Stop Spinning Wheels, Start Spinning Webs

by Lisa Hansel
April 3rd, 2014

Last week I quoted a great piece by Annie Murphy Paul on the importance of analogies (and, by extension, broad knowledge for making analogies) for innovation. That piece left me thinking about one of my favorite analogies for what knowledge does for our ability to learn. Knowledge is like a spider’s web—the bigger your web (i.e., the more knowledge you have), the more new knowledge sticks to it. Credit here goes to Jessica Lahey, so I’ll gladly let her explain:

Remember when you were in high school or college, in that class where nothing seemed to stick? No matter how much you studied? For me, those classes were Indo-Iranian Mythology and Greek and Roman Mythology. I was overworked (long, not particularly interesting story), exhausted, and frustrated by my inability to keep it all in my head. I did not have enough of a knowledge base to be able to link the stories of Hera’s jealousy to Hercules’ labors to what it might mean if Atlas shrugged. These stories are all linked, and knowing one story helps me remember another because the details of those stories form a sticky net, like a spider web. Once I have accumulated enough threads of knowledge, my net is fine enough to catch the new fragments of knowledge that came drifting by.

And that’s when the magic begins. That’s when connections across subjects begin to happen, when a reading of Great Expectations can evolve into a discussion of the Victorian Era, Frankenstein, Icarus, the tower of Babel, and Prometheus unbound.

Of course, as Lahey knows well, we all start building our webs long before college. The more opportunities we have to learn, the bigger, stickier, and finer our webs will be. Lahey is making sure her children—and students—build webs that even a Darwin’s bark spider would be proud of:

My youngest son, Finnegan, is in third grade, at my Core Knowledge school. Three times a week, he leaves the comfort of his classroom and attends a bona fide history class. Not “social studies,” but capitol-H History class. Content. History. Facts.

This month, he’s learning about the Vikings and Rome, Leif Erickson and Julius Caesar. When he gets to fifth grade and Dr. Freeberg’s reading of The Odyssey, he will have a context for the journey of the hero, lust for power, and land, and exploration. This might evolve in to discussions of Napoleon, colonialism, and slavery. In sixth grade, when I finally get my pedagogical talons in him, his web will be sticky enough to hold on to Julius Caesar, the geography of the Roman Empire, the literal and figurative meaning of “alea iacta est” and the controversy surrounding the quote “Et tu, Brute?”

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Spider web at sunrise courtesy of Shutterstock.

Now, a new study, published in the April issue of Cognition, shows the early stages of web building. By 19 months, babies are already starting to use what they have learned to acquire new vocabulary. While the Cognition article is well worth purchasing, the summary by Northwest University’s news team offers a good overview:

Even before infants begin to talk in sentences, they are paying careful attention to the way a new word is used in conversations, and they learn new words from this information in sentences.

For example, if you take an infant to the zoo and say, “Look at the gorilla” while pointing at the cage, the infant may not know what exactly is being referred to. However, if you say, “Look! The gorilla is eating,” the infant can use the word that they do know—“eating”—to conclude that “gorilla” must refer to the animal and not, for example, the swing she is sitting on.

The zoo scenario mirrors the method the researchers used for their experiment. First, infants at ages 15 and 19 months were shown several pairs of pictures on a large screen. Each pair included one new kind of animal and a non-living object. Next, the objects disappeared from view and infants overheard a conversation that included a new word, “blick.” Finally, the two objects re-appeared, and infants heard, for example, “Look at the blick.”

“After overhearing this new word in conversation, infants who hear a helpful sentence such as ‘the blick is eating’ should look more towards the animal than the other, non-living object,” said Brock Ferguson, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Northwestern and lead author of the study. “We show that by 19 months, they do just that. In contrast, if infants heard the new word in an unhelpful sentence such as ‘the blick is over here’ during the conversation, they don’t focus specifically on the animal because, after all, in this kind of sentence, ‘blick’ could mean anything.”…

“What’s remarkable is that infants learned so much from hearing the conversation alone,” said Sandra Waxman, senior author of the study, the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern. “This shows how attuned even very young infants are to the conversation around them. It also shows how well infants build upon what they do know to build their vocabulary.”

