How Powerful Is Content Knowledge?

One of the joys of writing a book—beyond simply finishing it—is getting feedback from readers. And one of the first reader comments I saw came from Rebekah O’Dell, the co-author with Allison Marchetti of the marvelous book Writing with Mentors and the website, who tweeted this soon after the book came out:

Here, Rebekah highlighted a passage from Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading that I imagined might provoke the kind of spirited discourse and cognitive dissonance that Ellin Keene wrote about in her foreword. That’s because, in addition to the still ongoing battles between phonics and whole language and Common Core-style close reading and balanced literacy, there’s another war still underway between knowledge-based and more inquiry and problem-based approaches to reading.

The knowledge-based approach is rooted in a body of research that shows a connection between students’ prior knowledge and their reading comprehension. Based on that, knowledge advocates, like Doug Lemov, Daniel Willingham, E. D. Hirsch and the authors of the Common Core, argue that if prior knowledge helps students comprehend more, then teachers should focus on building up students’ store of knowledge.

On the one hand, there is some logic to this, but it raises lots of questions. First and foremost is who gets to choose what knowledge should be taught to whom and when. The Core Knowledge Foundation, for instance, offers a knowledge-based Language Arts Curriculum for grades Pre-K though five that many students schools across the country use—and to my mind at least, many of their choices seem strange.

Among other things, for example, first graders learn about Early World Civilizations, including Mesopotamia and Egypt, which, in New York State, is covered in 6th grade social studies. And during the unit they also learn about the world’s three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam—along with a slew of vocabulary words I doubt a first grader will have much use for in their daily lives.

Second graders, on the other hand, learn about the War of 1812, which I remember virtually nothing about. And fifth graders study the Reformation, which, in case you don’t remember, is, as the unit overview states, “the 16th-century religious and political upheaval that challenged the power of the Catholic Church and led to the creation of Protestantism.”

I have to believe I’m not the only one who thinks these choices are bizarre, if not indoctrinary. Why the Reformation instead of, say, the Underground Railroad, the 1960’s or the schism in Islam between Sunnis and Shiites? Why the War of 1812? And why is the one literature unit at each grade focused only on abridged versions of ‘classics’? Fourth graders, for instance, read Treasure Island, while third graders listen to a read aloud of Kenneth Grahame’s over 100-year-old The Wind in the Willows—the story about the dissolute son of a British aristocrat (who just happens to be a toad) who learns how to become a responsible lord through the help of his friends Mole, Rat and Badger. Why that rather than, say, Because of Winn-Dixie? or The One and Only Ivan? Because there are so many allusions to The Wind in the Willows in the world? I don’t think so. But I have recently spotted several headlines that allude to more contemporary books, like this one from The Washington Post that refers to  Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst:

and this one from the Los Angeles Review of Books, that compares and contrasts the villain in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books Count Olaf with Donald Trump (e.g., they are both liars):

I’m certainly not suggesting that we make all children read these particular books rather than other particular bookssince doing so inevitably involves bias. Nor am I saying that having a rich body of knowledge isn’t important. But the fact is that, as I write in the bookwe simply can’t teach students what’s behind every reference or allusion they might encounter, nor every vocabulary word they might come across.There’s simply too much information in the world—and the volume of knowledge being generated is growing exponentially at an astounding speed, as can been seen in these facts from the video Did You Know? Shift Happens:

With these facts in mind, advocates, such as Linda Darling-Hammond, Michael Fullan, Will Richardson and (no surprise here) yours truly, argue that rather than learning reams of content knowledge, what students in the 21st century need are opportunities to construct and apply knowledge, think critically and creatively, solve problems, and learn how to learn—which knowledge-based proponents have been known to say is simply a “romantic notion.”

Just this week, though, Education Week put out a special report called Schools and the Future of Work: What Will Our Students Need to Know? And in articles with titles like “The Future of Work Is Uncertain, Schools Should Worry Now,” “Stop Teaching Students What to Think. Teach Them How to Think,” and “Learning How to Learn Could Be a Student’s Most Valuable Skill,” the report definitely seems to the constructivist/inquiry/problem-based side of the debate.

