Close Reading (aka Not Skimming)

by Lisa Hansel
February 11th, 2014

For a while now, I’ve been a little puzzled by this whole close reading thing. I’ve had a hard time telling the difference between reading and close reading. I’ve always gotten that there’s a continuum from skimming to reading, but isn’t all reading close? I mean, if you’re not paying attention, pulling the meaning from the text, noticing details (including inconsistencies), appreciating the word choices (at least in great works) and occasionally pausing to look things up, then you’re not really reading.

Today, while going through a great close reading lesson on “The Making of a Scientist” by Richard Feynman, I finally realized what the big to-do is. Close reading (aka, reading) is dramatically different from America’s beloved comprehension strategies. Finding the main idea merely requires skimming. Summarizing calls for identifying the key points, but it allows the reader to dismiss details. Making a prediction could be quite complex, but the way I’ve seen it used involves nothing more than a superficial grasp of the story line.

Close reading, in contrast, demands attention to every word. Here’s an example from the February 5, 2014, New York Times:

An Olympics in the Shadow of a War Zone

By Steven Lee Myers

BAKSAN, Russia — On Friday, exactly a week before the Olympics were set to open just 180 miles away, Russia’s security forces appeared on Makhov Street at 8:30 a.m. and cordoned off the area around a brick and stone house. One of the men inside called his father, who said it was the first he had heard from his son in 10 months.

“He said, ‘Papa, we’re surrounded,’ ” the father said. “ ‘I know they’re going to kill us.’ Then he said farewell.”…

For the first time in history, the Olympics are being held on the edge of a war zone. The conflict is one of the longest running in the world, a simmering, murky battle between increasingly radicalized militants who operate in the shadows of society and a security force that can be brutal, even when lethally effective.

The symbolic importance of the Games for Russia and for President Vladimir V. Putin has turned Sochi itself into a tantalizing target for Islamic terrorists who have vowed a wave of attacks to advance their goal of establishing an independent caliphate across the North Caucasus.

The threat has prompted the Kremlin to mount what officials and experts have described as the most extensive security operations in the history of sporting events, sealing off the city and conducting months of operations like the one here to crush militant cells across a region that stretches from Dagestan on the Caspian Sea to Sochi on the Black Sea, using tactics that critics say only fuel more violence….

Even if Russia succeeds in keeping Sochi safe, the violence is certain to grind on here in the Caucasus when international attention moves on, nurtured by the nihilistic ideology of the international jihad and punctuated by terrorist attacks outside the region that experts say Russia, like other countries, will never be able to prevent completely….

The level of violence has dropped significantly since tens of thousands died during Russia’s two wars against separatists in Chechnya, who once hoped the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 would clear the way for the republic’s independence. The second war, under Mr. Putin’s leadership, lasted 10 years, but it crushed the rebels and drove the Chechen rebel commanders underground or “into the forest.” There, they gradually turned the cause of Chechnya’s independence into a broader, more radical vision of holy war that has little popular support but has nonetheless attracted adherents across the region….

The terrorist cells are now so small and so deeply underground that they appear unable to undertake the sort of large-scale operations that seared Russia early in Mr. Putin’s rule, including the siege of a theater in Moscow in 2002 and a school in Beslan in 2004, both of which involved dozens of fighters….

As the attacks in Volgograd showed, the insurgents can still carry out spectacular and deadly suicide attacks against “soft” targets like trains, stations and buses, if not at will, then at least with appalling regularity. While attacks in the Caucasus often target Russian security operations, those outside appear intended to maximize terror by striking at civilians. That kind of attack, rather than one in Sochi itself, experts say, is more likely during the Olympics.

Alrighty, let’s apply some comprehension strategies.

Main idea: Russia has lots of violence and unrest; the Olympics might not be safe.

Summary: The Olympics might not be safe because Russia has had lots of violence and unrest for decades and currently has people trying to attack the games. Over time, a separatist movement morphed into and attracted small terrorist cells. Even if attempted attacks during the Olympics are prevented, Russia will remain under threat for the foreseeable future.

Prediction: At least one attack on the Olympics will be attempted and prevented; Russia will remain under threat for the foreseeable future.

That wasn’t a useless exercise, but it sure left a lot of stones unturned. I did it by skimming. I would learn much more if I actually read the article—or, according to today’s jargon, if I read it closely. The difference is that to really read it, I have to get into all the details. You know, in there with the devil—in there with the things I don’t know enough about. And that means I have to look up some details. Drum roll: that means I’ll deepen and broaden my existing knowledge!

Here’s just a sample of the questions that would arise if I were reading this article closely with teenagers:

  • Where are all these places? Who and what are nearby?
  • Is “President Vladimir V. Putin” a president in the sense used in the United States or is the term defined differently in different countries?
  • What is the Kremlin? Are we to take comfort in its security operations or are there historical reasons to question their apparent good?
  • What is an independent caliphate?
  • What is a nihilistic ideology and what are the particular features in this case?
  • Soviet Union—what’s that? It collapsed? Then what happened?

You get the idea. Now we’re not just finding the main idea of a newspaper article; we’re learning recent Russian history. And that, I whole heartedly support. We don’t read for the sake of summarizing or predicting plot twists; we read to learn. In our speed-obsessed world, maybe that does deserve a special name.