Between research like this, initiatives like Too Small to Fail, and advances like the Common Core standards calling for “content-rich curriculum,” perhaps eventually we’ll have a society in which all children have excellent opportunities to build their webs.

 

Do We Underestimate All Learners?

by Lisa Hansel
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.

 

Jan_Cossiers_-_Prometeo_trayendo_el_fuego,_1637

Prometheus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

We Teach Beauty

by Lisa Hansel
February 27th, 2014

What is the purpose of our public schools? It’s a question some answer quickly—too quickly, and too easily—with “college and career readiness.” I’m not against those things, but they seem to me to set the bar too low, so low that many of our students don’t buy in. It’s all utility, no passion, a monotone call to hop on a conveyor belt toward becoming a worker bee. (I’m not saying that’s what the adults intend, but the teenager in me remembers it that way.)

There is a loftier goal, one that would appeal to many youth but that, sadly and wrongly, tends to be reserved only for our most privileged: classical intellectual and character education—the type of liberal education that opens the door to the highest forms of freedom. This form of education gets the college and career part done by intentionally embedding necessary knowledge and skills in humanity’s enduring questions.

At Ridgeview Classical Schools (a charter with an elementary, a middle, and a high school), the curriculum is so carefully planned that even simple grammar lessons are infused with a higher purpose. I haven’t (yet) had the pleasure of visiting, but I feel like I have after reading a terrific new policy brief on the school by William Gonch. Gonch, with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, wrote the brief for AEI’s Program on American Citizenship. Here’s Gonch:

One important element of the Ridgeview approach is the way in which texts and assignments are made to do double duty, so that assignments teach grammar and logic while introducing students to profound ideas and artistic beauty. T. O. Moore, the founder and first principal of Ridgeview, describes the way in which the school integrates skills and core knowledge:

A classical education requires more than functional literacy, however. It teaches students high standards of grammar, precision in word choice, and eloquence. Throughout his education, the student will be exposed to the highest examples of eloquence attained by the greatest writers in the language.

“. . . I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Shakespeare

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Paine

These sentences are entirely grammatical. They could just as easily be used to teach grammar as “I come to help Jane, not to hurt her.” By preferring Shakespeare to an anonymous “See Jane” sentence we teach three things rather than one. We teach grammar. We teach cultural literacy. We also teach beauty. Our purpose is to introduce students to the masters of the language so they will begin to emulate them.

Actually, that’s just one of their purposes. As Gonch explains, Ridgeview uses Socratic, discussion-based classes in which “students spend their time interpreting texts and interrogating arguments and assumptions.” In K–8, its curriculum is guided by the Core Knowledge Sequence, and throughout K–12, the “Hirschean idea that Americans are defined by certain shared ideas and ideals, and that a school is the main vehicle for passing on those ideas, is central to Ridgeview’s understanding of civic education.”

Education for freedom is invigorating, but not easy. As readers of this blog know well, the critical thinking it takes to interrogate a text depends on having extensive relevant knowledge. Ridgeview’s curriculum is intentionally designed to build that knowledge starting in the early grades:

Ridgeview’s faculty have designed their curriculum as a coherent whole; ideas and approaches that are introduced when students are six or eight years old are developed, expanded, and drawn into increasing complexity as students turn 12, 14, or 18. One parent described this as a “cycling back process:” the curriculum introduces young children to a simple form of an idea, an intellectual method, or a story, and then brings it back recurrently in increasingly complex forms. A student might read a picture book of Greek myths in first grade, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology in sixth grade, and Euripides’s Medea in ninth….

The climax of the Ridgeview experience comes when students write their senior theses. The thesis is a 25–32 page research paper that asks students to sum up and reflect on their education. Students often describe the paper’s question as “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is the good life?” Students draw on texts that they have read throughout their schooling, especially the landmarks of their 11th­ and 12th­grade literature classes: The Scarlett Letter, Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, The Apology of Socrates, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Crime and Punishment, and Heart of Darkness.

Because the thesis is the climax of students’ work, students begin thinking about it early in high school. Whether or not they talk about it explicitly, they know that the questions they ask about the nature of honor in the Iliad, the law of consciousness in Emerson’s Self-Reliance, or the nature of the American political community in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address will return in their final papers and that they will have to draw from those texts a theory of the good life that they can defend before their parents and peers….

