Stifling Innovation

by Lisa Hansel
March 28th, 2014

Here and there throughout March I’ve been reading the Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ “P21 BLOGAZINE,” a blog with a magazine-style approach in which the editor, Jim Bellanca, picks themes and invites authors to contribute relevant posts. In March, the theme has been creativity and innovation. While there were some points I agree with—particularly a concern that an over-emphasis on testing and the resulting narrowing of the curriculum will hinder creativity—there was much to question—particularly whether the child-directed, inquiry-driven approach that the authors favored would increase creativity.

For example, after the obligatory homages to Vygotsky and Dewey, there was the usual:

If our goal as educators is to develop a creatively skilled child, then inquiry-guided instruction that fosters imagination, emotional intensity, and curiosity should be infused into the curriculum. Our world is becoming increasingly complex, and therefore the need to teach students how to think and how to use their creative juices to address change must be a priority for our society. Teaching creative imagination should be a key component of 21st century learning.

There was also a more (let’s be polite and call it) creative formulation:

To prepare global, creative, and entrepreneurial talents, that is, everyone in the future, education should at first not harm any child who aspires to do so or suppress their curiosity, imagination, and desire to be different by imposing upon him or her contents and skills judged to be good for him or her by an external agency and thus depriving of the opportunities to explore and express on their own. In other words, we should at least allow Lady Gaga and the likes to exist without punishing them or locking them up in a classroom in the name of helping them to become successful. The most desirable education, of course, is one that enhances human curiosity and creativity, encourages risk-taking, and cultivates the entrepreneurial spirit in the context of globalization.

There were also statements, like this one, that left me perplexed:

Neuroscience research has found creative thinking to be a whole-brain activity leading us to understand that neural responses to creative endeavors can originate anywhere in the brain. The strength of the neural impulses actively transforms thinking and focus; otherwise, a person is just dreaming. These stronger impulses can lead students to persevere and to take educated risks.

Overall, there was very little sense that creativity has anything to do with knowledge or studying works of lasting beauty or building expertise through perspiration (that might be rewarded with inspiration). Although I had been planning to write a bit about how knowledge contributes to creativity and innovation, I’m happy to say that Annie Murphy Paul has done it for me—and done it better than I would have.

Paul was recently a keynote speaker at the Sandbox Summit, where the theme was “Innovation By Design.” The title of her blog post based on her talk, “The Key To Innovation: Making Smart Analogies,” pretty much says it all. There are no analogies without knowledge—and the broader and deeper one’s knowledge, the smarter one’s analogies will be.

shutterstock_90500839

More knowledge, better analogies, brighter ideas (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

First, Paul takes care of widespread misconceptions:

There’s a popular notion that innovation arrives like a bolt out of the blue, as a radical departure from previous knowledge—when really, most new ideas are extensions, twists, variations on what’s come before. The skill of generating innovations is largely the skill of putting old things together in a new way, or looking at a familiar idea from a novel perspective, or using what we know already to understand something new.

Then she turns to the power of analogies:

In their book Mental Leaps: Analogy in Creative Thought, cognitive scientists Keith Holyoak and Paul Thagard point out how many intellectual advances through the ages have been built upon analogies:

The first-century Roman architect Vitruvius compared the sound of actors’ voices in an amphitheater to the movement of water in a pool, the first of many thinkers to compare sound waves to water waves.

The seventeenth-century scientist William Gilbert compared the earth to a magnet, advancing knowledge of the earth’s gravitational force.

The eighteenth-century chemist Antoine Lavoisier compared respiration to combustion, clarifying how breathing turns oxygen into carbon dioxide.

Even the great nineteenth-century biologist, Charles Darwin, built his theory of evolution on an analogy between artificial selection—the deliberate mating of animals by breeders—to the natural selection that goes on in the wild.

Finally, Paul explores the keys to using analogies well, including knowing when to set them aside. Are exploration and inquiry part of the process? Absolutely. But are classrooms and knowledge-building curricula stifling innovation? Absolutely not. Quite the contrary: knowledge prevents wasting resources on reinventing the wheel and enables productive, innovative connections to be drawn.

 

Educators: Don’t Assume A Can Opener

by Guest Blogger
March 11th, 2014

By Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno is a middle school science teacher in California. This post originally appeared on his blog: www.paul-bruno.com.

There is a famous joke about the way economists often undermine the usefulness of their conclusions by making too many simplifying assumptions. Here’s one of the older formulations:

There is a story that has been going around about a physicist, a chemist, and an economist who were stranded on a desert island with no implements and a can of food. The physicist and the chemist each devised an ingenious mechanism for getting the can open; the economist merely said, “Assume we have a can opener”!

shutterstock_149522711

(Imaginary can opener courtesy of Shutterstock.)

It’s probably not fair to pick on economists in this way when the abuse of simplifying assumptions is at least as widespread in education.

For instance, arguably the trendiest thing going in education today is ‘grit‘: “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals”.

We all agree, I suspect, that a tendency to persevere is desirable, and that we should prefer that students have more of that tendency than less of it. So it is perhaps not surprising that since the term was popularized by researcher Angela Duckworth many teachers and schools have begun reorganizing their work to better promote and instill ‘grit’ in their students.

And yet, here’s Duckworth being interviewed by Alexander Russo last month:

Can you talk about how to teach grit in the classroom?
AI don’t know that anybody’s totally figured out how to teach it: What do you do exactly, even when we do have insights from research? How do you get your teachers to speak in ways that support growth mind-set? That’s why, through a nonprofit I helped cofound called the Character Lab, we’re organizing some lectures for teachers about self-control, grit, and related topics. It’s not totally prescriptive, because the science is still developing.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the world’s leading expert on grit is saying that educators who are substantially altering their work to better teach grit are doing so without much in the way of scientific backing or guidance.

In other words, in their excitement over grit many teachers and school leaders have simply assumed – without justification – that it is a trait that can be taught and that they know how to teach it.

This is by no means a problem limited to grit. Before grit it was “21st century skills“, “social-emotional learning”, “critical thinking”, or “scientific thinking”. What unites these fads is that they all, to varying degrees, suffer from a lack of rigorous scientific evidence indicating that they can be taught at all, let alone that we have reliable ways of teaching them in schools. (“Fluid intelligence” may be next.)

Meanwhile, we have good evidence indicating that schools today are reasonably – if imperfectly – effective at teaching kids the less-glamorous knowledge and skills – e.g., in math, science, and history – that we associate with “traditional” education.