 

Sochi…is that in the Alps? (Photo of Sochi’s Red Meadow resort courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Strategies for Third Graders, Theories for Graduate Students

by Guest Blogger
December 16th, 2013

By Mark Bauerlein

The over-reliance on reading comprehension strategies in primary and secondary education has been a consistent theme at Core Knowledge for several years, but nevertheless people may not realize that reading strategies have a remarkable counterpart in higher education.  You may assume that schools of education are the issue, and certainly they favor “strategies” approaches to reading instruction.  But I have in mind another institution, the teaching of interpretation in graduate and undergraduate literature courses.  The seminar transpires far from the 3rd-grade classroom, to be sure, but one particular development in literary studies over the last half-century parallels closely the focus on strategies, and its future may prove a lesson in the effectiveness of the latter.

The development is this: roughly, during the second half of the 20th century, literary studies transferred focus from literary-historical knowledge to what we might call “performance facility.”  While most teachers in 1950 aimed to instill in students disciplinary content—languages, philology, bibliography, rhetoric, and poetic tradition from Beowulf to T. S. Eliot (or another national lineage)—teachers in 1990 aimed to plant the capacity to perform an astute interpretation of manifold texts.  The former tied his tools to literary-historical truth—textual criticism of a Shakespeare play required technical editing skills, but they proceeded in light of Shakespeare’s biography, the linguistics of Early Modern English, the record of Shakespeare editions, etc.  The latter tied her tools to concepts and strategies—interpretation of a Shakespeare play presumed a critical approach (New Critical, feminist, psychoanalytical, etc.) that she could wield without knowing very much about the writer and the historical context of the play.  It was more important to understand, for instance, Freud’s concept of repression or the New Critic’s key concepts the “intentional fallacy” and the “heresy of paraphrase” than it was the physical structure of the Globe theater or the make-up of London audiences.  You didn’t need that knowledge to write an essay about Hamlet.  All you needed were the critical concepts.  A student of the former ended up knowledgeable, one of the latter capable (and perhaps knowledgeable, or perhaps not).  The one knows, the other performs.

The reasons for the performative turn include trends in enrollments, research productivity, the job market, the importation of European ideas and practices, and multiculturalism, but whatever their mixture at different times and places, they produced a different ideal.  Once it triumphed, the model literary student didn’t stand forth because he knew Elizabethan society and the Shakespeare corpus fact by fact and word by word.  She stood out because she could wield interpretative concepts dazzlingly and flexibly, consistent first with the grounds of the concepts, not with the literature and its context.  Yes, to understand the phonetics of Shakespearean English was impressive, but by 1990 it seemed a plodding endeavor when set alongside the ability to produce a clever feminist interpretation of Macbeth.

(Macbeth and witches courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

I saw the trend first-hand in the 1980s, when some of my fellow graduate students formulated dissertations on the interpretation model.  They chose one work as their topic, Heart of Darkness, for instance, and wrote six chapters on it, one a Neo-Aristotelian reading, one a psychological reading, a deconstructionist, a reader-response, and a colonialist reading, each one a distinct, unrelated performance.  To do so, they didn’t need much historical knowledge about late-19th-century Africa, Conrad’s life, the 19th-century British novel, European politics, or the ivory trade, merely some ideas from each critical approach and the novella itself.  Their efforts nicely tallied job skills in those years, too, the ability to handle different theories and practices usually counting for more than literary-historical knowledge. Those of us in graduate school and coming to maturity in the 1980s learned a clear lesson about the discipline: the center had shifted from the tradition and its contexts to interpretation and its varieties.

The trend drifted down into undergraduate classes as well.  Youths who took English classes in the 80s and 90s encountered sparkling interpretations by Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Harold Bloom, Edward Said, Stanley Fish, Clifford Geertz, Shoshana Felman, and others that were admired not so much for the knowledge they imparted as the interpretative brilliance they displayed.  Articles and books followed the same method, skirting literary-historical backgrounds but enacting an adept application of theory.  Their proliferation resulted in a new epistemology for the field.  Much of the theory behind popular schools of interpretation explicitly denounced objective knowledge as an Enlightenment myth, a presumption of neutrality, a denial of interests and politics.  The success of that critique explains why, for instance, survey courses in English literature steadily dropped out as requirements for the major.

Similarly, one can attribute the absence of content in English language arts standards to performative goals.  After all, the emphasis on interpretive skills means that the texts interpreted needn’t be prescribed.  An expert interpreter can manage a 16th-century lyric as well as yesterday’s op-ed, right?  Anyone who insists on literary-historical knowledge clings to an exploded notion.  For people who embraced performance, the idea of a reading list isn’t just old-fashioned—it’s impertinent.

You can easily see how comprehension strategies complement this mode of interpretation.  Of course, the English graduate student possesses some literary-historical knowledge, while the typical 8th grader does not, but in their respective classrooms, what they learn has a common feature.  Both of them are taught to comprehend by applying abstract procedures to a text, for the one, “identify the main idea,” and for the other, “identify buried patriarchal norms” (to take one example).  Both classrooms emphasize the acts of the reader more than the content of the words read, putatively granting interpreters a mastery and liberation.  Know-how prevails over know-about.  Interpretation and comprehension abstract from the reading process discrete steps and ask students to practice them over and over.  (Many books in the 80s offered primer-like instructions in a deconstructive reading, a Freudian reading, etc.)  They also claim to be more advanced and au courant than old-fashioned exercises in memorization and general knowledge.  How much more 21st-century does a meta-cognitive exercise seem than knowing Pope’s versification?