But the senior thesis, the final product of a self-conscious community of inquiry, might be the most individual thing that any student does. John Herndon, a high school history teacher who frequently advises thesis writers, urges students to address the question by asking, “Given everything I’ve seen in my education up until this point, what can I actually put stock in?” Students … have read Augustine and Plato but also Nietzsche and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Necessarily they must pick and choose, rejecting some texts (at least partly), while making others their own. And they must do it in full view: Herndon says that, standing in front of their peers and fielding questions from their teachers, “They can’t hide anymore.”

As a result, students have a unique freedom to interrogate their own lives and experiences.

If there were one thing I wish all educators would understand about classical education, it is the dedication to questioning. All too often, I see specific traditional content derided as indoctrination. But I never comprehend this point of view. It seems to me that all of the works that have stood the test of time push readers to question themselves, to juxtapose ideas, to see that things are never as simple as they may seem, to see that a good life is one of striving toward ideals, not meeting concrete goals. I understand and agree with those who say traditional content alone is too narrow, that students benefit from more recent and varied perspectives. That’s a yesterday-plus-today approach that can create great challenges for students. It stands in stark contrast to those who wish to toss yesterday out of the curriculum, to leave students anchorless, without the power to use longstanding questions and ideals to keep pushing humanity to better itself.

“We teach grammar. We teach cultural literacy. We also teach beauty.” Now that’s a Core Knowledge school!

Ridgeview

Ridgeview’s homepage. Seems far more gripping than “Where Will You Work Someday?”

Knowledge Is Sticky Stuff

by Lisa Hansel
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.

 

Lost in Wonderland

by Guest Blogger
February 3rd, 2014

By Karin Chenoweth

Karin Chenoweth is the writer-in-residence at The Education Trust. This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

 

First I’ll get the confession out of the way. I haven’t yet read Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s book, My Beloved World. It’s been on my list for a while, and now that it’s out in paperback I have no excuse.

But even before reading it I have been struck, from the excerpts and interviews I’ve read, by how thoughtful Sotomayor is about her experience growing up poor in the Bronx.

I was really interested in something she said in a recent interview with Terry Gross from NPR’s Fresh Air:

One day talking to my first-year roommate … I was telling her about how out of place I felt at Princeton, how I didn’t connect with many of the experiences that some of my classmates were describing, and she said to me, “You’re like Alice in Wonderland.”

And I asked, “Who is Alice?”

And she said, “You don’t know about Alice?”

And I said, “No, I don’t.”

And she said, “It’s one of the greatest book classics in English literature. You should read it.”

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.

For me, this is an example of how, unless provided with a really coherent, comprehensive education, many kids who grow up in poverty—heck, many kids period—are robbed of being able to enter into any conversation that assumes a broad cultural knowledge.

It wasn’t that Sotomayor wasn’t smart in the sense of being fully capable—she has more than proven that.

It wasn’t that Sotomayor’s mother didn’t care about her education—Sotomayor said her mother worked hard to send her children to Catholic schools and even bought the newly popular Dr. Seuss books.

And it wasn’t that Sotomayor’s school was “bad”—after all, she got into Princeton.

But her K-12 schooling didn’t provide her with the kind of grounding that she should have had, leaving her feeling lost. Sotomayor was sure to feel social disorientation—she had never heard of a trust fund until she realized many of her fellow students were living on them, for example. But her schooling should have provided her with enough grounding to avoid academic disorientation and understand ordinary conversations.

Sonia Sotomayor’s 8th grade graduation photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All kids should be able to rely on their schools to help them become conversant enough with important cultural, historical and scientific touchstones that by the end of 12 or 13 years in school they aren’t lost when they hear about Alice in Wonderland, or references to Gettysburg, or read a newspaper story about a Supreme Court case or scientific breakthrough. But that kind of grounding requires schools to be very intentional about what kids need to know and be able to do and plan accordingly.

Right now, far too many kids are still receiving a haphazard education that doesn’t allow kids to enter the larger civic and cultural conversation. That is bad for all kids, but it puts a barrier in front of any kid whose family is unable to fill in the gaps. Sotomayor notwithstanding, for many children who grow up in poverty, it can be an insurmountable barrier.

