Again, in library instruction (since that is my container of experience), content is somewhat secondary. Tools and their uses (to acquire information) are primary, such as search techniques, procedures, the inner workings of databases, and even search algorithms and logic. Content is neither the end nor the means of research instruction. So what is it and what is its value?
In library instruction for freshman and sophomore English classes, I have sought to “mix up” content (the “stuff” to which research tools are applied for illustration) to make learning the tools easy, interesting, and even meaningful. Configuring content provides an opportunity for insertion of different ideas, diverse ideas, all elements, broadly speaking, of critical pedagogy, to make our students better thinkers, and, to a limited extent, better people. I have been successful in incorporating local and regional content, “stuff,” information about the the history and culture of the school and of the region, building in the students a stronger sense of self-confidence and the significance of their place and potential in the world. Similarly, content that is relevant to the student age group (18-25), like music, art in general, and student-led activism makes learning the tools more meaningful, perhaps easier to some extent.
In my business classes, I have found that local content, i.e., business success stories of local entrepreneurs (and especially University graduates) energizes and motivates the students, making the learning process a much more engaging and hence, successful encounter. Soliciting their concerns, from the work they are doing in groups, to their plans for post graduation, and finding ways to incorporate that into library instruction on a real-time basis has also made the learning more engaging.
So where are we? Back to the original propositions. Content is not the end of instruction, developing expertise with using the tools is the end. Content is not the means of instruction, as developing expertise only happens through exercise with the tools, using them repetitively to develop these “muscles.” But perhaps content is the motive force of learning, and maybe content is the element that engages the students and inspires them to stick with it and do the long, hard work required for mastery. Moreover, content can be the human element that enables students to see themselves in their learning and to imagine their own possibilities/potential in shaping and forging the outlines of their future.
p.s. The choice of content is not neutral. In fact, it is value-laden. To be fair to the students, a strong dose of critical thinking should accompany instruction at all levels and incorporate examination of bias in content selection.