree with you, but let me start with what I agree on: I agree that having access to a wealth of content makes it easier for the teacher to focus on process and not pre-define content. I think that David Wiley never necessarily talked about pre-defined content, but this pre-definition is what bothers Jim and me. So it’s not exactly the same thing. But the privileging of content is what David Wiley talked about and is still problematic IMHO
      Let me take your examples: Newton’s law. It’s one thing to be *told* the law in order to use it; it is am entirely other thing to learn it by doing an experiment and figuring it out yourself. You learn so much better by doing it. Of course, the teacher “knows” the law before asking you to do the experiment (whether the teacher pre-designs the experiment or allows students to design their own to find relationships between any two pre-defined variables). There’s always content at play. But is content the “foundation” of learning? Do i need to read Gramsci or Foucault to identify hegemony and power? No! Many illiterate uneducated people come to similar conclusions, they just express them in more basic ways. And here’s the big issue: content can seem colonizing. When I, in Egypt, feel (because of my Anglo education in US/UK institutions) that I cannot express my oppression (or whatever) except with reference to some scholar from a different culture to mine, who does not truly express my oppression, it is problematic. But it happens because of the foregrounding of *particular* content in our education, doesn’t it? Choices of content are political, and allowing learners to bring their own (whether this means finding stuff online or bringing their own personal experience) is very different from saying “content is infrastructure”. No one said throwing away content is ok. All I am saying is that throwing away the *process* of learning would be more fundamental. I’ll write another post about OER & colonialism in response to another blogpost I read yday

  3. it’s not OER that’s causing the revolution. It’s people. People creating content, people whose attitude is to share, to discuss openly. It’s the people and not the content.

    This is so brilliantly stated, OER is not the revolution, in fact the question is out how many folks actually use the stuff we formally call OER. And I thinkw e want to believe its the content, but that’s also nefarious because it shifts the focus of investment and support for the actual people that are driving the revolution.

    I’m sorry Mike couldn;t find his way here to comment, but despite his protests, he is very loyal to bavatuesdays. I could maybe ask him to come here and comment, but I can;t promise anything 🙂 BTW, you rule.

    1. Hey Jim, Mike made it here, but I had to moderate his comment and yours coz it’s ur first time here on my self-hosted blog. Happy you both made it 🙂
      Agree on the fundamental point you just made: focus on OER can mean investment goes to that instead of to people, which is a huge problem. In the same way in Egypt funding goes to creating computer labs rather than prof dec of teachers.
      I’ll respond now to Mike…

  4. My immediate thought is that process is king. When I teach my students emerging technologies, I’m more interested in having them discover how they can learn new technologies than the actual technologies that they learn. It is more about teaching them how to teach themselves – but also about breaking down barriers that get in the way of learning. Many of my students are afraid of technology, but also think that they are not techy and therefore they cannot learn new technology … I need to push them to learn something new so that they discover that they CAN learn a new technology … so once I’ve encouraged them to move beyond the fear, they suddenly discover that it isn’t as complicated as they thought … that they can do it … so it is about helping to teach the process. I chuckled a little when you talked about reflections … the current generation of masters students have been overwhelmed with reflective learning … they don’t want to be told to reflect on things anymore … in some ways, they are ready to move on to whatever the next latest and greatest learning theory de jour …

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