Teaching for Retention

by Lisa Hansel
March 2nd, 2015

In my last post, I described conversations with three teachers that revealed their different views about what teaching is.

The most persuasive was a teacher who focuses on retention—and thinks teachers are making a mistake when they change topics as soon as they see that students have comprehended the topic at hand.

As we spoke, I thought about what happens to me as I listen to NPR. Even when I find a story really interesting, I’m only able to remember it well if it is on a topic I already know well. Most of the time, the stories are on things I only know a bit about. If I try to retell them, the details are fuzzy; I mix up the key people and events and can’t convey much. It’s an odd feeling—I fully comprehended the story at the time, but I don’t realize how little of it I’ve retained until I try to tell a friend about it.

To really learn the story, I’d have to comprehend it, then study it—quiz myself, practice those details that make the story coherent, and quiz myself again. I’d also need to revisit the material periodically—hopefully adding to it, but at a minimum refreshing my memory. That’s the type of learning that would enable future learning, including deeper comprehension each time new details are added to the web of knowledge growing in my long-term memory.

The retention-focused teacher I spoke with was very intentional about her instructional time. She argued that if a topic was worthy of mentioning, it was worthy of fully teaching—teaching so students could confidently talk about their new knowledge. She saw the school year as far too short, and each class as a precious resource to be fiercely protected. She saw instruction aimed at coverage and even comprehension—anything less than retention—as a waste of time. And, she accepted that her approach meant that she taught fewer topics, and thus had to carefully decide which topics merited class time.

One great benefit of this careful weighing of topics was that she had gotten really thoughtful about embedding skill development in serious academic content. While some of her colleagues taught skills with “fun” content, she eschewed that as inefficient. For example, she taught grammar with sentences that refreshed students’ memories on key content they were learning in science and social studies—no grammar lessons with sentences about basketball or cartoons in her classes.

Reflecting on our conversation, my mind returned to Daniel Willingham’s article on familiarity vs. recollection. Along with that article, he has several useful tips for ensuring that students don’t mistake their familiarity for real learning. His tips focus on “jostling students away from a reliance on familiarity and partial access as indices of their knowledge, and encouraging (or requiring) them to test just how much knowledge they recall and understand.” He recommends, for example, that teachers “Make it clear to students that the standard of ‘knowing’ is the ‘ability to explain to others,’ not ‘understanding when explained by others.’”

This pretty well sums up what the retention-focused teacher I spoke with learned over many years of teaching. So it raises a question for another day: why didn’t she learn about the dangers of familiarity (or mere comprehension) and the necessity of recollection in her preparation program or in ongoing professional development?

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Writing is a great way for students to explain, solidify, and gauge what they have learned. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Nothing in Common

by Lisa Hansel
February 24th, 2015

According to a recent survey, fifty-five percent of Americans believe that the Common Core standards address “sex education, evolution, global warming and the American Revolution.” Pro or con, left-leaning or right-leaning, misperceptions were widespread. Sadly, the problem isn’t merely lack of information—it’s misinformation: there were more mistaken beliefs about what’s in the Common Core among those who say they are informed about the standards than those who say they are not.

I’m tempted to dismiss these results as yet another sad-but-funny commentary on American politics. We’ve got more passion than reason, but perhaps that’s the human condition.

And yet, I can’t dismiss them. I think they are a symptom of a systemic problem in education: We talk past each other. Pretty much nothing in education is well defined. Take “standards” and “curriculum.” Some people use them as synonyms; others (like me) see a huge gulf between the two (e.g., ELA standards rarely specify what to teach). We’ve got lots of jargon, but very little to help us understand each other. Coleridge captured our predicament: “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a few opportunities to push past that jargon in long, detailed conversations with educators. Educators are so busy that such conversations are rare; I feel fortunate to have spent hours speaking with educators in California, Texas, and Georgia. Speaking with them essentially back to back, one thing became clear: each one had a different concept of what teaching is. They all used the same jargon, but fundamentally, what they meant by “teaching” was very different—and had very different implications for their students.

For one teacher, to “teach” a topic or skill just meant to cover it. She hadn’t considered the impact on the students. (I think this notion of teaching is pretty unusual these days—it has been many years since I last encountered it.)

Another teacher focused on students’ comprehension. He had “taught” only if his students understood all the essential concepts in the lesson. My best guess is that this notion of teaching is fairly widespread. If students don’t even grasp the lesson, most teachers will rethink their approach and try again. That sounds pretty good, but is it enough? Is comprehension the same thing as learning? Unfortunately, no.

Only one teacher conceived of “teaching” as a variety of activities that are intentionally designed for students to get something new into their long-term memories. This, to me, should be the definition of teaching. Likewise, the definition of learning should be adding something to your long-term memory.

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Is it really useful to have many different ideas of what teaching is? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Even though plenty of teachers will say long-term retention is a goal, much of the instruction I’ve seen seems designed mainly for comprehension, not retention. Wanting to be sure students understand a text, for example, a teacher will lead a really interesting, well-planned, text-based discussion. So far, so good. But then, seeing that the students got it, the teacher moves on. New text, new topic, new concept to comprehend.

