Assumptive Teaching

by Robert Pondiscio
February 9th, 2010

Karin Chenoweth visited two large, suburban high schools recently, both serving significant numbers of middle-class and working-class African-American families.  Chenoweth, the author of How It’s Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools, explains that at both schools, there’s been a lot of assumptive teaching” going on.  That means

…teachers assume a great deal of background knowledge among their students and have not done the essential work of determining what their students really know, what more they need to learn, and then figuring out how to teach them. 

At one of the schools, teachers and administrators “know that their long tradition of teachers teaching in isolation with no accountability for the success of their students is part of what nurtures that “assumptive teaching,” Chenoweth writes at Britannica Blog.  The second school, however, seems less willing to change its ways. 

Some of them visibly recoiled when I said that highly successful schools with significant percentages of minority and low-income students achieve success by collaborating on careful plans of instruction mapped to state or college-preparatory standards, complete with common formative assessments and data systems so they can track how well each of their students is doing and ensure that each of them gets the help they need.

Chenoweth, one of our best and most knowledgeable chroniclers of classroom practice, clearly looks askance at ”assumptive teaching.” But it’s worth asking if the lack of a coherent curriculum isn’t the thing that should go instead.   With no common body of shared knowledge in elementary and middle school, high school teachers can’t reliably know what content and skills students arrive with.  Thus every student is a blank slate and must be constantly assessessed and reassessed to determine what they know.  Student mobility further complicates matters.  The teacher can take nothing for granted.

Indeed, student mobility may be the best argument for a common curriculum in elementary and middle school.  The deleterious effects of moving on student achievement is well-documented, and highly mobile, low-SES students suffer disproportionately.  If there were some reliable commonality of content from grade to grade and school to school, at least within districts, students might spend less time catching up and more time learning. 

The same is true for assumptive teaching.  Time spent amassing an inventory of student skills and background knowledge is time not spent learning new things.   “Meet the children where they are” is a standard teaching homily.   Isn’t is merely making a virtue of necessity?  In the absence of a common curriculum, standards and assessments we have to meet them where they are.  We have no idea where they have been. 



  1. Assumptive teaching works when students are not allowed to enter your class without certain background knowledge. This, unfortunately, does not reflect the current situation in many places.

    In my class, for example, I had to redo my unit on operations with polynomials twice, finally going back to extreme basics, because my 8th graders didn’t know what multiplication was. Each one was pretty well versed in how to do basic multiplication, but not one could define multiplication without using the word “multiply.” I finally had to spend a few days converting back and forth between repeated addition and multiplication with numbers, then from repeated multiplication to exponents with numbers before even touching a variable.

    Some of this was a result of poor retention. Much of it, however, was a result of poorly chosen curricula, implemented by overworked teachers who are not very comfortable with their own mathematical skills, and a complete lack of cross-grade planning. There is no time for teachers to get together and discuss what skills students need going from one grade to another.

    The simple fact is that students have absolutely no business leaving 3rd grade, much less entering 8th grade without such basic skills. I don’t have the authority to send them back where they belong, so I have to deal with them where they are.

    Comment by Obi-Wandreas — February 9, 2010 @ 9:03 am

  2. I teach social studies courses at the high school level in Illinois, where social studies is not tested. As a result of the lack of testing, most administrators (and many teachers) do not worry too much about the content area in the elementary and middle grades. I have literally heard principals say “well, social studies isn’t tested, so it doesn’t matter.”

    When I first took the position, I inquired with the elementary principal about what they do with social studies in his school. His response: “not much.” The middle school social studies teachers told me they treat their classes like language arts classes: content doesn’t matter, reading strategies and “thinking” skills do.

    As a result, as one might predict, those of my students who come from more privileged backgrounds have a significantly higher amount of content knowledge as compared to their less privileged peers, who have almost none. As a result, many of my students read fluently in my content area while others struggle.