The fate of interpretative performance in recent years, however, should give strategies enthusiasts pause.  Readers of this blog may have followed ongoing discussions in national periodicals of the deteriorating condition of the humanities in higher education. (See here and here and here.) Numerous reports, op-eds, essays, and books have noted that foreign language departments have closed, research funding has shrunk, sales of humanities monographs have slid into the low-hundreds, leisure literary reading among teens has plummeted, and humanities coursework has diminished in general education requirements.  Today, all of the humanities fields (including history) collect only one-eighth of four-year degrees.  Over the same period during which knowledge about literary history was displaced by application of interpretive strategies, literary study slipped from center stage of higher education to the wings.  Undergraduates just aren’t into it anymore.

Given the performative turn, can you blame them?  If you were a 19-year-old signing up for next semester’s classes, which would attract you: one, learning about Achilles and Hector clashing on the plain, one a surly killing animal, the other a noble family man and virtuous warrior; or two, practicing theoretical readings of The Iliad?  The first underscores the content and context of the epic, the second the concepts and procedures theorists have devised to analyze it.  The second excites only professional interpreters of literature; a horde of laypersons love Homer, few of them love postcolonialism.

This is the steady truth that the performative turn in higher education forgot.  People love the humanities because of the content of them, not because of the interpretation of them.  They want to read about Satan spying on Eve in the Garden in Paradise Lost; Gray’s solemn lines in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”; Ben Franklin arriving in Philadelphia broke and hungry; the anguish of Conrad’s Kurtz . . .  The act of interpreting them pleases them less than the act of reading them.

The same may be said for “strategies” instruction in K-12.  What could be more tedious and uninspiring than efforts such as “Students are taught to generate their own questions” and “Students are taught to become aware of what they do not understand”?  These metacognitive strategies turn the reading experience into a stilted, halting activity, making the content students must learn a boring rehearsal.  Let us teach students those capacities, yes, but not in so labored and ponderous and lengthy a manner.  Scale reading comprehension strategies down to lesser occasions, and abandon the validation that seems to come from upper-crust interpretation theory.  Interpretative performance has had a half-century in higher education, and comprehensions strategies the same in K-12.  Neither one has lived up to the promise and it’s time to explode their presumption of supremacy.

 

Socks, Then Shoes: Texts Should Be Selected Before Strategies

by Lisa Hansel
November 21st, 2013

One thing I’ve seen in too many schools is a willy-nilly approach to selecting texts for English language arts instruction. I’ve long suspected that it is a wide-spread problem, and now a new survey confirms my fear. In a Fordham Institute report by Timothy Shanahan and Ann Duffett, over 1,000 teachers were asked whether texts or strategies came first. Strategies, hands down. (For more from this report, see my last post.)

Here are the options on the survey: do you “Teach particular books, short stories, essays, and poems that you think students should read and then organize instruction around them, teaching a variety of reading skills and strategies as tools for students to understand the texts”? Or, do you “Focus instruction on reading skills and strategies first, e.g., main idea, summarizing, author’s purpose, and then organize teaching around them, so that students will apply these skills and strategies to any book, short story, essay, or poem they read”?

Only 22% of fourth- and fifth-grade teachers start with the texts; 73% focus on the strategies. The remaining 5% focus on something else or both. Things improve a bit in later grades; 56% of middle-grades and 46% of ninth- and tenth-grade teachers focus on strategies.

This sounds like a shoes-then-socks approach to me. Strategies like “main idea, summarizing, author’s purpose” and others can be used with thousands of different texts. But essential knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts can only be taught with certain carefully selected and sequenced texts. Strategies are not learning objectives in and of themselves; they are tools for gaining access to the knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts in the texts.

This idea seems to have gotten lost. I can’t count how many times I’ve had teachers tell me it does not matter whether a student reads The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Hunger Games—all that matters is that they read. I’ve never agreed. One of these books is has earned canon status through literary brilliance. One of these books pulls students into some of the most difficult, painful, and important (yes, to this day) issues in our nation. The other dabbles with some important concepts, but is not extraordinary or even enlightening. School time is precious. Teachers’ knowledge is valuable. Children have serious questions. How can any book that is less than extraordinary be justified?

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Or, to ask the question more productively, what can happen when knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts come first; texts are selected that draw students into wrestling with the content; and strategies are rightly seen as mere tools? Diana Senechal answers:

Teachers and students thrive in relation to substantial, beautiful, meaningful subject matter. Last night, we had a Philosophy Roundtable (for parents, students, faculty/staff, and guests) about the nature of wisdom; we discussed passages from the Book of Job and Plato’s Apology and concluded with Richard Wilbur’s poem “Still, Citizen Sparrow.” As we were grappling with the nature of wisdom, students brought up physics, calculus, art, music, and literature; the evening was like a kaleidoscope of the school’s curriculum. I have long been an advocate of a strong curriculum, but last night I saw the splendor of what my students were learning across the subjects—and saw it all converge in a philosophical question.

So, schools should be at liberty to teach subjects in their full glory. This means not being bogged down with skills and strategies. The skills and strategies will come with the subjects themselves. But what is a subject? Even the most specific topic is an infinity. You can approach it methodically or intuitively; you can look at its structure, its form, its meaning; you can explore its implications, flipside, pitfalls—and if you are to teach or study it well, you will probably do all of this. My main worry about the Common Core is that it can (and in many cases will) inhibit such flexibility. Students may well learn how to write argumentative essays that meet certain criteria—but who cares, unless there’s something worth arguing? To have something worth arguing, you need an insight—and to gain insight, you need to study the matter in an intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic way.

All true. But strategies don’t have to interfere with teaching and learning; they don’t have to dominate Common Core implementation. They can be put in their rightful place as tools for exploring subject matter. Indeed, the standards themselves call for the content-rich curriculum to take center stage. Teachers that follow Senechal’s lead will exceed the standards—in their own “intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic” ways.

