Writing for Understanding

by Lisa Hansel
November 17th, 2015

Back in 2003, Sam Wineburg, a history professor at Stanford, published a little essay (or quick rant) titled “Power Pointless.” I can’t find it online now, but it amounted to a plea to have students write papers instead of merely creating presentations. Bullet points can hide incomplete understandings; essays tend to reveal them.

Wineburg’s piece stuck with me because I’ve found it to be true even with well-developed presentations. I’ve attended the National History Day finals a few times, for example, and even at that high level I’ve found students who wrote papers to be much better prepared to answer questions. A focused essay with supporting details that are logically presented in well-connected paragraphs requires deep understanding and analysis, as well as writing skills.

And yet, especially with younger students, it can be difficult to determine the challenges underlying poorly written essays. Is the child still struggling with forming letters, spelling, punctuation, etc. such that she can’t express her understanding? Is she unfocused or unorganized? Or has she not developed much understanding?

Five teachers committed to improving students’ writing confronted those questions. In their classrooms, the widely used writing process is “significant, necessary, and vital,” but “not enough.” Through classroom R&D, they found that while students need to develop writing skills—from basic mechanics to sophisticated structures—problems are often grounded in a lack of understanding. Kids are asked to write before they’ve had a chance to learn much about their topic.

With over 130 years of teaching experience between them, these five teachers developed Writing for Understanding, an approach that emphasizes building and organizing knowledge as essential preparation for writing. They’ve written a terrific book that mixes cognitive science with their experiences as teachers and professional development providers. With everything from the rationale to explicit planning guidance to student writing samples, it’s a must read.

Here’s a small taste, drawn from the introduction and chapter 1:

Our work has convinced us that, even with a thoughtful question, many students fail when they write. This failure occurs … because they don’t have sufficient knowledge in the first place. No matter how thought-provoking the question is, one cannot reflect on knowledge one does not have. One cannot analyze information that is sketchy, inaccurate, or poorly understood. One cannot synthesize from nothing. It is up to teachers, then, to provide activities and experiences that give students knowledge and help them construct meaning from that knowledge….

It has long been a truism that one should write about what one knows; all writers know this, all teachers of writing or teachers who use writing in their classes know this. This truism has often led, however, to the idea that one should write about only what one already knows, or at the very least decide for oneself about what to learn and write.

One of the unintended consequences of this assumption has been that teachers have frequently not paid sufficient attention to how students actually acquired the knowledge about which they would write. In writing from personal experience, the knowledge could be assumed; after all, the knowledge was the writer’s own life events or ideas or reflections.

Because of this emphasis, the corollary to “write about what you know” has frequently not been articulated—that you should “know about what you write.” As a result, deliberate, intentional planning for knowledge building has not often been a part of the writing teacher’s approach….

Writing for Understanding is an approach that recognizes … that at the heart of effective writing, by any accepted definition, is the building of meaning and expression so that others can follow the writer’s thinking. Therefore, Writing for Understanding postulates that if students are to write effectively and with engagement—during testing, for their own personal growth, for school, for real life—they need to have certain elements in place. These elements are:

    • knowledge and understanding which can be articulated in spoken and written language
    • an appropriate focus for thinking about and synthesizing that knowledge and understanding
    • a structure through which to clearly develop and present that knowledge and understanding
    • control over conventions.

The rest of the book offers rich information for teachers on planning for understanding and supporting transfer of students’ writing ability—including the ability to learn about new topics to prepare for effective writing.

For a peek into a school that recently adopted Writing for Understanding—and some Listening & Learning domains from Core Knowledge Language Arts—take a look at these short videos:

ANet 1 (2)

ANet 2

AP Hunger Games

by Guest Blogger
November 10th, 2015

By Brooke Haycock

Brooke Haycock, senior playwright-researcher with The Education Trust, primarily develops and performs docudramas based on interviews with students and educators to deepen understanding of educational data and the equity debate. This post was originally published as part of Ed Trust’s Between the Echoes blog series, which offers glimpses of students’ experiences. As Ed Trust notes, “All stories are based on interviews or first-hand accounts, but are shared with respect for the privacy of students and the adults around them.”


“Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor.” – The Hunger Games

She walked onto the campus with confidence. Head high, stride purposeful, hair a shock of rebellious pink, and boots broadcasting that she was not to be messed with.

She’d been chosen to be there. One of just a few rising juniors from her high school across town. Crossing borders to join an elite group of mostly privileged private-school students for a summer Advanced Placement English enrichment/prep program on a prestigious college campus. She had come there the hard way. Had earned it.

She and her classmates were ready.

Or so she thought.

The teacher asked them to pull out the first book they’d be reading that fall in AP in their schools.