So while it’s a good idea for researchers and educators to experiment with methods for teaching other, “higher-order” or “non-cognitive” abilities, it’s also important to remember that it is probably premature to ask schools to move away from their core competencies if we can’t also give them a clear alternate path forward.

 

The High Cost of Ignorance

by Lisa Hansel
January 15th, 2014

Earlier this week, I wondered what happen to Tony, a young man who got all the way through K-12 without learning even basic American history. I stumbled onto his story just after reading (yet another) great history book—Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. That’s Ben’s little sister.

 

 

In many ways it’s a tale of two cities. Jane’s life was as grinding as Ben’s was glorious.

Both lived long and displayed much ingenuity. While I doubt any of Ben’s family members were as bright as he—I’m assuming he was rare indeed—Jane had to be very smart merely to survive in her situation. The biggest difference between the two of them seems to have been the opportunity to learn.

Women’s lack of education, based on a widespread belief in their innate and inexorable lack of rational, scholarly, or political abilities, runs throughout the book. We are reminded, for example, of Abigail Adams’s plea to her husband as he helped devise new laws for our new nation: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” And of John’s response: “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh…. Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems” (p. 181-82).

The contrast between this belief system and Jane’s determination to educate herself is sharp. But what really grabbed me—what came to mind as I read about Tony—was Lepore’s excerpt from a 1790 essay by Judith Sargent Murray. As Lepore writes, “Murray asked her reader to imagine the lives of a brother and sister, born very much alike.” I ask you to imagine siblings born alike in 2014, yet one raised in a low-income family and the other in a high-income family:

Will it be said that the judgment of a male of two years old, is more sage than that of a female’s of the same age? I believe the reverse is generally observed to be true. But from that period what partiality! how is the one exalted, and the other depressed, by the contrary modes of education which are adopted! the one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limitted. As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science. Grant that their minds are by nature equal, yet who shall wonder at the apparent superiority, if indeed custom becomes second nature; nay if it taketh the place of nature, and that it doth the experience of each day will evince. (Lepore quoting Murray, page 230)

For century upon century, women were undereducated and assumed incapable. I wonder, how many of our least advantaged youth, like Tony, are suffering that same fate today? The only way to prevent such misunderstandings—to break this self-fulfilling prophecy—is to get the early years right.

 

 

Can Knowledge Level The Learning Field For Children?

by Guest Blogger
December 2nd, 2013

By Esther Quintero

Esther Quintero is a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. This post first appeared on the Shanker Blog.

How much do preschoolers from disadvantaged and more affluent backgrounds know about the world and why does that matter? One recent study by Tanya Kaefer (Lakehead University) Susan B. Neuman (New York University) and Ashley M. Pinkham (University of Michigan) provides some answers.

The researchers randomly selected children from preschool classrooms in two sites, one serving kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, the other serving middle-class kids. They then set about to answer three questions:

  1. Do poor and middle-class children possess different knowledge about the world?
  2. Do differences in knowledge influence the children’s ability to learn in the classroom?
  3. If differences in preexisting knowledge were neutralized, would the two groups of children learn similarly?

To answer the first question, the researchers determined how much children from both groups knew about birds and the extent to which they were able to make inferences about new words based on such knowledge.

Not surprisingly, lower-income children had significantly less knowledge about birds and bird behaviors than did their middle-class peers. To rule out the possibility that these differences were the result of disparities in language proficiency, Kaefer et al. measured the children’s receptive vocabularies. This way, they were able to establish that poor kids knew less about birds, not merely because they knew fewer words related to birds, but because they had less information about the domain in general.

To answer the second question — whether differences in knowledge influence the kids’ ability to learn in the classroom — a second study evaluated children’s ability to understand words out of context and to comprehend a story that was read to them. As predicted, children from middle-class backgrounds, who had greater knowledge about the domain category (i.e., birds), performed better in these two tasks than children with more limited knowledge about the domain.

It may not be obvious to adults, but learning words from books is not an automatic or straightforward task for young children. In fact, argue the authors of the paper, one of the factors influencing this process is children’s preexisting knowledge. Previous research (cited in the paper) has established that children with larger vocabularies acquire new words implicitly from storybooks more readily than children with smaller vocabularies. At least two mechanisms might explain the relationship between vocabulary and learning.

First, the authors note, one possible explanation is that metalinguistic factors (e.g., verbal IQ, working memory) explain the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and implicit word learning.

Alternatively, if children’s vocabulary is viewed as an indicator (or “reflection”) of their general background knowledge, it may be the breadth and depth of their preexisting knowledge that influences their implicit word learning.

The logic of the second mechanism is as follows: Children’s preexisting knowledge creates a framework that facilitates the acquisition of new information; knowing more words and concepts scaffolds children’s ability to slot new information in the “right places,” and to learn related words and concepts more efficiently.

To recap, the first study discussed above established that children from disadvantaged backgrounds know less about a topic (i.e., birds) than their middle-class peers. Next, in study two, the researchers showed that differences in domain knowledge influenced children’s ability to understand words out of context, and to comprehend a story. Moreover, poor kids—who also had more limited knowledge—perform worse on these tasks than did their middle-class peers. But could additional knowledge be used to level the playing field for children from less affluent backgrounds?

In study three, the researchers held the children’s prior knowledge constant by introducing a fictitious topic—i.e., a topic that was sure to be unknown to both groups. When the two groups of children were assessed on word learning and comprehension related to this new domain, the researchers found no significant differences in how poor and middle-class children learned words, comprehended a story or made inferences.

These results:

  • Add to the body of research showing that preexisting knowledge shapes incidental vocabulary learning and comprehension for children, and that this is true for children as young as preschool age;
  • Highlight the need to build children’s background knowledge more systematically and strategically, and suggest that procedures to activate children’s prior knowledge—e.g., storybook reading—may prove fruitless when such knowledge does not exist.

While this research, like all research, has limitations—see the paper for a discussion of these—the results taken together suggest that one powerful way to level the “learning field” for all children is to facilitate poor kids’ access to “taken for granted” knowledge that middle class children, on average, are more likely to possess, primarily because they have been exposed to it in the first place.

When poor and middle-class children are given the same opportunities to assimilate new knowledge, their subsequent learning is comparable. Of course this is only one study, but the main finding and its implications are extremely powerful. It suggests that if preschool programs are not making a difference for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, it might be the case that the programs are not tackling an important but solvable problem: A deficit in knowledge.

