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, of 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?

Counting Down to Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Delving into Deeper Reading

deeper-reading

So here’s a problem I wrestled with this week: How do I explain something like deeper reading that took me nearly four years, over two hundred pages and countless drafts to describe in a thousand-or-so-word blog post? My solution? Create an opportunity for you to begin to construct your own understanding of it by sharing a classroom example from the book!

In this example, I was working with a small group of fifth graders—Ava, Luce, Antonio and Nick—all of whom, according to their teacher, were having trouble identifying theme. And the text I decided to invite them to read was a short piece called “Louisa’s Liberation” from Jean Little’s wonderful book Hey World, Here I Am!, a collection of poems, journal entries and vignettes written by the lovable narrator Kate. The goal would be for the students to ultimately consider what Little might be trying to show us about people or life through the piece, and I invite you to read it here, too, with that same goal in mind:

© 1986 by Jean Little. Reprinted by permission of  HarperCollins in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann).

© 1986 by Jean Little. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann).

As a proficient reader, you may have thought Jean Little was saying something about stereotypes—and you might have even laughed as you realized she was playing a joke on Kate and Emily, who seem in need of liberation themselves. If you considered more specifically what she could be saying about stereotypes, you might have arrived at an idea like this: Even people who think they’re enlightened can fall into stereotyping. And depending on the grade you teach, you might have also have thought your students wouldn’t get that for a variety of reasons. They might lack background knowledge about the women’s rights movement or not know words like liberation, trundling, and preoccupied. Or you might question if they have the maturity to reach a similar conclusion. And you’d be right—at least in terms of what students might not know.

After reading the first section, I asked the students what they thought they’d learned so far and what they were curious or confused about (i.e., what they knew and wondered), which revealed that none of them knew what liberation meant. Nick thought it could be connected to the word library because of what seemed like a common root, but that idea didn’t work out when he tried it on the second line (“It was up to us to make sure Louisa grew up liberated.”) Noticing details about teaching and school, though, Ava and Antonio wondered if liberation might mean education, and because this worked in both the noun and verb form, they used it as a placeholder, as in, they thought Kate and Emily wanted to find Louisa so they could educate her.

What they still didn’t know, though, was what Kate and Emily wanted to teach herchild-playing-doctor-2. Luce thought it might have to do with the words sex stereotypes (which she pointed to rather than said out loud), and the rest thought that was possible. So with this thinking on the table, they were ready to wrestle with the rest of the piece, which continued to puzzled them.

They sensed there was something significant about Louisa playing nurse or doctor rather than playing house, but they didn’t know what to make of that. Nor did they know how it connected to Emily and Kate’s mission to educate her. And so I invited them to try to talk it out, and here’s a taste of their thinking:

Ava: I think it’s important that she’s pretending to be a doctor, not a nurse, because doctors help people and nurses just help doctors.

Luce: Yeah, and one of my aunts is a nurse and she told me doctors get paid lots of money. So they’re sort of more important than nurses.

Antonio: And Louisa thinks she can be anything she wants to be, not just a nurse but a doctor.

Ava: But Kate and Emily thought she was playing nurse, so maybe they didn’t think she could be a doctor.

Luce: And maybe they thought that because lots of women are nurses but only some are doctors.

Antonio: But she didn’t need them to teach her anything. She already thought she could be anything she wanted. And they were just happy she wasn’t in the kitchen.

Nick (who’d been quiet till then): Oh! I think I just figured out what liberation means. It’s like the Statue of Liberty. Louisa’s free to be anything she wants to be because liberty is like freedom.

Ava: Yeah, she’s not in a box, but Kate and Emily sort of are because they only expected her to be a nurse.

Antonio: It’s like she’s more liberated and mature than they are. But maybe Louisa can liberate them.

girl-in-a-boxGiven time to question, ponder and think, these students arrived at the same implicit and nuanced idea that you, yourself, may have had. And as they talked about what they had learned about people and life through the story, some said that Jean Little had shown them that age doesn’t always determine maturity, while others thought she had shown them that sometimes you might be in a box even if you think you’re not. They also had lots of strong opinions about people who thought women couldn’t do the same jobs as men. And when I asked if they thought they’d learned anything as readers from this experience, here’s what they had to say:

Ava: “Yeah, it’s like there was a story inside the story and we figured it out.”

Nick: “It’s really important to figure out words, especially if they’re in the title.”

Antonio: “We also had to think about what we didn’t know, not just what we did.”

Luce: “That was really hard, but fun!”