The private school students’ backpacks unfurled as they reached for their copies of The Odyssey and works by authors like Emerson and Goethe.

“And we pull out,” she paused for effect, “The Hunger Games.”

From there, it was one jolt after the next.

“Everything in this summer program, like, every single class is conversation. And just constantly, as you read, as you discuss, you’re taking deep notes. You’re constantly taking notes and learning.”

She described how different this was from instruction in her pre-AP English class and her AP world history class the year before. “I feel like we spent too much time learning to take the test and not enough time on content. And all of the content that we got was either straight lecture, like the teacher talking completely, totally on her own the whole time. Or, um, from the text. We read two chapters every week of the text.” And the text she described was a far cry from the ones she was encountering in this summer program.

“In this summer program, we read only original authors. So you’re reading Lucretius, you’re reading, um, Aristotle. Those are the ones we read in our one week there. Um, Metamorphosis of Plants by Goethe. And, to me, it was just so crazy, like, how many of those kids knew those things already and had been exposed to them.”

“It just really struck me as unfair. We’re going to be taking the same AP test. The same exact test. We need to know the same exact things.”

Despite her and her schoolmates’ hunger for it, that’s not the exposure and preparation they were getting. As if they’d been offered the wrapper but real AP content and rigor was somehow determined a bite bigger than they could chew.

Now back in her regular school, she sits in class and opens her worn copy of Hunger Games to the dog-eared page in chapter seven, and continues to read as the main character, Katniss, realizes she must fight a battle for which she was underprepared.

There’s nothing I can do but continue with the plan. I walk to my archery station… Bows made of wood and plastic and metal and materials I can’t even name. Arrows with feathers cut in flawless uniform lines. I choose a bow, string it, and sling the matching quiver of arrows over my shoulder… I walk to the center of the gymnasium and pick my first target. Even as I pull back on the bow I know something is wrong. The string’s tighter than the one I use at home. The arrow’s more rigid. I miss by a couple of inches and lose what little attention I had been commanding. For a moment, I’m humiliated, then I head back to the bull’s-eye. I shoot again and again until I get the feel of these new weapons.

She dog-ears the page, closes the book, and reaches into her book bag. She pulls out a copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis on loan from the library. If her school won’t prepare her, she’ll have to prepare herself.


How many more students are ready to fly? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Learn more about the experiences of low-income students and students of color at the high end of the achievement spectrum in Ed Trust’s “Falling Out of the Lead.” 


This Is Not Your Father’s Geography

by Lisa Hansel
November 4th, 2015

Missouri: Jefferson City, Corn. Kansas: Topeka, Corn.

States, capitals, crops. That’s pretty much what my geography education consisted of. I didn’t even see a topographic map until I was in college—a boyfriend took me hiking.

It was as an adult, reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, that I realized how little I knew of the field and how important it is. Today’s geographers are central to resolving issues as varied as pollution, diseases, poverty, and conflicts.


Geographers are also essential to our mobile lives (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

In schools, geography ought to be a fascinating bridge between history, civics, and science. Instead, it’s barely taught.

After the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress geography results showed abysmal proficiency rates among eighth graders—27% of all students, 11% of those eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 7% of Black students—the Senate asked GAO to report on the challenges of geography education in K– 12. Let’s hope the senators were not surprised when the high stakes attached to reading and math scores emerged as the primary reason little time is spent on geography:

Data on student access to geography education showed that a small portion of instruction time is spent on the subject. Our analysis of 2014 teacher survey data,… showed that 50 percent of eighth grade teachers reported spending 3 to 5 hours per week of classroom instruction time on social studies…. Of those … more than half reported that “10 percent or less” of their social studies time was spent on geography…. In addition, half of all eighth grade students in 2014 reported learning about geography “a few times a year” or “hardly ever.”…

Officials from all four state educational agencies with which we conducted interviews told us they faced challenges in ensuring that geography standards remained an integral part of the state curriculum. For example, one state official told us how the state had eliminated geography from the curriculum for over a decade, and only recently added geography courses back amid concerns from the community that students were lacking essential geography skills. Similarly, all 10 teachers we spoke with reported that geography instruction has decreased in recent years due to a greater emphasis on teaching math and reading. Half of the 10 teachers described pressures to improve student test scores in reading and math, which hindered their ability to devote time to social studies and geography—subjects that generally do not have required tests. Among the 10 teachers we interviewed, almost all described not having sufficient time to teach geography as the top challenge to providing students with a geography education. Five of the 10 teachers also reported that teaching geography was not viewed as important in their district or school. For example, one teacher said she was told that her students’ test scores in geography did not “count” and two of the geography teachers expressed concern about losing their jobs because geography and social studies courses were likely being removed from the curriculum.

