Knowledge Is Sticky Stuff

by Guest Blogger
February 20th, 2014

Earlier this week, I highlighted a terrific new book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Today’s post is a short follow-up to point out just how sticky Core Knowledge’s approach is.

By intentionally introducing topics in early grades and then deepening and extending knowledge of those topics in later grades, Core Knowledge exemplifies several of the highly effective practices explained in Make It Stick. Lucky us, we get to see them at work in Heidi Cole’s second grade classroom using Core Knowledge Language Arts.

In this 5-minute video, we see Cole engaging her students in the last read-aloud in the Early Asian Civilizations domain. It’s about the Chinese New Year, and it gives students an opportunity to recall what they learned about the phases of the moon in their first-grade Astronomy domain.


Cole Chinese New Year Fall 2013

Click here to watch 5 minutes of Cole’s read-aloud on the Chinese New Year.


As you watch, you’ll see six well-established methods for learning, all of which are explained in Make It Stick:

1) Retrieval practice: Recalling information strengthens memory. Cole pauses her read-aloud to give students time to share what they recall about the phases of the moon.

2) Feedback: Retrieval works even better with feedback; accurate memories are reinforced, while failed or inaccurate recall is corrected. Cole engages students in conversation, asks questions, and provides feedback about the moon.

3) Spaced-out practice: Having time pass between recall and feedback sessions results in longer lasting memories than cramming. This example with the phases of the moon is just one of hundreds of instances in which information is intentionally repeated and expanded within and across domains in CKLA.

4) Prior learning: As stated in Make It Stick, “all new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge.” For Cole’s students growing up in rural North Carolina, the Chinese New Year is likely a totally new concept. The read-aloud makes it easier to learn about by comparing the Chinese New Year with New Year’s Eve celebrations that are more common in America. In addition, drawing on their knowledge of the moon helps them make sense of a celebration that is wonderfully different from their personal experiences.

5) Elaboration: Discussing new information in your own words and connecting it to things you already know makes learning more efficient and longer lasting. Cole engages her students in elaboration by frequently pausing during the read-aloud to ask them questions.

6) Larger context: Similar to prior learning and elaboration, being able to tie something new to a larger context with which you’re already familiar facilitates learning. The key here is that the larger your store of information is—i.e., the larger the context you already have in memory—the more you learn. Cole’s read-aloud is not an isolated exercise; it is embedded in the much larger context of the many history and science domains that build on each other. By the time Cole’s students begin the third-grade domain Astronomy: Our Solar System and Beyond, they will have a rich scientific and cultural understanding of the moon. That larger context will be sticky indeed, making the new information much easier to learn.


UPDATE: For those who would like to see more of Heidi Cole’s read-aloud, here’s a 33-minute video.



  1. […] via Knowledge Is Sticky Stuff « The Core Knowledge Blog. […]

    Pingback by Knowledge Is Sticky Stuff « The Core Knowledge Blog | The Echo Chamber — February 22, 2014 @ 6:50 pm

  2. While I think some of the underlying strategies you mentioned have firm research regarding cognitive science the application I find very disheartening.

    The students are lumped together in one homogenous group. Do they have different levels of readiness? Are there learning needs of particular students being accounted for in this mini-lesson?

    While my buddy Daniel Willingham has greatly taught me to discredit implementing learning styles there are a few things about this lesson’s mode of presentation that concern me:

    1. No visuals to represent a schema between prior knowledge and new knowledge.

    2. “memory is the residue of thought” there is no built in mechanisms for students to record accurate responses by themselves, peers, or the teacher. For example, if you watch closely to the students and not the teacher you will notice drifting attention…nothing anchoring them to the significance of the lesson or the components of the lesson. Therefore a lot of missed opportunities in ensuring student engagement.

    3. How does the teacher follow-up to ensure that student proficiency and mastery was achieved? There is not formative assessment outside of questioning and eliciting responses from maybe 10% of the students present. Is there a follow-up lesson that manages the varying levels of comprehension. Do students who grasp the information intimately enrich their understanding through creation? Do students who find themselves confused or containing inaccurate knowledge get remediation in a smaller group setting?

    4. There is a conflation with the fact that she is using “spacing-effect” as per Roedigger at Stanford’s research. Merely stating “you’ve learned something about phases of the moon in 1st grade” is hoping to build on prior knowledge, it is not a formulaic way of implementing the retrieval method in a spaced out way to ensure retention and the ability to apply knowledge by all students. Once again the format of lecture/recall is frightening.