    The severity of the discrepancy between the highest and lowest end of the spectrum makes teaching extraordinarily difficult and speaks to the arguments E.D. Hirsch and others have been making for decades. It is a travesty that my underprivileged students have been done such a disservice.

    Comment by AJGuzzaldo — February 9, 2010 @ 10:01 am

  3. I teach seventh grade literature, language arts and medieval world history. The amount of background knowledge that goes into comprehending these subjects is vast (and fluctuating, as curriculum fluctuates). Is it really feasilbe to administer a battery of tests that will give me a MRI-like map of what knowledge exists in individual brains and what needs to be backfilled? I’m not even sure I know what the relevant background knowledge is! Ed leaders seem to think that such a map is the key to better teaching; I’m skeptical that such a map can ever be made. But in a Core Knowledge school you can get a rough, but fairly accurate idea of what contents previous teachers have put in your kids’ brains. And you can have some faith that this content prepares them for the next year’s content.

    Comment by Ben F — February 9, 2010 @ 10:47 am

  4. Ben F, I agree with you.

    I mentioned the challenge of teaching students with such incredible differences in background knowledge in my last post.

    Ed leaders, as you pointed out, would tell me I need to pretest my students and then differentiate my instruction (or scaffold) to address the disparity. But, how can I possibly back fill content knowledge some of my students should have been acquiring over the course of years and years?

    Essentially, what I’d be doing is teaching elementary level content to some students while teaching grade level appropriate content to others. Ed leaders would also argue that the two categories of students should be graded differently, as well, so that an A for one student might mean mastering elementary level objectives while an A for another student might mean mastering high school level objectives.

    The more logical and less problematic solution is to hold teachers accountable for knowledge based curriculum at each grade level so that by the time students reach high school their teachers have a more accurate understanding of what they should know. That is the only way to close the achievement gap and the only ethical way to ensure equal educational opportunity.

    Comment by Anonymous — February 9, 2010 @ 11:31 am

  5. I agree that assumptive teaching is a huge problem. I have far fewer problems with a description of best practices under the title How Its Being Done, as opposed to Its Being done. Her first book and title impied that “it” could and was being widely done in neighborhood schools and secondary schools. assumsptive teaching is not nearly as problematical in choice schools where a more manageable percentage of students are not as far behind. When the vast majority of students are 4,5 or more years behond, everything becomes more challenging. (She acknowledged in her first book, however, that she had almost given up finding a middle school that was High Poverty High Performance, and neither of her secondary school examples were in the toughest 5% of schools.)

    A core curriculum can help at the edges of the most extreme situations, but I doubt it will matter much in secondary schools facing the toughest dilemmas. Better curriculum could reduce the percentages of kids in horribly failing secondary schools, but as long as families suffer from cancer, addiction, joblessness, incarceration etc. there will be schools where we need to face the problem of assumptive teaching.

    Fundamentally, the solutions for assumptive teaching must come back to listening, and relationship-building. The younger the student, the more help that teachers will get from DIAGNOSTIC testing. But in the later teen years we need the opposite of standardization. We need more autonomy for teachers. We need teachers more attuned to nuance. We need teachers with the people skills to figure out where the kids are coming from and respond to them, not top down dictates.

    That does not contradict Core Knoweldge; it just complements it with problems that defy any simple set of solutions.

    Comment by john thompson — February 9, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

  6. Jeff,
    I agree with most of your points, except one. Autonomy for teachers is only effective if you can assume teachers are all dedicated, educated, knowledgeable, and willing.

    Unfortunately, because you cannot make those assumptions, teacher autonomy is a part of the problem and I don’t believe it should be part of the solution.

    Comment by AJGuzzaldo — February 9, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

  7. This is a particularly important thread. And “assumptive teaching” is a great phrase.

    All teaching is assumptive teaching, not least because all talking and listening is assumptive. This technical insight was the primary insight behind Core Knowledge.

