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 movingwriters.org, 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?

Just the Facts, Ma’am: Setting Students Up to Solve Problems in Nonfiction

Just the Facts Ma'amAs part of the Close Reading Blog-a-Thon that Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts hosted to kick-off their new book, Falling in Love with Close ReadingKate reminded us that not every nonfiction text warrants a close reading. In particular she noted texts whose word choice and details don’t reveal an authorial point of view—or as Kate so wonderfully put it, “aren’t rippling with nuance.” Many of those texts are purely factual—i.e., they don’t use facts to explore a question, issue or event that the writer may have a stance on. And many are content area texts that provide social studies or science information without much of a discernible view point.

I agree completely that not every text deserves close point-of-view scrutiny, but there are other reasons to read those texts closely, as I think they pose many problems for students and offer many problem-solving opportunities. The title of this week’s post, for instance, alludes to something that not every reader might know—in this case, a TV show that was popular before some of you were born. References and allusions like this abound in all sorts of nonfiction, from Nicholas Carr‘s intriguing piece “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, which begins with a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Sy Montgomery‘s grade 4-5 text exemplar Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, which in passing mentions hobbits, trolls, Sponge Bob and Stuart Little. Most of these references are kid-friendly and add to the fun of the book. But like the old TV show Dragnet, I imagine that there are students out there who’ve never heard of Stuart Little. So what’s a fourth or fifth grader to do when reading a section that begins like this:

“Stuart Little, the small mouse with big parents, had nothing on baby marsupials. Marsupials (“mar-SOUP-ee-ulz”) are special kinds of mammals. Even the biggest ones give birth to babies who are incredibly small. A two-hundred-pound, six-foot mother kangaroo, for instance, gives birth to a baby as small as a lima bean. That’s what makes marsupials marsupials.”

QuestfortheTreeKangarooThe easiest way to solve the problem of what Stuart Little means would be for a teacher to tell the students who Stuart Little is. No doubt that might be entertaining and even lead some students to the book. But given that, just like vocabulary words, it’s simply impossible for a teacher to provide explanations for every allusion or reference students might encounter in a text, we might want to think twice about solving the problems that allusions and references pose and instead let students try to solve them on their own, at least some of the time. Some students, for instance, might solve the problem here by skipping right over Stuart Little and focusing instead on what they can understand: that marsupials are mammals whose babies are super small. Others, instead, might create what I call a “place holder”: they figure out that whoever Stuart Little is, the difference in size between him and his parents isn’t nearly as great as the difference between marsupial babies and their moms.

I believe that providing students with opportunities to wrestle with problems like these helps them become confident and resourceful readers. But for that to happen, we, as teachers, need to be more aware of the problem-solving opportunities that specific texts hold. We can do that by recognizing that many of the items that frequently appear in text complexity rubrics, such as allusions, vocabulary and complicated syntax, can be thought of as problems to solve, as can the kind of “holes in the cheese” I discussed in an earlier post—those places where a nonfiction writer hasn’t explicitly spelled out how the facts are connected. We can also better see the problems a text poses if we ask students what they’re confused about, as I wrote about last year and did as well with two groups of fourth graders that looked at this excerpt from Samuel de Champlain: From New France to Cape Cod by Adrianna Morganelli:

Trade & Exploration

Both groups of students had studied explorers earlier in the year, and so I began by asking each group to think about what they had learned. In both cases, the students shrugged more than spoke, which gave their teachers pause. Interestingly enough, though, as they made their way through the first paragraph, which was filled with things that confused them—”thirst for wealth”, “the spice trade” and “commodities”, which they solved by checking out the glossary—they started to remember more.

I think it’s important to note here that the call to activate schema before reading yielded virtually nothing, but the students automatically started pulling information without prompting from their memory banks in order to resolve their confusion. Problem solving, thus, gave them a purpose for strategically drawing on their background knowledge in a way that years of deliberately practicing the strategy of activating schema hadn’t. And with that paragraph mostly solved they moved on to the next.

The first group I read this passage with helped me better see the problems that the second part posed, as students were once again confused. In particular, they were confused by the references to trade routes, both overland and sea ones, as well as by the glut of place names and the different types of people. In fact, who controlled and discovered what where, along with why and how, were all problems that needed solving. And while I ran out of time with the first group, I came more prepared for the second, offering them this map to look at and use as a problem solving tool:

Age of Exploration Map

Using the map helped them figure out the difference between overland and sea routes as well as who controlled which and why. It also allowed them to understand what the first group hadn’t: that the New World was discovered almost by accident, as explorers sought to find the Moluccas, and that furs, fish, gold and silver were the new commodities mentioned in the first paragraph, which again were discovered through what had originally been a search for spices and silk. And here again, they automatically inferred in order to solve those problems.

Arriving at these understandings definitely took longer than it would have if I’d solved the problems for the students by pre-teaching or explaining what had confused them or modeling a think-aloud. But as I debriefed the lesson with the teachers, we all thought that in addition to helping students become stronger independent readers, they were also more likely to remember the content because they’d figured it out for themselves and it now belonged to them. And as some of the teachers who attended the session I did last month in New Hampshire said, putting students in problem-solving mode helped them “see themselves as ‘figuring-it-out’ kind of kids.” And that, I think is well worth the time, both for us and for students.

Thinking (Please be Patient)