    While I love the use of non-fiction content in early grades, as a high school special education and history teacher this upsets me. I would prefer a more structured lesson and an incorporation of techniques that allow the teacher to determine whose knowledge base (content, grammar, vocabulary, etc.) is in need of remediation or enrichment.

    The load on working memory alone with such a style of teaching is highly inefficient i’d argue for the typical student.

    This is written with my own perspectives and background not to be too polemical but because I love the Core Knowledge movement and E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s work.

    Comment by Jason Millard — February 24, 2014 @ 9:50 am

  3. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for taking the time to study this video so carefully. I think you’ve made many good points, but it seems to me that you are focused too much on this 5-minute example and not enough on the totality of the CKLA program. I suppose that is always a risk when showing a brief example, but I was hoping to avoid it with all the links to the broader program explanations that I embedded.

    Let me address some of your points, and encourage you to spend time examining the full program (

    Small groups: Assessment-driven, targeted, small-group instruction is used extensively in the Skills strand. In the Listening & Learning strand (where these domain-based read-alouds are), instruction is whole group, but questions are intentionally offered at multiple levels and the extension activities (mainly drawing and writing) can be tailored to students’ needs.

    Visuals: I am not sure why you say there are no visuals. The teacher is pointing to photos of the phases of the moon in the video. In addition, if you download the Listening & Learning domains, you will see that every read-aloud has several companion images.

    Anchoring: I think you will see that the whole program very carefully builds knowledge. For this video, let me remind you that this is the last read-aloud in the Early American Civilizations domain, so in fact the children are immersed in a rich context not shown in the video. But you can see it by downloading the domains:

    Mastery: There are indeed follow-up activities. Again, please download some teacher guides to give you the full context. At the same time, let me refer you to an article by Daniel Willingham on developmentally appropriate practice. With young children, it is just fine to expose them to rich, complex content without ensuring full comprehension of each detail ( At this age, it is important to lay a foundation. Misconceptions can be dealt with over time as students develop deeper and broader knowledge in later grades.

    Delayed retrieval: I am sorry that you find this to be a frightening lecture/recall format. I would characterize it as a read-aloud that (1) intentionally builds on information in previous read-alouds and (2) an engaging interaction in which the teacher pauses her reading to ask questions. This is one of many forms of retrieval practice that are both promoted in Make It Stick and embedded in CKLA.

    You obviously have studied Core Knowledge and the underlying cognitive science. I hope that when you have time you also explore CKLA. One last thing to note is that we do encourage master teachers to adapt CKLA. The read-alouds and extension activities could be done in different ways, and I’m sure we’ll find all sorts of exciting variations as the program becomes more widely used.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — February 24, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

  4. Hi Jason,
    After reading your comment I feel compelled to clarify your misconceptions regarding this video segment.
    1. You call this a mini-lesson, of which it is not. You are watching a 5-minute clip of a 75-minute lesson (which includes an introduction, links to more prior knowledge, guided listening supports, questions, connections, vocabulary development, and an age-appropriate extension activity designed to reinforce content in a fun, hands on way).
    2. You should be made aware of the intent of this lesson. It was not to review phases of the moon, but to conclude a 2-week study of ancient China through discussion of the Chinese New Year celebration which happens to begin and end based on cycles of the moon. Had the purpose been to teach a science lesson, it would have taken on a different form.
    3. The extension activity after the read aloud, and the follow up questions, discussion, and vocabulary usage all reinforce the focus of this lesson (not the 5-minute segment), are not shown in this clip.
    4. Using the word “frightening” to describe the instructional delivery is not only a bit dramatic, but rather unwarranted considering the success I have experienced using the CKLA program. Last year, I had 100% proficiency and growth in math and 91% proficiency and growth with my class in reading (scores were on a nationally normed test).

    Comment by Heidi Cole — February 25, 2014 @ 3:44 pm

  5. Hello Heidi,
    You were pretty hard on Jason. The segment is a poor example to show if you are trying to convince anyone to jump on the Core Knowledge train. I teach second grade at a Charter School in an inner city. My school has adopted the CK. Do you think CK is in line with Common Core? Also, I am curious how I can make a read aloud interesting to students who have no background on the topics or interest. I feel like children learning to read need the text in front of them. I am guessing you don’t teach at a Title 1 school like I do?