    The special problem for the teacher is that he/she is talking and listening to a group of twenty or so. Unless the educational system has somehow provided all the students in the class with the minimal assumptions needed for comprehension to occur, the teacher’s task becomes increasingly difficult – no increasingly impossible! – as students move upward in the grades towards high school, after having experienced fragmented instruction in earlier grades. In the U.S., that’s why academic achievement depends more on family background than it does in more coherent systems where the assumed preparatory knowledge for each grade has been built up in prior grades. The need for cumulative preparation is obvious in math. It’s less obvious but equally true for all academic subjects.

    Stevenson and Stigler had an immortal sentence in their book “The Learning Gap” to the effect that the sort of diversity which makes teaching difficult in the United States is not ethnic and economic diversity (which many other countries have these days) but rather diversity of academic preparation.

    Those in this thread who point to problems in students’ backgrounds are right. But if their students had experienced a more coherent and cumulative curriculum from very earliest grades, those backgrounds would be far less determinative. Karen Chenoweth, the author of the phrase “assumptive teaching” makes that very point in “How It’s Being Done” when she describes the remarkable with-it-ness and eagerness of seventh graders from extremely diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds who had gone through six or seven prior grades of Core Knowledge.

    Comment by Don Hirsch — February 9, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

  8. AjGuzzaldo,

    I just told you all how to do it. Now you want me to say how to get it done? If autonomy for teachers requires a qualified teacher for every classroom, then go out and get a qualified teacher for every classroom. All I’m asking on curriculum is a synthesis between the seemingly contradictory goals of standardized curriculum and autonomy. Surely I don’t have to both raise the issue and solve it?

    Seriously, I think there is a lot of truth in Stevenson’s and Stigler’s sentence, but a lot of falshood also. My intuition tells me that the diversity of academic preparation is dwarfed by other factors.

    Of course, if all my students had had Core Knowledge in elementary school, I’d be seeing things differently, and pontificating just as confidently but probably saying different things. We’re all blind men touching different parts of the elephant. Unless that changes, I think we need to work out balance that addresses differing qualities of teachers with the need for coherence, but based on the principle that the teachers’ autonomy is as valued as any other of the most important values.

    Comment by john thompson — February 9, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

  9. Diversity of academic preparation indeed makes teaching more challenging. Common standards, curriculum, and assessments could certainly minimize said diversities and in the process make teaching more manageable. So what are we waiting for?

    BTW, diversity of academic preparation also makes one size fits all, one lesson for the whole class each day, even more absurd. Talk about making the difficult, impossible!

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 9, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

  10. AJ,

    I’m not talking about differentiated learning per say, although that would be an improvement in terms of alternatives to whole class instruction.

    I would direct you instead to the archives (at top of page) section of this blog, click on December, 2009, and look for a thread on “Individualized Instruction.” That would better explain what I’m suggesting.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 10, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

  11. I am glad to have sparked so much conversation. Thanks, Robert, for bringing the conversation over here.

    Don, you are absolutely correct that “assumptive teaching” would have far fewer terrors for kids if all kids could count on drawing on roughly the same slowly-accrued background knowledge. A student who has a good grounding in the U.S. Constitution and the role of the Supreme Court can begin discussing Plessy v. Ferguson, whereas the student who hasn’t got that background knowledge is lost and floundering.

    So the two questions for the field of education are: how do we ensure all students get the same basic grounding in facts and skills; and how to we catch students up who missed out on that preparation?

    The answer of “teacher autonomy” strikes me as a non-sequitor.

