Knowledge Really Is Power

by Guest Blogger
June 18th, 2013

This post isn’t about KIPP, but I’ll start with thanking KIPP for keeping a fundamental truth alive: Knowledge is power. Knowledge enables us to develop, refine, and deploy skills. Knowledge opens doors both literally and figuratively, giving meaning to freedom and democracy.

Knowledge is essential, and it needs to be taught. So it’s with great pleasure that I offer this far-too-long post, with Sol Stern, Annie Murphy Paul, Daniel Willingham, E. D. Hirsch, and Tom Birmingham all making the case for knowledge.

Written as an open letter to the next mayor of New York City, Sol Stern’s article in the new City Journal makes a strong case for a content-rich curriculum:

Though children from disadvantaged families, and particularly from single-parent families, certainly tend to start school with less knowledge than middle-class students have, you can nevertheless pronounce confidently that educational improvement is possible, even in the toughest neighborhoods and lowest-performing schools.

We know that because it happened in Massachusetts…. The Bay State’s 1993 education-reform legislation established the country’s most demanding set of academic standards, which replaced trendy but ineffective pedagogical approaches with an old-fashioned emphasis on “content”—that is, knowledge. The standards eventually brought Massachusetts the greatest overall improvements in student performance in the nation, as measured by the NAEP….

The infrastructure for improvement is already in place, thanks to New York’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards…. If implemented properly—admittedly, a big “if”—the standards could start our schools on a long, difficult path to higher academic performance, not only for poor children but for all students.

Critics of the Common Core argue that the standards aren’t as demanding as Massachusetts’s. They’re right. But the Common Core is far superior to anything that previously passed for academic standards in New York. “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas,” say the standards’ accompanying documents. “Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” If a coherent, knowledge-based curriculum drove improvement in Massachusetts, it could do the same in New York City….

If you pick a schools chancellor and other top officials who keep up with education research, they will know that a consensus exists among cognitive scientists that building broad content knowledge in the early grades is the best way to raise reading comprehension for disadvantaged children. As education scholar E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has warned for the past quarter-century, many poor children remain functionally illiterate not because teachers are incompetent but because those teachers have been “compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum” that dismisses the accumulation of knowledge as “mere facts.” More, a knowledge-based curriculum provides the most promising long-term strategy for preparing all children, poor and middle-class alike, for success in college or, for those who don’t attend college, in the twenty-first-century workplace. As a bonus, the Common Core encourages teaching the historical and civic knowledge that children need to become informed citizens and better Americans.

Contrary to what some critics say, content-based curricula are hardly an untested idea that we should try in only a limited number of schools. Not only do we have the success story of Massachusetts; we can point to the city’s field test of Hirsch’s content-based Core Knowledge literacy program in several schools between 2008 and 2011. The test showed that Core Knowledge produced significantly greater gains for students than the school system’s most widely used reading program (see “The Curriculum Reformation,” Summer 2012).

You still shouldn’t promise miracles, of course. There will be no overnight double-digit leaps in test scores…. It will take more than a few years to change the culture of teaching and restore the priority of knowledge acquisition in the classroom.

Changing the culture of teaching (which would entail changing most teacher preparation programs) will indeed be difficult. One major obstacle to overcome is the idea that students no longer need to acquire knowledge—with the right skills, they can just look up what they need to know whenever they need to know it. In a new post, Annie Murphy Paul addresses that myth:

What kind of information do we need to have stored in our heads, and what kind can we leave “in the cloud,” to be accessed as necessary?

The answer will determine what we teach our students, what we expect our employees to know, and how we manage our own mental resources. But before I get to that answer, I want to tell you about the octopus who lives in a tree.

In 2005, researchers at the University of Connecticut asked a group of seventh graders to read a website full of information about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, or Octopus paxarbolis…. Applying an analytical model they’d learned, the students evaluated the trustworthiness of the site and the information it offered.

