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: Solving Problems as Readers

question-think-understand

One of the most common text features found in professional books are subtitles, and having taken a look the last two weeks at dynamic teaching and deeper reading, I want here to explore and explain what’s behind this book’s subtitle: Shifting to a Problem-Based Approach.

Many of you already know something about problem-based teaching and learning (a.k.a. PBL). In fact, PBL may already be in your teaching repertoire. But here’s a little background: Problem-based teaching and learning became established as a specific zombie-based-learning-2teaching practice when medical school professors in the 1960’s shifted from teaching their students through lectures and textbooks to setting them up to solve the kind of complex diagnostic problems they’d experience in the field. And in today’s world, PBL is joined by a plethora of what the Buck Institute for Education dubs “X-based learning” practices, such as project-based learning, game-based learning, design-based learning, brain-based learning—and even zombie-based learning!

Most of these are variations of basic constructivist and inquiry practices that again go back to Dewey and to other great thinkers like Piaget and Einstein, who claimed, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” And while there are some differences between X-based practices, they all share at least some of the features that Dr. Howard Barrows, who adapted these ideas to the teaching of physicians, describes here:

pbl-characteristics

If Google and educational websites are any indication, it seems as if PBL has taken hold in many math, science and STEM classrooms, but it hasn’t gotten much traction in reading, where we tend to think that problem solving is only needed at the word level. But think back to (or catch up on) the students I wrote about last week, who worked their way through “Louisa’s Liberation.” They did, indeed, have to figure out what a word meant, but to do that they had to first figure out what point was being made about the fact that Louisa was playing doctor, not house or even nurse, as Katie and Emily thought. And figuring that out then allowed them to figure out what the author, Jean Little, might be trying to show them about people and life through the story.

All this figuring out was needed because the writer conveyed this information indirectly. direct-vs-indirectAnd in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper ReadingI propose that we see every instance in which a writer conveys something implicitly, versus explicitly, as a problem that text poses for readers. This can be something as deep and meaningful as what a writer wants us to consider about the human condition to something as seemingly simple as what or who a pronoun refers to. And part of the trick of a problem-based approach is becoming more aware of where, precisely, those problems are in a text.

To build that awareness in the book, I regularly invite readers to look at a short text or excerpt to consider what the writer hasn’t said directly that a reader would have to figure out. And to give you a taste of that, take a look at the text below. It’s the opening of a folktale that a group of 5th grade teachers brought to my attention after it appeared on a state benchmark assessment. How much do you have to figure out just to get the basic who, what, where and when? (And if you’d like a strategy for that, pay attention to when you’re confused.)

a-dispute-in-sign-language

If you’re like the teachers who shared this text with me, your jaw might have dropped at what seems like the unnecessary confusion of this passage. Mostly it’s because the characters are referred to in different ways, which the writer doesn’t explicitly clarify. And just imagine how much your confusion would be compounded if you were a fifth grader who also didn’t know what the words dispute, Zen, monastery and monk meant.

zen-monk-scrollIf we see these, though, as problems to solve and give students a chance to collaboratively wrestle with them, many are able to do what a small group of sixth grade students did. They had no idea what a Zen master was, or a monastery, but they reasoned that the Zen master must be some sort of teacher because he had a student, and that, whatever a monastery was, it was where the Zen master lived. They also recognized that a conversation was going on, and using what they knew about dialogue, they were able to figure out that the Zen master and the old monk were one and the same, as was the wandering and the visiting monk. And while there were questions about whether there was one or two one-eyed characters (one a student and the other a monk), one of the group made a case for them being one and the same, too, because he thought that if the one-eyed monk was a new character, he’d have been introduced with an not the.

Each chapter in the book’s Section Two is grounded in a classroom room example that shows kids grappling with specific kinds of problems texts pose, like figuring out the basics in fiction or understanding the implications of facts in nonfiction. And each comes with a chart that shares some of what readers have to do to solve those problems, like this one on figuring out the basics in fiction and narrative nonfiction:

how-readers-figure-out-the-basics

From Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton. 2017. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann a caption

Additionally, between the chapters in Section Two, you’ll find a Considering Complexity feature that notes other texts that poses similar problems at different reading levels, so, regardless of what grade you teach or where your students are, you have some place to start:

considering-complexity-sample

From Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton. 2017. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

My hope is that these features will encourage and inspire you to try out this teaching approach (if you haven’t already). And finally, I think it’s important to remember the benefits of making this shift. Not only will students retain more of what they’ve learned because they’ve figured things out for themselves, but they’ll reap the additional benefit that the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca described:

the-important-thing-about-a-problem