The teacher I spoke with who focuses on long-term memory argued that most teachers move on way too soon (usually because they feel like they have to). Comprehension is important, but not sufficient to support future learning. She had realized this after many years in the classroom, but there’s actually a body of research on it. Psychology professor Daniel Willingham has written about the difference between familiarity and recollection; it seems to me that familiarity is what you get is you teach for comprehension but move on before ensuring retention. Here’s Willingham in American Educator:

Psychologists distinguish between familiarity and recollection. Familiarity is the knowledge of having seen or otherwise experienced some stimulus before, but having little information associated with it in your memory. Recollection, on the other hand, is characterized by richer associations. For example, a young student might be familiar with George Washington (he knows he was a President and maybe that there’s a holiday named after him), whereas an older student could probably recollect a substantial narrative about him….

Although familiarity and recollection are different, an insidious effect of familiarity is that it can give you the feeling that you know something when you really don’t.

This “insidious effect” is something all teachers and students should know about. I’ll take a closer look at teaching for retention in my next post.

While I deeply appreciate the time all of these teachers gave me, my only regret is that we could not all speak at once. I’d love to hear how the “coverage” and “comprehension” teachers would react to the “retention” teacher. Perhaps, if teachers were given time to collaborate within and across schools (just as other professionals have time to engage each other), then eventually the education field would have common understandings and a shared path to improvement.

For Equity, for Kids, for Democracy—Let’s Create a Model District with a Well-Rounded Curriculum

by Lisa Hansel
January 15th, 2015

Last week, I shared that the Core Knowledge Foundation is seeking a courageous district to partner with. A district that will push back against pressure to teach to the test, and instead commit to a content-rich, coherent, cumulative curriculum (including art, music, civics, and all the other important things that are too often neglected) in all of its elementary schools. The response has been heart-warming; I’m having a wonderful time getting to know districts with a passion for closing the achievement gap. (If you would like to work with us, please get in touch: lhansel@coreknowledge.org.) 

This week, as we look forward to celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, I’d like to explain a little more about our dream of partnering with a district to collaboratively develop and implement a well-rounded elementary curriculum. A rich curriculum creates a magical—and empowering—childhood. From ancient civilizations to faraway galaxies, our universe offers wonders that children eagerly explore if they are given an opportunity. Too often, social inequities are blamed for the achievement gap, even as curricular inequities are overlooked. Social inequities are deep and real; they must be addressed. At the same time, schools are part of the solution—especially schools that focus on equalizing opportunity to master academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills.

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The elementary grades are perfect for introducing students to our fascinating universe. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

While Core Knowledge already works with well over 1,000 schools, some that use our materials to deepen and round out their curriculum and others that teach the full preschool through eighth-grade Sequence, we believe children would benefit even more if schools worked together. Imagine all of the elementary schools in a small district, or a coalition of schools in a larger district, co-constructing their curriculum—voluntarily. If administrators create sufficient time for teachers to collaborate, teachers’ collective wisdom grows as they share expertise and materials. Teachers’ collective impact grows too, as they now have the opportunity to support learning across several schools, not just inside their classrooms.

In far too many elementary schools, teachers are not given opportunities to work together. Two fourth-grade teachers may teach totally different content—they don’t know what the second- or third-grade teachers taught, so they can’t reliably build on what students already know. Some topics get repeated in two or more grades; other topics are never taught. Grade by grade, students study an array of different topics, leaving little for the class as a whole to build on together. In such schools, each teacher must build each lesson from scratch. It’s exhausting and inefficient. Having to plan the whole curriculum alone, teachers don’t have enough time for diagnosing and addressing individual needs. And since they often teach different topics, teachers can’t easily share their materials.

Contrast this with schools that do have a schoolwide curriculum. Students’ knowledge and skills grow predictably and reliably year to year. Teachers know what to build on, are able to share lesson plans, and can help each other refine best practices for the specific content they are teaching. The common curriculum should not be a rigid script; teachers ought to have the freedom to extend topics that their students love and pause when needed to reinforce knowledge and skills. But with an agreed upon set of topics for each grade, teachers get the benefit of working as a team—and students get the benefit of a well-rounded, coherent education.

Sounds pretty good. So good that some elementary schools have done the hard work of developing their own schoolwide curriculum.

Things can get even better when schools in several nearby schools create a common curriculum. More teachers working together means more expertise to share. If students change schools, they will not fall behind or disrupt their peers’ learning. Because of the common curriculum, the receiving teacher will be able to get very detailed information on the student’s knowledge and skills. And if teachers change schools or a new teacher is hired, the common curriculum creates a strong foundation for excellent instruction.

But wait! What about choice? What about schools with special themes? There’s room for those. Currently, nearly 40% of schools using Core Knowledge are charters. We’d love to partner with a district that has charter and neighborhood elementary schools—and to involve all the schools that are interested in collaboratively developing a common curriculum. Likewise, we’d welcome schools with special themes.

