Do We Underestimate All Learners?

by Guest Blogger
March 21st, 2014

Last week, Dan Willingham asked if we underestimate our youngest learners. It seems we do, given the research he reviewed showing that seven- and eight-year-olds can understand a concept as complicated as natural selection. Willingham clarifies that, “No one would claim that these children have a complete understanding of natural selection. But they got much farther along in their understanding than I think most would have guessed.” He also noted one way in which it might be easier to teach complex ideas to younger children than to older children: “The authors speculate that … explaining natural selection at a younger age may have worked out so well because they were not old enough to have developed naïve theories of species change; ideas that would become entrenched and potentially make it more difficult to understand natural selection properly.” And he ends with an important question: “whether we do students a disservice if we are too quick to dismiss content as ‘developmentally inappropriate.’”

Almost everything Willingham writes sticks with me, rolling around in the back of my mind. This piece on young children kept coming to mind as I read a couple of articles in the spring American Educator. Could it be that our tendency to underestimate our youngest learners sets us up for a lifetime of underestimation? I think so.

It was a short step from Willingham’s piece to Daisy Christodoulou’s Educator article. Adapted from her book, Seven Myths about Education (now out in paperback), it’s all about how little knowledge is systematically and coherently taught to students:

In 2007, I trained as a teacher and started teaching English in a secondary school in Southeast London that enrolls students between the ages of 11 and 18. One of the first things that struck me when I was teaching was that my pupils seemed to know so little. Even the bright and hard-working pupils seemed to me to have big gaps in their knowledge….

I was born in East London to a working-class family. My father’s parents were immigrants from Italy and Cyprus. My father said that when he was in school as a child in England, he very often felt as though he was on the outside of a conversation. He didn’t know what the conversations were about, and he couldn’t go home and ask his parents because they didn’t know either. He was very determined that I wouldn’t have that experience, and I didn’t want my pupils to have that experience. Middle-class children pick up a lot of knowledge from home, from books, from programs on the radio, and so forth. Working-class children and the children of immigrants don’t always get those advantages. A lot of the pupils I taught were just as bright and hard-working as the pupils at private schools, but they lacked crucial knowledge, and this deficit held them back in their studies….

Too often, people think that teaching knowledge is somehow right wing and elitist. But this isn’t the case. The kind of powerful knowledge that’s in the Core Knowledge curriculum in the United States doesn’t “belong” to any class or culture. The great breakthroughs of civilization were made by a whole range of people from different classes and cultures, and if they belong to anyone, they belong to humanity. Teaching these insights to children isn’t elitist—not teaching them is! …

When we commit facts to long-term memory, they actually become part of our thinking apparatus and have the ability to expand one of the biggest limitations of human cognition…. Long-term memory is capable of storing thousands of facts, and when we have memorized thousands of facts on a specific topic, these facts together form what is known as a “schema.” When we think about that topic, we use that schema. When we meet new facts about that topic, we assimilate them into that schema—and if we already have a lot of facts in that particular schema, it is much easier for us to learn new facts about that topic.

Critics of fact learning will often pull out a completely random fact and say something like, “Who needs to know the date of the Battle of Waterloo? Why does it matter?” Of course, using one fact like this on its own would be rather odd. But the aim of fact learning is not to learn just one fact—it is to learn several hundred, which taken together form a schema that helps you to understand the world. Thus, just learning the date of the Battle of Waterloo will be of limited use. But learning the dates of 150 historical events from 3000 BC to the present day, and learning a couple of key facts about why each event was important, will be of immense use, because it will form the fundamental chronological schema that is the basis of all historical understanding….

Factual knowledge is not in opposition to creativity, problem solving, and analysis. Factual knowledge is closely integrated with these important skills. It allows these skills to happen. In a sense, these important skills are the functions of large bodies of knowledge that have been securely committed to memory.

I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing a devastating double whammy. We start the early years with an unwarranted belief that sophisticated content is developmentally inappropriate. Then, we continue through elementary and secondary grades with the misconception that skills can be developed without extensive knowledge. The result is that we systematically underestimate what our children are capable of learning. Such underestimations seem to become self-fulfilling prophecies, with especially long-lasting, truly harmful consequences for our least-advantaged learners.

With Willingham and Christodoulou on my mind, I dove into the next article in the spring Educator: Jennifer Dubin on the three-week summer institute for K–12 teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. These institutes—which require teachers to read 2,000 – 3,000 pages of texts like Prometheus Bound, Antigone, Hamlet, Crime and Punishment, and Beloved just to get ready to participate—are described by teachers as “divine” and “some sort of heaven.” In contrast, teachers often complain bitterly about typical professional development. Mind-numbing and time-wasting are descriptions I’ve heard frequently. It seems we’re underestimating our adult learners too.

