Competent Knowledge: Preparing Students for Life in a Democratic Society

April 23, 2010

At first glance the term “competent knowledge” is redundant—doesn’t knowledge imply competence, suggesting a skill or an ability mastered, a method or set of contents learned? The term implies knowledge that is usable, yet knowledge often remains in significant ways inert. The question of competent knowledge takes on a particular urgency at times of economic crisis, political divisiveness, and heated national debates about what constitutes a moral society. What should students know or know how to do, when they leave 8th grade, high school, college? And how should we measure what students know? Should knowledge come principally through test-based achievement, which may not translate into knowledge usable in the world?

A recent U.S. Department of Education report asserts that collective prosperity rests on an educated workforce. Education beyond the eighth grade is necessary for most jobs, beyond high school for better-paying jobs, at and beyond the college level for work in technology and for advancement in almost all fields. Is competent knowledge therefore defined in economic terms? 

What if we determined “competent knowledge” would not only further prosperity and test-based achievement, but advance moral, social, and intellectual development to the benefit of all? Certainly, teachers, schools, and colleges cannot fix everything that is not working in our society. Nevertheless, we might reasonably ask, “What is one thing teachers could do to change how knowledge counts in this world and what it counts for?” Solutions to the larger problems facing our society and the world in 2010 are interrelated, complex, and daunting. How can we hope to address these and future problems without the help of schools and colleges?

Educating students for something besides work, for thoughtful participation in the life of their communities, has been the subject of recent papers, op-ed pieces, and research studies. Our goal for this conference is to examine more closely what it would mean for a student to leave school with the skills necessary for such participation. We don’t mean teaching more history, politics, or government, or encouraging participation in the Model United Nations Project or debating societies—although all of these are valuable. Instead we invite participants to explore how students learn the underlying skills necessary for engaging others in a complex and ever-changing democratic society: to recognize and value significant differences among people; to negotiate different perspectives, including one’s own; to read closely and listen attentively; to reflect and collaborate.

Conference participants explore the potential of writing, especially writing to learn and writing to read, to prepare students for thoughtful and critical participation in a multicultural democracy. Assisted by readings, small group discussions, panelists’ presentations, and their own writing, participants investigate the public nature of a classroom where writing plays a central role. The focus is particularly on reflective, or process, writing; collaboration; and revision. Such pedagogy alone cannot transform one school or one community. But its use—to initiate discussion, respond to challenging texts, collaborate on literary interpretations, or solve problems in science and mathematics—develops in students skills necessary not only for good scholarship but for living fuller, more engaged lives in their communities. 

The conference includes a plenary panel discussion by national education leaders who have considered the connection between educational and social reform; small-group, writing-based workshops, led by associates of IWT; and discussion of an anthology of readings drawn from a wide range of disciplines. We invite secondary and college teachers to investigate together:

-  Citizenship education in the past, present, and future
-  Transferable knowledge
-  The Internet, writing, and informed citizenship
-  School and college curricula that address issues of human decency, morality, and democracy

Plenary session panelists:

-  Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of educational history, director of the history of education program, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and faculty member in the Department of History, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University

-  Ellen Condliffe Lagemann is the Levy Institute Research Professor at Bard College and Senior Scholar at the Levy Economics Institute; former Charles Warren Professor of the History of American Education and Dean, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University. She was the founding chair of the Department of the Humanities and the Social Sciences in the Steinhardt School of Education, New York University

-  Nicole Wallack is acting director, undergraduate writing, Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University, and faculty associate, Bard Institute for Writing and Thinking.

-  Facing History and Ourselves represented by a New York City-based staff member. Facing History is a professional development program for teachers whose mission is to broaden students’ understanding of history, and its legacies of prejudice, discrimination, courage, and compassion, to promote development of a more humane and informed citizenry.

Hours: 9:00 am-5:30 pm

The fee for this conference is $140. We cannot refund fees for cancellations received less than a week before the conference. For further information contact the Program Administrator of IWT at 845-758-7484 or