Just as the shared curriculum should give individual teachers room to breathe, it should give schools the flexibility to customize. The shared curriculum could be designed to take two-thirds of instructional time, leaving teachers and schools ample time to pursue unique strengths and interests. In fact, once the shared curriculum is in place, teachers and schools will find they have more time for such customization. Knowing that the shared curriculum gives all children a well-rounded education in literature, history, geography, the sciences, mathematics, and the arts, educators will be able to give more attention to how they want to extend children’s learning.

Together, we can achieve Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “complete education.” Writing for Morehouse College’s Maroon Tiger in 1947, King called us to duty:

It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture…. The function of education … is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society…. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.

 

 

Wanted: A District with the Courage to Close the Gap

by Lisa Hansel
January 8th, 2015

I’m not one to do New Year’s resolutions—why set myself up for failure? But I do like to take a little time over the holidays to reflect on the year.

For me, the highlight of 2014 was attending the Politico 50 reception with E. D. Hirsch, who shared the No. 8 spot on Politico’s list of “thinkers, doers, and dreamers” with David Coleman. Most striking as we mingled was the depth and ease of the conversation. For Prof. Hirsch and me, at least, this was a room full of strangers. No matter. The topic could be the Iranian revolution or United States v. Windsor or technology’s potential impact on opportunity to learn; we all possessed enough common knowledge to converse seriously.

Whether at home, at school, at the library, or online, somehow we all acquired a definite core of knowledge. As a result, it did not matter that we had just met, were from all over the US, and specialized in different fields—we understood each other.  The evening was a microcosm of how a democracy ought to be. Each of us had our personal interests and individual expertise; and each of us had enough knowledge in common to be able to discuss important topics. That’s not to say we agreed on those topics. Differing views were expressed and, in a couple of instances, vigorously debated.

The heart of a democracy is the ability to communicate with fellow citizens across space, time, and individual differences. Especially in a country as large and diverse as ours, that ability to communicate depends on all of us sharing a core of knowledge. That core does not mean we will agree, but it gives us a platform for being able to understand each other.

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Communicating across time and place requires shared knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

No one kernel of knowledge may matter; but collectively, this core of knowledge divides the citizens with full access to civil society from the disenfranchised. It is essential for literacy, grasping analogies, critical thinking, and learning yet more (and more easily). Recent research shows that such knowledge is a powerful factor in social mobility, more powerful than parents’ education or school selectivity by one’s early 40s.

Most of us lucky enough to have learned this core of knowledge seem not to appreciate just how often we rely on it. At work, at the coffee shop, catching up on the news, we draw on and add to our vast stores of knowledge constantly. Neither news anchors nor neighbors provide all the details; they give you what’s new, and your store of knowledge plugs the holes. Even better, our shared knowledge is a source of strength. From the celebration of the Star-Spangled Banner that took place in Baltimore in September (another highlight of 2014 for me) to “one giant leap for mankind” 45 years ago, there are certain events, concepts, and people that cause a flood of images and ideas among the education haves. That flood is instantaneous. It offers both an anchor to steady us and a foundation on which to build. The simple words “I have a dream” can be overwhelming. Joyous. Sorrowful. Hopeful.

Well, I too have a dream. It is for everyone to have the core of shared knowledge that facilitates communication and invites all to be full participants in civil society. Yes, we have a long way to go. But at least people are starting to recognize that E. D. Hirsch’s great idea—that we could identify essential knowledge and create a curriculum to teach it to all children—is essential for equal opportunity. It’s egalitarian, not elitist, and it guarantees that everyone gets to study the arts, sciences, and humanities. Nor does it interfere with unique pursuits: If we spread that core of shared knowledge over several grades, there’s plenty of time left each year for students to learn content of local import and pursue their individual interests.

If you know of a district that shares my dream, please let me know: lhansel@coreknowledge.org. The Core Knowledge Foundation is seeking a district with the courage to close the achievement gap by implementing a content-rich, coherent, cumulative curriculum (including art, music, civics, and all the other important things that too often are neglected these days) in all of its elementary schools. While Core Knowledge would like to work with the district in creating the curriculum, it need not follow the Core Knowledge Sequence. The curriculum would have to be rigorous, coherent, and cumulatively build knowledge and skills. School entry is when the achievement gap is the smallest. By addressing vocabulary and knowledge disparities from the very beginning of schooling (mainly through engaging read-alouds, discussions, and projects), we can close the gap by the end of elementary school.

In the Core Knowledge community, we have individual schools that achieve terrific results with all of their students. We believe the results would be even better if the effort were districtwide. Teachers would be able to collaborate across schools; after a few years of shared problem solving and visiting each other’s classes, they would have world-class curriculum and pedagogy. They could even engage in their own form of Japanese lesson study. In addition, student mobility would be less of a problem, because children would not be completely lost academically when they changed schools within the district.

My words are neither eloquent nor enduring, but they are sincere. Let’s work together to give all children the broad, rich knowledge they need to become productive, responsible, engaged citizens.

The Good Life

by Lisa Hansel
December 18th, 2014

It’s not the shopping or the lines. It’s not the angst (will my sister like this color?) or the rush to get everything done. I truly enjoy the holidays, so none of these things bother me. What gets me during the holidays is the fact that so few people have had the opportunities that have been given to me.