At the Dallas Institute, teachers aren’t given tools for increasing students’ test scores. Teaching is hardly ever mentioned. Teachers are immersed in many of humanity’s most profound works and are trusted to apply these works to their professional lives in their own ways:

“Teachers work with human material, and the best way traditionally to gain access to human things is through the humanities, which are the foundation of a liberal arts education,” says Claudia Allums, who directs the Summer Institute. But a liberal arts education encompasses more than literature or philosophy or history courses, she says. It’s a particular spirit with which one approaches any discipline. “If a teacher has a broad, strong liberal arts education, then he or she is going to have a broad, strong foundation in human sensibilities. That’s the foundation we believe is important for any teacher’s wisdom.” … “The institute is where you recover what it means to be a teacher.”

It appears to be working. As the article states, “In a survey of participants from 2008 to 2013, nearly 70 percent said the program transformed the way they think about the teaching profession.”

It’s a sad state of affairs to see our education systems continually underestimating their learners, from preschoolers to experienced teachers. Perhaps the Dallas Institute—and teachers everywhere who know the joy of challenging studies—can end such fruitless practices by showing how high they, and their students, can reach.



Prometheus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



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    Pingback by Do We Underestimate All Learners? « The Core Knowledge Blog | Learning Curve — March 21, 2014 @ 8:53 pm

  2. Underestimation of the intelligence of students is embedded in progressivist education views, and has been for all the decades that these views have dominated in American schools. For example, John Dewey (specifically 1934) noted that the child’s world is narrow, and wrote as if he believed that children can learn only if the world is reduced to their dimensions. In describing the development of the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education Richard Hofstadter (1962) points out then existing beliefs that most children are incapable of content based learning. The notion that children can discover without instruction anything that they need has led to unstated conclusions that those who do not discover are incapable of learning. As Willingham pointed out, such attitudes do students a disservice, but I think that is a rather mild comment to describe the evils of such thinking. It is good to see that changes in attitudes are occurring. Still, it is significant to note that such beliefs were consciously chosen and deliberately built into the educational system.

    Comment by Susan Toth — March 22, 2014 @ 9:30 am

  3. What an incredible misunderstanding of Progressivism and Progressive Education. I knew Hofstadter and he would not agree with anything you say; and, while I’m not old enough to have known Dewey, I’m experienced enough with progressive practices in k-16 education to think your characterization is balderdash.

    Progressivism is not a “what” but, rather, a “how,” and need never conflict with Common Core subject matter. It would undoubtedly conflict with some of your – Susan Toth to be more specific – prejudgments, however. Children grow from a small unit (family) to larger units. That’s really all Dewey meant by “narrow,” and broadening those units as children mature is all progressivism means. In other words, at some ages it really means nothing to know when Napoleon lost his last battle. And for some people it may mean nothing for their whole lives, depending on where, how, and what they do, with whom they live, and how they express themselves. Common Core can include meaningless data and still be useful.

    Perhaps its best use is as a scaffold for kids to create their own sequencing. Chronology is only one of many, many ways of seeing even the most historic of facts, for one key example. Geography is another, as is taste, smell, and appearance. Knowing a short guy almost ruled the world until an awful lot of other guys stopped him is probably a more “useful” datum than 1812.

    Build knowledge from the kid to the world, not the other way around. And that is the key to “progressivism.” Or, as one of Dewey’s far less ideological predecessors, Louis Agassiz said, “watch your fish,” observe and build from the individual learning something to more people and more somethings to learn.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — March 22, 2014 @ 11:24 am

  4. Thank you, Joe, for your response. I believe that you have offered the kind of feedback that is needed, so that a discussion can become possible, one that will also recognize what is positive in progressivism.

    First, you accuse me of prejudgement. I attended K-12 schools where the teachers did not have us practice such useful things as penmanship that is readable, and told us that if we wanted to learn about such things, for example, as classic mythology, we could do so, and subsequently learned that such “teaching” does reflect progressivist practice. In class we did not read extensively, neither novels, nor theater, and not very good poetry. (I have since studied French literature and have learned what it means to read.) I have known friends, and even married one, who were schooled in traditional ways, and have recognized the depth of their knowledge and skills. I have taught in school systems that pride themselves on being progressive. And I have read extensively about education, although I do not claim to have read as much as is possible. Nevertheless, I do believe that I have a wide enough field of experience and information not to be accused of prejudgment.

    If you can clear me of that sin, I would enjoy getting into the real substance of what education might be. By the way, I can not defend the Common Core, and I am a strong admirer of Daisy Christodoulou’s book.