Okay, so this boils down to geography isn’t tested and isn’t important. On both points, our leaders and educators are sadly wrong. As Dan Willingham has said—including in this great video—teaching geography is teaching reading. The more students know, the better their comprehension. And, the higher their test scores. Take a look at these grade 3 sample items from Smarter Balanced. The knowledge demands range from birds to how paper is made to—yes—geography. Item 10 is a listening comprehension task on the Northern Lights; it assumes knowledge of stars, the North Pole, the South Pole, Canada, and Alaska.

In reality, geography is tested—as are all other academic subjects—in reading comprehension assessments.

And more importantly, geography is a fascinating subject with critical real-life applications. As the GAO report noted:

Geography and geospatial or location-based technologies are ubiquitous in daily life, from the navigation units in cars to applications on smart phones. These technologies, which include global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS), are used in a myriad of ways, from crisis mapping in Haitian earthquake relief efforts to deciding where to locate supermarkets in underserved communities in Philadelphia…. According to the Department of Labor, employment of specialists in geography, or geographers, is projected to grow 29 percent from 2012 to 2022—much faster than the average 11 percent growth for all occupations.

Google, the World Health Organization, and the military are all looking for geographers. Are they unimportant too?

Help Wanted: Smartphone and Grit Required, Knowledge Optional

by Lisa Hansel
October 21st, 2015

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never seen a position description for a good job that didn’t have a long list of knowledge, skill, and character requirements. It makes me wonder why those focused on “21st century” careers seem to place skills and character—or problem solving, team work, and perseverance—far above knowledge.

David Brooks provides the latest example as he laments widespread enthusiasm for the new documentary “Most Likely to Succeed.” In lauding High Tech High, it dismisses the need for broad knowledge. Students’ time is devoted to long-term projects, so they end up with narrow bands of knowledge:

Teachers cover about half as much content as in a regular school. Long stretches of history and other subject curriculums are effectively skipped. Students do not develop conventional study habits.

The big question is whether such a shift from content to life skills is the proper response to a high-tech economy. I’d say it’s at best a partial response.

Ultimately, what matters is not only how well you can collaborate in groups, but the quality of the mind you bring to the group. In rightly playing up soft skills the movie underemphasizes intellectual virtues. For example, it ignores the distinction between information processing, which computers are good at, and knowledge, which they are not….

The cathedrals of knowledge and wisdom are based on the foundations of factual acquisition and cultural literacy. You can’t overleap that, which is what High Tech High is in danger of doing.

Brooks is absolutely right. The question is how to convince others.


What’s the value in collaboration without enough knowledge to generate and implement excellent ideas? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

While the overwhelming evidence from cognitive science will win over our education system eventually, today’s students can’t wait. Fortunately, a new report from the Center for American Progress could catalyze change. The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform: Do States and Districts Receive the Most Bang for Their Curriculum Buck? shows that better curriculum could be a low- to no-cost, high-impact reform. Focusing on return on investment (ROI), it should turn the heads of policymakers, philanthropists, and reformers:

Switching to a higher quality curriculum has a huge ROI relative to other educational policies—in large part because curricula cost so little…. The average cost-effectiveness ratio of switching curriculum was almost 40 times that of class-size reduction in a well-known randomized experiment….

State adoption decisions are often based on limited assessments of quality and weak proxies for alignment to state standards…. There is also a clear gap between the reality of which curricula are effective or aligned to state standards and the curricula that publishers advertise as such.

Much of the problem with adoption seems to be a lack of information. Curriculum has long been ignored by academics, funders, and decision-makers, so there’s shockingly little evidence of which curricula are most effective. Lots of approaches and materials result in at least some learning; rigorous comparative studies are needed to find out what works best for various groups of students.

The report calls for investments in creating better curricula, comparative evaluations, and improvements to the state and district selection processes (including a wise recommendation to pilot materials prior to adoption). The one suggestion I’d add is that districts and states need not do this work alone. Consortia could be more effective and efficient, especially for finding materials aligned with the Common Core standards. One large consortium might even have the resources to fund comparative studies.

Is Your School Increasing the Achievement Gap?

by Lisa Hansel
October 7th, 2015

I have a very simple proposition: The more we teach, the more students learn—but some students get taught more than others.

There’s plenty of evidence to back me up, so I’ll just go with the most recent study I’ve seen that make this point. Bill Schmidt and his research team found that all around the world, schools are increasing the achievement gap by providing low-income students less opportunity to learn mathematics. Using PISA data, they “found not only that low-income students are more likely to be exposed to weaker math content in schools, but also that a substantial share of the difference in math performance between rich and poor students is related to this inequality.” Across the 62 countries in the study, unequal math content accounted for 32% of the achievement gap, on average. In the US, it accounted for 37%.