I’m going to spend Saturday shopping, picking up the last few things on my list. I could do it online, but then I wouldn’t get to see the decorations (yup, I’m a sucker for twinkling lights). Along the way, I’ll wish happy holidays to dozens of seasonal employees—people trying to work their way through college, to save for their children’s education, or just to get by in today’s economy. I’ll also see dozens of people fixated on getting the biggest, best, hottest gadgets out there.

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

It’ll remind me what an extraordinary gift my education is (thanks mom!). Because of my education, I have the economic benefit of a white-collar career and the philosophical benefit of reflecting on the good life. I have both the capacity to buy a hot gadget or two and the insight that gadgets don’t bring happiness.

In the quieter moments this holiday season, I’ll be wondering: How can I help more children get a broad, rich, knowledge- and skill-building education? Will the Common Core give content-rich curriculum a fighting chance? Why do children from lower-income homes still have to fight to learn things that those from higher-income homes take for granted?

Early in the year, we read about Sonia Sotomayor’s fight. During her freshman year at Princeton, Sotomayor’s roommate made a reference to Alice in Wonderland. Sotomayor says:

I recognized at that moment that there were likely to be many other children’s classics that I had not read … Before I went home that summer, I asked her to give me a list of some of the books she thought were children’s classics, and she gave me a long list and I spent the summer reading them.

That was perhaps the starkest moment of my understanding that there was a world I had missed, of things that I didn’t know anything about … [As an adult] there are moments when people make references to things that I have no idea what they’re talking about.

I think about this anecdote frequently, especially when people ask me how Core Knowledge decided what kids should learn. The fact is, neither E. D. Hirsch nor Core Knowledge decided. History decided. Like it or not, there are many things that people in the US are expected to know—things that news anchors and blog writers and all literate adults refer to without explaining. To have a decent shot at a good life, all children need to learn these things. Many of us want to change our culture, to bring more diversity of peoples and values into the sphere of what’s taken for granted. But to do that, we first have to be able to understand each other, and that means we have to learn those things that are currently taken for granted. We need not fear learning those thing; one of the many beauties of knowledge is that you can always learn more.

Thanks to the Fordham’s Upward Mobility conference, I now have a couple more anecdotes along these lines. I highlighted one last week from Robert Pondiscio’s paper: Cedric Jennings, who studied hard to get from one of Washington DC’s poorest neighborhoods to Brown University, was at a loss “when a Brown professor asks his class how many of them have ever been to Ellis Island. Cedric has never heard of it.” I’m pretty sure I learned about Ellis Island in elementary school. It’s not a “mere fact”; it’s a major landmark at the heart of what makes America unique.

The other anecdote, courtesy of Hugh Price’s keynote, is about Maya Angelou. The following version is from his book, Achievement Matters:

Ms. Angelou told me that when she was growing up on her grandparents’ farm, she often went to the little store they owned. She would gaze at the shelves and spot, say, a can of Boston baked beans…. She told me she would say to herself, “I know what baked beans are, but what is Boston?”… Ms. Angelou told me she would then head to the library to learn all about Boston and its history…. Just imagine the potential of the Internet to feed the endless curiosity of the young Maya Angelous of today!

While I appreciate Price’s enthusiasm, I have a different take on Angelou’s self-education. First, why hadn’t she learned about Boston at school? Why didn’t she even mention school as a place to learn about it? Second, can we expect the Internet to be as educational as the library? I think not. Libraries have librarians, who are especially helpful for children. Just as important, libraries have selected contents. Even if the librarian did not help her, when Angelou went looking for information on Boston, she would have found a relatively small array of appropriate resources. The same cannot be said of the Internet.

Once you are well educated, the Internet is a marvelous resource. Broad knowledge and vocabulary are necessary to look things up and seek out trustworthy sources. Seeking out trustworthy sources is not a skill—there’s no such thing as “media literacy.” I don’t judge the websites of National Geographic, the Centers for Disease Control, the BBC, etc.; I rely on them because I’ve been taught that they are reliable. Since I’m almost always using sites like these to explore topics I don’t know much about, I don’t have the capacity to judge the information I find. I have to trust it. Would a little Angelou, who has never heard of Boston, even know which site to rely on? Would she get lost in page after page of sensationalized Boston news and sports? Would she ever learn about the Boston Tea Party or William Lloyd Garrison?

Angelou, Jennings, and Sotomayor all had to claw their way to the good life. Mine was practically handed to me. What a gift it would be for all children to have an opportunity to learn that which our society expects them to know.

 

The Best of the Common Core: Shifting from Skills to Knowledge

by Lisa Hansel
December 11th, 2014

You already know that the Common Core English language arts and literacy standards call for building knowledge with a content-rich curriculum. In the past two weeks, I’ve seen evidence of that call’s impact.

Last week, Fordham had a conference on Upward Mobility. Most of the day was depressing—the odds are so severely stacked against our neediest students—but there were just enough bright spots keep us going. The papers are going to be published as a book next year, but right now you can read the drafts for free.