Their judgment? The tree octopus was legit. All but one of the pupils rated the website as “very credible.” The headline of the university’s press release read, “Researchers Find Kids Need Better Online Academic Skills,” and it quoted Don Leu, professor of education at UConn and co-director of its New Literacies Research Lab, lamenting that classroom instruction in online reading is “woefully lacking.”

There’s something wrong with this picture, and it’s not just that the arboreal octopus is, of course, a fiction…. The other fable here is the notion that the main thing these kids need—what all our kids really need—is to learn online skills in school. It would seem clear that what Leu’s seventh graders really require is knowledge: some basic familiarity with the biology of sea-dwelling creatures that would have tipped them off that the website was a whopper (say, when it explained that the tree octopus’s natural predator is the sasquatch).

But that’s not how an increasingly powerful faction within education sees the matter. They are the champions of “new literacies”—or “21st century skills” or “digital literacy” or a number of other faddish-sounding concepts. In their view, skills trump knowledge, developing “literacies” is more important than learning mere content, and all facts are now Google-able and therefore unworthy of committing to memory….

Indeed, evidence from cognitive science challenges the notion that skills can exist independent of factual knowledge….

Just because you can Google the date of Black Tuesday doesn’t mean you understand why the Great Depression happened or how it compares to our recent economic slump. And sorting the wheat from the abundant online chaff requires more than simply evaluating the credibility of the source (the tree octopus material was supplied by the “Kelvinic University branch of the Wild Haggis Conservation Society,” which sounded impressive to the seventh graders in Don Leu’s experiment). It demands the knowledge of facts that can be used to independently verify or discredit the information on the screen.

Okay, students really do have to learn things. Knowledge really is power. How should we go about teaching them all this knowledge? Many educators have been taught that the best approach is the supposedly natural one: having students explore, making observations and discoveries. But according to recent research, it appears as through directly teaching students is both natural and—more importantly—highly effective. In yet another must-read post on his science and education blog, Daniel Willingham explained this research:

I don’t much care about “naturalness” one way or the other. As long as learning is happening, I’m happy, and I think the value some people place on naturalness is a hangover from a bygone Romantic era, as I describe here.

Now a fascinating paper by Patrick Shafto and his colleagues … leads to implications that call into doubt the idea that exploratory learning is especially natural or authentic.

The paper focuses on a rather profound problem in human learning. Think of the vast difference in knowledge between a new born and a three-year-old; language, properties of physical objects, norms of social relations, and so on. How could children learn so much, so rapidly?…

Much of the research on this problem has focused on the idea that there must be innate assumptions or biases on the part of children that help them make sense of their observations…. Many models using these principles have not attached much significance to the manner in which children encounter information. Information is information.

Shafto et al. point out why that’s not true. They draw a distinction between three different cases with the following example. You’re in Paris, and want a good cup of coffee.

1) You walk into a cafe, order coffee, and hope for the best.
2) You see someone who you know lives in the neighborhood. You see her buying coffee at a particular cafe so you get yours there too.
3) You see someone you know lives in the neighborhood. You see her buying coffee at a particular cafe. She sees you observing her, looks at her cup, looks at you, and nods with a smile

In the first case you acquire information on your own. There is no guiding principle behind this information acquisition. It is random, and learning where to find good coffee will slow going with this method.

In the second scenario, we anticipate that the neighborhood denizen is more knowledgeable than we–she probably knows where to get good coffee. Finding good coffee ought to be much faster if we imitate someone more knowledgeable than we. At the same time, there could be other factors at work. For example, it’s possible that she thinks the coffee in that cafe is terrible, but it’s never crowded and she’s in a rush that morning.

In the third scenario, that’s highly unlikely. The woman is not only knowledgeable, she communicates with us; she knows what we want to know and she can tell us that the critical feature we care about is present. Unlike scenario #2, the knowledgeable person is adjusting her actions to maximize our learning.

More generally, Shafto et al suggest that these cases represent three fundamentally different learning opportunities; learning from physical evidence, learning from the observation of goal-directed action, and learning from communication.

Shafto et al argue that although some learning theories assume that children acquire information at random, that’s likely false much of the time. Kids are surrounded by people more knowledgeable than they. They can see, so to speak, where more knowledgeable people get their coffee.