 

Policymakers: Stop Being Agnostic about Curriculum

by Lisa Hansel
January 29th, 2014

This post originally appeared on Common Core Watch, a blog by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

 

Pop quiz! Which of the following statements is in the Common Core State Standards?

(a) Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge.

(b) By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas.

(c) At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.

(d) Having students listen to informational read-alouds in the early grades helps lay the necessary foundation for students’ reading and understanding of increasingly complex texts on their own in subsequent grades.

(e) All of the above.

The answer is e, all of the above. Knowledge is the key to reading comprehension. It’s the key to college, career, and citizenship readiness. It’s the key to meeting the Common Core standards. (see pages 10 and 33of the standards—and for even more on building knowledge, see page 6 and Apendix A page 33).

To be even more blunt, the standards require a “content-rich curriculum” (page 6) that is “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” (page 10).

If you are a master teacher with a supportive administrator and collaborative colleagues, the standards give you all the guidance you need. Between the model on page 33 and the research summary in Appendix A, there’s a clear vision for creating a curriculum that systematically builds knowledge.

Knowledge-driven careers courtesy of Shutterstock.

But if you are a state-level policymaker or district superintendent, the path forward is murkier. You don’t want to mandate a curriculum, but you do need to encourage all schools to adopt, adapt, or create more rigorous, coherent, knowledge-building curricula. What to do? Four models are worth considering—two at the state level and two at the district level.

Focus on Alignment: Massachusetts

Starting in the 1990s, Massachusetts began taking the whole idea of a standards-based education system very seriously. The Bay State created instructional frameworks that were (relative to other states, if not to many other nations) very content specific. What students had to learn was clear, which enabled teachers to collaborate on a much deeper level. Policymakers got three big things right: First, they did not mandate pedagogy. Second, they actually based the MCAS exams on the instructional frameworks. (Many other states had standards and assessments, but the standards were so vague that virtually any assessments could claim to be aligned with them. As a result, the standards did not truly guide instruction, setting up an assessment-based guessing game for teachers.) Third, they stayed the course for many years—standing firm against allegations that the standards were too high and the tests too hard and, crucially, being far more supportive than punitive. For many years, the emphasis was on framework-based teacher preparation and ongoing professional development. The results (nationally and internationally) have been spectacular.

Provide a Model: New York

While I can empathize with educators who feel that New York is moving too fast with the Common Core, I must also credit the state for heading in the right direction. New York realized that the standards would mean major instructional shifts, and has been working to provide—but not mandate—curricular resources to help teachers make those shifts. The EngageNY website is a rich resource; teachers throughout the Empire State and far beyond are using it to better understand the Common Core. (Full disclosure: Core Knowledge Language Arts was chosen by New York as the model ELA curriculum for preschool–second grade implementation of the standards.) Massachusetts took about a decade to fully implement its standards-based system; I predict that New York will figure out ways to heed educators’ concerns while staying the course.

Build Your Own: Washington, D.C.

Like New York, the District of Columbia realized that the Common Core requires a content-rich curriculum. It also saw many benefits for students and teachers when a district has a shared, specific, curricular plan: Students endure fewer gaps and repetitions when they change schools and teachers are able to learn more from each other. Being large enough to have adequate resources and small enough to engage in district-wide initiatives, the District of Columbia Public Schools has gotten teachers involved in writing Common Core–aligned Scope and Sequence guides for each grade. This is especially important because of the city’s high rates of teacher turnover and student mobility. States that don’t want to follow New York’s path could incentivize districts to follow D.C.’s path. Even a small initiative, such as funding three to five districts, would help the whole state by creating multiple curricular models for other districts to adopt or adapt.

Invest in R&D: New York City

A few years before the Common Core, New York City tiptoed into analyzing the efficacy of different curricula. This is worth mentioning not because of the quality of the study (a small pilot) and not because of the programs being tested (Core Knowledge Language Arts was one), but because comparisons of curricula are desperately needed. As Brookings scholars Russ Whitehurst and Matt Chingos have explained, instructional materials can have as large an impact on learning as teacher quality—and programs are much easier to change than people—yet little is known about various materials’ relative effectiveness. Large districts like NYC—and all districts with state support—have the capacity to conduct more and better research. To make the most of the Common Core, we need to create content-rich curricula and commit to an ongoing R&D process that drives continuous improvement in curriculum and instruction.