Not surprisingly, Robert Pondiscio’s paper is excellent, reminding us that even the brightest, hardest-working students struggle when they are not given the opportunity to learn essential knowledge:

In 1994, Ron Suskind published A Hope in the Unseen, the story of a bright, ambitious young man from one of the worst high schools in Washington, D.C. who defies the odds to win acceptance at Brown University. The book became one of the touchstones of the education-reform movement because it appeared to demonstrate that demographics need not be destiny. You can grow up as dirt poor as its protagonist, Cedric Jennings, and still achieve at the highest levels academically—all the way to the Ivy League.

There is a brief but telling moment in the book when a Brown professor asks his class how many of them have ever been to Ellis Island. Cedric has never heard of it. “Ellis Island is not a core concept in Southeast Washington,” Suskind wrote. Rather it is “the sort of white people’s history passed over in favor of Afrocentric studies.”

Because of his lack of background knowledge, Cedric is at a decided disadvantage. He struggles through a lecture in which some students barely take notes and others literally sleep in class. “So many class discussions are full of references he doesn’t understand,” Suskind reports. “Maura knows what to write on her pad and the sleepers will be able to skim the required readings, all of them guided by some mysterious encoded knowledge of history, economics, and education, of culture and social events, that they picked up in school or at home or God knows where.”

The author does not dwell on the anecdote, but it is a critical insight. Jennings is a smart, driven young man who wants badly to succeed. He may be the grittiest in class and have first-rate work habits. But he has to work much harder, and his simple lack of background knowledge nearly derails his chance of succeeding in college. In the end, he succeeds not because of his education, but in spite of it. His journey from poor urban schools, through the Ivy League, and onward to a life of economic mobility is made far more difficult than it needed to be. This remains the case in too many schools that serve almost exclusively low-income children.

Now the bright spot. In commenting on Pondiscio’s paper, Dacia Toll of Achievement First explained that the because of the Common Core—and her new understanding of the importance of knowledge—Achievement First schools are radically altering their literacy instruction. While the full panel (panel III) is worth watching, if you only have a few minutes, jump up to Toll’s comments, which begin 38 minutes in.

Because of the Common Core, Toll says, Achievement First’s leaders have realized that “the achievement gap is even wider than we thought it was.” She continues, “The more you look at the English language arts gaps in particular, the more you come back to background knowledge and vocabulary.” Toll is honest about Achievement First’s previous mistakes. To increase reading, they used to do more reading—and they made time for that by taking time away from other subjects. They now see how misguided that was, and are dedicated to a content-rich curriculum.

Hoping to help educators across the country come to the same realization, Student Achievement Partners and the Council for Great City Schools have started a “Text Set Project.” The project is based on research (explained in the CCSS’s appendix A) that children acquire vocabulary up to four times faster when they focus on one topic for several weeks. Each text set covers one topic, contains roughly 6-10 readings, may be supplemented by a video, and has simple activities to help students extract key points and vocabulary. SAP and CGCS is hosting text set workshops all across the US to immerse educators in the research on reading comprehension—especially why knowledge is key—and to show how to build text sets. I had the pleasure of attending this week in Baltimore.

Core Knowledge educators already know about immersing students in domains of study. Here’s one activity I learned about at the workshop that seems like a great way to boost student learning. It’s called a Rolling Knowledge Journal. Students complete the journal as they work their way through the text set. The Journal is a three-column worksheet in which they fill in the title of the text, list the new and important things they learned from that text, and then explain how this new text adds to what they already knew. It’s a great tool not only for students, but teachers too. One teacher uses the Rolling Knowledge Journal to make sure her texts are well sequenced before she gives the text set to students.

We’ve all heard plenty of examples of the Common Core being misinterpreted. The standards will be what we make of them. In these cases, at least, educators are making them into a great opportunity to learn.

Children Don’t Know How to Close the Vocabulary Gap

by Lisa Hansel
December 3rd, 2014

Most children don’t even know there is a vocabulary gap. They don’t know that reading about a wide variety of topics is the best way to acquire new vocabulary. They don’t know that books (even children’s books) use a wider variety of vocabulary than adults’ conversation. They don’t know that reading several texts on the same topic—and thus staying focused on that topic for two to three weeks—can make vocabulary learning up to four times faster.

Nor do they know what they need to learn. They don’t know what science, history, geography, civics, art, and music content they will be asked to master in later years (if they are lucky enough to attend schools that have a rich curriculum). They don’t know how much more fulfilling their lives would be if they “had a dream” or asked “What’s in a name?” or grasped “one giant leap for mankind.”

What children know is what they’ve been taught—at home, by commercials, at school, by neighbors…. Fortunately, virtually all children do share a wonderful quality that makes them eager to learn: curiosity.

To close the vocabulary gap, adults must do a better job of capitalizing on that curiosity to broaden children’s knowledge. And we must do it early, while the curiosity is so strong and the vocabulary gap is relatively small.

Since you’re reading the Core Knowledge blog, you already know that the first thing to do is write a content-rich, carefully sequenced curriculum for preschool through at least the elementary grades. What else can we do? One thing I think teachers and parents should consider is more carefully curating the books that children have to choose from. With a little gentle guidance, children can become curious about a great variety of topics. Take archeology for example. What kid would not be fascinated by digging in dirt and excavating tombs to find ancient people, stories, and treasures?