    Comment by Susan Toth — March 22, 2014 @ 2:18 pm

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  6. This conversation is very interesting;in order to avoid prejudgment, I would like Joe to tell me more about what he considers as the key of progressivism : “build knowledge from the kid to the world, not the other way around”.
    If progressivism is about “how”, not “what”, then this way to teach “from the kid to the world” must rely on evidence showing its efficiency. May I ask to show me the data ?

    Comment by Esther — March 23, 2014 @ 9:13 am

  7. The only problem in demonstrating “progressivism” in the sense, I presume, you mean is that most “progressive” schools are rich. That ain’t good data.

    On the other hand, there are some “progressive” metrics like those used in portfolios – not all subjective, touchy-feely, but often quite rational, cool, and comparative enough to track change and contrast learning styles. Like the ones done here:

    Again, realize that these involve no conflict with Common Core, which serves to encourage collaborative learning, peer responsibility, etc. that are skills included in both the Core and the portfolios. They are not much unlike the portfolios Dewey and Montessori and others suggested almost a century ago, but they’re a lot easier now, since the technology makes it possible for students – and teachers and parents and colleges and employers – to help assess each others’ contributions to an individual student’s progress.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — March 23, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

  8. Not to use a word that is overused too much these days, but the kind of rigor you are describing–the memorization of information and the exposure to a great deal of content in order to understand context–is not possible in the current state of educational expectations. With every conversation being about less homework, more hands on work, and the ability for students to google their answers, there is no support [from parents or administration] for a students acquiring personal knowledge.

    Comment by Suezette — March 23, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

  9. Joe, I’m confused. What did anybody say that allows you to “presume” that someone meant ‘most “progressive” schools are rich?’ That does not answer Esther’s question for an explanation of what you had said: “build knowledge from the kid to the world, not the other way around”. I studied the portfolio you referenced. It looks to me as if it actually represents a progressivist curriculum, but since you tell me that I misunderstand progressive education, would you please clarify just what that portfolio is? That is, it tracks an individual student’s progress in what? What kind of progress is being tracked?

    Suezette, we know that progressive education rejects the memorization of information and exposure to a great deal of content and this is why some people believe that progressivism underestimates the intelligence of children, and adults! Therefore I believe that you have put your finger on a key point to clarify. Why is memorization so horrible? Why is exposure to a great deal of content explaining about the world undesirable? What is wrong with a certain amount of rigor in preparing children for life? (I know Dewey said education is life, not preparation for some distant time, but that distant time is more or less five times longer than the twelve years of school, and when one is not well prepared it can make things pretty difficult.)

    Comment by Susan Toth — March 23, 2014 @ 5:59 pm

  10. Yes we underestimate all learners! This is not necessaryly done with malice, but yes all learners are understimated by teachers because we percive that the learner has no frame of refference to what we are talking/teaching about. Teachers believe that we have all the knowledge about a particular topic, or at least much more than those that we aim to educate. Though we would like for students to take personal responsibility for their learning, it is our job as educators to show students the importance of gaining new knowledge. Wheather this is done through rote memorization, differentiated instruction or portfolio creation does not matter. Whatever works best for that particular child/group of children is what should be important.

    Comment by Kahlil Gooden — March 23, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

  11. Susan,
    Of the 8000 or so Montessori schools, only about 250 are public, which leaves a lot more to those who can afford it, who, one might presume, are richer than others. Dewey schools have sharply declined in number since the Reagan era, which leaves progressive education as a patch of islands in a miasmatic sea of didactic principals, and poor kids their most frequent victims.

    That ePortfolio is not “progressivist” (whatever that may mean, since the entire structure is historic more than most would admit). ePortfolios are updates to the kinds of documents Horace Mann encouraged when public schools first started: save what you do so you can show the next teacher, boss, school, or college. What you sense as “progressive” may be the metrics that particular portfolio model uses, but they were not derived from politics as much as from labor economics, the US Department of Labor, the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, and project-based learning. What makes them interesting is that the technology has finally empowered kids as young as 12 to document what they know, do, and think in words, graphics, video, and sound. That’s only progressive in contrast to the ruthlessness of a test-ridden, bureaucratic autocracy. But, I guess, those are other terms that describe what some people like. Not me.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — March 23, 2014 @ 11:16 pm

  12. We are getting too far away from the beginning of this conversation–”Do we underestimate learners?” Furthermore I think we need to be clear about what we mean by progressive education. I use the word progressive (also progressivist) because there seems to be no “better” name for a specific way of thinking about the education of children, the beliefs and practices I ran into throughout all the years I was a student and then a teacher.