Further, adults and older peers often adjust their behavior to make it easier for children to draw the right conclusion…. more knowledgeable others often do take into account what the child knows, and speak so as to maximize what the child can learn. If an adult asked “what’s that?”  I might say “It’s Westphalian ham on brioche.” If a toddler asked, I‘d say “It’s a sandwich.”

One implication is that the problem I described—how do kids learn so much, so fast—may not be quite as formidable as it first seemed because the environment is not random. It has a higher proportion of highly instructive information….

The second implication is this: when a more knowledgeable person not only provides information but tunes the communication to the knowledge of the learner, that is, in an important sense, teaching.

So whatever value you attach to “naturalness,” bear in mind that much of what children learn in their early years of life may not be the product of unaided exploration of their environment, but may instead be the consequence of teaching. Teaching might be considered a quite natural state of affairs.

I’ll leave the summing up to two leaders of the charge to ensure that all students acquire the knowledge (and skills—they go together!) they need.

E. D. Hirsch, chiming in on Willingham’s blog, noted:

Readers … should be aware of the relevant comments of the most curmudgeonly education commissioner California ever had, Max Rafferty, with regard to the natural teaching methods. “Schooling is not a natural process at all. It’s highly artificial. No boy in his right mind ever wanted to study multiplication tables and historical dates when he could be out hunting rabbits or climbing trees. In the days when hunting and climbing contributed to the survival of homo sapiens there was some sense in letting the kids do what comes naturally, but when man’s future began to hang upon the systematic mastery of orderly subject matter, the primordial, happy-go-lucky, laissez faire kind of learning had to go. [...] The story of mankind is the rise of specialization with its highly artificial concomitants. [...] When writing was invented, “natural” education went down the drain of history. From then on, children were destined to learn artificially. [...] This is civilization — the name of the game. [...] All civilization is artificial.” Actually, I think Rafferty understated the case. The pre-historic kid had to be taught by a grownup how to hunt rabbits — at least if the group was going to be successful.

Natural or not, acquiring academic knowledge is necessary. To the extent that we ignore the power of knowledge, and the efficiency and effectiveness of teaching it directly, we are locking the doors that a content-rich education would open. Tom Birmingham, former president of the Massachusetts Senate and coauthor of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, clearly stated our dire situation just a few days ago in the Boston Globe:

As education theorist E.D. Hirsch Jr. has demonstrated, achievement gaps are really knowledge gaps. Poor kids tend to have access to less background knowledge outside school than privileged kids. Unless poor kids are exposed to the same academically rich content in school that more affluent kids can get at home, we consign these students to second-class citizenship.



  1. This chorus of respected voices brought me cheer today! Thank you for this uplifting and interesting piece.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 18, 2013 @ 5:17 pm

  2. Just got out of a two-day Common Core “bootcamp” put on by the county office of education. The good news: in examining the standards closely, I saw lots of room for doing good, rigorous teaching with meaty content. I was surprised to find so much language that I could point to to justify the kind of teaching I want to do. The bad news: the presenters downplayed the pro-content parts of the standards and played up the skills-drills aspects. They spoke of Cris Tovani, Kate Kinsella and Tony Wagner as their gurus. The brave new world they sketch out looks pretty dystopian to me: grim analyses of text complexity; analyzing lessons for their rating on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge wheel; forcing kids to do grueling analyses of random texts to build up their text complexity reading skills… During breaks I approached the presenters and made my case for E.D. Hirsch’s approach to building reading comprehension skills and teaching Tier 3 vocab (they told us to teach Tier 2). They seemed totally unfamiliar with these arguments and, I’m sad to say, not very receptive.

    Comment by Ponderosa — June 18, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

  3. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our standards, but in ourselves (meaning the education establishment). Unfortunately most of the “experts” called in to train teachers on the standards are completely ignoring the knowledge building aspect of the standards. They are continuing to emphasize the skills only approach and treat any knowledge gained as a secondary accident. We need more people like those mentioned in this post to keep insisting on the power of knowledge and curriculum to increase real learning.