For resistant readers, let’s get creative about branching out from their current interests (which, don’t forget, are rarely “natural”; they’re often induced by commercial enterprises). Star Wars could be a great invitation to some astronomy books. Perhaps Sponge Bob could lead to marine biology. Especially if these subjects are introduced with read-alouds by a parent or teacher, kids can get hooked—and get the crucial introduction to a topic that makes comprehension easier—before they try to read about these topics  on their own.

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Child in need of guidance courtesy of Shutterstock.

Susan Neuman and Donna Celano provide an excellent example of curated choice vs. free choice in their decade-long study of two Philadelphia libraries: Chestnut Hill, in a high-income area by the same name, and Lillian Marrero, in the low-income Badlands area.

In the Chestnut Hill library, children always seem to enter the preschool area accompanied by an adult—most often their mother but occasionally a father, a nanny, or a grandmother. In comparison, in the Badlands, young children almost always enter alone, sometimes with a sibling but very rarely with an adult. Occasionally, an older brother or cousin might help locate a book or read to them. But more often than not, we see short bursts of activity, almost frenetic in nature. With little to do, children wander in and out with relatively little focus. Rarely are books checked out.

For children in Chestnut Hill, the activities are highly routinized. Invariably, the accompanying parent takes charge, suggesting books, videos, or audio books to check out. Sometimes the parent might pull a book down and let the child examine it or ask a child what types of books to look for. But the parents are clearly in charge: in a very authoritative manner, they sometimes note, “That book is too hard for you,” “That is too easy,” or “This one might be better.” Parents steer children to challenging selections, sometimes appeasing them with a video selection as well. Visits are brief, highly focused, and without exception, end with checking out a slew of books and, often, DVDs.

Inside the spacious preschool area at Lillian Marrero, separated from the rest of the library by “castle walls,” we find bins and baskets, crates and shelves full of books, and small tables with computers…. A mother sits 10 feet away in a chair marking her book with a yellow highlighter while her 6-year-old son explores the stacks alone. He forays several times for books, returning with selections to show his mother for her approval. “No, we’ve already seen them,” she says, sending him back to find something new. He returns several minutes later. Collecting what appears to be one, two, or three items from him, the mother gathers the rest of her belongings. Before she heads for the door, she points to the librarian who is now sitting at her desk. “Say bye to the lady,” the mother says to the little boy. “Bye-bye, lady,” he dutifully responds….

For early literacy, these differences have profound implications. In the spirit of concerted cultivation, toddlers and preschoolers in Chestnut Hill appear to be carefully mentored in selecting challenging materials; in contrast, those who experience the process of natural growth in the Badlands receive little, if any, coaching. Left on their own, these children resort to playful activity of short bursts, picking books up and putting them down with little discrimination and involvement. In Chestnut Hill, activities are carefully orchestrated to encourage reading for individual growth and development; in the Badlands, no such mentoring is available—the children are on their own.

Pass Christian Turns Lemons into Limoncello

by Lisa Hansel
November 19th, 2014

Tiny Pass Christian School District on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast has long been high performing. Despite two-thirds of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, Pass Christian has been in the top 1% of Mississippi districts for the last five years. Between 2005 and 2013, three of its four schools won Blue Ribbons—and last year, the Education Trust awarded Pass Christian High School a Dispelling the Myth Award. But even all those honors are not enough. While grappling with how to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), educators in Pass Christian realized that they could do even better if they worked together.

This story begins in tragedy. Hurricane Katrina destroyed or damaged all of Pass Christian’s schools. Less than two months later, the schools reopened—piled up together in trailers on the least-damaged campus. Everyone had banded together to reopen so quickly. Then they really got to know each other, and they saw the devastation as an opportunity to create a cohesive school system that would sustain districtwide collaboration.

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One of Pass Christian’s schools after Katrina.

Over the past several years of working to implement the CCSS, they have taken that collaboration to new heights with common curriculum, common teacher-made rubrics and assessments, and cross-school observations and mentoring.

Three teachers—Leslie Leyser, a high school English teacher, James Ashley Phillips, a high school mathematics teacher, and Mary Cordray, an elementary teacher—became CCSS liaisons working with teachers in grades 3 – 12 to offer ongoing, in-classroom support. While they saw plenty of good instruction, they also saw different content and expectations. They realized there were gaps and repetitions in what students learned, as well as more- and less-demanding assignments, assessments, and grading practices.

All students had a decent opportunity to learn—but some had a better opportunity to learn than others.

In English language arts, the CCSS set forth the skills students needed to master, but did not offer enough detail to ensure teachers shared the same high expectations for what mastering each skill looks like. An even greater issue was that the CCSS offered almost no guidance as to what to teach.