 

Grant Wiggins Doesn’t Quite Understand E. D. Hirsch

by Guest Blogger
October 16th, 2013

By Harry Webb

This post originally appeared on Webs of Substance, a blog on educational research.

In his latest blog post, Grant Wiggins expresses his frustration at the recent writings of E. D. Hirsch, Jr. It is unsurprising that Wiggins would be irritated by Hirsch: Since the publication of Cultural Literacy in 1987, Hirsch has been an annoyance to the education establishment, particularly in the US. And now, with the adoption of the Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum by many new charter schools, American education can no longer marginalize Hirsch’s message. His star is in the ascendant.

Of all the logical fallacies, the Straw Man seems to be Wiggins’ favorite. He mentions it three times in the blog post and again in response to comments. The Straw Man that Wiggins thinks he has detected is the idea that there are people who will deny the role of factual knowledge in reading comprehension. Indeed, Wiggins asks, “Would Hirsch please quote someone who does deny it, instead of setting up his straw man?”

A Straw Man

A Straw Man

I have said before that I don’t know of anyone who would outright condemn the acquisition of all forms of knowledge. The game is played much more subtly than that. Instead, the role of knowledge acquisition is diminished. It is made to seem inferior to other goals of education such as training in skills of various forms. It is this that I understand Hirsch to be unhappy about.

Wiggins targets Hirsch’s use of assertions. However, Hirsch does draw upon some evidence to support his claims. The amount of time, for instance, that has been given over to English Language Arts instruction increased with the introduction the NCLB act and without a transformative effect on reading proficiency. And this increase has come at the cost of subjects such as social studies, science, art and music. Hirsch’s view is that instruction in specific reading skills and strategies has limited effect on improving reading. He views the acquisition of broad background knowledge is far more important and this view certainly has some support from the realm of cognitive science.

This means that, according to Hirsch, the NCLB-led distortion of the curriculum is doubly dangerous. Not only is it likely to lead to redundant skill-based reading instruction in those additional English Language Arts lessons, it will also cut the exposure to content knowledge in social studies, science, art and music. So, you see, I think that Hirsch has a point.

I have read The Knowledge Deficit by Hirsch and I am attracted to his thesis on how we have arrived at this point. To paraphrase, Hirsch thinks that the educational establishment decided that the mere transmission of knowledge was not a suitable goal of education. However, once this goal is removed then another has to be found. Hirsch views this as the reason for a focus on transferable skills such as reading comprehension skills or higher-order thinking skills. If these skills can be identified and taught then we have a new role for education.

I am attracted to Hirsch’s thesis because it chimes with my own experience. In the very first lecture at my school of education, I was introduced to a misreading of Plutarch, the gist of which was to warn us all that we were not to see our role as to fill-up students with knowledge. Ever since, this has been reinforced in many and varied ways; I have even attended an education research conference where speaker after speaker derided  ”transmission” teaching as if we would all accept this perspective without question. No, you will not find anyone who will completely deny the role of factual knowledge in reading or any other endeavor; to do so would be absurd. However, you will find plenty who will downplay it.

In fact, this is exactly what Wiggins and his co-author Jay McTighe do in their book, Understanding by Design.

“To know which fact to use when requires more than another fact. It requires understanding – insight into essentials, purposes, audience, strategy, and tactics. Drill and direct instruction can develop discrete skills and facts into automaticity (knowing “by heart”), but they cannot make us truly able.”

There is much to unpack here. Knowledge is reduced to facts and facts, by definition, have to be disconnected and known “by heart” or without understanding. Understanding comes not from acquiring more knowledge – the facts that link the facts – but by some spookier kind of thing; insight. Finally, drill and direct instruction cannot make us truly able.

The first thing to note is that this is a string of assertions. I have not removed the footnotes when quoting this passage; there simply aren’t any. At a minimum, the point about direct instruction requires support. I am aware of no evidence that direct instruction leads to an inferior form of learning than any other approach, despite the many researchers who would like to demonstrate it. I suspect that the evidence is not quoted because there is no evidence.

In the same chapter, Wiggins and McTighe go on to draw-up a table to distinguish “knowledge” from “understanding,” just in case we were not clear. Knowledge is “the facts” whereas understanding is “the meaning of the facts.” This is a little odd; can we not know the meaning of the facts? Further, knowledge is, “a body of coherent facts” whereas understanding is, “the ‘theory’ that provides coherence and meaning to those facts.” The coup de grace is in the final pair of statements; knowledge is, “I respond on cue with what I know” whereas understanding is, “I judge when to and when not to use what I know.”

Clearly, understanding is a superior kind of thing to knowledge. Knowledge just consists of a discrete series of facts that children bark on cue, probably in the context of some dismal drill- or direct-instruction-based lesson. It is easy to see why teachers would not want to focus on the acquisition of knowledge if we are going to define it in these terms.

Of course, Wiggins is not alone in these views. Even back in 1916, Cubberley made a similar contrast in “Public School Administration.” According to Diane Ravitch:

“When it came to the curriculum, he authoritatively contrasted two approaches: One was ‘the knowledge curriculum’ which he described in highly pejorative terms: ‘Facts, often of no particular importance themselves, are taught, memorized and tested for, to be forgotten as soon as the school-grade need for them has passed.’ The opposite of this dreary approach was ‘the development type of course,’ in which ‘knowledge is conceived of as a life experience and inner conviction and not as the memorization of the accumulated knowledge of the past,’ Using the latter approach, school would change from a place in which children prepare for life by learning traditional subjects to one in which children live life.”

So, you see, the tradition of devaluing knowledge, of denying that understanding is a form of knowledge, of linking knowledge to pure rote learning; this is an old tradition.

In this context, I am glad that there is someone like Hirsch out there, arguing for the value of content knowledge. His is a perfectly valid argument that needs to be more widely heard.

 

Predicting Failure

by Lisa Hansel
October 8th, 2013

Caution: Frustration Ahead! Yes indeed, this post needs a warning label.

The BBC, in conjunction with the British Council, is aiding and abetting the spread of edutainment and comprehension strategies through its website TeachingEnglish.

 

BBC thumbs down courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

A look at the most recently added lesson plans reveals far too much trivial content. The first two pages have “lessons” on snacking, playground words, food festivals, gossip, and texting. Out of the 10 lessons shown on those two pages, there is one substantive lesson on carnivores vs. herbivores, which draws on “Triumph of the Herbivores” from BBC Earth. With the BBC’s in-depth news coverage and documentaries, I assumed all its lessons would draw on its treasure-trove of content.