Curriculum alone, no matter how good, is no silver bullet. But it should be the foundation for all other education work. From teacher preparation and professional development to assessment and accountability to student remediation and enrichment, the education enterprise is more effective and efficient when it rests on a clear statement of what students are to learn in each grade.

 

What Really Matters Most?

by Lisa Hansel
January 23rd, 2014

This post originally appeared on Peter Meyer’s education policy blog IdeaLab, hosted by the CUNY Institute for Education Policy at Roosevelt House.

 

When asked what matters most to me, I quickly answer: my family and friends. That’s appropriate, but if I were being accurate, I’d have to start with oxygen. That’s not what anyone wants to hear—but it is true.

I see a parallel situation in discussions of school improvement. In casual discussions and even serious debates, there seems to be a de facto, appropriate answer as to what matters most in creating a good school: great teachers and supportive parents. Now, I’m not going to say these things are unimportant; just like my family and friends, they are essential. But is there a more accurate answer, one that, like oxygen, is taken for granted? I think there is: the content of the curriculum, the specific knowledge and skills taught each day.

My hunch is that curriculum is glossed over in different ways by educators and policy wonks.

For educators, the content of the curriculum really is like oxygen. Teaching is always about something, and that something has to be specified before any other decisions can be made. That’s so obvious that it’s assumed, prompting educators to jump to other factors in thinking about what’s essential to a great school. Now, don’t get me wrong: the curriculum doesn’t make a school great all by itself any more than oxygen alone makes me live. Both are merely the necessary preconditions. Yet while it is possible to find a bad school with a great curriculum, it is no more possible to find a good school with a bad curriculum than a human being who can live without oxygen. When educators take the content of the curriculum for granted, they lose opportunities to coordinate and collaborate. Students may be learning something valuable in each grade or course, but they do not receive the benefits of a coherent, cumulative, cross-curricular experience.

Many policy wonks, on the other hand, seem to have no idea that curriculum matters. Some don’t even realize that standards and curricula are not the same thing. Theoretically, I could blame the educators for not explaining to the policymakers that curriculum is like oxygen—but in the real world I can’t. In the 100%-proficient-or-else era, what sane educator would encourage policymakers to mess with their oxygen? Unfortunately, omitting questions about the curriculum virtually ensures that the standards regime cannot attain its goal of raising student proficiency. Why is this?

It’s been almost five years since Russ Whitehurst wrote “Don’t Forget Curriculum,” noting that “policy makers who cut their teeth on policy reforms in the areas of school governance and management rather than classroom practice, [are] people who may be oblivious to curriculum for the same reason that Bedouin don’t think much about water skiing.” Importantly, Whitehurst compared the impact of curricular improvements to that of other reforms, such as charter schools, altering the teacher workforce, preschool, and state standards. Conclusion: “Curriculum effects are large compared to most popular policy levers.”

This is why I am still trying to mess with the oxygen: it is the necessary precondition for improving schools, closing the achievement gap, engaging parents, and preparing teachers.

Trying again a couple of years ago, Whitehurst and Matt Chingos published “Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core.” This time, there was a cool graphic tightly focused on curriculum vs. teacher quality, the clear leader in appropriate-but-inaccurate discussions of what matters most:

Since curriculum matters, let’s start acting like it matters:

  • Researchers: do more longitudinal, well-designed studies that compare curricula.
  • Policy wonks: don’t mandate a curriculum, but support efforts—from the school level to the research university level—to constantly improve curricula.
  • Assessment developers: stop pretending like assessments are curriculum neutral. Each test question contains specific content and favors students who happened to be taught that content. So long as assessments are intentionally designed to have the content of the questions be unpredictable, the only way to prepare for them is to systematically and efficiently build broad knowledge.
  • Teacher-quality hawks: realize that sometimes good people are forced to use bad programs and practices. The surest path to better teaching is better curriculum. If a curriculum with strong evidence of effectiveness is not working in a particular classroom, that’s cause for investigation (but not for jumping to conclusions).
  • Educators: within schools, work together to adopt, adapt, or create a coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum that maximizes cross-discipline connections and efficiently builds knowledge and skills. Across schools in areas with high student mobility, agree to a set of specific knowledge and skills to be taught in each grade; children who change schools will benefit immediately—and so will their teachers.
  • Parents: get a copy of your school’s curriculum and ask how you can supplement it at home.
  • Librarians: get copies of the curricula of the schools in your area and pull together supportive and supplemental resources.
  • Everyone: stop taking our oxygen for granted.

Everyone can and should be an oxygen hawk.

Teaching Martin Luther King, Jr.

by EmmaEarnst
January 20th, 2014

I used to “celebrate” Martin Luther King Day by reading a book to my students on the Friday before they were out of school for the national holiday. After reading it, I would talk about his accomplishments and the impact of his contributions to American culture. I felt like I was really helping my kids to understand the significance of this great man! Once I started teaching using the Core Knowledge Sequence and the CKLA [Core Knowledge Language Arts] program, I realized that as good as my intentions were in years past, I had merely exposed my students to Dr. King and just skimmed the surface.

—Cathy Kinter

As Cathy Kinter, a second-grade teacher turned curriculum coordinator at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, notes, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day provides teachers with a timely opportunity to teach about the civil rights leader. But she also raises a crucial point: teaching content according to the calendar can lead to superficial learning.

What to do? By using both the Core Knowledge Sequence and CKLA to create a content-specific, coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum, teachers at Thomas Jefferson have solved the calendar dilemma. Every teacher knows that King and the U.S. civil rights movement are taught in depth twice: in second grade and in eighth grade. As a result, teachers in other grades are free to use the national holiday to celebrate King; they make connections to the content they are teaching without taking on the responsibility of teaching a full unit on King—or worrying that they are just skimming the surface.

Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

In her kindergarten classroom, for example, Jan Tucker introduces her students to King and extends their recently acquired knowledge of fictional characters by drawing comparisons:

We make connections back to our previous read-alouds from CKLA such as King Midas, Cinderella, etc. We discuss what we must to do accomplish our dreams: the sacrifices and the successes. As the children are working, we discuss how they are not learning all of the information about Martin Luther King and they will learn a lot more about his contributions in second grade.

In first grade, Terrany Wright’s students discover more about King, while building enthusiasm for further studies of him the next year:

I read a book on Tuesday after the students were off for the holiday (I do this because I want my students to begin by making a personal connection to Dr. King before I even read about him). I begin by asking the students if they know why they did not have school yesterday. My line of questioning will vary depending upon the answers they give me, but I always want my students to “figure out” that they were off from school because of the effort and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: the man they are going to hear about in the book. I attempt to increase my students’ attention and enthusiasm by telling them that Dr. King was such an important man in American History that they are going to learn even more about him in second grade!

In second grade, Thomas Jefferson students preview King on his national holiday, and then study him in more detail during the Fighting for a Cause domain. This domain follows a whole series—starting in kindergarten—of U.S. history domains. As such, students use their knowledge of the Constitution, slavery, the U.S. Civil War, and segregation to reach an understanding of how King’s vision and leadership helped (and is still helping) make America more equitable and free. Says second grade teacher Heidi Cole,

If the goal is true understanding of Civil Rights, it is logical to acknowledge the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and inform students that they will soon be learning why this man is such a significant hero to our world. Later in the year, when teaching about him within the context of the Fighting for a Cause domain, students can be reminded that we celebrated his legacy with a national holiday in January.

Benefitting from students’ deeper understanding of King, the civil rights movement, and the larger premise that all men are created equal, third-grade teachers use Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to revisit and reinforce those concepts. Teachers Alenia Scism and Cecelia Greengrass even connect King to what they are learning in the Ancient Roman Civilization domain. Says Scism,

I start by helping the students recall what they learned about Dr. King and his accomplishments in second grade. Then, I read the book March On! by Christine King Farris. The children will write about a dream they have and what they are going to do to make their dream a reality. I connect the contributions of MLK back to the Ancient Rome domain where there were different classes of people (patricians, plebeians, slaves) and they were treated differently and had different rights.