But here’s the thing: As Alfie Kohn, another learning-to-think proponent, writes in “What Does It Mean to Be Well-Educated?” “No one thinks in a vacuum . . . A classroom whose primary focus is described by phrases such as deep understanding, critical thinking, creativity, and the construction of meaning isn’t one devoid of facts. But it’s purposes go well beyond the transmission of a long list of dates, definitions, and other details.”

Consider, for a moment, the fifth graders I wrote about in my last post who had no idea of what a refugee was or a settlement camp before they read Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave. Rather than being taught those words and told about the crisis in Sudan, they figured those things out, and along the way learned many things, not only about the plight of refugees and the tragedy that occurred (and is still occurring) in Sudan. They learned how to see their own country through the eyes of someone quite different; how to discover our shared humanity with others whose lives are nothing like ours; how reading closely and attentively empowered them as readers and thinkers; and how verb tense and punctuation actually matter. And they also learned the deep satisfaction and pleasure that comes from “the curiosity to ask big questions [and] the drive to understand those questions deeply,” which one of the contributors to EdWeek’s report says are traits that are urgently needed in our every changing world.

So why focus so much on content knowledge, when students can gain so much more?

8 thoughts on “How Powerful Is Content Knowledge?

  1. Oh, Vicki- thank you. Thank you!
    You well know how I’ve been struggling with this very idea for too long now. There is no possible way to give children every single bit of background information. It’s simply impossible, and also creates passive learners, at best, who wait for someone to tell them what’s important, and have no idea how to even begin to figure that out for themselves. If, instead, we teach children how to think, how to learn, how to problem-solve then we are setting them on the path to independence. And if they develop these skills in the context of learning to read, they can also then apply these skills to all aspects of their lives, which feels so important, especially now.

    I love this line especially: “…what students in the 21st century need are opportunities to construct and apply knowledge, think critically and creatively, solve problems, and learn how to learn”. That’s it in a nutshell..

    I felt such a sense of relief reading this. “Finally, someone gets it. I am not crazy,” were the thoughts running through my head. I know this won’t surprise you, as you & I have talked about this a lot for quite a while now, but still, I want you to know how much this means to me. Your support sustains me, especially now when I need it the most.

    Thank you again. ( I don’t have your gift of words and clarity of thought, so “thank you” is the best I can do, but please know I say with my whole heart.)

  2. I too find it a bit frustrating and a bit mind boggling that the value of teaching kids to think in 2017 would be questioned. Many teachers have been saying this for a long time along with the notable authors/educators you cited above! John Dewey wrote Experience in Education almost 100 years ago!

  3. Hello Vicki
    This post is a nice can of worms for me. I’ve been working alongside a colleague in her literacy intervention class over the last term, and we’ve noticed and talked about many things in her class. The children have changed: from waiting for the teacher’s question and waiting for the teacher to monitor their reading to confidently posing and answering their own questions. Thanks to your guidance through Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading, I’ve become better at finding teachable moments within texts, and then listening more carefully to the children’s responses. Their prior knowledge always helps them answer questions, but it’s their prior knowledge about their own world: relationships, daily patterns, their knowledge of right and wrong, their immediate community, their pets, their family stories, their holidays. Apologies – no Mesopotamia or 1812 needed! Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but the Core Knowledge Foundation is a textbook company? It’s not your actual mandated curriculum?
    I’ve been chewing over the question of who gets to choose what knowledge is taught and when. I think it’s at many levels: curriculum documents, textbooks, teacher. I think that omitted knowledge – facts conveniently left out – are as troubling as an irrelevant text.
    Now then, back to Early World Civilizations, did you know that Indigenous Australians were known to bake bread over 36 000 years ago? Beat the Ancient Egyptians by 19 000 years! Looking forward to having this fact in our own Aussie curriculum documents. Read about it here:

    • Hello Brette! No, I had no ideas that indigenous Australians were baking bread 36 centuries ago. That’s amazing. And yes, Core Knowledge is a packaged curriculum. The sad fact is that many, many schools in the States use packaged curriculum – and Core Knowledge was one of a few that the NYC schools were really pushing several years ago. So my hunch is Australians discovered the power of teacher- and student-developed curriculum many years (if not decades) before we did.

  4. Pingback: A New Year with an Old Friend: Some Thoughts on My One Little Word | To Make a Prairie

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