If we go back to the words I shared last week from John Dewey’s contemporary Michael O’Shea, you can see that by framing the students’ reading around what the author might be showing them about people or life, I put them in “a dynamic attitude toward the thing being presented,” which helped them “keep thinking up to the limit of their constantly enlarging capacity.” Or as Dewey said, by giving these students “something to do, not something to learn,” that demanded thinking, “learning would naturally result.” And here that learning included expanding their understanding of human beings as well as realizing there can be an implicit message in a story, that much can be gained by paying attention to what you don’t know, and that thinking hard can actually be fun.

Additionally, I think it’s important to note that, if you take a look at the Common Core Anchor Standards below, you’ll see that they were also engaged in the work of standards 1-6. That’s because when we invite students to dynamically read deeply for meaning, they automatically—and authentically—engage in the work of the standards.

screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-8-10-10-am

So now the question is, what’s your understanding of deeper reading now?

what-did-you-learn-today

From Content & Concepts to Practice: Setting Students Up to Construct Understandings

best-practice-cropped-1

A few weeks ago I invited teachers to construct an understanding of the deeper purposes of realistic fiction and then shared their ideas in a follow-up post. And last week I shared a lesson that helped fourth graders construct a deeper understanding of how scenes and details work. In both cases I, in the role of teacher, created opportunities for learners to invent new knowledge, and pedagogically that’s quite different than the kind of direct instruction with modeling associated with writing workshop mini-lessons.

As a teaching practice, creating learning opportunities goes by many names. In his great book Mentor Author, Mentor TextsRalph Fletcher borrows a term from the world of computer programming and calls it an “open source” approach to teaching craft. Instead of teaching a specific craft move through a mentor text—which, as Ralph notes, “runs the risk of reducing a complex and layered text to one craft element”—an open source approach invites students to “look at these texts and enter them on their own terms,” which “gives students more control, more ownership.” While Katie Wood Ray describes this practice in her wonderful book Study Driven as an “inquiry approach” to teaching and learning, where students are similarly invited to notice and discover what writers do then try on the moves they’d like to emulate.

Whatever we call the practice, however, it’s directly connected to the constructive theory of teaching and learning espoused by educators like Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner. With some slight differences, each of these great minds thought that students retain, understand and are more likely to apply and transfer what they’ve actively constructed than what they’ve been more explicitly taught. And these ideas hold many implications for what it means to teach, such as the following:

jean-piaget-quote

While there are times I do teach through direct instruction and modeling, I increasingly use constructivist practices with both students and teachers. For students, for instance, who need additional time to wrestle with the concept of scenes versus summaries, I like to share the following two pieces by Lois Lowry about the same event and invite them to consider how they’re different in order to construct a deeper understanding of the purpose and craft of scenes.

The first is from her memoir Looking Back:

lois-lowry-red-plaid-shirt     I was nine years old. It was a man’s woolen hunting shirt. I had seen it in a store window, it’s rainbow colors so appealing that I went again and again to stand looking through the large window pane.             The war had recently ended, and my father, home on leave before he had to return to occupied Japan, probably saw the purchase as a way of endearing himself to a daughter who was a virtual stranger to him.                                                                   If so, it worked. I remember still the overwhelming surge of love I felt for my father when he took me by the hand, entered Kronenburg’s Men’s Story, and watched smiling while I tried the shirt on.

And this is from her autobiographically inspired picture book Crow Call:

crow-call-excerpt

Practices like these—which ask students to explore the question, What is a scene and how do writers write them?—are also related to the problem-based approach to teaching math that’s increasingly being embraced, as well as to what I advocate for in my new book on reading. But for reasons I don’t completely understand, these practices haven’t taken much hold in literacy. Perhaps, it’s because they can take more time than a typical mini-lesson does or because, being open-ended, they can be messier than direct instruction. If you believe, though, that the ultimate goal of teaching is the transfer of learning, as the late, great Grant Wiggins does in one of his final blog posts, then we have to consider the findings of a research study that compared the affects of direct instruction (DI) and what they called discovery learning through problem solving practice (PR) over time:

From "Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View" by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

From “Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View” by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

As you can see from the chart, students engaged solely in discovery learning—who constructed their own understandings of content through grappling and practice—demonstrated consistent growth in learning over time. The combination of students receiving both direct instruction and discovery learning ultimately reached the same level of learning, despite a somewhat precipitous drop along the way. But those who only received direct instruction were able to transfer less.

