A Wince a Day Keeps My Hopes at Bay

by Guest Blogger
April 17th, 2013

I’ve long been aware of the widespread misconception that comprehension, critical thinking, and the like are content-free skills. Wanting to help correct that delusion is one of the main reasons I joined the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Having been with the foundation for a little over a month, I’m seeing the skills-don’t-need-content fallacy everywhere. My neck is starting to ache from all this wincing.

Today’s encounter really caught me by surprise. It came from one of my favorite organizations: the American Library Association (ALA). Maureen Sullivan, ALA’s president, wrote a compelling plea on the Huffington Post to save the nation’s school libraries:

Recently the ALA has tracked multiple news reports regarding school districts that have placed school librarian positions on the chopping block in response to budget deficits…. For example, Pasco County (Fla.) School Superintendent Kurt Browning proposed a plan to eliminate 28 school media specialist positions in the next school year because of a budget shortfall…. In Sarasota, Florida, more than 18,000 middle and high school students may be without a school librarian. Local school board officials there are considering a proposal to eliminate all school media specialists…. School Districts in Louisiana, Maryland, Washington State and New York State also are considering proposals or reorganization plans that would eliminate school librarians.

We all know that there are far too many students without books in their homes and without the safe streets or bus fare necessary to access a community library. School libraries are essential—the very fact that Sullivan has to plead for them is a sad commentary on America’s priorities.

All of that is wince worthy. But this is what got me:

School librarians help more than 30 million students each week navigate a vast landscape of digital content, because the majority of students still lack the ability to analyze information found online.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project Online Survey of Teachers found that although the Internet has opened up a vast world of information for today’s students, their digital literacy skills have yet to catch up. Twenty-four percent of those surveyed stated that students lack the ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online. Another 33 percent reported that students lack the ability to recognize bias in online content.

Of course they “still” lack those abilities. Assessing the quality, accuracy, and potential biases of information—no matter where that information is found—can only be done by those with lots of content knowledge. By the very nature of schooling, students are almost always studying content that is new to them, so they very rarely have the extensive knowledge needed to make such judgments.

These questions are asked regarding information found online because adults want students to be able to use the internet more effectively. We might be able to teach students to be generally cautious and skeptical online, but for real analysis, content knowledge is the only option.

To make my point, I’m going to share two “mere facts” that will make us all wince. Fact 1: It’s not just the internet that is full of inaccurate information, even widely used mathematics textbooks are highly error-prone. Fact 2: Very few of us, even few our mathematics education professors, have “the ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find” in these textbooks.

The extensive errors in five widely used algebra textbooks were documented in chapter 3 of the report by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. The lack of awareness of these problems has been explored by Hung-Hsi Wu, an emeritus mathematics professor at Berkeley. He places blame not on the math education professors (and certainly not on teachers), but on mathematicians:

As a mathematician surveying this catastrophic education mess, I have to admit that, when all is said and done, the mathematics community has to take the bulk of the blame. We think school mathematics is too trivial, and we think the politics of education is a bottomless pit not worthy of our attention. So we take the easy way out by ignoring all the goings-on in the schools…. even though we are daily confronted with evidence that it is not working.

Why doesn’t Wu blame the math education professors or the teachers—and why does he blame the mathematicians? Because he knows that this analysis of the accuracy of mathematics textbooks could only be done by those with deep knowledge of mathematics. Knowledge that, largely due to their neglect of the rest of us, only mathematicians have.

In school, when students are learning about things for the first time, why should we expect them to be able to analyze the information they find online? I can show you a 12-year-old boy who, having been crazy about dinosaurs since he first chewed on a T. rex, can analyze the accuracy of almost anything about dinosaurs. But that same boy would likely fall for the tree octopus.

