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?

Toward a Saner View of Text Complexity

sanity-insanity1

As happened a few years ago, when eighth grade students took to Facebook to share reactions to a nonsensical passage about a talking pineapple from the New York State ELA test, this year’s Common Core-aligned test made it into the news again for another Facebook incident. Somehow a group called Education is a Journey Not a Race got their hands on a copy of the fourth grade test and posted over three dozen images of passages and questions on their Facebook page. Facebook quickly took the page down, but they couldn’t stop the articles that soon appeared, such as “New York State Tests for Fourth-Graders Included Passages Meant for Older Students” from the Wall Street Journal and “Educators alarmed by some questions on N.Y. Common Core test” from The Washington Post. 

PG13_rating_WaiAs their titles suggest, these pieces took a hard look at the kind of questions and concerns teachers have been raising since the Standards first appeared. And while it’s great that the press is finally reporting on what students really face on these tests, it seems like they haven’t completely grasped that these exceedingly hard and often age-inappropriate texts and the convoluted, picayune questions that come with them are precisely what the authors of the Common Core had in mind.

As I write in my new book (which Katie Wood Ray, my editor extraordinaire, assures me I’m closing in on), the Common Core seems to have ushered in an age where third grade has become the new middle school, middle school is the new high school, and high school is the new college. And that’s all because of the particular vision the Common Core authors have about what it means to be college and career ready.

According to the Common Core, students need to build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction plus have regular practice with academic language to be ready for college and text-complexity-trianglecareers. And as many of us know by now, they determine a text’s complexity by supposedly using a three-part model that considers the following:

  • A text’s Quantitative dimensions, as measure by Lexile Levels;
  • Its Qualitative dimensions, which scores the complexity of a text’s meaning, structure, language features and knowledge demands through a rubric;
  • And the Reader and the Task, which supposedly  involves “teachers employing their professional judgment, experience and knowledge of their students” to determine if a particular text and/or task is appropriate for students.

I say supposedly because if you look at the texts and tasks on the test as well as those in many Common Core-aligned packaged programs, you’ll see some patterns emerge. First there seems to be a preference for texts with high quantitative Lexile levels, regardless of The Clay Marblethe other two factors. And when it comes to the qualitative dimension, tests, packaged programs and even home-grown close reading lessons seem to favor texts that score high in terms of their language features and knowledge demands—i.e., texts with lots of hard vocabulary and references to things students might not know.

These preferences are why a text like Minfong Ho’s The Clay Marblewhich recounts the story of a Cambodian brother and sister who flee to a refuge camp in Thailand in the wake of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide and comes with a grade equivalent reading level of 6.8—was on New York State’s fourth grade test. And it’s why a text like Behind Rebel Lineswhich tells the true-life story of a young woman who disguised herself as a man to join the Union Army during the Civil War and comes with a grade reading level of 7.2—is part of Pearson’s Ready Gen’s third grade curriculum.You may have noticed that I didn’t mention the Reader and the Task, and that’s because it’s often not considered when it comes to choosing texts. On tests, in packaged programs and even in many home-grown close reading lessons, every child is expected to read the same text and perform the same tasks, which usually consist of answering questions aligned to individual standards. The only adjustment that seems to be made is the amount of scaffolding a teacher provides—and the Common Core Standards specifically direct teacher to “provide appropriate and necessary scaffolding and supports so that it is possible for students reading below grade level [to achieve] the required ‘step’ of growth on the ‘staircase’ of complexity.”

Overly Scaffolded BuildingAs I said last year at NCTE, the problem with this is that some children need so much support in order to read those required complex texts that we can barely see the student beneath all that scaffolding. In fact, when we adopt that “Do whatever it takes” approach to getting kids through those complex texts, we not only risk losing sight of them, but all that scaffolding inevitably limits the amount of thinking we’re letting students do. And in this way, I fear we’ve traded in complex thinking for getting through complex texts—and the ability to think complexly is surely as needed to succeed in college as possessing content knowledge and vocabulary.

And so, in the new book, I propose an alternate route up that staircase of complexity. It’s one that truly takes the reader into account and seeks a different balance between the complexity of a text, as determined by its Lexile level and high scores for its language and knowledge demands, and the complexity of thinking we ask students to do. And I spell out what that could look like in the following chart:

Alternate Complexity Route

Following this alternate route, for example, would mean not choosing a text like Behind Rebel Lines for third grade because, as you can see below, the vocabulary is so daunting, it’s hard to imagine a third grader making much of it without the teacher handing over the meaning (and, as a parent of a third grader writes, its meaning isn’t always age appropriate).

Behind-Rebel-Lines-Reit-Seymour-9780152164270Behind Rebel Lines 2A

Instead, you could choose something more like Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say which is also set during the Civil War and explores similar themes. But because it’s far more accessible at the language features level, students who were invited to read closely and deeply could actually think about and construct those themes for themselves. They could even figure out what the Civil War was without the teacher explaining it because the book is full of clues that, if connected, could allow students to actually build that knowledge.

PinkandSayPink and Say Excerpt

Finally, it’s worth noting that I’m not the only one advocating for an alternate route. In a postscript to his book Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad OnesTom Newkirk makes a case for what he calls “a more plausible road map for creating readers who can handle difficulty”: giving students “abundant practice with engaging contemporary writing that does not pose a constant challenge,” which can help them build the “real reading power” needed to tackle challenging texts. And more recently, in the final post from his great series on literacy, Grant Wiggins called for making what he called “a counter-intuitive choice of texts,” that is, choosing “texts that can be easily read and grasped literally by all students” but which require complex thinking at the level of themes and ideas.

Those seem like incredibly sane ideas to me. And as for what’s insane, I’ll leave that to Einstein:

Einstein Insanity Quote