By eighth grade, students have the broad knowledge needed to grasp King’s place in the pantheon of leaders seeking greater equality. History teacher Eric Scriggs explains,

I teach about Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights domain, which is in February. Prior to this, I introduce him in relation to Thoreau and Ghandi. I also connect his achievements in regard to the 15th Amendment as we study the Constitution. We cover Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez in the same unit which ties into the Fighting for a Cause domain from second grade.

The teachers at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy are making the most of their carefully constructed curriculum. By using Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a time to introduce and remember the great civil rights leader, they’ve built their students enthusiasm for a deeper dive into his life and legacy.

What’s Knowledge Got to Do with It? A PISA Roundup

by Lisa Hansel
December 6th, 2013

We’ve all seen the PISA results this week: On reading, math, and science, our 15-year-olds have not made any improvements since 2009—but their peers in many other countries have. Some people question international assessments, but the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term assessment confirms PISA’s key finding: our teenagers are not improving.

In the chatter about PISA, there’s been a decent amount of good sense, but also a disturbing dance around the in-school factors that most affect what students know and are able to do: masterful teaching of a rigorous, coherent, knowledge-building curriculum.

(Bright idea courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Dana Goldstein, writing for Slate, came close, noting that “out-of-school social supports matter, teachers should be empowered, and all kids ought to be exposed to the most challenging material.” And yet, she seemed to assume that America actually has a math curriculum: “Since the Common Core is focused on greater depth and less breadth in our currently rushed and overstuffed American math curriculum, it probably will help our kids do better on exams like PISA.” Bill Schmidt’s research clearly showed that even math courses with the same name don’t teach the same content, so we’re far from an “American math curriculum.” Still, Goldstein’s key points, that all kids should get the same challenging material and that the Common Core could help nudge schools in that direction, ring true.

Adam Taylor, for Business Insider, boiled it down further and also hit on a nugget of truth: “the domination of PISA rankings by Asian countries looks complete, with countries from the region holding all the top seven spaces in math, the top five in reading, and the top four in science. Ultimately, this success might come down to something simple and harder to imitate — hard work.” Hard work is part of the picture, and there is certainly a tendency among some American parents and students to prefer stress-free happiness over academic pressure. But hard work alone won’t increase achievement. The content of the instructional materials matters. Adults need to do their hard work—writing the content-rich curriculum that the Common Core standards call for is clearly necessary.

New research from ACT shows that writing a coherent, knowledge-building curriculum aligned with the Common Core would be wise. By having over 2,000 10th graders take PISA and PLAN, ACT’s college and career readiness assessment that is aligned with the Common Core, ACT found that those who meet PLAN/Common Core’s definition of college and career ready also perform quite well in comparison with their peers from around the world.

So, are there any concrete lessons we could take from those countries that perform well on, and are improving on, PISA? Marc Tucker of National Center on Education and the Economy thinks so. Here’s his too-rational-to-be-accepted-in-the-US summary of what the better-performing countries do:

The first thing they do is very simple: they carefully study the strategies, policies and practices used by the top performers, not with an eye to copying anyone, but to learn from them, to adapt the best to build a version uniquely suited to our own needs.

Second, they provide more resources to the students who are harder to educate than to the students who are easier to educate.

Third, we see that all the top performers have invested heavily in the skills of their teachers.  Some have focused on sourcing their teachers from much higher quality high school graduates, insisting that their teachers have bachelors’ degrees in the subjects they will teach (including their elementary school teachers) and insisting as well on solid preparation in the craft of teaching (they do not believe in alternative routes into teaching that skip this step).  Some, most notably Shanghai, have worked very hard to set up systems that have the effect of helping teachers to improve their practice year after year in a very disciplined way.

Fourth, they have all put a lot of effort into building internationally competitive academic standards, intellectually demanding curriculum and examinations built on the curriculum that are designed to measure the full range of complex thinking skills on which their standards are based.

The top performers have all found ways to give very young children and their parents a lot of support before the children first show up for school.  They pay a lot of attention to vocational education and training and to school to work transition.  Not least important they work hard to build effective systems, the parts and pieces of which are designed to support one another and rely—gasp!—on government to implement those systems well.