For the record, this study involved fourth graders presented with a science problem, not a literacy one. But as I wrote in an earlier post, I think the process of constructing an understanding by developing hypotheses about what you notice that you then test out, refine and revise into theories, can be the same across the disciplines. It’s also worth noting that, whether we call this an open source, inquiry, constructivist or problem-based approach, there’s still lots of teaching to do.

As you can see with my Ruby the Copycat example, I nudged students to deeper thinking by raising probing questions and inviting them to be more specific and precise about what they’d noticed. And from that, I named what they’d noticed in more generalized language so students could apply and transfer it to their own work. And you can see the masterful Kate Roberts do the exact same thing in a video of her working with middle school students studying a mentor argument text.

kate-roberts-inquiry-lessonYou could say that both Kate and I set students up to notice things we might ordinarily teach through direct instruction, which, as Katie Wood Ray says in Study Driven, allowed them to uncover content versus receive it, which can deepen understanding. And finally there’s another reason to add this powerful practice to your teaching repertoire. According to Jerome Bruner, “Being able to ‘go beyond the information’ given to ‘figure things out’ is one of the few untarnishable joys of life.” So if you want to bring more joy to your classroom, consider creating opportunities for students to construct their own understanding, versus always teaching them directly.

joy

 

Constructing Understanding: Developing a Deeper Vision of Realistic Fiction

One of the other things I love to do in summer (beyond institutes) is walk along the East River, watching the boats and the people who come from all over the world to see New York City’s famous skyline. And much of the waterfront in my neck of Brooklyn has become a wonderful park, with soccer fields and volleyball courts built on reclaimed piers, free kayaks and yoga, and an outpost of what in my humble opinion is the best ice cream in the city, Ample Hills, which takes its name from a line in Walt Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

Ample Hills

Every summer, there’s also new art, and this year we have sculptor Martin Creed’s “Understanding,” the neon and steel piece you see above that actually rotates 360 degrees. My partner David and I first noticed it from behind as it was being installed, and it took me a while to realize that the word we were trying to read backward was understanding—and that the workers on the ladders and cranes were literally constructing understanding, which, once I figured that out, delighted me no end. You see, I believe that deep, lasting learning best happens when learners are actively involved in the construction of understanding and knowledge, versus receiving, memorizing—or as Jeff Wilhem says in Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry, consuming—information.

I’d say the teachers and coaches I wrote about last week were engaged in constructing an understanding of the different ways fiction stories can go. And in her gorgeous and brilliant new book The Journey is EverythingKatherine Bomer invites her readers to construct an understanding of essays by reading two spectacular examples, “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle (whose structure she also visually maps!) and “Pride,” by Dagoberto Gilb. As Katherine writes,

“The key to teaching essay well is understanding deeply what essay is. We don’t need to invent a definition; we only need to pay attention to what we see, hear and feel as we read essays closely. We can notice for ourselves what essays stir up in the minds and hearts of readers and then make that seeing explicit, naming the features of essay we can use in our own writing or teach to students.”

Of course, developing a vision of what we want students to engage with as writers is true for every genre, not just essay. And the deeper our vision is, the deeper and more meaningful our teaching can be, which I think is captured in this wonderful Japanese proverb which I discovered as I planned for my work in Paramus:

vision-without-action-is-a-day-dream-japanese-poverb

So before Labor Day is upon us and everyone’s back in school, I want to invite you to read a very short story called “A Story About the Body” by the great poet Robert Hass in order to construct a deeper understanding of what realistic fiction is and what it does for us as readers. As Katherine urged, try reading it attending to what it stirs up in your mind and heart and then, based on how it affected you, try to articulate in a more general way what you think the deeper purpose of realistic fiction seems to be and how writers convey that purpose. (And try to not default to what you already may teach, like saying that realistic fiction is a story about people and events that are made-up but could happen in real life, and it’s purpose is to entertain, which, as I wrote in an earlier post, doesn’t capture the complexity of what writers do.) And since it’s sometimes easier to construct an understanding of a genre by looking at more than one example, consider clicking on the links for two other short stories I’ve shared over the years, “Wallet” by Allen Woodman and “20/20” by Linda Brewer to see how they inform your thinking.

Finally, in the spirit of collaborative learning and community, please share your thinking about Hass’s piece and/or realistic fiction in general by tweeting (using the hashtag #tomakeaprairie) or leaving a comment here, by clicking on either the speech bubble at the right of the post’s title, the word ‘reply’ that following the list of tag words at the bottom of the post, or, if you’re a subscriber, on the comment link at the end of the email.

And now here’s Robert Hass’s amazing piece, which comes by way of genius.com:

A Story about the Body Robert Hass