To be fair, I must say that I have merely perused the site. These recently added lessons could grossly misrepresent the bulk of the content—and I hope they do. I also hope the BBC starts vetting the lessons to remove the many that are substance free. In particular, I hope it removes this one: “Pause & predict – YouTube technique.” It encourages teachers to use Mr. Bean clips to teach children to make predictions. This is a couple years old, so I wish I could just shudder and forget about it. But over the weekend, this time-wasting lesson spread to the US:

By fourth grade, students are often proficient at making predictions about what will happen at the end of a book…. What they aren’t as used to is making small predictions–close predictions–thinking about how a character might respond to the next big event or interaction based on how that character has responded in the past…. Mr. Bean is a great character to use for prediction work, because he has a very clear M.O. He tries to solve his problems in ways that fix the immediate issues, but miss the main point. For example, in the short clip, “Packing for a Holiday,” Mr. Bean manages to fit everything in a suitcase, but he does so by making the items useless, like packing only half a shoe.

Mr. Bean on the high dive is priceless, but my knowledge of Mr. Bean—including my ability (or lack thereof) to predict what he’ll do next—never helped me in college, in the voting booth, in keeping up with current affairs, etc. Simply put, the lovable Mr. Bean’s purpose is laughter and relaxation—not education. In the US, youth only spend 20% of their waking time (about 12% of their total time) in school. Given the great breadth of knowledge, vocabulary, and skills they need to acquire to become literate adults, we just don’t have time for Mr. Bean.

The sad fact is, the teachers who are excited about this Mr. Bean lesson don’t know any better. As NCTQ has clearly demonstrated, the majority of teachers are never taught that knowledge, vocabulary, and fluent decoding are essential to reading comprehension. Many are taught about comprehension strategies; but without strategies being placed in the larger context of how comprehension develops, teachers end up with a very skewed notion of best practices. Predicting how Mr. Bean will pack for a holiday is the result.

So long as teacher and administrator preparation passes on mistaken beliefs instead of cognitive science research, such silliness is inevitable. Poor preparation leads to weak curriculum selection and development, which is then reinforced with professional development based on the same mistaken beliefs. Our current teachers would be far more effective if they were given a better education and better instructional materials.

In that spirit, let’s see what cognitive science tells us about comprehension strategies. Daniel Willingham summed up the research as follows:

[Comprehension strategies] don’t really improve the comprehension process per se. Rather, they help kids who have become good decoders to realize that the point of reading is communication. And that if they can successfully say written words aloud but cannot understand what they’ve read, that’s a problem. Evidence for this point of view include data that kids don’t benefit much from reading comprehension instruction after 7th grade, likely because they’ve all drawn this conclusion, and that increased practice with reading comprehension strategies doesn’t bring any improved benefit. It’s a one-time increment.

Willingham goes on to explain that “the one-time boost to comprehension can be had for perhaps five or ten sessions of 20 or 30 minutes each” and that the rest of the time spent on comprehension strategies is both a waste of time and counterproductive: It makes reading boring. That’s probably why some teachers have turned to Mr. Bean. A better solution would be to spend far less time on comprehension strategies and far more on science, history, literature, art, geography, and music.

 

A Game-Changing Education Book from England

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
July 2nd, 2013

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on June 27, 2013. For more on education reforms in America and England, you may also be interested in this interview of E. D. Hirsch by English journalist and educator Toby Young, as well as Chester Finn’s “Reforms that cross the Atlantic—and don’t.”

 

A British schoolteacher, Daisy Christodoulou, has just published a short, pungent e-book called Seven Myths about Education. It’s a must-read for anyone in a position to influence our low-performing public school system. The book’s focus is on British education, but it deserves to be nominated as a “best book of 2013″ on American education, because there’s not a farthing’s worth of difference in how the British and American educational systems are being hindered by a slogan-monopoly of high-sounding ideas — brilliantly deconstructed in this book.

Ms. Christodoulou has unusual credentials. She’s an experienced classroom teacher. She currently directs a non-profit educational foundation in London, and she is a scholar of impressive powers who has mastered the relevant research literature in educational history and cognitive psychology. Her writing is clear and effective. Speaking as a teacher to teachers, she may be able to change their minds. As an expert scholar and writer, she also has a good chance of enlightening administrators, legislators, and concerned citizens.

Ms. Christodoulou believes that such enlightenment is the great practical need these days, because the chief barriers to effective school reform are not the usual accused: bad teacher unions, low teacher quality, burdensome government dictates. Many a charter school in the US has been able to bypass those barriers without being able to produce better results than the regular public schools they were meant to replace. No wonder. Many of these failed charter schools were conceived under the very myths that Ms. Christodoulou exposes. It wasn’t the teacher unions after all! Ms. Christodoulou argues convincingly that what has chiefly held back school achievement and equity in the English-speaking world for the past half century is a set of seductive but mistaken ideas.

She’s right straight down the line. Take the issue of teacher quality. The author gives evidence from her own experience of the ways in which potentially effective teachers have been made ineffective because they are dutifully following the ideas instilled in them by their training institutes. These colleges of education have not only perpetuated wrong ideas about skills and knowledge, but in their scorn for “mere facts” have also deprived these potentially good teachers of the knowledge they need to be effective teachers of subject matter. Teachers who are only moderately talented teacher can be highly effective if they follow sound teaching principles and a sound curriculum within a school environment where knowledge builds cumulatively from year to year.

Here are Ms Christodoulou’s seven myths:

1 – Facts prevent understanding
2 – Teacher-led instruction is passive
3 – The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
4 – You can always just look it up
5 – We should teach transferable skills
6 – Projects and activities are the best way to learn
7 – Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

Each chapter follows the following straightforward and highly effective pattern. The “myth” is set forth through full, direct quotations from recognized authorities. There’s no slanting of the evidence or the rhetoric. Then, the author describes concretely from direct experience how the idea has actually worked out in practice. And finally, she presents a clear account of the relevant research in cognitive psychology which overwhelmingly debunks the myth. Ms. Christodoulou writes: “For every myth I have identified, I have found concrete and robust examples of how this myth has influenced classroom practice across England. Only then do I go on to show why it is a myth and why it is so damaging.”