 

Closing the Gap: One Challenging Book at a Time

by Lisa Hansel
November 18th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

Children Are Curious and Capable—and Teachers Should Be Too

by Guest Blogger
September 26th, 2013

By Heidi Cole

Heidi Cole, a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches second grade at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy—a public charter school in Forest City, North Carolina.

For the past seven years of my 13-year teaching career, I have educated second graders using the Core Knowledge curriculum. With confidence, I can say that I have not only “taught” my students about ancient China, the War of 1812, Westward Expansion, and the Civil War, but my students have truly “learned” something about these topics. Before moving to a Core Knowledge school, I would never have believed that children would be capable of learning about these sophisticated topics at such a young age, much less enjoy doing so. However, through the use of Core Knowledge’s Listening & Learning strand, which is part of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program, my students brighten as history comes to life during our literacy block.

The texts featured in the program are designed to enrich the vocabulary of our students and build their comprehension as they delve into domains typically reserved for middle and high school students. Seven- and eight-year-old children listen attentively to stories about immigrants who entered America through Ellis Island in the early 1900s, and then respond to questions in which they showcase their knowledge about the push and pull factors which lured these foreigners to a “land of opportunity.”

Each year parents comment on how much they are learning at home from their second grader. Long gone are the days when the children shrug when asked what they learned that day in school. It has been replaced with students begging for trips to see the Statue of Liberty, or asking if the family can travel to Baltimore just so they can witness the site where Francis Scott Key crafted the words to our National Anthem.

My school is in rural western North Carolina, but I have yet to receive any backlash from parents or community members, even when we study difficult issues like slavery. While slavery is certainly a delicate issue for any child to absorb, it is vital in the role of helping young children understand the dynamic of our country during the Civil War era. During our study of this topic, my students embrace the stories of hardship faced by slaves in the South. The result is empathy, followed by a desire to learn more, and the hope of a slavery-free world. Hearing the stories of slavery through the eyes of a child such as Minty (Harriet Tubman) helps children make important connections. We are able to have discussions about the horror of families being torn apart forever, and the dehumanization of African Americans during this time. The Core Knowledge Listening & Learning Civil War domain does an outstanding job of exposing second graders to this sensitive topic, while fostering concern for those impacted throughout history.

After learning about slavery this past school year, my students composed some of their best persuasive writing pieces. As the example below shows, they successfully wrote to a plantation owner from the perspective of a southern abolitionist. Such wonderful writing would not have been possible without true understanding of how this issue impacted the lives of others.

Awareness of slavery also helps prepare students with the necessary background needed to later understand the Civil Rights domain. During our study of Civil Rights, my students conjure up knowledge about the sensitivity of slavery, allowing them to better recognize why inequality had its firmest grasp in the southern states. Because many of my students lack exposure to culturally diverse experiences, this classroom exposure is crucial because it fosters an opportunity to develop connections to our history. Providing such strong background knowledge at a young age will enable these learners to develop a deep level of understanding about our country’s history and its government.

For too long now, educators have underestimated what children are capable of learning and content has been watered down. In a time when many elementary schools are denying students access to geography, history, and science, Core Knowledge provides a refreshing approach to education. How wonderful that during our literacy time, children hear stories about Confucius, rather than a fictional wise man. How great that students learn about the building of the transcontinental railroad, instead of reading a random story about trains.

If children are capable of learning such material, why deny them the opportunity to do so? If we are going to take valuable time in school to teach children how to read, why not also provide an opportunity to better understand their world? By the time my students enter fifth and sixth grades, they may not remember every detail of ancient China’s history, or the battles fought during the Civil War, but they will certainly possess enough background knowledge at that point to take their learning to a whole new level.

 

Promethean Plan: A Teacher on Fulfilling the Intent of the Common Core, Part 2

by Guest Blogger
August 15th, 2013

By Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson, who became a NYC Teaching Fellow after working in retail and hospitality management, now teaches at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx. His writing on educational improvement has appeared in Gotham Schools, the Times Union, VIVA Teachers, and other venues. Anderson also creates educational videos, including one that summarizes this blog post on fulfilling the intent of the Common Core.

In part 1 of this three-part series, Anderson discusses why skills-based teaching should no longer be predominant in ELA. In part 3, he discusses the dangers of infantilizing teachers.

 

Prometheus statue, University of Minho

 

Mistake #2: Placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA

As I noted in my last post, I believe the Common Core standards open a window of opportunity for systematically building students’ knowledge as teachers shift from “just-right texts” to complex texts. Another potentially transformative shift of the Common Core standards is the acknowledgment that literacy extends across all content areas. This is explicitly recognized by the standards in two ways: 1) the inclusion of literacy standards for social studies, science, and technical subjects in grades 6 – 12; and 2) the demand for an increase in informational texts.

Under key design considerations in the introduction to the literacy standards, Common Core’s authors state that the inclusion of social studies, science, and technical subjects “reflects the unique, time-honored place of ELA teachers in developing students’ literacy skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well” (bold added).

They furthermore point out that “because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes” (bold added).

Yet within schools, these points are all too easily ignored or misconstrued. ELA teachers are evaluated by the literacy tests that their students are required to take. One of the greatest frustrations of being an ELA teacher, in fact, is that we are tested on factors that are often beyond our control, such as our students’ domain-specific knowledge. It’s no wonder, then, that many ELA teachers resort to skills-based teaching, grimly attempting to boost test scores by bolstering superficial, isolated skills.