    Comment by Karin Chenoweth — February 11, 2010 @ 11:36 am

  12. Karin,

    Given infinite resources, I think we probably could figure out a way to surgically remediate lacunae in individual student’s minds. But we’re entering an era of increasing austerity. What’s increasingly occurring is that teachers’ time and energy is being siphoned away from good lesson planning and grading into diagnostic test administration –we don’t have the money to pay others to do this. We test, test, test, –for what? A piddling amount of usable information. One or two kids who we already knew were really bad readers get pulled from class once or twice a week to get drilled in reading strategies. Did we really need to do all that work just for this? We hav no money to fund more interventions. And I’m dubious these interventions even work. Meanwhile, the quality of instruction declines because so much time and energy has been redirected into the testing regime. Teachers find themselves having to give the kids coloring projects for a week in order to administer testing at the back of the room with individual students. The majority of kids learn less so that we can identify two low-performing students for intervention. One teacher here has hired her daughter to enter testing data into the computer –clearly this testing is having serious impacts on teachers’ time and energy –for little payoff.
    It seems to me that this testing and intervention regime to remediate lacunae is a failure and can never be feasilbe. The only feasible, economical thing to do is PREVENT lacunae from ever developing.

    Comment by Ben — February 11, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

  13. I jokingly commented earlier because we’re discussing contradictory realities that must be held together. You can’t just have autonomy for everyone but the teacher. Addressing real problems with the shortage of teachers defies simple solutions.

    If all men were angels we wouldn’t need laws, and if all management embraced the principles of Core Knowledge, we wouldn’t need this discussion.

    But we were given a curriculum pacing guide from adistrict at the forefront of “teacher quality.” Sophomores should master: colonialism; the causes and effects of World War I; the causes and the effects of the Bolshevik Revolution; the causes and effects of the Depression; the causes and effects of World War II; the causes and effects of the Cold War; post-war independence and national movements; trench warfare, the Blitzkrieg, the Russian front in World War II, genocide, the Korean and Vietnam Wars as case studies of the Cold War; and key leaders in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

    The curriculum pacing guide allotted two to three weeks to cover that material.

    Chenowith needs to read the cognitive and social science, like you link to at Public School Insights.

    If she does see the value of teacher autonomy she ought to open her eyes and look. She’s just reinforced my opinio that she has an awfully tin ear regarding teaching and instruction.

    Comment by john thompson — February 12, 2010 @ 9:30 am

  14. Ouch–a tin ear. That certainly stings. Maybe I should have taken more care in expressing my view.

    It seems to me there should be a lot of teacher autonomy in the sense of HOW to teach–that is, coming up with innovative lessons, organizing instruction, etc. But what shouldn’t be left to teachers is WHAT to teach. For one thing, it isn’t fair to teachers–it is way too much work to not only figure out how to teach but also what to teach. For another, it isn’t fair to students, who are shunted from one teacher to the next throughout their school careers. If there is no coordination and no consistent, coherent curriculum they are liable to read Mr. Popper’s Penguins three times and never read Robin Hood. That is exactly the problem that Core Knowledge aims to solve, and from what I can tell solves it pretty well.

    Comment by Karin Chenoweth — February 12, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

  15. I have been thinking about this:

    “Some of them visibly recoiled when I said that highly successful schools with significant percentages of minority and low-income students achieve success by collaborating on careful plans of instruction mapped to state or college-preparatory standards, complete with common formative assessments and data systems so they can track how well each of their students is doing and ensure that each of them gets the help they need.”

    The thing is, if I were a school administrator, I would recoil too–not because I didn’t want to improve, but because of the heavy layer of jargon and the questions that this statement does not address.

    1) Are the state and college-preparatory standards meaningful?
    2) Are they compatible with a rich curriculum in literature, history, science, math, foreign languages, and arts?
    3) Do the assessments test what students are learning in these subjects, or are they tests of general skills?
    4) Does this “collaboration on careful plans of instruction” have a grounding in an excellent curriculum?
    5) Are teachers also given time to work and plan alone? (Too much “collaboration” can result in no one having time to think about anything and therefore having nothing to bring to the meetings.)

    If the standards have substance, if the curriculum is rich, if the assessments are tied to the curriculum, and if the teachers have room for thoughtful collaboration, then Chenoweth’s prescription makes a lot of sense.

    If, on the other hand, the standards are vapid, the curriculum and assessments are “standards-based,” and the “collaboration” erodes thoughtful planning, then it seems schools would be trapped in mediocrity even if they can drive their test scores up.