Out of curiosity, I dug up the Pew survey Sullivan mentioned. The survey sample is not representative of all teachers; it is about two-thirds Advanced Placement teachers and one-third middle and high school National Writing Project teachers. Asked to rate their students excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor, the teachers rated

  • 61% fair or poor on “Ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online.”
  • 71% fair or poor on “Ability to recognize bias in online content.”
  • 59% fair or poor on “Ability to use multiple sources to effectively support an argument.”

Are these results good or bad? We have no way of knowing. These teachers could be challenging their students with a steady stream of new information and ideas. Students may be acquiring broad knowledge that can provide a foundation for future studies. The fact that so many do not yet have the deep knowledge needed for independent online research need not be a great concern—it merely tells us that they need to learn more. Or, these students could be generally uninformed; expected to build analysis skills but not taught relevant knowledge, they may be headed for failure in future studies.

If Pew wanted to find out, it could do a follow-up study to investigate the students’ academic content knowledge. It would likely find, as so many cognitive scientists already have, that students’ analytical skills and content knowledge develop together.



  1. Great piece, Lisa. Your posts are helping me keep the faith alive!

    Comment by Ponderosa — April 18, 2013 @ 1:28 am

  2. One issue I have with my local elementary school is WHICH content knowledge. Our school emphasizes science. So we have Ocean Week in which an enormous amount of capital and resources are devoted.

    Personally, I think we should be focusing on the humanities more than science at the younger grades. History, geography, civics: these all get short shrift at our school.

    Comment by Jim — April 18, 2013 @ 11:24 am

  3. Excellent post once again Lisa. As teachers, we all want our students to demonstrate higher order thinking or critical thinking: This is the apex of learning, unfortunately many educators believe that these things can be taught directly, when in fact higher-order thinking depends upon a foundation of knowledge. It is with this foundation that students will hopefully be able to stand on the shoulders of knowledge and think critically. Without this foundation, students who are asked to think critically are simply making guesses or spouting arguments which have no logic or evidence to support them. One can only think critically about, say the Pythagorean Theorem, if one has the basic math, algebra, and geometry necessary to move foward and try to apply the theorem or to create something using the principles of the theorem.

    Comment by KP — April 18, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

  4. I very much enjoy your blog!

    One possible contributor to the problem is that the advocates of 21rst Century Skills lack a deep understanding of Cognitive Psychology and learning in general. They can’t evaluate their own position because they lack the deep knowledge required to do so.

    Comment by Chuck G — April 18, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

  5. I agree with your post, and offer a small suggestion to elementary schools.

    I find that middle schools that offer debate seem to provide their students just the right balance between analytical ability and content knowledge. It is amazing how fast the middle schooler can learn about a topic and argue a point with relevant evidence to back them up. But only when they want to.

    Perhaps in a scaled down, simpler version upper grade levels at elementary schools should be challenging their students to debate simple topics in class. This will get the kids hunting for information and analyzing it.

    Comment by Sujata Krishna — April 18, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

  6. Chuck G-

    They know cognitive psychology but have a different version called developmental cognitive psychology. The developmental adjective, a tip-off to the originations in the USSR and Eastern Europe, usually gets dropped in the US.

    http://www.invisibleserfscollar.com/placing-a-global-bet-that-psychology-infused-via-education-can-change-human-beings-and-their-institutions/ is the cognitive psych that seems to be determined to ignore what we know about learning. It is because there is a different intention for what education is supposed to be about and learning itself is defined differently. It becomes about changing a student’s values, attitudes, and beliefs in order to change behavior in the future.

    The math wars are a similar problem. Lev Vygotsky’s research showed second-order symbolic systems like math and phonetic reading fuel the abstract mind. Social change agents do not like that.

    The real purpose of the teacher evals is to change classroom interactions. So far in the aggressive states and districts it is the able knowledgeable teachers getting the bad reviews. The just showing up types who have a poor grasp of subject are doing fine under the new reviews as they have no problem with a student-centered approach.

    Going to be an interesting next 12 to 18 months as the contrast between the rhetoric and the reaity becomes perfectly clear.