In a week-long conference that sounds a whole lot like the conference in which the Core Knowledge Sequence was created, all of the grades 3 – 12 ELA teachers set forth what they were teaching and hashed out what they would teach. In their first pass, they found an overwhelming amount of Holocaust literature. That’s clearly important, but since it was being taught in multiple grades, students were bored—and missing opportunities to learn other important content. Figuring out who should keep their Holocaust units and who should let go of them was tough. The teachers agreed to use their social studies and science standards as guides, and social studies teachers joined them to map out the new, shared ELA curriculum. Today, many of the novels, plays, short stories, and poems taught complement the social studies content, immersing students in, for example, the literature and history of the Civil Rights Movement through coordinated units. Many writing assignments are also coordinated.

Since Pass Christian is already very high scoring, it will be interesting to see over the next few years if their scores can be bumped up even higher (especially since the state assessments are not curriculum-based tests). Cognitive science promises benefits to students’ comprehension since the new curriculum avoids gaps and repetitions.

But Leslie Leyser knows all the effort is paying off. Recently, one of her students had an interview at Vanderbilt University. The admissions officer made a casual reference to the Allegory of the Cave, which the student had studied thanks to Pass Christian’s intentionally broad, rich, rigorous, common curriculum. The student—who before did not realize that such references are made all the time—was not only relieved, but overjoyed to be in the know. It wasn’t just a fleeting moment; it was a marker that this kid from a small shrimping town fit in at an elite university.

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Pass Christian’s beautiful new schools are a fitting tribute to this community’s hard work.

Killing Three Birds with One Stone

by Lisa Hansel
November 4th, 2014

The Fordham Institute’s Aaron Churchill has an interesting new post weighing the merits of state-mandated testing in science and social studies. He notes the cons—like the minimal added information on school quality given the high correlations between scores on science and reading tests—and the pros—like reversing the narrowing of the curriculum driven by the high-stakes emphasis on reading and math. Then he sets forth four options (and ultimately recommends his third option):

1.) Keep the status quo. This would ensure that social studies and science are tested, but in non-consecutive years (e.g., science in grades 5 and 8). Yet the status quo still does not compel schools to treat these subjects as equal partners with ELA and math.

2.) Eliminate testing in social studies and science. This approach would reduce the cost of testing in these areas, which gives us little new information about student achievement for school-quality purposes. However, this option would likely encourage even more focus on ELA and math and would require a waiver from federal statute which presently requires science testing at least once in elementary, middle, and high school.

3.) Increase testing in social studies and science to the same frequency as math and ELA (i.e., test these subjects annually in grades 3-8). This would balance schools’ incentives to treat each subject equally, but at the cost of more time and money. From an information perspective, although little additional information is yielded in terms of student proficiency, annual testing could help analysts construct growth (i.e., “value-added”) measures for these subjects.

4.) Decrease testing in math and ELA to non-consecutive grades to match the frequency of social studies and science (e.g., test math and ELA in grades 4 and 6, not consecutively in grades 3-8). This would also balance schools’ incentives to treat subjects equally, but at the cost of less information and accountability. It would also require federal action to grant Ohio relief from consecutive-year-testing mandates in math and ELA in grades 3–8, or more likely, a rewritten federal law that governs state accountability (No Child Left Behind).

I’d like to offer a fifth option that assesses science and social studies yet has fewer tests: Draw the topics for the reading comprehension tests from the science and social studies standards. This blog recently explored the many drawbacks of current reading comprehension tests. In short, they contain a random smattering of “common” topics and topics that ought to be taught in school, but since they are not tied to any specific content that we can be certain has been taught, they inevitably privilege students who have acquired broad knowledge (usually at home).

The only way to construct truly fair reading comprehension tests is to ensure that the passages are on topics that have been taught in school. Since states’ English language arts standards usually do not specify which books, poems, short stories, etc. to teach in each grade, ELA standards are a poor guide for test developers concerned with equity. But states’ science and social studies standards usually do specify some core content to be taught in each grade. The obvious path forward is to construct reading comprehension tests that assess language arts skills using the science and social studies content specified in the standards. After all, skills depend on relevant prior knowledge, so such tests would give a more accurate picture of schools’ impact on students’ language abilities than our current random-content tests. And for the cost and time of just one test, we would have a decent gauge of three subjects.

Even better would be to draw the topics for passages on reading comprehension tests from science, social studies, art, music, geography, and civics standards. Such tests would (1) induce schools to develop a broad, content-rich curriculum and support teacher collaboration, (2) reduce the impact of the home on students’ scores, (3) build the knowledge and vocabulary that is essential to literacy, and (4) be the foundation for an accountability system that requires fewer tests yet still ensures that standards are being met.

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Reading tests with science and social studies content that had been taught would be more equitable and more interesting. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

New Leaders in Literacy

by Lisa Hansel
October 22nd, 2014

It used to be that advocating for building broad knowledge with a content-rich curriculum in the early grades was a lonely enterprise. No more! Whether it’s the focus on the early word gap or the Common Core’s explanation of literacy or the moral universe bending toward justice, knowledge is finally getting its due.

New reports from the National School Boards Association (NSBA), the Education Commission of the States (ECS), and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) emphasize knowledge as a prerequisite to skills. In deference to the nature of the blogosphere, I’ve arranged them from shortest to longest.