    Now, there is evidence that schools with a strong curriculum (e.g., CK) do very well on tests–but they do this precisely by going beyond the state tests and standards. The state tests and standards need not hold a school back. If a state has excellent standards, so much the better, but even then a school should see beyond the standards. The standards may say nothing about European history, yet the school may offer a superb European history course. The standards may say nothing about ancient Greek drama, yet the school may offer an ancient Greek drama course. All of this will contribute to students’ education, yet only obliquely will it be standards-based.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 13, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

  16. Well-said, Diana.

    “Collaboration” gets thrown around a lot on my campus. And it is has bad connotations for me. Because most of my best lessons were hatched after long reading in my subject, slow digestion of the content, a brainstorm while driving my Civic, a drafting session with a pad at a cafe, a re-drafting session later on in my living room. Units and lessons gestate slowly in my mind. They do not grow in ninety-minute collaboration sessions with my colleagues.

    Comment by Ben F — February 13, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

  17. Maybe I’m too loose in my use of the word autonomy too. I’ve also thought a lot about this – more so as I hear many of the same things from the best young teachers. They have this attitude of “ours is not to reason why,
    Ours is to do and die.

    You signed up to be a teacher. suffer in silence.

    Implicit in my concept of autonomy is a value system where teachers fight back against educational malpractice being demanding in the name of “Curriculum Alignment,” especially when it like in The Wire, it this year’s term for teach the test.

    To have thoughtful collaboration, everyone must give up some autonomy. To do so, however, teachers must have confidence in their retained autonomy. There must be a value system where the teacher says No!

    These thoughts are contradictory, but sports shows how they are doable. Everyone is taught to “play your own position” but also help out on defense. Players are team members but they are also taught to think on their feet. Quarterbacks are taught when to audible and when not to. Runners are taught when to strain for that extra inch (like a TFAer every day} and when not to and to wrap up the ball.

    Teachers should teach the same creative tension. To do that, they must model the understanding that “a foolish consistency is the hoob goblin of little minds.”

    Comment by john thompson — February 14, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

  18. I’ve been returning to this thread now and then for some time, and am not quite sure what to make of it all.

    I’m not sure whether the term “assumptive teaching” is useful or not. Is there any other kind? You always must make some assumptions about what students know or don’t know. You’ll always be wrong about some things, and right about other things. I would think the idea of assumptive teaching would become a useful term only in certain situations. An example might be when we come across some reason to think we have been making the wrong assumptions in some systematic way.

    I am an admirer of E. D. Hirsch and much in sympathy with the core curriculum idea, as I understand it anyway. But I am increasingly thinking that I might be seeing it a little differently than others. I feel content is very important, but I am not too sure about the degree to which content should be uniform for all students.

    I don’t know much about elementary school, but consider this scenario. Social studies Teacher A starts the year with a class of seventh graders. They come from several different elementary or middle schools, all of which gave the sixth grade teachers a lot of autonomy in what and how they taught sixth grade social studies. Teacher B also teaches seventh grade social studies, but she starts the year with students who all came from the same middle school, and where the sixth grade teachers were required to closely follow a detailed curriculum. Who is in the better position to do a good job with the seventh graders, Teacher A or Teacher B.

    At this point in this thought experiment I think there might be general agreement that Teacher B is the fortunate one.

    But now let me change the scenario a bit. Teacher A’s students do not have a high degree of uniformity in the topics they studied in sixth grade social studies, but let’s say that all the middle and elementary schools that sent these students had good teachers who were serious about content. Let’s further say that the students came from home backgrounds in which parents take an active interest in their children’s education, expected kids to do assignments well and turn them in on time, and gave their kids help when needed. And let’s say that these teachers mostly used direct whole-class instruction, gave assignments, quizzes, and tests, and in general did things that my teachers did when I was in the sixth or seventh grade. In other words, the students of Teacher A had a wide variation in curriculum, but they all had good substantial content-rich instruction.