That domain-specific knowledge is essential to literacy is a point that has been already been made much more cogently by others—such as Daniel Willingham, E. D. Hirsch, and Robert Pondiscio—and that is apparent in research. In my personal experience, I frequently teach students who are quite familiar with the skill of “inferencing,” for example, yet display little ability to make an accurate inference.

During my first years of teaching at my former elementary school, we had noted from our students’ literacy assessment data that inferencing was a deficient skill across all tested grades. All of us set about diligently teaching the skill. After going through a cycle or two of grade-level team “inquiry” on this skill, something slowly became apparent to me: our students couldn’t make accurate inferences because they didn’t understand what they were reading. The problem wasn’t lack of inferencing skill, it was lack of knowledge. This is when I first realized that we were failing our students because we didn’t have a coherent curriculum. Forget inferencing. Before we could do inquiry on anything, we had to have a solid, structured curriculum in place to refer to so that we could align what we were teaching across our classrooms and grades, and therefore address gaps in students’ knowledge and skills.

In most elementary schools, ELA is given heavy prominence, often to the detriment of music, arts, social studies, and science, as ELA test scores weigh heavily on schools’ performance. Yet this establishes a demoralizing catch-22, in that the domain-specific knowledge necessary for reading comprehension is then unable to be acquired.

If the research foundation and intent of the Common Core—to build the broad knowledge that is essential to literacy—remains unrecognized, then a simple and devastating misunderstanding of Common Core’s emphasis on “informational” texts will occur: ELA will avoid most literature altogether and focus on disparate expository texts instead, leaving us back at square one—an utter lack of coherency or of a systematic accumulation of knowledge.

The burden for literacy cannot remain on the shoulders of ELA alone. Literature, including literary nonfiction, is essential for gaining an understanding of the world, but it must be backed by domain-specific knowledge in other content areas.

In elementary school, this means that administrators need to shift their focus from ELA to social studies, science, arts, and music, and ensure that 90-minute literacy blocks are used to build knowledge, not simply to conduct independent reading and writing. This can be done most strategically by selecting a coherent body of texts for teacher read-alouds and whole class or small group exploration. In middle and high school, this means that social studies, science, and technical content area teachers need to be on board with also being teachers of literacy, and must be trained on the selection and teaching of texts that will build content-specific knowledge.

At my middle school, my grade-level team began developing this understanding by exploring the Common Core standards together. We discovered that the expectation that students would be able to cite evidence, read and comprehend complex grade-level texts, and write arguments that exhibit logical reasoning and address counterclaims extended across ELA, social studies, and science. Not only that, we found that argumentative standards in literacy closely aligned with expectations for mathematical practice, in that students were expected to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. Here is the initial document my team created to review and compare these argumentative standards.

Such an exploration, however, is only a foot in the door. Now we must consider how we can share strategies for teaching close reading, what qualitative and quantitative methods we can use to select grade-level complex texts, and in what way we can align these strategies across departments and grades. Furthermore, this also requires a shift on the part of us ELA teachers: we must be now be willing to consider how the texts and content we teach will align and build on the content taught in other classrooms.

While such an undertaking may appear daunting at first, the opportunity to collaborate on interdisciplinary papers, projects, and tasks is invigorating both for teachers and for students. At the end of the last school year, my ELA department began working with our social studies department to consider how we could align our poetry units with their units. We discovered that all social studies units shared a common theme of warfare, so we began selecting poems on warfare that would build on this theme and extend and enrich student understanding of multiple perspectives on war. This ability to strategically build on student knowledge strengthened student engagement, as students were able dive deeper into poems such as “Night in Blue” by Brian Turner and “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen by drawing upon their knowledge of the experience of soldiers in traumatic modern wars.

Here’s one short-term measure we could take to ensure that the burden for teaching literacy does not fall only on the shoulders of ELA teachers:

  • Common Core-aligned literacy assessments should hold all the teachers for a grade level accountable.

Wait, what? You read that right. Make all the teachers on a grade level accountable for student performance on literacy tests. It might sound crazy, and I’m sure it will complicate the pristine “value-added” formulas that have been cooked up to evaluate individual teachers, but it’s the most effective means to ensure that schools actualize the teaching of knowledge as the key to literacy. So long as the burden of accountability for literacy tests falls solely to the domain of ELA, then the teaching of literacy will fall solely on the backs of ELA teachers, and the other content areas will therefore continue to be treated as secondary as testing hysteria arises during the year.

In the schools I have worked in, this hysteria is the inevitable accompaniment to high stakes testing. Teachers, despite themselves, begin referencing “the test” as a raison d’être of lessons. During this run up to testing, roughly December through May, a school’s frenetic focus is on ELA and math, with extra weekend and afterschool sessions piled on to reinforce all those isolated skills for good measure.

But now imagine if literacy were acknowledged as a grade-level team’s main objective. All hands would be on deck to ensure that content—across all domains—would be systematically taught and reinforced. In other words, we’d be doing what we should have been doing all along.

Longer term measures we could take to ensure that teaching literacy extends across content areas:

  • Schedule time each week for grade-level teacher teams to meet and collaborate on curriculum and pedagogy.
  • Include a focus on selecting and teaching complex texts in content-specific teacher training.

 

Honoring the Framer’s Intent: A Close Look at Close Reading

by Lisa Hansel
August 8th, 2013

The further we dive into implementing the Common Core, the more questions and concerns arise. Some see this as evidence that the Core is crumbling. I don’t. I think it’s an inevitable, and welcome, phase of wrapping our minds around some very big changes. In fact, the more time I spend talking to people—from teachers deep in this work to policy wonks on the foggy fringes—the more it reminds me of debates about the Constitution.