Student who deserves an equal opportunity to learn courtesy of Shutterstock.

This isn’t a simple story of good and bad schools. Most of the variation in opportunity to learn math was within schools, not between them. As Schmidt’s previous research has found, the inequity is often hidden because schools will offer a range of math courses with very similar names—but very different content.

Sadly, other research indicates that systematic inequities in opportunity to learn have a snowballing effect. As Dan Willingham explains, schooling increases IQ by increasing your store of knowledge:

[Research shows that] schooling makes you smarter, but is there evidence that the stuff you remember from school is what’s making you smarter? Maybe going to school exercises your brain, so to speak, so you get smarter, but the specifics of that exercise don’t matter. We have some tentative (but probably not conclusive) research suggesting that the specifics do matter…. Two factors contribute to IQ: the breadth and depth of what you have in memory, and the speed with which you can process what you know…. Researchers have shown that although years of education is associated with IQ, it’s not associated with processing speed. That finding suggests that education increases IQ by increasing the breadth and depth of what you know, which runs counter to the idea that school is like mental exercise, and that the content of the exercise doesn’t matter.

Given such evidence, and common sense, why do low-income students tend to get lesser academics?

Let’s dispense with notions of teachers who are lazy or don’t believe low-income students can learn. Other than a tiny fraction of the profession (recall that all professions have their bad apples), I see no evidence of either. Those who buy into such ideas are being intellectually lazy themselves.

Clearly, much of the achievement gap is caused by low-income students, on average, arriving at kindergarten with lower levels of knowledge and skill, and sliding backwards each summer. But that doesn’t account for why schools are making the problem worse.

My guess is that lesser academic content is, in part, an unintended consequence of the focus on student engagement.

It’s true that some aspect of the educational enterprise has to be engaging. When I found a class boring, I knew that I had a reward coming: I was very fortunate in knowing that I would be able to go to college—if I kept my grades up. That was enough for me to stay engaged. I suspect the same is true of many students in middle- and higher-income families.

But relatively few students so fortunate. When students don’t see a connection between challenging academics, high grades, and their futures, what can teachers do? Revising the curriculum to be more engaging (i.e., based on students’ current interests), which in my experience almost always results in easier texts and assignments, seems like the right choice—at least students will learn something. But is there another way to make education engaging? Is there a way to change the class environment without changing the curriculum? Research in Chicago schools indicates there is. It boils down to two essential ingredients: very rigorous content and high social support.

Summarizing this research, Charles Payne characterized it as “Authoritative-Supportive Teaching” that consisted of a:

  • High level of intellectual/academic demand
  • High level of social demand
  • Holistic concern for children and their future; sense of a larger mission
  • Strong sense of teacher efficacy and legitimacy

Rigorous content tells students we believe in them. Social support shows that we mean it.

Policymakers take note: This type of teaching—gap-closing teaching—is exhausting when the educational system is not set up to support it. Across the country, schools with the neediest students often have the fewest resources. To equalize opportunity to learn, policymakers will have to create the conditions for rigor, and teachers will have to embrace it.

Penguins, Pythons, and Text Sets

by Lisa Hansel
September 22nd, 2015

Pop quiz: What do the following texts have to do with each other?

  • “What Happens When it Rains”
  • “Shasta Dam”
  • “Water Main Break in Downtown New York City”
  • “Penguins: Up Close and Personal”
  • “Pythons Invade the Florida Everglades”
  • “Who Wants a Spiny Snack?”

If you answered that they all have some connection to water, you’re right—but there’s no prize.

These texts are posted on ReadWorks’s website, on a page devoted to “K-12 Articles Related to Water.” As the intro wisely states, “Research says that reading or listening to several articles related to the same topic can help students build knowledge, acquire and reinforce important vocabulary, and make connections.”

That’s true. But ReadWorks didn’t follow its own advice.

The texts listed above are its set on water for 4th grade (that spiny one is on pufferfish). Technically all of these texts are related to water, but none is actually about water. Even the first one, which you might assume is about rain or perhaps the water cycle, is really about dirt turning to mud.


Mud-loving child courtesy of Shutterstock.

That one may not be worth a text set, but all the other texts in this collection are. Instead of pretending that these are all about water, it would be far more productive to create text sets on the actual topics: dams, city water infrastructure, penguins (and possibly other animals in Antarctica), the Everglades, and oceanic fish. Only by having multiple texts on these focused topics will students have a chance to “build knowledge, acquire and reinforce important vocabulary, and make connections.”