    And now let’s say that Teacher B has students similar blessed with good parents, but a curriculum much closer to whole language than McGuffey’s readers. Let’s say the schools who sent students to Teacher B thought it was pretty creative for students to sit around a pretend campfire and pretend to be members of some primitive culture, and to tell about their feelings. and so on. Let’s further say that these teachers will give written assignments, provided they are in the form of collaborative projects, and will give tests, if they have to, but they really prefer to have students draw posters to express their feelings and to assemble these posters and whatever else they do into portfolios, and call that “authentic assessment”.

    I am only imagining. As I said, I don’t know much about elementary school. But my intuition tells me that Teacher A, assuming he wants to teach substantial content, would be at a great advantage over Teacher B. If teacher A is going to teach about Europe, and some of his students learned a lot about Latin America in the sixth grade, and some of his students learned a lot about the Civil War in the sixth grade, a couple of his students were home schooled and know an impressive amount about their church history, and the rest of his students learned about anything but Europe in the sixth grade, I would still expect that he is the fortunate one.

    In a very real sense I am talking about twenty-first century skills. I’m all in favor of twenty-first century skills. But of course I consider twenty-first century skills virtually synonymous with nineteenth century skills, and I believe those skills are developed only by learning substantial content. In my scenario I envision that the students of Teacher A have the skills that count. They have the skills to take an assignment that Teacher A might give, “Read section one and answer the questions at the end” and make it a productive learning experience. They know how to deal with text. They know how to deal with ideas. They know what to expect when Teacher A “goes over the lesson” the next day. They know how to prepare for class the next day.

    Or maybe I’m all wrong. That’s just the way it looks to me.

    Comment by Brian Rude — February 16, 2010 @ 9:50 am

  19. looks that way to me also. and i’d throw into the scenario the aligned teachers who were required to do educational malpractice by rushing through the aligned curriculum. everyone sees it differently, but i see that as typical.

    Comment by john thompson — February 16, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

  20. Unfortunately, assumptive teaching is a byproduct of changes in our society. Previously, students were expected to have a certain level of mastery before moving on to the next skill, grade, or class. Teachers could safely assume that the majority of students in an Algebra I class had covered the foundational skills. Now, however, students are not expected to demonstrate mastery of individual skills in many districts. If they don’t “discover” the meaning for themselves this year, they are told that they’ll see it again when they spiral back to it. Without requiring mastery, students lack the foundational skills that teachers assume they would have to enter their class or grade.

    Comment by Paul — February 16, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

  21. Students also move more often than was customary, both within and across states, with all of the curriculum and standards variations that entails. I think that this is a big issue, especially at the lower end of the SES continuum. It’s not often mentioned by those people who say that Finland, France, Singapore, Japan, Korea etc. do such-and-such better than we do (later start age, heterogeneous grouping, status/pay for teachers etc) rarely mention that all those countries have a specific, nationalized curriculum and a much less mobile population, in addition to major cultural and size differences. It’s a lot easier to make valid assumptions about previous knowledge and skills if all kids are the products of the same curriculum.

    Comment by momof4 — February 16, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

  22. I think momof4 raises a crucial point. In Brian Rude’s thought experiment, it doesn’t sound as if anyone is moving around much, whereas we know American kids move around a lot and low-income children move more than middle-class kids. It is one of the many reasons that low-income students find themselves struggling in school.

    I know that giving up having control of curriculum and content is difficult for teachers. But I recall what the principal of a very high-performing school within a fairly high-performing district that coordinated curriculum across all elementary schools said:

    “You may think you have a better way, but consistency IS the better way.” Her point was that low-income children in particular, who move around her district a lot, “don’t miss a beat” when they change schools.

    And, by the way, teachers were not complaining. “I’m creative in how I teach,” said one.

    Comment by Karin Chenoweth — February 19, 2010 @ 9:51 am

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