No, I’m not ready to give the Common Core’s writers Founder status, but I do think that the new standards will prove to be living, lasting documents. The main way I am reminded of the Constitution is in the debates I’m hearing about what the writers intended. I’m glad that these debates are happening. Figuring out the intent is far more important than “covering” each individual standard. As I noted several weeks ago, anyone who brings a checklist mentality to these standards will get checklist results.

One line of questions and concerns I find really interesting is how close reading might work (or not) early in elementary school. Is a 7-year-old really supposed to analyze and cite evidence from a complex text?

Yes, but—two big buts! First, keep in mind that the text is supposed to be complex from the 7-year-old’s perspective, not from the adult’s perspective. Second, there are things the adult can do to make the text accessible.

As the Core Knowledge Language Arts team has been revising the pilot version of the program and rolling out the final version, it has been writing close reading lessons. In second and third grades, they’re doing about one per week (earlier grades are focused more on building the foundation via close listening). This hasn’t been easy. After plenty of head scratching and bumping, here’s what they figured out: Close reading in the elementary grades should focus first and foremost on ensuring students’ comprehension of the text; a secondary focus should be the manner in which words have been used as literary devices or how text has been crafted. CKLA’s close reading lessons focus student attention on words with multiple meanings, figurative or idiomatic speech, and syntactic structure as a way of unpacking the meaning of the text.

Recently, I got a peek at some materials currently being developed for a unit on the War of 1812 that comes at the end of second grade. I’m just going to share some snippets here. I think they show that second graders really can analyze complex text—if the curriculum is carefully constructed to make the text accessible.

For accessibility, one critical feature is that children are reading about the War of 1812 after having listened to and discussed a series of teacher read-alouds on the same topic. (For those who are familiar with the program, the War of 1812 first appears about halfway through second grade as a domain in the Listening & Learning strand; then, at the end of the year, the War of 1812 returns in the Student Reader in the Skills strand.) So, students are already familiar with the ideas, people, events, and vocabulary. Another important way CKLA makes this text accessible is that the Student Reader is decodable. From K – 2, all of the Student Readers are written using only the sound-spellings and tricky words that have been taught to date.

Now, let’s take a look at the Student Reader on The War of 1812. Chapter 1 explores some of the disagreements that the Americans and British were having. Chapter 2 looks at internal disagreements between American war hawks and merchants. Here’s roughly the first half of chapter 3, “The War Starts”:

Presidents have to make hard choices. James Madison had to decide whether to side with the war hawks or with the merchants who hoped for peace. In the end, he sided with the war hawks. Madison asked Congress to declare war. On June 18, 1812, the U.S. declared war on Great Britain.

The Americans were in for a hard fight. The British had a huge army. They also had the world’s biggest navy. But the British were already at war with France. They could only send some of their troops to fight the U.S. That was a good thing for the Americans. It meant that they would have a better chance of winning.

Even so, not a lot of people at the time could imagine that the U.S. could win. Today the U.S. is a strong nation. It has been around for many years. It has a strong army and navy. But that was not the case in 1812.

In 1812, the U.S. was not very old as a country. It had broken away from Great Britain only about thirty years before.

The U.S. had a different kind of government, too. At the time, most of the nations of Europe were monarchies. That means they were ruled by kings. A king would rule until he died. Then, in most cases, his oldest son would take over. The U.S. was not a monarchy. It did not have a king. Instead, it had a president. The president was chosen by voters. He did not get to serve until he died. He served for 4 years. Then the voters got a chance to pick their president. If they voted for a different president, the old one had to step down.

In 1812, most people in the world felt this was a very strange way of doing things. They were not confident that the system would last and that the U.S. would be able to survive.

Before we get into specifics, here’s on outline of CKLA’s approach to close reading:

  • Have students partner-read a selected chapter in their Readers.
  • After students have finished reading the chapter with their partners, lead students in a close reading of the text that requires them (individually, in pairs, or in small groups) to draw on evidence from the text by doing the following (as appropriate, not all texts will support all of these forms of analysis):
    • calling attention to and explaining instances of words with multiple meanings, figurative or idiomatic speech, specific word choices, and nuances of meaning.
    • identifying and discussing general academic (Tier 2) vocabulary.
    • unpacking sentences with difficult syntax, including identifying pronoun referents, discussing the temporal and/or causal relationship and meaning of specific conjunctions, calling attention to words that signal transitions, and breaking complex sentences with clauses into separate parts.
    • discussing sections of the text that might pose difficulty due to dense information and/or that require making inferences and/or connections to previously read texts or  knowledge.
    • discussing the voice or narrator of a particular text excerpt.
    • calling attention to literary devices such as imagery, metaphors, similes, personification, and onomatopoeia.

Now, let’s take a look at some ways teachers could apply this to our excerpt of chapter 3:

Text from Student Reader: James Madison had to decide whether to side with the War Hawks or with the merchants who hoped for peace. In the end, he sided with the War Hawks.

  • Vocabulary: side with to take sides; agree with
  • Text-Dependent Question: In the end, who did Madison agree with – the War Hawks or the merchants?
  • Response: Madison sided with the War Hawks in the end.

Text from Student Reader: The British had a huge army. They also had the world’s biggest navy. But the British were already at war with France. They could only send some of their troops to fight the U.S. That was a good thing for the Americans.

  • Vocabulary: troops – soldiers
  • Text-Dependent Question: Why were the British able to only send some of their troops to fight the Americans?
  • Response: The British were fighting another war with France.

