Content Slavery: Causes & Solutions

Content Slavery: Causes

Why is managing content so challenging? Just when I think “I’ve got this…” Boom! I end up drowning a class in too much content. I think the problem has roots in love for our discipline. Here’s an example. My husband, working with a friend and mentor, is building a strip canoe. The boat is still in the early stages, but already it’s a thing of beauty. It’s also a magnet, attracting curious boaters and neighbors who’ve spied, through our open garage door, a 16-foot creation slowly taking shape. Like a Field of Dreams moment, “If you build it, he will come…” neighbors have been making the pilgrimage to our garage to chat with the boat builder. Each time, the conversation stretches for 30-60 minutes as my husband explains the intricacies of the process, what he’s learned, who’s he’s working with, etc. Dinner has been late several times because of engaging discussions and lengthy answers about the canoe.  Is it any wonder that we lecture too much or answer questions in excessive length? If you love something, you are more than happy to share what you know.

Another reason our courses are overloaded with content is many teachers don’t really believe there’s such a thing as “too much content.” In some cases, we rationalize by disciplinary expectations. Nurses: Which system of the body do you suggest we not cover: Circulatory? Renal? Pulmonary? Engineers: ABET accreditation requires it. Technical fields with licensing: We have to teach all of this for our students to be able to pass state boards.

In other cases, we just haven’t spent enough time carefully considering how much is appropriate. What’s necessary? What’s nice to know? What’s unnecessary? All content isn’t equal. Not to mention, just because we cover it, doesn’t mean students have learned it. I’m not suggesting necessary content should be cut, but rather that teachers should be really thoughtful and intentional about depth and breadth of content.

Sometimes teachers use content as defense. A class period crammed full of content leaves little room for students to think, let alone ask questions. The period follows a script; the teacher is in control. Applying this strategy, the teacher can claim the content was “taught” or “covered.” But that line of thinking leaves out learning, or perhaps just assumes that learning has occurred.  Or worse, this view reduces teaching to content delivery, as if presenting information and teaching are the same thing.


Content Slavery- Solutions

What can we do to break the chains of content slavery?  I recently covered too much in accounting.  My response was to follow up with an apology and a few changes.  I thought about how our class got overwhelmed and what I could do to get us back on track. Damage control in this case, included a very early morning email to the class. I apologized for the tidal wave of content presented at the expense of their understanding. Then, I backed up that apology with some changes in the next homework assignment. I cut out some new material, postponed some, and revisited some of the work that was rushed.

Preventing content overload is a better strategy than trying to recover from a bad class. One strategy I’ve used relates to Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo asks us to gather all similar items and then question each one: Does this “bring joy?”  This is her criteria for deciding what to keep or purge when de-cluttering.  Items that don’t bring joy get donated or thrown away.

This concept can be adapted to teaching and is particularly helpful in course planning. Ask “Will this content develop students professionally/personally/academically?” Purging joyless topics makes space in the course for the most important content.  Identify content that can be eliminated (purging from the course) or donated (adding them to recommended reading, or making them extra credit assignments).  Clearing out clutter is liberating.  Imagine the teaching power and confidence that comes from focusing on the most academically vital material.

What if your content simply can’t be cut? Then consider delivery. In what areas is lecture optimal? What about video? Are guest speakers an effective strategy?  Can some content be explored independently? What needs to happen in class?  What doesn’t? How might students be included in some of the decisions about delivery? About content?

Going forward, I want to continue striving for balance between adequate breadth of coverage and deeper understanding. Some folks speak of “uncovering content” with students, as opposed to “covering it.” Others remind us “telling isn’t teaching.” In my case, I’m going to try to follow “more isn’t always better, sometimes it’s just more” (paraphrase of Sabrina Fairchild, in Sabrina).

What are your thoughts on the crush of content? How do you manage the balance between quality of learning and the quantity learned?


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on September 22, 2015, in Learning, Students, Teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. HI Lolita,

    Your Guide post is so timely!!! And if I had more time, I’d post a thoughtful public comment, but am rushing off to give a workshop (on how to write effective mutltiple choice tests – how fun!)

    Wanted to let you know that I have been thinking and reading about this topic for months now as I prepare for my Magna November Webinar “Taming the Content Monster”

    Your blog gave me a whole new set of insights, especially into WHY we jam in so much, because we love it!!!! Duh, how could I miss that key one? I think about myself trying to explain the intricacies of a backhand slice, the first time Amber and I watched the US Open tennis together. Oh my, she just wanted to figure out how the scores worked, and I might have noticed her eyes glazing over as I excitedly went on….and on…and on…

    Loved your example of Bob’s boat building and it was fun to think about he and Michael’s new collaboration.

    Thanks, my brilliant friend, for this great piece, that is giving me some new angles to work from as I continue to tinker with my slides.


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