Where in Queens, NY, can you find second graders comparing the Olympics in ancient Greece with our modern games—and using that discussion as an opportunity to review the use of past and present verbs? Or third graders preparing travel guides on the Amazon, Orinoco, Nile, and Yellow rivers? What about essays by fourth graders on the Chinese painter and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu, small groups of fifth graders discussing the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, or sixth graders writing out what they would say if they were reporters during the French Revolution?
I saw all that and more yesterday during a visit to P.S. 124, the Osmond A Church school. This K–8 school has been using the Core Knowledge Sequence for 14 years. Students’ writing and related artwork line the halls and dangle from the ceilings. As the principal, Valarie Lewis, said several times, the Core Knowledge “is a thinking curriculum.” Whether in a presentation to the class or in an essay (usually both in this demanding school), Core Knowledge gives students something significant to say. And as I saw, the educators throughout P.S. 124 ensure that they learn to say it well.
Far from dry facts, the Sequence provides teachers the core content they need to develop engaging domain-based studies that immerse students in cross-curricular units—like the fourth graders who learned about medieval castles and trebuchets. Not only did they read and write about medieval warfare and weapons, they built trebuchets and launched paper balls to knock down paper castles. These children were not ready to write the equations, but they did grasp how lever action makes a trebuchet more powerful than a regular catapult.
For Lewis and her staff, test scores are interesting, but students’ writing is what shows not only what students have learned, but to what extent they have assimilated it and are able to use it to more deeply comprehend and question the world. In the halls, students’ essays are often posted along with their drafts—from an initial outline to drafts with teacher corrections and suggestions to the final product. Writing starts in kindergarten, becomes sophisticated by the middle of elementary school, and includes rigorous research papers in the seventh and eighth grades (on topics like the rise of dictators in the 20th century).
This focus on writing is not just for some students; all students are held to high standards. For example, in a special-needs kindergartner class, children had listened to The Three Little Pigs and then drawn pictures and written one sentence about what they would use to build their house. My favorite: lollipops! Meanwhile, in a special-needs sixth-grade class, students studying the industrial revolution were reading about and studying photos of factories so as to write lists of working conditions that needed to be improved. But those lists were not the final product; they were just the base facts collected in preparation for writing persuasive letters to historical factory owners.
One great challenge for the school is student mobility. Because the Core Knowledge Sequence builds knowledge year after year, revisiting and extending topics, students who enter school in the later grades find themselves far behind. P.S. 124 is there for them. Open until 6 in the evening and every Saturday for remediation and enrichment, this school is constantly finding new ways to meet all students’ needs. To extend learning into the home, parents receive copies of What Your [1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.] Grader Needs to Know. And to build strong connections between teachers and parents, the school hosts themed nights, such as a medieval festival in which children showed how they can tell stories through stained glass.
P.S. 124 makes delivering a strong education to all children look straightforward, but Lewis was careful to point out that her school is engaged in a never-ending process of trying to improve. She’s tough—and supportive. In working with teachers, she says she takes no excuses for children not learning, but she also asks teachers what they need and how they want to accomplish the schools’ ambitious learning goals. To deliver, Lewis has made some tough choices. For instance, a school her size should have four assistant principals; she has two, and she uses the savings to pay teachers for their extended hours.
When P.S. 124 adopted Core Knowledge, it went from a rather typical school in which teachers taught in isolation to a collaborative community. The teachers began working together, visiting classrooms, examining students’ work, sharing lessons—everything they could do to build on their strengths. To make adoption of the Sequence manageable, they phased it in, teaching one-third the first year, two-thirds the second, and the full Sequence in the third year of implementation. And to have some early successes, teachers started with whatever one-third of the content they were most comfortable with and had the most resources (like student readers) to draw on. Today, the teachers are able to teach the full Sequence and supplement it as they see fit—including adding content on Sikh culture due to a growing population of Sikh students.
After visiting a terrific school like P.S. 124, I always wonder, why don’t more schools embrace this type of rich, rigorous education? Why aren’t the benefits obvious to everyone? I think it often comes down to good intentions combined with faulty beliefs.
Earlier today, in a great post on Brookings’s Brown Center Chalkboard, senior fellow Tom Loveless examined the most recent fad pulling educators away from offering a content-rich curriculum:
In the past century, several alternatives have arisen to dethrone the prominent role of knowledge in schools: project-based learning, inquiry and discovery learning, higher-level thinking, critical thinking, outcome based education, and 21st Century Skills. Now it is deeper learning.
These ideas represent a variety of approaches to curriculum and pedagogy. They are not all the same, but they share one characteristic. All are advertised as transcending, and therefore superior to, academic content organized within traditional intellectual disciplines. It is not enough for students to know the major events of U.S. history, for example, but to be able to critically analyze the histories, any history, that one studies. Knowing about science is inferior to doing science. It is less important to learn the algorithms and articulated procedures of mathematics than to apply them in real world contexts while solving real world problems….
[For] a thorough critique of deeper learning or its philosophical kin … I urge you to read E.D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them. Published in 1996, the book pre-dates today’s deeper learning fad but convincingly rebuts its twentieth century ancestors, showing not only that these anti-knowledge movements lack anything resembling evidentiary support for their claims, but that they also, in disparaging academic content taught in public schools, exacerbate social inequality….
I am not disputing that some tasks are more cognitively demanding than others and some learning is more complex than other learning. Educators have known that for a long time. Bloom’s Taxonomy … laid out a hierarchy of skills: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation…. The first two layers, knowledge and comprehension, are synonyms for remembering and understanding what one has learned. Although the hierarchical structure of Bloom’s Taxonomy has been challenged, no serious model has emerged that eradicates the prerequisite roles of knowledge and comprehension. It is difficult to think deeply about Shakespeare without actually having read his work, remembering it, and grasping at least a good part of what he was saying.
Deeper learning, like its intellectual ancestors, tries to turn all of this on its head and upend the pre-eminence of knowledge…. I appreciate that aim, but it doesn’t work.
Indeed it does not. If you want to see what does work, just ask Valarie Lewis.