Text from Student Reader: Even so, not a lot of people at the time could imagine that the U.S. could win.

  • Vocabulary: imagine – think; believe (Note the multiple meanings of imagine. Here is a slightly different meaning: it was a cold, winter day, but I imagined I was at the pool in the summer; dreamed, pretended.)
  • Syntax: not a lot of people…could imagine that the U.S. could win = a lot of people could not imagine that the U.S. could  win
  • Text-Dependent Question: Were there many people who thought the U.S. could win?
  • Response: No, not a lot of people could imagine that the U.S. could win.

Text from Student Reader: The United States was not a monarchy. It did not have a king. Instead, it had a president. The president was chosen by voters. He did not get to serve until he died. He served for four years. Then, the voters got a chance to pick their president. If they voted for a different president, the old one had to step down.

  • Vocabulary: serve to work for a certain period of time in government or in the military (Note the multiple meanings of serve. The waitress served our dessert; delivered or brought to the table.); step down – to stop doing a job; resign; retire
  • Syntax: Who or what is it in the sentence, “Instead, it had a president?” (the United States)

Text from Student Reader: In 1812, most people in the world felt this was a very strange way of doing things. They were not sure that the system would last and that the United States would be able to survive.

  • Vocabulary: the system the American way of government in which the people voted for a president
  • Syntax: What does this refer to in the sentence, “In 1812, most people in the world felt this was a very strange way of doing things?” (choosing a president by voting)
  • Text-Dependent Question: Why did most people in the world think the United States would not be able to survive?
  • Response: They were not sure that the system of government in the United States would last.

To practice close reading, the student workbook sends children back to the text. In the examples below, CKLA second graders must write “true” or “false” and provide the page numbers on which they found evidence for their answers:

1. On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. __________

Page _________

2. In 1812, the British were already at war with France, so they could only send some of their troops to fight the United States. __________

Page _________

3. At the start of the war, most people thought the United States would defeat the British easily. __________

Page _________

4. A monarchy is a nation that is ruled by a king. __________

Page _________

5. In 1812, the United States was a monarchy. __________

Page _________

6. In 1812, most of the nations of Europe were ruled by presidents who were elected and served for four years. __________

Page _________

Some second graders will be able to do this independently; others will need lots of support. (And don’t forget—the Skills strand offers many options for differentiation, so no one expects the whole second grade to tackle this in the same way at the same time.) I think we can confidently say that all will be learning a great deal.

 

I Love Joe Kirby—and You Should Too

by Lisa Hansel
June 25th, 2013

Maybe it’s just my view from across the pond, but CK appears to be rocking the UK. Hats off to Michael Gove, of course, but the real excellence- and equity-inducing power of building students’ knowledge and skills comes from the teachers who embrace a content-rich curriculum.

Joe Kirby is one of those teachers. I’ve never met him, but I know he’s a great teacher because he’s teaching me about core knowledge (yes, the lower-case form, aka, knowledge that’s essential for all of us to share).

Kirby’s outstanding unit (to use the term loosely) on core knowledge started June 15th when he posted “Which ideas are damaging education?” It’s a review of Daisy Christodoulou’s new book, Seven Myths about Education. E. D. Hirsch lauds Seven Myths as “a book from a practitioner that gets the science and the rhetoric right, with an effective organization and a super clear writing style.” For a substantive preview of all seven myths, see Christodoulou’s blog. For a compelling review, let’s turn to Kirby:

Some time in the late 20th and turn of the 21st century, the educational establishment in England took a historic and disastrous wrong turn. Knowledge became mistrusted as limiting and elitist. Facts were branded as useless for the future economy and obsolete due to new technology. Teacher-led instruction was pilloried as passive, boring and ineffective. Subjects were denoted as oppressive constructs and arbitrary middle-class inventions that risked indoctrinating students, reproducing hegemonic values and entrenching social inequalities….

The extraordinary working-class efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to gain knowledge through great literature documented by Jonathan Rose in his book, The Intellectual Lives of the British Working Classesbelie the notion that high culture somehow belongs to an elite.

Seven Myths gathers the evidence from cutting-edge cognitive science about the vital importance of knowledge in memory and cognition to uproot an entrenched status quo and concludes: ‘there is nothing elitist about powerful knowledge: what is elitist is the suggestion that such knowledge belongs to an elite… It’s sometimes said that those who want to teach knowledge want to take us back to the 19th century. In fact the reverse is true. It’s those who don’t want to teach knowledge who want to take us back to the 19th century. For when we consider the 19th century, we see that for many of the elites at the time were extremely reluctant to teach knowledge to the masses, on the grounds that it would make them ‘refractory and seditious’. Combining historical analysis with modern scientific research, this should strike a resounding chord with anyone who wants to see education become more equitable.

On June 18, in “How knowledge is being detached from skills in English, Kirby began sharing his own experiences as an English teacher in London:

As soon as I started teaching English, I was told categorically that ‘English is a skills-based subject’. It was stated in no uncertain terms that students ‘don’t need to know the text, they need to be able to apply their skills to any text’. Knowledge of the rules of grammar didn’t matter as much as transferable skills like writing for purpose and audience. What they read and the content they wrote about wasn’t, apparently, very important. So in many English departments, Cirque du Freak was much more likely to be taught than Oliver Twist….

When teaching a text, I didn’t set out a coherent sequence of concepts for pupils to learn and be tested on. When teaching writing, I didn’t specify the underpinning concepts of grammar in a logical way. When teaching speaking and listening, I thought harder about how to improve their debating skills than how to increase their understanding of the topic’s content. When teaching non-fiction, I was thinking less about persuasive and powerful examples of language that have endured over time, such as Churchill’s and John Bright’s war and anti-war speeches, and more about was directly relevant to my pupils’ immediate concerns, letting them choose their own Great British heroes, and ending up hearing about Ed Sheeran and Wayne Rooney.