    Comment by Student of History — April 18, 2013 @ 7:32 pm

  7. Jim, at least at your school they study oceans for a week which must have some content knowledge attached. My school spends a full week on Dr. Seuss. This might have some relevance to kindergarten and first grade but I really question the value of devoting so much time, capital, and resources to “Red Fish Blue Fish” for 5th graders.

    Comment by Mary S. — April 18, 2013 @ 11:08 pm

  8. I can not tell you how often I have pushed back at teachers for the way they have asked students to research information. At least half of teachers never used the internet when they were in school and those who have came of age during a period where there was little training. More than a few studies of university level students have come back with disturbing results about student’s capacity do online research in the wider web. They often don’t know how to do complex quearies, how to ask for help, how to vet information…this issue alone is why deep knowledge is a critical component to both citizenship and education.

    Comment by DC Parent — April 19, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

  9. It’s important to note that “Ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online” can mean two distinct things. On the one hand, it can mean an assessment of the quality of the content of the online information itself, which of course demands deep content knowledge (which, God knows, is too frequently lacking). On the other hand, it can mean an assessment of the source of the online information — “Is this a site likely to be providing accurate information?” This is a judgment about the authority of the site, which is particularly important precisely when a student doesn’t have deep background knowledge of the subject. (That knowledge has to come from somewhere.) This is a concept the importance of which students — and teachers, and society generally — have a hard time grasping, and which our information environment makes pretty important. We all frequently need information about subjects we don’t know much about. In short, teaching “students to be generally cautious and skeptical online” is trickier than you might think. Of course, there’s no conflict between the two, and one would assume (or hope) they would go together.

    Comment by A Librarian — April 19, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

  10. Student of History:

    Interesting link! Thanks. In my little corner of the world, though, I don’t think people base their thinking on developmental cognitive psychology. They seem to be drawn to instructional practices that “feel” right, and which seem to be respectful of the rights of the child. They certainly mean well, but I don’t see them being particularly analytic.

    Comment by Chuck G — April 19, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

  11. Chuck G-

    I am following this at a local, national, and global level. When it hits a given school or district may vary by a few years depending on when Supers and Principals are replaced but this is where it is all going. Unfortunately I am in a district where the suburbs are being pushed to emulate the sociocultural/Deweyan practices that led to the Atlanta cheating scandal in the first place.

    We are part of the Harvard Strategic Data project and took in a district Super who came from a district that was part of the MET teacher eval project. He immediately brought in Cambridge Education to tell the teachers they could not teach the subject anymore. And Spence Rogers, one of the co-creators of Transformational Outcomes Based Education in the 90s, to do teacher professional development.

    I see this with a longer view because I am in an IB school in a district trying to be cutting edge. I am simply further down in the same onion as all of you telling you what is in store. Because I take the terms and track down the history.

    Common Core and Core Skills as it is called now in Australia starts to look much different when you have the research from the 90s laying out CORE–Cognitive Reorganization. And all the elements fit the rhetoric surrounding the actual Common Core implementation.

    Describing this is the only way to get back to content.

    Comment by Student of History — April 20, 2013 @ 7:19 am

  12. One well-known educational mantra reminds us that “There are no shortcuts.” For students to be able to “assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online” or “recognize the bias in online content” without acquiring adequate knowledge of the subject would be a nice shortcut indeed. This excellent blog post reminds us that this shortcut is not available.

    Indeed, the whole effort to teach intellectual skills minus their underlying content seems to be an effort to find shortcuts that do not exist. It’s analogous to the effort to shortcut the path to high test scores by teaching test-taking strategies rather than curricular content. In both cases, educators are under pressure to accomplish something quickly that in fact takes more time.

    One valuable thing we can all do for education is to keep pointing out the depth of knowledge that is required to exercise many “skills,” thus supporting those teachers and administrators who want to be given the time to build that knowledge in their students.

    Comment by Chrys Dougherty — April 20, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

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