When constructing a text set, the key is for words and ideas to repeat across the set. A well-designed text set will start with an introductory text on a specific topic that provides basic concepts and essential vocabulary; the set will progress to more and more complex texts that provide multiple exposures to the words and ideas that students need to master.

ReadWorks’s texts on water don’t do that. Since water is only tangentially related to these texts’ topics, the text set provides almost no repetition of words or ideas. Students don’t have a chance to build knowledge or vocabulary, and there are very few connections to make (but please let me know if you ever see penguins and pythons hanging out at the Shasta Dam).

Pretty much all of ReadWorks’s text sets on water are like this—not about water. But there is one exception. Five of the six texts it pulled together for third grade are coherent:

  • “What’s the Big Idea about Water? : Living Things & Ecosystems Need Water”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Water? : Water’s Impact on the Earth”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Water? : Protecting Out Water”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Marine Biology? : Life in the Ocean”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Marine Biology? : Creatures and Ecosystems of the Ocean”
  • “Li Bing and the Flooding”

The five truly about water were provided by OLogy, a website for children by the American Museum of Natural History. They are informative and engaging—as is the whole Ology site.

ReadWorks could dramatically improve its text sets if it took these five as a model. Even just using the texts listed on its water page, coherent text sets (on topics such as the Everglades) that provide the repetition needed for learning could be created by mixing easier texts for children to read with harder texts for teachers to read aloud.

Of course, old habits are hard to break. Teachers have long been told to create theme-based units. It sounds like a great idea, but much like these texts vaguely related to water, themes tend to be far too broad to support learning. As E. D. Hirsch explained in “A Wealth of Words,” vocabulary is learned through multiple exposures in multiple contexts—it’s also the key to increasing equity.

Kids Love Knowing Stuff

by Guest Blogger
September 16th, 2015

By Karin Chenoweth

Karin Chenoweth, writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, is the author of numerous articles and three books on schools that are succeeding with significant populations of children of color and children living in poverty. This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post, to which she is a regular contributor.

A commonplace idea floating around schools is that learning facts is the wave of the past.

The basic argument goes like this: Now that we can Google any facts we want, why would anyone need to learn them? They’re so boring! Instead, kids need to learn the skills of “critical thinking” and “problem solving.”

Or, as my kids’ elementary school principal used to say, it doesn’t matter if kids know where Nebraska is as long as they can find out where it is.

A lot of cognitive science argues against this point of view, and some of it can be found here.

But the point I want to make today is that kids love knowing facts. You can almost see them puff up with pride when they can tell a fact to a grownup who doesn’t know it. It puts them on the same plane as adults when they can talk confidently about what they know—like the habitats of iguanas or the differences between igneous and sedimentary rock, or that the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter is pi and its decimal representation is infinite—that means it goes on forever!

Certainly facts in isolation can be boring, but when kids see how they’re connected and understand their import—they love knowing them.

I was reminded of the thrill kids have in learning facts a while back when I visited Edward Brooke Charter School in Roslindale, Massachusetts. Brooke’s students are mostly African American (73 percent) and Latino (25 percent), with 82 percent qualifying for free and reduced-price meals. Students at Brooke Charter outperform students in the state by a lotfor example, 91 percent of third-graders met or exceeded state English language arts standards in 2014, and 100 percent met or exceeded math standards—compared with 57 and 68, respectively, in the state.

I had asked to speak to students in different grades. The principal set up a little focus group with two third-graders, two fourth-graders, and two fifth-graders and then left us alone.

A little chatterbox third-grader who had gone to a different school for kindergarten said, when I asked her to compare the two schools, “I never had the experience of learning in kindergarten.” The whole day, she said, had been devoted to blocks, play, and recess. When she arrived at Brooke, she said, she was startled by how much she was expected to learn.

I’m sure she was exaggerating somewhat, but another third-grader with a similar experience chimed in to say that he, too, had played most of the time in a previous school. That’s when one of the wise sages in the fifth grade explained that “here at Brooke, we learn most of the time, and that’s how we get a vast knowledge.”

Her fifth-grade colleague added that he was learning about pi and he was able to help his seventh- and eighth-grade cousins who were in different schools with their math homework.

Both fifth-graders were quiet and dignified about their learning, but anyone could tell that they were proud that they knew stuff—stuff that helped them understand their world better and gave them the power that only knowledge confers.

I’m going to bet that those kids are going to be pretty amazing critical thinkers and problem solvers—not in spite of having had a rich, comprehensive curriculum that includes a lot of facts that help them gain a “vast knowledge”—but because of it.


Happy, knowledgeable child courtesy of Shutterstock.