This straightforward organization turns out to be highly absorbing and engaging. Ms. Christodoulou is a strong writer, and for all her scientific punctilio, a passionate one. She is learned in educational history, showing how “21st-century” ideas that invoke Google and the internet are actually re-bottled versions of the late 19th-century ideas which came to dominate British and American schools by the mid-20th century. What educators purvey as brave such as “critical-thinking skills” and “you can always look it up” are actually shopworn and discredited by cognitive science. That’s the characteristic turn of her chapters, done especially effectively in her conclusion when she discusses the high-sounding education-school theme of hegemony:

I discussed the way that many educational theorists used the concept of hegemony to explain the way that certain ideas and practices become accepted by people within an institution. Hegemony is a useful concept. I would argue that the myths I have discussed here are hegemonic within the education system. It is hard to have a discussion about education without sooner or later hitting one of these myths. As theorists of hegemony realise, the most powerful thing about hegemonic ideas is that they seem to be natural common sense. They are just a normal part of everyday life. This makes them exceptionally difficult to challenge, because it does not seem as if there is anything there to challenge. However, as the theorists of hegemony also realised, hegemonic ideas depend on certain unseen processes. One tactic is the suppression of all evidence that contradicts them. I trained as a teacher, taught for three years, attended numerous in-service training days, wrote several essays about education and followed educational policy closely without ever even encountering any of the evidence about knowledge I speak of here, let alone actually hearing anyone advocate it. … For three years I struggled to improve my pupils’ education without ever knowing that I could be using hugely more effective methods. I would spend entire lessons quietly observing my pupils chatting away in groups about complete misconceptions and I would think that the problem in the lesson was that I had been too prescriptive. We need to reform the main teacher training and inspection agencies so that they stop promoting completely discredited ideas and give more space to theories with much greater scientific backing.

The book has great relevance to our current moment, when a majority of states have signed up to follow new “Common Core Standards,” comparable in scope to the recent experiment named “No Child Left Behind,” which is widely deemed a failure. If we wish to avoid another one, we will need to heed this book’s message. The failure of NCLB wasn’t in the law’s key provisions that adequate yearly progress in math and reading should occur among all groups, including low-performing ones. The result has been some improvement in math, especially in the early grades, but stasis in most reading scores. In addition, the emphasis on reading tests has caused a neglect of history, civics, science, and the arts.

Ms. Christodoulou’s book indirectly explains these tragic, unintended consequences of NCLB, especially the poor results in reading. It was primarily the way that educators responded to the accountability provisions of NCLB that induced the failure. American educators, dutifully following the seven myths, regard reading as a skill that could be employed without relevant knowledge; in preparation for the tests, they spent many wasted school days on ad hoc content and instruction in “strategies.” If educators had been less captivated by anti-knowledge myths, they could have met the requirements of NCLB, and made adequate yearly progress for all groups. The failure was not in the law but in the myths.

Our educators now stand ready to commit the same mistakes with the Common Core State Standards. Distressed teachers are saying that they are being compelled to engage in the same superficial, content-indifferent activities, given new labels like “text complexity” and “reading strategies.” In short, educators are preparing to apply the same skills-based notions about reading that have failed for several decades.

Of course! They are boxed in by what Ms. Christodoulou calls a “hegemonic” thought system. If our hardworking teachers and principals had known what to do for NCLB — if they had been uninfected by the seven myths — they would have long ago done what is necessary to raise the competencies of all students, and there would not have been a need for NCLB. If the Common Core standards fail as NCLB did, it will not be because the standards themselves are defective. It will be because our schools are completely dominated by the seven myths analyzed by Daisy Christodoulou. This splendid, disinfecting book needs to be distributed gratis to every teacher, administrator, and college of education professor in the U.S. It’s available at Amazon for $9.99 or for free if you have Amazon Prime.

 

Deepest Learning: Reading to Write & Writing to Learn

by Lisa Hansel
May 29th, 2013

Where in Queens, NY, can you find second graders comparing the Olympics in ancient Greece with our modern games—and using that discussion as an opportunity to review the use of past and present verbs? Or third graders preparing travel guides on the Amazon, Orinoco, Nile, and Yellow rivers? What about essays by fourth graders on the Chinese painter and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu, small groups of fifth graders discussing the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, or sixth graders writing out what they would say if they were reporters during the French Revolution?

I saw all that and more yesterday during a visit to P.S. 124, the Osmond A Church school. This K–8 school has been using the Core Knowledge Sequence for 14 years. Students’ writing and related artwork line the halls and dangle from the ceilings. As the principal, Valarie Lewis, said several times, the Core Knowledge “is a thinking curriculum.” Whether in a presentation to the class or in an essay (usually both in this demanding school), Core Knowledge gives students something significant to say. And as I saw, the educators throughout P.S. 124 ensure that they learn to say it well.

Far from dry facts, the Sequence provides teachers the core content they need to develop engaging domain-based studies that immerse students in cross-curricular units—like the fourth graders who learned about medieval castles and trebuchets. Not only did they read and write about medieval warfare and weapons, they built trebuchets and launched paper balls to knock down paper castles. These children were not ready to write the equations, but they did grasp how lever action makes a trebuchet more powerful than a regular catapult.

For Lewis and her staff, test scores are interesting, but students’ writing is what shows not only what students have learned, but to what extent they have assimilated it and are able to use it to more deeply comprehend and question the world. In the halls, students’ essays are often posted along with their drafts—from an initial outline to drafts with teacher corrections and suggestions to the final product. Writing starts in kindergarten, becomes sophisticated by the middle of elementary school, and includes rigorous research papers in the seventh and eighth grades (on topics like the rise of dictators in the 20th century).

This focus on writing is not just for some students; all students are held to high standards. For example, in a special-needs kindergartner class, children had listened to The Three Little Pigs and then drawn pictures and written one sentence about what they would use to build their house. My favorite: lollipops! Meanwhile, in a special-needs sixth-grade class, students studying the industrial revolution were reading about and studying photos of factories so as to write lists of working conditions that needed to be improved. But those lists were not the final product; they were just the base facts collected in preparation for writing persuasive letters to historical factory owners.

One great challenge for the school is student mobility. Because the Core Knowledge Sequence builds knowledge year after year, revisiting and extending topics, students who enter school in the later grades find themselves far behind. P.S. 124 is there for them. Open until 6 in the evening and every Saturday for remediation and enrichment, this school is constantly finding new ways to meet all students’ needs. To extend learning into the home, parents receive copies of What Your [1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.] Grader Needs to Know. And to build strong connections between teachers and parents, the school hosts themed nights, such as a medieval festival in which children showed how they can tell stories through stained glass.