    The position behind these beliefs and practices revolves around two views: one, that all children do not need an “academic” education, and two, that it is the function of school to address the individuality of children.

    In opposition to that position is the view that school should transmit to children the accumulated knowledge of mankind (rather a foundation of accumulated knowledge), and that the function of school includes enabling children to take charge of their own individuality. (I know this describes Traditional Education, rejected by Progressive Education.)

    There is, of course, much more, much, much more! to each of these positions, including, but not limited to, the questions of early childhood education (Montessori) and evaluation of work (your iPortfolio).

    So, Joe, will you please define your views of what progressive education is. That would include, I think, an answer to Esther’s question concerning what you understand by saying that the key of progressivism is to “build knowledge from the kid to the world, not the other way around”.

    One more comment now. I believe that the underestimation of learners is a consequence of progressive education (as I define it), and agree with Kahlil that it is not malicious. In fact, as I understand it, the heart and soul of progressive education is doing what is best for the children.

    Comment by Susan Toth — March 24, 2014 @ 8:23 am


    by Theodor Sizer [1932-2009]

    Volume One, Number One

    The Concord Review, Fall 1988

    Americans shamefully underestimate their adolescents. With often misdirected generosity, we offer them all sorts of opportunities and, at least for middle-class and affluent youths, the time and resources to take advantage of them.

    We ask little in return. We expect little, and the young people sense this, and relax. The genially superficial is tolerated, save in areas where the high school students themselves have some control, in inter-scholastic athletics, sometimes in their part-time work, almost always in their socializing.

    At least if and when they reflect about it, adolescents have cause to resent us old folks. We do not signal clear standards for many important areas of their lives, and we deny them the respect of high expectations. In a word, we are careless about them, and, not surprisingly, many are thus careless about themselves. “Me take on such a difficult and responsible task?” they query, “I’m just a kid!”

    All sorts of young Americans are capable of solid, imaginative scholarship, and they exhibit it for us when we give them both the opportunity and a clear measure of the standard expected. Presented with this opportunity, young folk respond. The Concord Review is such an opportunity, a place for fine scholarship to be exhibited, to be exposed to that most exquisite of scholarly tests, wide publication.

    The prospect of “exhibition” is provocative. I must show publicly that I know, that I have ideas, and that I can defend them resourcefully. My competence is not merely an affair between me and a soulless grading machine in Princeton, New Jersey. It is a very public act.

    The Concord Review is, for the History-inclined high school student, what the best of secondary school theatre and music performances, athletics, and (in some respects) science fairs are, for their aficionados. It is a testing ground, and one of elegant style, taste and standards. The Review does not undersell students. It respects them. And in such respect is the fuel for excellence.

    “Teach with Examples”
    Will Fitzhugh [founder]
    The Concord Review [1987]
    Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
    National Writing Board [1998]
    TCR Institute [2002]
    730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
    Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
    978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
    Varsity Academics®

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — March 24, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

  14. It is difficult to say more after your contribution, Will Fitzhugh. Thanks. You have shown me the kind of work you receive from students; it is truly impressive. And Sizer, in this passage, has perfectly described much that I saw in the schools. “We do not signal clear standards for many important areas of their lives, and we deny them the respect of high expectations.” Yes, almost tragically, young people take us seriously when we communicate such behavioral patterns.

    It is because I saw this in the schools, and saw how many kids were left out, that I try to fight to make a change. I saw that every high school student who did not perform was capable of learning, but by high school, they no longer believe it possible; worse, trying to perform better represents a threat that few are ready to face. I tend to call this intellectual abuse.

    Comment by Susan Toth — March 24, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

  15. I return to my first posting in which I said that the underestimation is built into progressive educational theory, because I believe that today’s problems have very deep roots. I spoke of Richard Hofstadter’s account of how attitudes toward a high school curriculum changed from the 1893 NEA statement by the Committee of Ten to the 1918 Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. This is found in the unit on education in his Anti-intellectualism in American Life, in the section: The Road to Life Adjustment. Hofstadter describes the passage from a curriculum of content to a curriculum of skills, believed appropriate for children who would not need a knowledge education.

    I think the question here would be whether to not teach an academic curriculum does indeed indicate underestimation of the potential of those children. Are some children capable of intellectual work in school and others not? I suggest that progressive theory leaves this point up to how the children react in school. Those who “take” to a content program need it; those who are not proactive do not.

    This leads to the question involving readiness and preparation for school.

    The point I want to make is that these are the kinds of questions we need to deal with if we want to make a difference in the schools. (I understand that there are school programs that, in various ways, address these issues, and I am glad they exist.)

    Comment by Susan Toth — March 25, 2014 @ 9:46 am

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