“Putting Real Food on the Plate”

by Lisa Hansel
September 2nd, 2015

“I am in the medical field and while I ‘hated’ learning anatomy, I am not sure you would want me to treat you unless I had it memorized,” writes LSC from Seattle. That’s just one of the hundreds of comments in response to a terrific op-ed by Natalie Wexler in the New York Times.

Wexler begins by addressing a growing blame-the-tests myth:

Standardized tests are commonly blamed for narrowing the school curriculum to reading and math. That’s one reason Congress is considering changes in the law that could lead states to put less emphasis on test scores. But even if we abolished standardized tests tomorrow, a majority of elementary schools would continue to pay scant attention to subjects like history and science.

Consider this: In 1977, 25 years before No Child Left Behind ushered in the era of high-stakes testing, elementary school teachers spent only about 50 minutes a day on science and social studies combined. True, in 2012, they spent even less time on those subjects — but only by about 10 minutes.

The root cause of today’s narrow elementary curriculum isn’t testing, although that has exacerbated the trend. It’s a longstanding pedagogical notion that the best way to teach kids reading comprehension is by giving them skills — strategies like “finding the main idea” — rather than instilling knowledge about things like the Civil War or human biology.

While I found the supportive comments by professionals in medicine, higher education, and other fields heartening, what really grabbed me were the comments from teachers. The vast majority see the futility of trying to cultivate skills with “a book about zebras one day and a story about wizards the next,” as Wexler writes—and they’re hungry for a more balanced, substantive approach.


Wexler’s article generated over 200 online comments, most of which showed strong support for teaching skills as a facet of teaching essential academic knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Here are some of the comments that jumped out:

You see this in much science teaching, too, where a great deal of time is spent on “the scientific method” – a simplified version, and often taught in a rote manner with mantras of “hypothesis, experiment, conclusion” — but little time is spent mastering the great systematic body of knowledge about how the material world works. Geology — evolution of our earth, recognizing different types of rocks, reading the landscape. Biology — a basic knowledge of the different categories and types of living things, evolution, anatomy, genetics. I could go on — but the point is, knowing how the world works, in and of itself, is important. Ignorance can lead to disaster, as voters and as individuals.

Yes, teach us HOW we learn — but also teach us WHAT we’ve learned, and what we still don’t know. Otherwise, it’s like teaching us how to use a knife and fork — but never putting any real food on the plate.
— Kathy Wendorff, Wisconsin

Thank you! This might be the best column about education that I have ever read in the NY Times. As a public school teacher for almost 15 years, it is obvious that knowledge is the key ingredient. In theory, the Common Core places greater importance on knowledge- which is good. Unfortunately, everything else that most teachers, students, and parents encounter sends a very different message. In NYS, the state tests, teacher evaluation rubrics, and talking points of school administrators (as well as politicians and most media reports- including those in the Times) almost always emphasize the need for skills (especially so-called “21st Century skills”) and downplay, or even openly belittle knowledge as outdated, boring facts that require “rote memorization”. As a liberal who believes that improving educational achievement for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds is one of the most important issues facing our nation, I am truly thankful for this column which will hopefully help chip away at the skills over knowledge myth that prevents us from really making progress in achieving better education for all.
—J. Adams, Upstate NY

I was at a staff meeting about 5 years ago when the English K-12 Coordinator pronounced: “Facts are dead. There’s NO reason to learn facts.” At another curriculum planning session … another supervisor peered over my shoulder as I was typing & said, “Why do they need to learn Shakespeare anyway?” … This may surprise ‘reformers,’ but many teachers have been teaching based on their own expertise, despite all the mindless manic ‘solutions.’ I teach Shakespeare & facts no matter what. And main idea too.
—dcl, New Jersey

As a teacher who has been struggling to teach abstract concepts like “Find the Main Idea” to fourth graders, I really appreciate this essay…. Standard reading textbooks, as the article points out, flit from one unrelated subject to another, and for many children, it all feels like so many abstract and irrelevant exercises. A thoughtfully crafted sequence of readings on a related theme of interest to children would not only give students a mastery over a body of knowledge, but also make learning skills like “find the main idea” much more relevant and meaningful.
—Ann, Kempton, PA

As a teacher of 5 years, I was told to only teach skills and was reprimanded for not doing so. This is a bigger conversation that needs to enlighten how entire districts and states see curriculum.
—Samantha, DC

Yes, the problem is that no amount of skill based learning can replace content and background information…. Students need historical and cultural knowledge (actual content) to be able to fully understand what they are reading. How can they get “the main idea” if they don’t understand what the ideas are in the first place because they don’t know the meaning of words or the allusion to a particular mythical or historical event? Content must come first! As a teacher with over 30 years of experience, I am amused by the many “innovative” skills and methodologies: KWL chars, TPCAST, SOAPSTONE, Essential questions and more “exciting” ways of teaching and learning, yet what good are these if you don’t know what you’re reading, writing, and speaking about?
—Sara, Cincinnati