P.S. 124 makes delivering a strong education to all children look straightforward, but Lewis was careful to point out that her school is engaged in a never-ending process of trying to improve. She’s tough—and supportive. In working with teachers, she says she takes no excuses for children not learning, but she also asks teachers what they need and how they want to accomplish the schools’ ambitious learning goals. To deliver, Lewis has made some tough choices. For instance, a school her size should have four assistant principals; she has two, and she uses the savings to pay teachers for their extended hours.

When P.S. 124 adopted Core Knowledge, it went from a rather typical school in which teachers taught in isolation to a collaborative community. The teachers began working together, visiting classrooms, examining students’ work, sharing lessons—everything they could do to build on their strengths. To make adoption of the Sequence manageable, they phased it in, teaching one-third the first year, two-thirds the second, and the full Sequence in the third year of implementation. And to have some early successes, teachers started with whatever one-third of the content they were most comfortable with and had the most resources (like student readers) to draw on. Today, the teachers are able to teach the full Sequence and supplement it as they see fit—including adding content on Sikh culture due to a growing population of Sikh students.

After visiting a terrific school like P.S. 124, I always wonder, why don’t more schools embrace this type of rich, rigorous education? Why aren’t the benefits obvious to everyone? I think it often comes down to good intentions combined with faulty beliefs.

Earlier today, in a great post on Brookings’s Brown Center Chalkboard, senior fellow Tom Loveless examined the most recent fad pulling educators away from offering a content-rich curriculum:

In the past century, several alternatives have arisen to dethrone the prominent role of knowledge in schools: project-based learning, inquiry and discovery learning, higher-level thinking, critical thinking, outcome based education, and 21st Century Skills. Now it is deeper learning.

These ideas represent a variety of approaches to curriculum and pedagogy. They are not all the same, but they share one characteristic. All are advertised as transcending, and therefore superior to, academic content organized within traditional intellectual disciplines. It is not enough for students to know the major events of U.S. history, for example, but to be able to critically analyze the histories, any history, that one studies. Knowing about science is inferior to doing science. It is less important to learn the algorithms and articulated procedures of mathematics than to apply them in real world contexts while solving real world problems….

[For] a thorough critique of deeper learning or its philosophical kin … I urge you to read E.D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them. Published in 1996, the book pre-dates today’s deeper learning fad but convincingly rebuts its twentieth century ancestors, showing not only that these anti-knowledge movements lack anything resembling evidentiary support for their claims, but that they also, in disparaging academic content taught in public schools, exacerbate social inequality….

I am not disputing that some tasks are more cognitively demanding than others and some learning is more complex than other learning. Educators have known that for a long time. Bloom’s Taxonomy … laid out a hierarchy of skills: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation…. The first two layers, knowledge and comprehension, are synonyms for remembering and understanding what one has learned. Although the hierarchical structure of Bloom’s Taxonomy has been challenged, no serious model has emerged that eradicates the prerequisite roles of knowledge and comprehension. It is difficult to think deeply about Shakespeare without actually having read his work, remembering it, and grasping at least a good part of what he was saying.

Deeper learning, like its intellectual ancestors, tries to turn all of this on its head and upend the pre-eminence of knowledge…. I appreciate that aim, but it doesn’t work.

Indeed it does not. If you want to see what does work, just ask Valarie Lewis.

A Wince a Day Keeps My Hopes at Bay

by Lisa Hansel
April 17th, 2013

I’ve long been aware of the widespread misconception that comprehension, critical thinking, and the like are content-free skills. Wanting to help correct that delusion is one of the main reasons I joined the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Having been with the foundation for a little over a month, I’m seeing the skills-don’t-need-content fallacy everywhere. My neck is starting to ache from all this wincing.

Today’s encounter really caught me by surprise. It came from one of my favorite organizations: the American Library Association (ALA). Maureen Sullivan, ALA’s president, wrote a compelling plea on the Huffington Post to save the nation’s school libraries:

Recently the ALA has tracked multiple news reports regarding school districts that have placed school librarian positions on the chopping block in response to budget deficits…. For example, Pasco County (Fla.) School Superintendent Kurt Browning proposed a plan to eliminate 28 school media specialist positions in the next school year because of a budget shortfall…. In Sarasota, Florida, more than 18,000 middle and high school students may be without a school librarian. Local school board officials there are considering a proposal to eliminate all school media specialists…. School Districts in Louisiana, Maryland, Washington State and New York State also are considering proposals or reorganization plans that would eliminate school librarians.

We all know that there are far too many students without books in their homes and without the safe streets or bus fare necessary to access a community library. School libraries are essential—the very fact that Sullivan has to plead for them is a sad commentary on America’s priorities.

All of that is wince worthy. But this is what got me:

School librarians help more than 30 million students each week navigate a vast landscape of digital content, because the majority of students still lack the ability to analyze information found online.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project Online Survey of Teachers found that although the Internet has opened up a vast world of information for today’s students, their digital literacy skills have yet to catch up. Twenty-four percent of those surveyed stated that students lack the ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online. Another 33 percent reported that students lack the ability to recognize bias in online content.

Of course they “still” lack those abilities. Assessing the quality, accuracy, and potential biases of information—no matter where that information is found—can only be done by those with lots of content knowledge. By the very nature of schooling, students are almost always studying content that is new to them, so they very rarely have the extensive knowledge needed to make such judgments.

These questions are asked regarding information found online because adults want students to be able to use the internet more effectively. We might be able to teach students to be generally cautious and skeptical online, but for real analysis, content knowledge is the only option.

To make my point, I’m going to share two “mere facts” that will make us all wince. Fact 1: It’s not just the internet that is full of inaccurate information, even widely used mathematics textbooks are highly error-prone. Fact 2: Very few of us, even few our mathematics education professors, have “the ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find” in these textbooks.

The extensive errors in five widely used algebra textbooks were documented in chapter 3 of the report by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. The lack of awareness of these problems has been explored by Hung-Hsi Wu, an emeritus mathematics professor at Berkeley. He places blame not on the math education professors (and certainly not on teachers), but on mathematicians:

As a mathematician surveying this catastrophic education mess, I have to admit that, when all is said and done, the mathematics community has to take the bulk of the blame. We think school mathematics is too trivial, and we think the politics of education is a bottomless pit not worthy of our attention. So we take the easy way out by ignoring all the goings-on in the schools…. even though we are daily confronted with evidence that it is not working.