    Comment by Bethanie — March 21, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

  6. Hi Bethanie,
    Thanks for giving Core Knowledge a try. Are you using Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) or has your school adopted the Sequence? Either way, I have to say that implementation is hard initially. Core Knowledge very carefully builds within and across grade levels, so it is hard to jump in with second graders who have not had CK in kindergarten or first grade.

    It sounds like you are using CKLA, and are asking about the read-alouds in the Listening & Learning strand. Keep in mind that the skills (decoding and encoding) of learning to read are being learned in the Skills strand. In L&L, the goal is to build students’ knowledge and vocabulary to increase future reading comprehension. You are reading text that children can comprehend orally (with your support) but would not be able to decode. So, having the text in front of them could be distracting. As for how to engage the students, I’d encourage you to watch the half-hour video of Heidi. She is great at making the read-alouds into discussions.

    I’ve also recently visited inner city schools that are engaging children in many ways. One kindergarten class had students listen to thunder and recall thunder they’ve heard before beginning a read-aloud on thunderstorms. And a second-grade class with English learners had props (a toy flatboat, ox, mule, and tin foil canal) for the read-aloud on the Erie Canal. The Core Knowledge Foundation is currently working on getting videos of a wider range of classrooms so teachers can share these great, interactive ideas.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — March 21, 2014 @ 6:21 pm

  7. Hi Bethanie,
    Yes, Core Knowledge meets, and surpasses, the requirements for Common Core. It thoroughly covers all of the standards in a sequential and spiraled manner. It is important to know that our school teaches the entire Core Knowledge sequence, Kindergarten – 8th grade. Therefore our students are immersed in the content throughout their time with us. As a result, the content of each read aloud is connected to everything they are learning in all subject areas (including art and music). Of course, it is up to the teacher to bring any read aloud to life. There are many days that I utilize the media disk to display the story images onto our white board. I then use the pictures as an interactive discussion tool throughout the reading. I also incorporate a great deal of movement, particularly hand gestures, into our Listening and Learning time. By this time of the year my students love to take ownership of the material and create these gestures themselves. For example, we currently review the “push and pull factors” of the immigration domain using a chant and motions. It is a great way to incorporate movement before, during, and after each of our lessons. The beauty of CKLA is that it exposes students to rich, content-specific vocabulary while reinforcing listening comprehension. Our students learn comprehension skills and oral language skills through this Listening and Learning time, while learning the phonics component of reading during the Skills strand. When learning to decode the children have their own decodable reader and workbook to use for skill practice. We find that this balanced approach to literacy instruction taps into all components of language arts.

    Comment by Heidi Cole — March 21, 2014 @ 6:39 pm

  8. Heidi,
    I totally agree with what you are saying about the read alouds and bringing them to life. I like the idea of connecting the lessons to art and music. At this time, my school does not have the supplemental materials that go along with the lessons. We have the guide. It is up to us to find supplements.
    Any ideas as to how to find things for free to go along with CKLA?

    Comment by Bethanie — March 23, 2014 @ 8:50 am

  9. Lisa,
    It has been hard to jump in with second graders. They did not do Core Knowledge last year. I think that getting more videos and materials to give students that prior knowledge component will make a big difference for my class.

    Comment by Bethanie — March 23, 2014 @ 8:58 am

  10. Thank you for listing and sharing several effective teaching strategies to enhance the level of understanding and learning. Utilizing retrieval practice, feedback, spaced out practice, prior learning, elaboration, and larger context will increase learning and student comprehension. However we can further increase the level of learning by proving visual cues and visual representations, peer learning, small grouping, and building on prior knowledge. Common core is our teaching guide however as educators we should develop lessons that utilize core knowledge and are based on Smart goals.

    Comment by Sara Ghorbani — May 23, 2014 @ 9:29 am

  11. Thank you for highlighting strategies that increase level of learning and comprehension. I also believe when aiming to increase student learning utilizing retrieval practices, effective feedback, spaced out practice, prior learning, elaboration, and larger context is critical. However I believe utilizing visual cues, peer grouping, small group instruction, and building on knowledge are also important to utilize. Instruction should not only be based on the common core standers, it should also increase core knowledge. Using smart goals that enhance students’ skills and are utilize in all subjects and concepts should guide instruction.

    Comment by Sara Ghorbani — May 23, 2014 @ 9:58 am

  12. These strategies are effective when wanting to increase learning and comprehension. Utilizing visual cues, small group instruction, peer grouping, and building on knowledge are also vital in instruction.

    Comment by Sara Ghorbani — May 23, 2014 @ 10:06 am

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