It is the 1890s, and educators are concerned that students are not receiving the quality education they deserve—especially if those students plan to attend college. What became known as The Report of the Committee of Ten has now been replicated at varying intervals in the U.S. for 120 years: Competing interests declaring what students learn (and how students learn) as inadequate, and then setting out themselves to identify what students learn (and how students learn) to (i) save the children, (ii) save the country, (iii) save the economy.
This pattern of education reform is best captured, I think, in Herb Kliebard’s The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 because his guiding motif, “struggle,” reveals what is really going on when politicians, educators, researchers, and the public debate (often badly and in conflated ways) content, curriculum, standards, and then instruction.
Although content, curriculum, and standards as terms are different, in the real world, they tend to represent the same urge: Identify the what (knowledge) students should (or must) learn.
Before diving into the content and direct instruction debates, I want to address what is really going on. You don’t have to read George Orwell or Ray Bradbury to know this (although you should*), but the powerful in any society recognize that those who control knowledge (and language is knowledge) ultimately control everything. Thus, to codify what is known, what counts as knowledge, and what facts mean is to establish power.
Howard Zinn has popularized how perspective impacts so-called objective facts in his people’s history of the U.S.; many narratives of history told from the perspectives of losers, workers, and marginalized people become suddenly unrecognizable to those who were raised on traditional textbook renditions committed to celebrating the American Way.
Since the U.S. is mired in a misguided and often distorted debate about national curriculum, I want to return here to what is wrong with the content and direct instruction debates, historically and currently.
Revisiting Content and Direct Instruction
Ron Barnett in The Greenville News announces, “The high school of the future is here”:
George Jetson won’t be dropping his daughter Judy off in a flying bubble capsule, but the New Tech high school programs starting up this month in Greenville County promise to rocket the old educational model straight into the 21st century.
And what does that entail?: “The concept of teachers imparting knowledge on students who passively soak up information from their desks is on its way out at Carolina and J.L. Mann high schools.”
Two schools in Greenville (SC) county have adopted project-based learning, but Barnett offers this qualification: “Actually, project learning isn’t entirely new in the district.”
Actually, project learning isn’t even new to this century because, as Kliebard details, project-based learning grew out of John Dewey’s laboratory schools at the turn of the twentieth century and then the concept was bastardized and popularized throughout the first half of the 1900s, notably by William H. Kilpatrick.
And just for the historical record, project-based learning and an assortment of garbled practices mislabeled “progressive”  worked so swimmingly that all hell broke loose in the 1950s and 1960s: Rudolf Flesch fretted over Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955)  and Hyman G. Rickover (1962) warned about how the Swiss were kicking the U.S. to the curb because of failing schools.
So let’s start with the central problem driving the never-ending content and direct instruction debates that sound about exactly the same today as they did over 100 years ago: The real issue with content and direct instruction is not if but how, when, and why.
At the core of how these debates both flourish and fail is the straw man, personified by attacks on John Dewey (progressivism) and Paulo Freire (critical pedagogy). Neither Dewey (progressivism) nor Freire (critical pedagogy) reject content or direct instruction, but both demanded that teachers and students re-imagine content (notably that content is not ideologically or politically neutral) and direct instruction.
Content is problematic as a term because many stakeholders in education use it differently. I want to clarify that content in this discussion has two distinctions: disciplinary knowledge (the facts of the disciplines) and disciplinary moves (how the disciplines view artifacts/facts, how the disciplines gather and interpret data, how the disciplines present their examinations of coming to know the world).
For progressive and critical educators, that formal schooling tends toward transferring static disciplinary knowledge to the exclusion of examining and fostering disciplinary moves (especially for marginalized groups of students) is the crux of the debate, compounded by the traditional stance that disciplinary knowledge can be objective. As critical scholars have argued, simply choosing what counts as knowledge is itself a political act.
As well, Dewey argued that since we could never really predict what static disciplinary knowledge students would need in the future, we should be sure to focus much of our energy on fostering disciplinary moves in students; this argument has been reduced to a somewhat silly and simplistic urge to teach “critical thinking,” which is in practice, as it turns out, anything except being critical.
Freire added to Dewey’s quest for instilling disciplinary moves by challenging the simplistic “banking” concept that views content (disciplinary knowledge) as static and non-political—but that challenge did not reject content, but called for ways in which to honor that content.
Both disciplinary knowledge and disciplinary moves, then, are battlegrounds over power—influenced by race, class, gender, and sexuality (among other contexts). As Lisa Delpit has argued, children of color and impoverished children are often fed reduced disciplinary knowledge and excluded from disciplinary moves; thus, our debates about content and direct instruction (as a subset of all instruction) must move toward insuring that all students have equal access to disciplinary knowledge and disciplinary moves, and that all students receive the same quality of instruction (including direct instruction).
No one that I know is calling for no content or no direct instruction. The debate rests with when, how, and why—and those debates are important, and likely inexhaustible.
For me, content (as disciplinary knowledge) and direct instruction are secondary: disciplinary knowledge as a means to the greater ends of disciplinary moves; direct instruction coming after students have engaged in relatively naive and emerging authentic productions of artifacts of learning.
When I teach writing, for example, my students must engage with something worth writing about (disciplinary knowledge), and then after they present early drafts, I must offer direct instruction. My critical teaching of composition, then, is not without content and not without direct instruction.
Ultimately, then, the why is central: So that every student comes to discover for her/himself the disciplinary moves most valuable for reading and then re-reading the world, for writing and re-writing the world (Freire) in order for her/him to act on the world instead of having the world happen to her/him.
Finally, as a critical educator, I practice these beliefs each day with deep and diligent skepticism because, in the end, I could be wrong. And that is what disciplinary moves are all about—the purposeful engaging with the world to better understand it for the self and the larger community.
* Wink, wink, nod, nod …
 For a genuinely progressive take-down of the folly found in misguided uses of the project method, please read:
LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/803664
That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)
 And by 2011, ta-da!, “Why Johnny STILL Can’t Read.” [HINT: It's those damn progressives.]