Why doesn’t Wu blame the math education professors or the teachers—and why does he blame the mathematicians? Because he knows that this analysis of the accuracy of mathematics textbooks could only be done by those with deep knowledge of mathematics. Knowledge that, largely due to their neglect of the rest of us, only mathematicians have.

In school, when students are learning about things for the first time, why should we expect them to be able to analyze the information they find online? I can show you a 12-year-old boy who, having been crazy about dinosaurs since he first chewed on a T. rex, can analyze the accuracy of almost anything about dinosaurs. But that same boy would likely fall for the tree octopus.

Out of curiosity, I dug up the Pew survey Sullivan mentioned. The survey sample is not representative of all teachers; it is about two-thirds Advanced Placement teachers and one-third middle and high school National Writing Project teachers. Asked to rate their students excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor, the teachers rated

  • 61% fair or poor on “Ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online.”
  • 71% fair or poor on “Ability to recognize bias in online content.”
  • 59% fair or poor on “Ability to use multiple sources to effectively support an argument.”

Are these results good or bad? We have no way of knowing. These teachers could be challenging their students with a steady stream of new information and ideas. Students may be acquiring broad knowledge that can provide a foundation for future studies. The fact that so many do not yet have the deep knowledge needed for independent online research need not be a great concern—it merely tells us that they need to learn more. Or, these students could be generally uninformed; expected to build analysis skills but not taught relevant knowledge, they may be headed for failure in future studies.

If Pew wanted to find out, it could do a follow-up study to investigate the students’ academic content knowledge. It would likely find, as so many cognitive scientists already have, that students’ analytical skills and content knowledge develop together.

 

How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
April 5th, 2013

This essay was published on The Atlantic’s website on March 29, 2013; it is reposted here with permission.

Right now, roughly 1,000 schools—public, private, rural, urban, and suburban—are implementing a curriculum plan called the Core Knowledge Sequence. That number is slated to increase significantly in the fall: Under the new Common Core State Standards, the state of New York is recommending the Core Knowledge Language Arts program for preschool through second grade.

It won’t be long before the Core Knowledge program will have helped educate more than a million children—an estimate that doesn’t count the several million children whose parents have taken them through Core Knowledge books such as What Your First-Grader Needs to Know. Judging from the evidence, this is a good thing. The Core Knowledge curriculum is based on the idea that students need actual knowledge, not just thinking skills, in order to succeed. As the program’s website explains:

It’s natural to assume that teaching lots of “stuff” isn’t important anymore when students can simply Google anything they need to know. But you probably take for granted how much “walking-around knowledge” you carry inside your head—and how much it helps you. If you have a rich base of background knowledge, it’s easier to learn more. And it’s much harder to read with comprehension, solve problems and think critically if you don’t.

As I turn 85, I find myself looking back on my own intellectual history with Core Knowledge. I’ve written four books on the theory behind all this activity. But the thought occurs: Perhaps sharing my personal epiphanies might be a good way of helping others understand the program’s character and scientific origins. More important, perhaps it would help mitigate two misconceptions: that reading is a technical skill and that Core Knowledge is impelled by reactionary nostalgia.

***

A crucial moment occurred about 60 years ago as I was in my first semester of teaching English to Yale freshmen. The poem under discussion that day was “Valediction Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne, and my interpretation was being challenged by a very sharp undergraduate.

The poem starts this way:

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
     And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
     ”Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”
 
So let us melt, and make no noise,
     No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
     To tell the laity our love.

The undergraduate insisted that it was a poem about death, since the poem forbids “mourning” and offers the image of a man dying quietly.

Most professors of English would agree that this is not a poem about dying. In Donne’s day, the word “mourning” did not have the limited, mortuary connotation it has now. True, the poet does say he is departing from his beloved, but he’s going on a real geographical trip. In the rest of the poem he explains that he’ll be coming back, and they will renew their love as before. The valediction is a “be seein’ ya,” not a “farewell.”

But nonetheless the poem can be read as a permanent farewell. In Donne’s famous image of a compass, the twin legs part from each other, then one leg takes a circular trip, but then the two legs come back together. All that could be read as a reuniting of two souls after death. There are other clues that make death a plausible interpretation—not just the word “mourning” in the title, but also the image of the dying man, and the poet’s insistence that he and his beloved are not like “dull sublunary lovers” who depend on each other’s physical presence. That could suggest some sort of posthumous spiritual reunion.

But my bright undergraduate didn’t even need to bring out those detailed arguments. He made a more decisive theoretical observation: He pointed out that then-current literary theory held that the intention of the poet is irrelevant. A poem goes out into the world as an artwork, a “verbal icon,” to be interpreted as readers wish, so long as their interpretations follow the public norms and conventions of language. That doctrine meant, said the undergraduate, that hisreading of the poem was just as valid as my reading, since both followed public norms and conventions. My immediate response was that his logic was absolutely right.

So, why was I teaching this class?

In 1954, Yale was the vibrant center of the “New Criticism” that had already begun to take over the teaching of literature in the high schools, mainly through the phenomenally successful textbook by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren called Understanding Poetry. The theory was that you didn’t need to have a lot of biographical or historical information to understand poetry. You could learn to read any poem if you knew poetic conventions and techniques. The other influential text was The Verbal Icon by William K. Wimsatt, who, like Brooks, had been a professor of mine at Yale. All of them became dear friends despite our disagreements.

In those heady days when the Yale English department was rated tops in the nation, it had the feeling almost of a theological seminary for the new doctrines that freed the study of literature from its pedantic, historical trappings and treated works of literature intrinsically as literature—as “verbal icons.” Under this theory, the argument that my student made was right. His “reading” wasjust as valid as mine. Once he had mastered Understanding Poetry, why should I, or anyone, need to teach him how to read Donne’s poem?

***

Five years passed. I was now back from a Fulbright in Germany where I had completed my dissertation on William Wordsworth and Friedrich Schelling, and I was teaching at Yale again. I now thought I was ready to respond to the undergraduate’s challenge. I had explained in the introduction to my dissertation just why you do really need to know quite a lot of extrinsic things to understand even the simplest poem of Wordsworth.

When I was in Germany, I had eagerly read the works of humanistic theorists like Wilhelm Dilthey and philosophers like Edmund Husserl. I had also begun to read linguistics and cognitive psychology. I wrote up my musings as a 1960 article called “Objective Interpretation” in the Publications of the Modern Language Association. Besides citing a lot of eminent German theorists, I offered a concrete example: a simple Wordsworth poem along with two very different interpretations, one by Cleanth Brooks and the other by historical scholar F. W. Bateson. Here is the poem:

A SLUMBER did my spirit seal;
     I had no human fears:
She seem’d a thing that could not feel
     The touch of earthly years.
 