    Comment by Mary S. — June 19, 2013 @ 12:43 am

  4. My small, urban district again posted weak scores on the annual state tests. I truly feel that if we embraced the thoughts expressed in this post progress could be made. How does a parent go about bringing these ideas into the school improvement skills.
    The most recent article had school board members discussing whether the strategies being used would help all students, minorities or some other sub-group. No discussion of knowledge or students lack of it.

    Comment by Genevieve — June 19, 2013 @ 9:47 am

  5. Ponderosa,

    Your experience matches what I am hearing and downloading via videos and seeing in our suburban district. It fits with what teachers are saying they are being told all over the country.

    High school students have begun telling me that they want to know why their teachers are not allowed to teach the material anymore and just allow them to BYOD internet surf in class.

    Here in the suburbs we are promoting admins who have barely taught who then inform parents that research now shows that “what we feel is more important than what we know.”

    So are we to close the achievement gap by having rich content in schools that cater to the disadvantaged and no content in the UMC suburban schools? Where the parents remain convinced that with all they pay in property taxes it cannot happen to them?


    My downloads recently included a link to the CK K-2 template for the Common Core implementation because that was in the package of a major urban district’s links.

    Will CK be doing more for later grades?

    Also there was a mention of a CK alliance with Expeditionary Learning. Can you describe that at some point? How does student-centered and project based mesh with CK?

    Comment by Student of History — June 19, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

  6. If the NCTQ study published yesterday has any merit, the surge of skills is not surprising. People who teach workshops came out of these same systems. They are skill driven, not content driven. I have a friend completing an education Master’s degree, only 4 of her classes have actually focused on what she would teach and they are stretched across so many grades that they lack any concrete specificity. At the high poverty/ ell school she is student teaching the senior teachers readily admit they have no strategies for children grades behind and new English speakers. One teacher told her that she was responsible for a child being a fluent reader, it was a child’s responsiblity to understand what she was reading. I want the Common Core to succeed but it sometimes feels like it is a pretty lid on the trashcan of American education.

    Comment by DC Parent — June 19, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

  7. Hi Student of History,

    I will need a little more information to fully answer your question, but I am guessing that your downloads included Core Knowledge Language Arts:

    CKLA for preschool through second grade was selected by New York as its model ELA curriculum for meeting the Common Core State Standards. (It has also been recommended by New York City.)

    New York’s RFP for Common Core-aligned elementary curricula broke the elementary grades into P-2 and 3-5. Since we had only developed CKLA through grade 3, we only bid on P-2. We won that contract, and Expeditionary Learning won the 3-5 contract.

    Going forward, we are developing CKLA for grades 4 and 5; we expect that within a year (or so) CKLA will span preschool through grade 5.

    Schools can also meet the Common Core standards using the Core Knowledge Sequence, which spans preschool through grade 8: Of course, this is the basis for schools to write their own content-rich curriculum and lesson plans; it is not a fully developed, comprehensive program the way CKLA is.


    Comment by Lisa Hansel — June 19, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

  8. Thanks Lisa.

    It was actually Washoe I was looking at.

    And I was hoping for more sequences so good. One of the things I am concerned about that also involves CK beyond the skill discussion is that the references to knowledge involve supplying the Big Ideas or concepts and then giving an illustration. These are also being called Enduring Understandings and Understandings of Consequence. And many are not factually true but are designed to be the framing lens or categories that influence daily perceptions.

    It is Lynn Erickson’s work and also Tina Grotzer from Harvard’s Project Zero but it is very troubling. I want students building up their own understandings from their own bodies of deep knowledge.

    I also do not like the concession that Deep Learning as it is being used with the Common Core involves emotional beliefs rather than knowledge.

    Thanks for answering me.But also be aware that if the CK schools are able to retain richness and factual bodies of knowledge, that it IS being shut down in the suburbs.

    Comment by Student of History — June 19, 2013 @ 6:19 pm

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