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?

On Programs, Broken Promises and Why We Aren’t Finland

Lapland Finland Reindeer

A few weeks ago the New York City Department of Education announced that it was recommending new “high-quality” Common Core-aligned curriculum materials for schools to adopt next year so that students can, in the words of the DOE, “realize the full promise of the Common Core Standards.” These materials have been developed for the city—at what must be considerable cost—and for ELA they’re giving schools two choices in the following grade bands: Core Knowledge or Pearson’s ReadyGen for K-2 classrooms, ReadyGen or Expeditionary Learning for Grades 3-5, and Scholastic’s Codex or Expeditionary Learning for Grades 6-8. (High school options are still to be determined; information on Pearson’s ReadyGen is not yet online.)

The City has emphasized that these are recommendations not requirements, though it’s unclear whether there will be any protocols—or repercussions—for schools not choosing one. And, perhaps needless to say, this move has made me heartsick, as has the backlash it’s set off against balanced literacy and workshop models, which, in certain circles, are now being deemed failures.

Behind-Rebel-Lines-Reit-Seymour-9780152164270Part of what so disheartens me is that we’ve been here before. Balanced literacy and workshop were, in fact, seen as antidotes to packaged, one-size-fits-all programs that used short texts and excerpts to teach isolated skills to students—without any real significant achievement results. The new programs preserve the one-size-fits-all model, with a mix of short and book-length texts to be read by everyone in the class, but the texts themselves are different. They’re authentic—as in, not abridged or watered-down—but they’re often poorly matched to their designated grade levels in order to meet someone’s notion of complexity. Take the anchor text for a ReadyGen third grade thematic unit on “A Citizen’s Role in Our Government”, for instance: Behind Rebel Lines by Seymour Reit. It’s a nonfiction account of a Canadian girl who posed as a boy during the Civil War in order to  join the Union Army, and while it looks like a fascinating book, Scholastic’s Book Wizard lists it as having a Grades 6-8 interest level, a 7.2 grade reading level, and a guided reading level of T. Hmm. When did third grade become the new seventh grade?

And then there’s the questions that come with the texts. They’re the kind of questions found on standardized tests, minus the multiple-choice answers. And they’ve been broken down into categories, which align to the bands of the Common Core Anchor Standards and, again, the tests. For the following paragraph from the preface of Behind Rebel Lines, for example, students are asked this Vocabulary question: “What does feminist mean and what context clues in the ‘To Begin’ section help you determine the meaning?”

Behind Rebel Lines 1A

And for this passage, which appears on page 3, students are asked a Key Ideas and Details question, “Why did Emma say the billboard had ‘fancy wording’? Which words might be considered ‘fancy’ and why?”; and an Integration of Knowledge and Ideas question, “What does the sentence ‘the country was in peril and had to be saved’ mean? Use your own words to restate this.”

Behind Rebel Lines 2A

Now imagine that you’re a third grader who, in New York State, has not yet begun to explore history in social studies, which means you might only have a foggy notion of the past and no knowledge of the Civil War or how women’s roles changed over time. If the teacher has followed the program instructions, she would have reminded you to “adjust [your] reading rate as [you] encounter unfamiliar words.” But even with that, how would you begin to answer these questions? And why would we ask you to beyond the need to prepare you for a test based on someone’s narrow, mechanical, but definitely testable, interpretation of the Standards?

And that brings me to another reason I’m heartsick. Having actually welcomed the Common Core Standards for the emphasis they seemed to place on reading for deeper levels of meaning, I now find myself feeling disappointed and duped. And in that, I’m not alone. In addition to educators like Diane Ravitch and Tom Newkirk who’ve reversed their original thinking on the Standards because of the industry that’s cropped up around them, New York State Principal Carol Buris also went from being a fan to an opponent as she realized she’d been naïve. Here’s how she puts it in a piece posted by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post‘s “The Answer Sheet“:

“When I first read about the Common Core Standards, I cheered . . . . I should have known in an age in which standardized tests direct teaching and learning, that the standards themselves would quickly become operationalized by tests. Testing, coupled with the evaluation of teachers by scores, is driving implementation. The promise of the Common Core is dying and teaching and learning are being distorted.”

Outsourcing CartoonFinally, I’m heartsick for another broken promise that’s explicitly stated in the Standards: that teachers would be “free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgement and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards.” By engaging in the development and adoption of scripted programs, the New York City Department of Education has demonstrated yet again it’s lack of trust in teachers. And they’ve, in effect, outsourced the critical thinking work of teachers to a corporation, whose priority is shareholder profits not children, and turned teachers into delivery systems instead of professionals with sound judgment.

How a teacher who’s not encouraged to think critically and independently can possibly support students to do so is completely beyond me. And this is where Finland comes in. Not investing in teachers’ professional capacities—which means giving them the time, resources and supports to collaboratively learn and deepen their understanding of both content and pedagogical craft, not training them to implement a program—flies right in the face of what top-rated systems, like Finland’s, have done to produce change. Those systems all used what Canadian educator and writer Michael Fullan calls “effective drivers” for whole system reform. These include a commitment to develop the entire teaching profession, a belief in teacher ownership, and trust and respect for teachers. Accountability, on the other hand, which he defines as “using test results and teacher appraisal to reward or punish teachers and schools” is at the top of his list of “wrong drivers.” And this is precisely what New York City is using to try to drive school change.

And so, while I know my dear city will never have reindeer, Moomintrolls and the midnight sun, until it starts heading in Finland’s direction, I fear that I’ll remain heartsick.

Moomintroll 1

From one of the Moomintroll books by Tove Jansson