 

Closing the Gap: One Challenging Book at a Time

by Lisa Hansel
November 18th, 2013

Here’s a far too common sight in middle schools with lots of students from low-income families: adolescents bored with and discouraged by books for elementary students. Bored because the content is simplistic; discouraged because even these kids’ books contain vocabulary they don’t know.

Some school systems assume that students this far behind are “slow” and that this is the best they can do; but very often, the only thing these students lack is the opportunity—not the capacity—to be on grade level.

To understand this, you need to know about two things: the vocabulary demands of written texts and the limitations inherent in typical elementary-grades reading instruction.

As for the vocabulary in texts, it is far more sophisticated than the vocabulary in spoken language. One study comparing spoken and written language found that, “Regardless of the source or situation and without exception, the richness and complexity of the words used in the oral language samples paled in comparison with the written texts. Indeed, of all the oral language samples evaluated, the only one that exceeded even preschool books in lexical range was expert witness testimony.”

This has obvious implications for instruction: To build vocabulary, students must be immersed in texts. Studying vocabulary lists can help a little, but as E. D. Hirsch has explained, the tens of thousands of words that need to be learned must be absorbed bit by bit, through multiple exposures in multiple texts.

I don’t think you’ll find many teachers arguing against a print-rich environment. You will, sadly, find many who have been trained—through teacher preparation programs and mandated professional development—in instructional methods that prevent children from developing large vocabularies.

The culprit is the notion of the “just-right” book. A book that is not too easy and not too hard, a book that a child can read independently. Sounds good. But what happens when a child who is not learning much vocabulary at home is in a classroom where all of his texts are matched to his current level? Growth, but at a glacial pace. Blink and these kids are in eighth grade reading “just-right” third grade books.

The path to college is paved with challenging texts. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

One of the most important instructional shifts embedded in the Common Core standards is to accelerate growth by immersing students in grade-level books. I’ve seen many descriptions and misunderstandings of this. Finally, a clear, concise explanation is provided in a terrific report that Timothy Shanahan and Ann Duffett published with the Fordham Institute last month:

The CCSS seek to challenge students with texts that are grade-appropriate (on a K-12 trajectory to college- and career-readiness), rather than those that are only as challenging as students can read on their own.

American schools have long attempted to differentiate instruction to meet individual students’ learning needs. In reading, this has often meant selecting texts not according to whether they are appropriately rigorous for the grade, in terms of both content and complexity, but rather according to how well a student could read the text by himself at that point in time. In many classrooms and for many students, this has meant assigning texts to struggling readers, the content and complexity of which are more appropriate to lower grade levels. Done this way, the goal is to assign books that students will be able to read with high degrees of both accuracy (recognizing 95 percent of the words) and comprehension (answering 75-90 percent of the questions). Materials that students can read this well are said to be at their “instructional level,” and materials that are harder are deemed to be at a “frustration level.”

But the Common Core discourages teachers from doing this out-of-level teaching. Instead, the standards demand regular practice with grade-appropriate texts, regardless of the independent or instructional reading level of the student. The idea is that teacher support and explanation, not text difficulty, is what should be differentiated to meet the needs of struggling readers.

Some may question the wisdom of teaching students with texts that they’re unlikely to understand without help. But research suggests teachers can’t pinpoint students’ reading levels with great precision.18 Even if they could, students can learn effectively from a broad range of text levels and giving them a steady diet of relatively easy texts doesn’t support learning effectively.19 In fact, some studies have reported greater learning gains when students were taught with markedly more challenging texts.20 Still, there is a long history of encouraging instructional-level teaching in U.S. schools.21

Shifting from assigning books that students can read independently to works that require more deliberate teacher guidance and support changes the instructional focus of reading class. The time that teachers once spent trying to pinpoint individual student reading levels and match books to them should instead now be focused on providing greater support for students who are struggling to read these texts, including more explanations and rereading.

According to Fordham’s report, nearly two-thirds of fourth- and fifth-grade teachers select texts based on students’ reading level—not their grade level. Even if this one instructional shift is the only thing accomplished by the Common Core, then all the effort will be richly rewarded.