As a teacher in Florida, I can verify the accuracy of this. My students spend two whole months taking tests in a school year of 180 days. There are huge gaps in their content knowledge — and they have no context for the little knowledge they do have.
—L Owen, Florida

It cheered me to read this article. Next week, I head back to school to work with a faculty which is half vehemently against the Core, half more or less just going with the flow. A 3rd grade teacher last May was heard by anyone with ears to hear that “those tests are so unfair! I never taught my kids ANY of that stuff that was on that test!” Well, unwittingly, she hit the nail on the head. She didn’t teach knowledge: she is a skills enthusiast.
— Emmett Hoops, Saranac Lake, NY

Joy Hakim’s Science Stories: Proof that Informative Can Be Engaging

by Lisa Hansel
August 27th, 2015

Kiana Hernandez is a young woman who opted out of a standardized test last spring. She had her reasons, as the Mother Jones article about her details, but that’s not what interests me about her story. What grabbed me is the reading instruction she received—or endured:

She’d failed the Florida reading test every year since sixth grade and had been placed in remedial classes where she was drilled on basic skills, like reading paragraphs to find the topic sentence and then filling in the right bubbles on a practice test. She didn’t get to read whole books like her peers in the regular class or practice her writing, analysis, and debating—skills she would need for the political science degree she dreamed of, or for the school board candidacy that she envisioned.

I am not against testing—I think it is critical to closing the achievement gap. But I am opposed to the stakes being so high that otherwise-reasonable people put kids’ scores above their education. And I’m opposed to expecting students to take tests for which they have not been prepared. Hernandez has been cheated, as have millions of other needy students.

As one teacher quoted in the article put it, giving low-income students “random passages” to “practice picking the correct multiple-choice” answer is “very separate and unequal.”

This is the Core Knowledge blog, so you know what students need. Let’s jump to a great new resource.

A terrific author for the middle grades, Joy Hakim, has just published an eBook: Reading Science Stories. It’s a marvelous resource for English, history, and science teachers looking for narrative nonfiction—or perhaps a starting place for collaborating on an interdisciplinary project.

Here’s the beginning of one of my favorite chapters, “A Boy with Something on His Mind”:

Fifteen-year-old Albert Einstein is miserable. He is trying to finish high school in Germany, but he hates the school; it’s a strict, rigid place. To make things worse, his parents have moved to Italy. They think he should stay behind until his schooling is completed. It isn’t long, though, before he is on his way over the Alps, heading south to join them. Why does he leave Germany? Today, no one is quite sure, but a letter from the school offers a powerful clue: “Your presence in the class is disruptive and affects the other students.”

What are the Einsteins to do with their son? He is a high school dropout who has arrived without warning.

In Milan, Italy, Albert’s father owns a factory that builds parts for machines—called dynamos—which take energy from coal, oil, or mountain streams and convert it into electrical power. A dynamo can turn the lights on in a village. It is 1895, and electric lights are a new thing—and so is all the electrical technology that is fueling the Industrial Revolution.

Albert is going to take the world way beyond the Industrial Revolution. He will bring about a new scientific age. But no one knows that now. His parents keep urging him to get serious about school. Hanging around the factory may be fun and a terrific way to learn about the exciting electrical machinery, but it isn’t enough in the fast-changing world at the end of the nineteenth century. His father suggests that Albert forget his “philosophical nonsense.” He needs a degree.

While everyone in the family is worrying about his future, young Einstein’s mind is somewhere else. There is a question that won’t leave his head. “What would the world look like if I could sit on a beam of light?” he keeps asking himself.

It becomes an obsession, trying to hang on to the light beam. And, because light travels through space at 299,792.5 kilometers per second (or 186,282 miles per second), it also means that in less than a second, Albert will leave the Earth and its atmosphere. What are time and space and matter like out in the vastness of the universe? No one can help him answer that, because no one knows what happens at the speed of light.

Einstein may not realize it, but he is thinking about the scientific question of his age: Why does light—which is electromagnetic radiation—behave the way it does? Light doesn’t seem to follow the same laws of motion—Isaac Newton’s laws—that guide a baseball when you pitch it. Most people at the end of the nineteenth century don’t know that this incompatibility is creating a kind of crisis in scientific thinking. Newton’s laws of motion work wonderfully well in our everyday world. Electromagnetic laws, established by James Clerk Maxwell, work wonderfully well, too. But electromagnetism is leading science beyond the everyday. It is opening the whole universe to consideration. And physicists have found that where there is an overlap between Newton’s science and electromagnetic science, there seems to be an incongruity. Isaac Newton’s laws and James Clerk Maxwell’s laws can’t both be right—at least not completely right. Hardly anyone is bothered by this, except for a few physicists and a 15-year-old thinker.