In a new blog post and report, NSBA highlights the importance of nonfiction reading. The post takes on three widespread myths about the Common Core: that the standards push fictional literature out of the curriculum, that nonfiction doesn’t help prepare students for college, and that nonfiction is boring. Lovers of history, science, art, music, geography, civics, and Core Knowledge already know these claims are preposterous, but the post is worth a quick read. Here’s my favorite nugget: “Beth Deniell of Kennesaw State observed that the critics of informational reading ‘seem not to have considered that the contextual information students need in order to understand a literary work arrives in non-literary texts.’”

NSBA’s report takes a more data-oriented approach, showing that US students and adults lag behind in information reading ability. It will be eye-opening to anyone who thinks that life-long literacy—the type the enables prosperity and civic engagement—can be built on fiction alone.

For those new to building knowledge and literacy from preschool through third grade, ECS’s report is a great place to start. It moves rapidly through key points on everything from access to preschool and kindergarten to educational quality and continuity to financing and governance, and it offers snapshots of advances made by various states. With a state-level policymaker focus, the report only touches lightly on curriculum, but it does hit on the necessity of carefully sequencing learning experiences:

When children engage in a coherent set of high-quality P-3 learning experiences, the “fade out” effect (i.e., the notion that early gains in learning disappear later in school) is greatly diminished. Aligning standards, curricula and assessments ensures that young children engage in the right sequence of learning experiences at the right time. Alignment also ensures children are working toward building the set of skills and knowledge they will need as they move from a high-quality preschool to a high-quality full-day kindergarten and the early elementary grades. (p. 16)

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Happy reader courtesy of Shutterstock.

NAESP’s report is both the longest and most informative. It’s a real gem for preschool directors and elementary principals. The first two sections—on preschool to third grade continuity, curriculum, and instruction—are especially strong. A few highlights:

Longitudinal studies have shown that an integrated learning continuum for children from age three to grade three contributes to sustaining achievement gains made in prekindergarten programs. (p. 11)

Alignment of standards, instruction, assessment and professional development ensures that students enter each successive grade having the foundation and skills needed to succeed there. Such alignment can reduce unnecessary repetition in instruction and allow for coverage of more instructional topics. A successful Pre-K-3 learning community aligns standards with a sequenced, coherent curriculum that describes what should be taught in each grade and in each subject and makes clear what mastery of each subject means and how it looks. (p. 21)

Learning is cumulative: Early learning facilitates later learning, and children who already know something about a particular topic often have an easier time learning more about it….

Effective instructional leaders support two specific early reading abilities: decoding and comprehension. Decoding is the ability to identify the words on a page; comprehension is the ability to understand what those words mean…. Instructional leaders support teaching that builds comprehension through read-alouds in prekindergarten, kindergarten and first grade, which help children to build knowledge and vocabulary….

Effective Pre-K-3 instructional leaders know that to be successful in a variety of subjects in middle and high school, students also need to build a basis of prior knowledge in science, history, civics, the arts, physical education and social-emotional learning. (p. 22)

E­ffective principals … know that student engagement is essential and that significant learning happens through exploration and play, particularly in prekindergarten and kindergarten. Strategies used to ensure understanding of key content and concepts will, however, change as children progress from grade to grade. For instance, once children enter first and second grade, effective principals know that these strategies shift to more direct instruction, integrated into engaging and dynamic learning opportunities. (p. 23)

To each of these very strong reports, the one thing I would add is domain-based instruction. As the research appendix to the Common Core ELA and literacy standards states, “Word acquisition occurs up to four times faster … when students have become familiar with the domain of the discourse and encounter the word in different contexts…. Vocabulary development … occurs most effectively [when] domains become familiar to the student over several days or weeks” (Appendix A, p. 33). In essence, most vocabulary is not learned through vocab lists, dictionaries, and weekly quizzes. Those things can be useful, but the vast majority of words are learned through multiple exposures in multiple contexts.

The difference between domain-based instruction and widely used theme-based units is focus. While a theme might be friendship and cover everything from family members to pets to pen pals, a domain is much narrower, such as the solar system or early Asian civilizations. The benefit of the domain is that vocabulary and concepts are repeated, deepened, and expanded with a carefully selected set of texts and supporting activities. While a theme might offer a great variety of words and ideas, little is repeated often enough to be learned. A focused domain provides a more genuine opportunity to learn; students get the multiple contexts they need and teachers have several opportunities to differentiate instruction, allowing everyone to master the core concepts and vocabulary of the domain.

Ideally, all children would learn from a content-specific, domain-based, cumulative curriculum that begins in preschool and extends through elementary school. When the preschool is located in the elementary school, collaboration on curriculum is feasible. But coordinating among a disparate set of child care settings, preschool centers, and elementary schools can be next to impossible. When planning together is unlikely, the next-best option is a preschool through fifth-grade program that ensures one grade builds on the next even without teachers interacting. A coherent program can provide continuity in developing language skills, vocabulary, and broad knowledge even as it shifts from a play-oriented approach in preschool to a more academic approach in the upper elementary grades. (Interested? Give Core Knowledge Language Arts a try. Preschool through third grade can be downloaded for free, and several units from grades 4 and 5 are also now freely available.)