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?

The Beliefs Behind the “Shoulds”

what-do-you-really-believe

It was so exciting to see the responses to The Teacher You Want to Be, the soon-to-be-out collection of essays that are all connected to the Statement of Beliefs drawn up by the Reggio Emilia study group I participated in. Matt Glover and Renée Dinnerstein arranged the trip, and if you want to learn more about the Beliefs before October 22nd, I urge you to check out Renée’s wonderful blog Investigating Choice Time, where she recently shared all thirteen beliefs and regularly writes about early childhood education in ways that will inspire and warm the heart of all of you committed to student-centered learning.

Looking at them, you’ll probably be struck with how rare it is to see beliefs stated so explicitly—and even rarer, perhaps, to see connections made between beliefs and practices, as in “If we say we believe this, we should being doing this.” More frequently instead what gets articulated is what we should or must do—as in have students read shouldsmore complex nonfiction or write more arguments. Sometimes we’re offered reasons to support these ‘shoulds’—like the need to remain globally competitive or close the achievement gap—but usually they’re not explicitly connected with any sort of larger vision or system of beliefs. I do think, though, there are beliefs hidden behind those ‘shoulds,’ and I can’t help but wonder if the kinds of conversations we have about education would be different if we tried to flush them out and put them on the table to look at.

To show you what I mean, here’s two “We should” statements that seem to reflect very different visions and beliefs. The first comes from our soon-to-depart Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, while the other comes from Canada’s Michael Fullan, whose work as a Special Advisor to the Premier of Ontario helped make Ontario’s schools among the best in the world. I invite you to read them thinking about what beliefs about teaching, learning, children and the purpose of education itself each one seems to reveal (and, if the spirit moves you, to share what you think by leaving a comment).

Arne Duncan Quote

Michael Fullan Quote

For me, Duncan’s statement reflects the belief that the purpose of education is to get everyone to the same pre-determined goal at the same pre-determined time. And it also reflects what’s often called the factory or assembly-line model of schooling, with the teacher cast in the role of the foreman whose job it is to ensure that everyone is moving forward as planned. Fullan’s, on the other hand, seems to suggest that the purpose of school is to help students develop a love of learning—and that teachers and students jointly hold and share the responsibility for that.

Duncan also seems to believe in the power of extrinsic motivation—as in shaming or frightening students to get them to work harder—while Fullan seems to believe that if we design experiences students find engaging, they’ll be intrinsically motivated, which is critical if we want students to become life-long learners. Duncan’s statement also seems to reflect a binary fixed mindset, as in you’re either on track or you’re not, versus a growth mindset, which seems to be implied in Fullan’s emphasis on designing versus assessing learning.

These two are clearly extreme examples—and I’d be willing to bet a whole lot of money on which set of beliefs readers of this blog think we should embrace. But I think that beliefs are hidden beneath practices that we take for granted. As I wrote in my essay for The Teacher You Want to Be:

In America, we say we value independence, freedom, and innovation; yet too often in schools we engage in practices that seem to promote quite the opposite. We give students prescribed formulas for writing, for instance, which invites, if not enforces conformity and limits innovation. We ask them to use sentence starters, templates and graphic organizers that can box in thinking instead of open it up, as well as foster dependence. And much of the work that happens in reading supports one-right-answer thinking, which is exactly the opposite of what’s needed for innovation to thrive.

values_actions_alignmentThat’s not to say that students don’t sometime need support. But I think it’s worth considering what unspoken beliefs might be hiding behind some of the classroom practices we engage in—and whether we really believe them or not. What, for instance, does it suggest we believe about the purpose of education and learning if we regularly ask students to assess themselves using Standards-based checklists and rubric? That we actually believe what Duncan does? And if not, perhaps we need to rethink the way we ask students to reflect on their learning and establish goals. And what does it say if we’ve institutionalized certain supports as “just the way we do things”, like accompanying every lesson with modeling before we see what students can do? Might it be because we don’t think students can do much without us showing them how? And if not, perhaps we need to better align our practices with what we believe.

As for our new incoming Secretary, the former controversial New York State Commissioner of Education, John King: What does he say we should do that speaks to his deeper beliefs? Here’s a glimpse. In a speech the great educator and author Pedro Noguera gave shortly after King became Commissioner, he shared this anecdote about King. Noguera had visited a charter school King had founded, and he’d noticed that children weren’t allowed to talk in the hallway and were punished for the most minor infractions. And so he asked King a question, which revealed both Norguera’s and King’s beliefs about children and the purpose of education:

“‘Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.’ And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.'”

I’ll save other comments about King for Twitter. But do consider what might be behind the practices you implement as a matter of course. And if they don’t align with your real beliefs, think about what else you could do that reflects what you truly believe in.

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