Hungry for more? Hakim has all of chapter one, “Take a Number,” and ordering information on her website.


Kiana Hernandez didn’t need to drill strategies with random texts. She needed rich, informative texts that would build her knowledge and vocabulary while she practiced essential skills. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)


I’m Afraid of Personalized Learning

by Lisa Hansel
August 18th, 2015

There. I’ve admitted it. I’m afraid of personalized learning. Of course, I’m fascinated by it too. But the allure only adds to my fear—there’s a small chance that personalized learning could radically improve education and a large chance that it’ll produce the next flood of snake oil.

Writing about DC’s foray into personalized learning, Natalie Wexler sums up the benefits nicely:

In any given classroom, some kids grasp the material easily while others struggle. Under the prevailing model, teachers have generally taught to the middle, with the inevitable result that some kids are bored and others are lost. The personalized learning movement aims to engage and challenge all students, wherever they may be.

Wexler also notes many possible pitfalls, including students not pushing themselves or being off task, teachers being unable to support all students at different learning stations, and the lack of opportunities for whole-class discussions.

All of these challenges could be addressed—giving us a small chance that personalized learning could work at scale—but will they be? I doubt it.

One hurdle is that there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on what personalized learning is. Some people seem to be talking about personalized pathways to mastering a well-rounded curriculum; others seem to be talking about personalized pathways and personalized content.

Here’s a typically jumbled description of personalized learning from “creative learning strategist” Barbara Bray:

A personalized learning environment is more competency-based where students progress at their own pace instead of by grade levels. No more “mandated” seat time. The learner has their own learning path with multiple strategies to meet their different learning styles…. Learners are co-designers of the curriculum with the teachers. Teachers are co-learners with the learners. The teacher doesn’t have to be the hardest working person in the classroom; the learners need to be. They want to learn because they chose the topic and understand what they need to learn. They want to succeed so they try harder. They succeed because they designed their learning goals.

Moving at your own pace is alluring—especially if students who are behind are assisted with accelerating their pace. The risk is that the very notion of being “behind” evaporates, leaving us with students aging out of public schooling before they become college, career, or citizenship ready. But some combination of individual pacing, year-round options, and benchmarks for predicting on-time graduation could be very powerful.

Personalized content, in contrast, strikes me as irresponsible and dangerous. While it might be the path to engagement, it might also be the path to widening the achievement gap and locking even more people out of our democracy. Young people don’t know what they need to learn. They don’t know that comprehension—and therefore everything else—depends on broad knowledge and an enormous vocabulary.

If allowed to choose my own content in elementary school, I would have become an expert in princesses and dogs. Fortunately, most of my elementary and middle years were in a school that had English, math, science, history, French, Latin, and PE every day. By high school, not coincidentally, my interests were as broad as my elementary curriculum had been.

Personal choice of some content could be layered on top of a rich, pre-established curriculum. But the school must remain responsible for steering students toward worthwhile studies. As a recent article by Daniel Willingham notes:

Researchers have long known that going to school boosts IQ…. Schooling makes students smarter largely by increasing what they know, both factual knowledge and specific mental skills like analyzing historical documents and learning procedures in mathematics.

This view of schooling carries two implications. If the benefit of schooling comes from the content learned, then it’s important to get a better understanding of what content will be most valuable to students later on in their lives. The answers may seem intuitive, but they’re also subjective and complex. A student may not use plane geometry, solid geometry, or trigonometry, but studying them may improve her ability to mentally visualize spatial relationships among objects, and that may prove useful for decades in a variety of tasks….

The aforementioned research [on long-term retention] also implies that the sequence of learning is as important as content. Revisiting subjects can protect against forgetting, and sustained study over several years can help make certain knowledge permanent. Thus, when thinking about what expect students to learn, it’s not enough that content be “covered.” Evidence suggests that a student must use such content in his or her thinking over several years in order to remember it for a lifetime….

Education-policy debates tend to focus on structural issues—things like teacher quality, licensure requirements, and laws governing charter schools. But research on human memory indicates that academic content and the way it is sequenced—i.e., curriculum—are vital determinants of educational outcomes, and they’re aspects that receive insufficient attention.

For personalized learning to work, advocates will have to become far more careful about what students are learning and how they are able to revisit and build on their knowledge over several years.


Personalized pacing (with safeguards) and personalized content are very different things (image courtesy of Shutterstock).