 No motion has she now, no force;
     She neither hears nor sees;
Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course
     With rocks, and stones, and trees.

In Brooks’s view, the poem evokes a sense of futility—the lover’s “agonized shock” at watching his beloved turn into an inert object like a rock, stone, or tree:

Part of the effect, of course, resides in the fact that a dead lifelessness is suggested more sharply by an object’s being whirled about by something else than by an image of the object in repose. But there are other matters which are at work here: the sense of the girl’s falling back into the clutter of things, companioned by things chained like a tree to one particular spot, or by things completely inanimate like rocks and stones. … [She] is caught up helplessly into the empty whirl of the earth which measures and makes time. She is touched by and held by earthly time in its most powerful and horrible image.

In contrast, F. W. Bateson sees the poem building up to a sense of “pantheistic magnificence”:

The vague living-Lucy of this poem is opposed to the grander dead-Lucy who has become involved in the sublime processes of nature. We put the poem down satisfied, because its last two lines succeed in effecting a reconciliation between the two philosophies or social attitudes. Lucy is actually more alive now that she is dead, because she is now a part of the life of Nature, and not just a human “thing.”

As someone deeply immersed in Wordsworth, I could say authoritatively that Bateson caught the poet’s intended sense pretty well: He knew that nothing was really dead in Wordsworth’s nature. As the poet wrote in “The Prelude Book, III”:

To every natural form, rock, fruits, or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
I gave a moral life: I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass
Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all
That I beheld respired with inward meaning.

If Wordsworth had meant to imply the “dead, dead inertness” that Brooks found in the poem’s conclusion, he would hardly have ended the series “rocks and stones and trees.”

However, by favoring Bateson’s reading over Brooks’s, I was disobeying the New Critical doctrine that intention doesn’t matter. This raised a troubling contradiction. If there was no such thing as a “correct” interpretation, then a poem could mean one thing and its complete opposite. In other words, if the text was all you needed, you were led by a kind of Hegelian logic to the next dominant literary theory: deconstruction.

But deconstruction was far less tolerant than New Criticism. It said you have to read every poem as meaning one thing and its opposite. This was how the heady optimism of early New-Critical days evolved into a world-weary, endlessly recurring, formulaic self-contradiction: all texts in the end say the same self-subverting sort of thing.

Such a theory could not interest anyone very long—and indeed deconstruction was much shorter-lived than New Criticism. This explains why literature departments now have largely turned away from “readings” and have focused their work (often productively) on cultural activism and historical studies.

***

Fast-forward a decade and a half to the late 1970s. By this time, I was a chaired professor at a top-rated English department. I’d written several articles and books on English Romantic poets and theory of interpretation, and I was putting the maximum into my retirement fund. But I was getting worried: After serving two stints as department chairman, I’d seen that English programs were neglecting the task of teaching composition.

With the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, I decided to do some large-scale empirical work on how to teach writing more effectively. Studies by the Educational Testing Service had shown that the teaching of composition was currently neither an art nor a science, but almost completely arbitrary. When a single paper was graded by multiple people, the resulting grade was unpredictable almost to the point of randomness. My research was designed to discover whether we could devise a non-arbitrary grading system based on the actual communicative effectiveness of writing.

But what I discovered was something altogether unexpected and, as it turned out, life-changing. I found that when readers were somewhat unfamiliar with the topic in the text, no paper, no matter how well written, could communicate effectively with those readers. I had assumed that clear writing would help the most when the subject was unfamiliar. In fact, the opposite was true. When the topic was familiar to readers, you could measure the benefits of good writing (and the problems caused by bad writing) quite consistently. But the time and effort it takes to understand a text on an unfamiliar topic completely overwhelms the effects of writing quality.

When we carried our experiments to a community college in Richmond, this truth became more apparent—and extremely urgent. These students, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, could easily read a text on “Why I like my roommate.” But even after controlling for vocabulary level and syntax, they could not easily read about Lee’s surrender to Grant. These Richmond students, surrounded by Civil War mementos on Monument Avenue, were clueless about the Civil War. Their lack of knowledge was the reason they were unable to read well about anything beyond the most banal topics.

At the same time as I was doing this research, other studies were beginning to show that relevant prior knowledge—information already stored in one’s long-term memory—is the single most important factor in reading comprehension. It’s more important than average vocabulary level, syntactic complexity, and all the other technical characteristics of texts used by schools to determine grade-appropriate texts.

Schools continue to give the impression that there is such a thing as a general level of reading skill. One student is said to be reading on grade level, while another is said to be some precise number of grade levels ahead or behind. All of this makes sense when talking about decoding skills—the ability to translate those marks on the page into words. But when it comes to reading comprehension, there is no such thing as a general level of reading skill. That single score that a student receives on a test masks the fact that the test itself had a variety of passages on a variety of topics. When the content in a passage is familiar, students read it well. When it is unfamiliar, they read it poorly.

Decades of cognitive science research boil down to this: For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot. I consider this the single most important scientific insight for improving American schooling that has been put forward in the past half century. But unless one is familiar with the research, it’s hard to overcome the cast of mind that regards reading and writing as a set of technical skills—just as devotees of the New Criticism had done.

***

When I first started my experiment on writing, I thought it would prove that a student could become a good writer by learning a few formal techniques. But the data showed that background knowledge, not technique, is by far the more important element in both writing and reading. Technique only gets you about 10 per cent of the way in communication. The remaining 90 percent requires knowledge—knowledge that those struggling readers in Richmond hadn’t been taught.

When the results of our writing experiment surprised us, an unprepared mind might have simply considered it a failed experiment. I realized years later that it was my own prior knowledge that allowed me to comprehend the results of the study. The light bulb went on for me only because my mind had been prepared by my work in literary theory: the harsh glare of a bright-yet-contentedly undereducated student and the contradictory interpretations of two poems.

Fundamentally, the Core Knowledge reform movement is an effort to give all students the broad knowledge that will set them up for a good income and a lifetime of reading and learning. I won’t be around to see how it ends. With luck it could end with higher achievement and much smaller achievement gaps—but only if far more schools, parents, and concerned citizens become persuaded, as I did, that knowledge trumps skills.