I was then shocked when, for instance, I asked pupils about World War II poetry, and was in return asked: ‘Sir, does that mean that there was a first world war?’ It wasn’t that they didn’t know when it was, or between which nations it was fought; it was that they didn’t know that it happened at all.

Many teachers were simply doing what I was doing: teaching and assessing skills, neglecting content, and then wondering why so few of our pupils seemed to know very much.

In his next post, “Why teaching skills without knowledge doesn’t work,” Kirby described what his teaching experiences revealed:

Take as an example the way we read and teach even short novels like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This completely baffled my class the first time I taught it to Year 8, because I failed to specify the prerequisite and deep knowledge necessary for an enduring understanding of the text. Any meaningful interpretation sadly eluded my pupils, because they needed contextual, historical knowledge to make their own meanings of it. The context of twentieth century dictatorship, concepts like communism, capitalism, socialism and fascism, and the biographies of Orwell, Churchill, Stalin and Hitler are rarely specified and tested in English departments nationwide while teaching Animal Farm – yet are completely central to a strong understanding of why the novel was written, what it is about and why it has endured. When my class struggles to think critically about a text, it’s often because I’ve starved them of the deep knowledge they need….

All the evidence shows that reading well depends heavily on general knowledge. Over the last three decades, cognitive science has come to a conclusion that is scientifically robust: critical thinking skills require broad background knowledge. This is the reason why teaching abstract skills devoid of facts such as ‘evaluation’, generic strategies such as ‘skimming’ and unchallenging content like celebrities, TV, Twitter and Cirque du Freak doesn’t help academic achievement: the opportunity cost. Whilst students could be studying the most challenging content, reading authors of books with astonishing depth and complexity, and wrestling with their contradictions and ambiguities, instead we feed them an entertaining diet of stuff they’re already interested in….

Why can’t poor kids benefit from reading Dickens, Orwell and Duffy? Nothing about their writing is inherently elitist. Dickens wrote about poverty and slums; Orwell fought in a civil war as a socialist; Duffy combats gender and class prejudice. There’s nothing elitist about teaching these writers; what’s elitist is reserving them for selective schools…. This divergence is not uprooting inequality in education; it is entrenching it.

On June 20th, Kirby followed-up with “The Double Helix: How knowledge is vital for skills in English,” giving us a striking metaphor:

I want to go into detail now and give one example of a ‘double-helix unit’ that integrated knowledge and skills that really worked. My department gave me a blank slate to design a unit of work on Oliver Twist for a Year 7 class. I sequenced the core knowledge about Dickens’s biography and upbringing, and the experiences that led to him writing the serialised novel in 1837, aged just 24, just as a young Queen Victoria came to the throne. I specified what pupils should learn about 1830s London, its poverty, criminal justice system, capital punishment, the 1834 Poor Laws and workhouse conditions. They learned about street gangs and gender inequality in detail. They learned about prejudice against Jewish merchants and the fever that Dickens’ sister-in-law died of in 1837. As we read Oliver Twist, it hit me how useful all this knowledge was for unlocking the layers of meaning in the novel. They understood why Dickens chose a poor orphan as his hero. They understood why Rose Maylie almost dies from a fever, and why Dickens ensures his character survives in fiction as he could not ensure his beloved sister-in-law could survive in life. They understood why the workhouse existed, and unraveled the mystery of why Oliver’s mother abandoned her baby to the workhouse….

So in my English teaching now, whenever I’m planning a scheme of work on any text, this is my approach. I specify in precise detail the hidden bodies of knowledge that make up student mastery of the text. I decide exactly what I want them to know about the context, plot, characters, themes, language and form. I sequence this valuable knowledge systematically across lessons. I test them regularly on whether they’ve understood and mastered the content I think is essential for them. A look at their interpretations at the end of the unit will tell how big a difference knowledge makes.

Kirby’s unit on core knowledge ended on June 23rd, with a fantastic post titled “What makes a great school curriculum?” Hopefully you’ll read Kirby’s whole unit, but if you’ve only got time for one of the posts, read this one. In The Making of Americans, E. D. Hirsch explains why it is so critical for the people who share a nation to also share some values and knowledge. In this post, Kirby outlines a strong curriculum. He also gives a tragic example of what can happen when people occupy a land without sharing even the most basic values or knowledge:

I was trekking in the Rift Valley, the cradle of civilisation, in Kenya in 2007 when electoral and ethnic violence erupted, killing almost 1,500 people, sparking such horrific events as the 300 unarmed Kikuyu civilians burned alive in a Church on New Year’s Day. Ethnic tensions between Luos and Kikuyus in the Rift Valley had exploded during previous Kenyan elections, such as 1992. When I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro on the Tanzanian and Kenyan border, I asked one of the guides why there’d never been electoral violence in neighbouring Tanzania. In one word, he said, ‘education’. Premier Julius Nyere went to great lengths to ensure that from 1960 a national curriculum forged a powerful sense of Tanzanian national identity rather than tribal or ethnic identification. By contrast, no such national curriculum existed in Kenya. Kenyan politics is now disturbingly divided long ethnic lines. Tanzanian politics is not. There are clearly myriad other factors, but one thing’s for sure: it made me realise how much the curriculum matters.

Thanks Joe! Summer school is a great time for enrichment courses. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed yours.