The Importance of Teaching Content

by Guest Blogger
August 6th, 2014

By Karin Chenoweth 

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

Quite some years ago I visited a school in Baltimore City that had raised its third-grade reading scores dramatically. I wanted to see what they were doing to be so successful — and I was curious about why its fifth-grade scores had not improved even as its third-grade ones had.

When I got there I found a high-poverty school where the teachers were very focused on early reading instruction and had worked hard to teach kids the phonemes (the sounds found in the English language) and phonics (the sounds mapped to letters and combinations of letters) so that the kids could decode words and read fluently. I saw dedicated, hard-working teachers teaching early reading well and with verve and students who liked being in school.

As I often do when I visit a school, I randomly selected a child in one of the early grades and asked him to read to me. He happily read a folk tale set in China, fluently and with expression. I was impressed. As I walked out of his classroom with the assistant principal who was showing me around, I asked what the school did to teach kids about China — the geography, the culture, the naming system, the flora and fauna — in other words, the background knowledge that would help kids to understand a folk tale set in China.

Oh, the administrator said, that wasn’t necessary, adding that kids learn a surprising amount of background knowledge from television.

And that’s when I knew why the school’s third-grade reading improvement hadn’t translated into fifth-grade reading improvement.

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TV brain courtesy of Shutterstock.

I was seeing in action what reading researcher Jeanne Chall wrote about decades ago: the “fourth-grade slump” of poor children.

Third-grade reading tests usually consist of very simple stories and text, making them primarily tests of decoding — which was what that school was teaching impressively well. By fourth and fifth grade, however, reading tests have more complex stories and texts that require more sophisticated vocabularies and considerable amounts of background knowledge. Kids can no longer figure out most of the words from the context of the stories; they need to actually know the words and the concepts they represent.

If schools aren’t teaching kids an awful lot of content — that is, history, science, literature, and the arts — the same kids who do well on third-grade tests can fail later tests — not because they can’t decode the words on the tests, but because they cannot understand the words once they’ve decoded them. And they can’t understand them because the words haven’t been taught.

Some kids do arrive at school with a lot of background knowledge and rich vocabularies, usually acquired from discussions at home and a set of experiences ranging from being read to from an early age to being taken to museums. The kids with those kinds of experiences tend to be kids from educated and well-off families, which is one of the reasons that reading scores are so highly correlated with family income and mother’s education.

If we are to break that correlation and ensure that all children can read and comprehend well, schools need to have coherent, content-rich curricula that systematically teach history, science, literature, and the arts. This isn’t so that children will do well on fifth-grade reading tests, by the way; it’s so that they can understand the world around them. Fifth-grade reading tests are just proxies for what comes next.

The idea that educators would rely on the random background knowledge kids pick up from television is misguided, which is why what that assistant principal told me almost took my breath away.

And yet I also knew that she was reflecting a widely held view among many educators that it is not necessary to systematically teach kids content. That view, which teacher Daisy Christodoulou calls a “myth of education,” is the subject of her new book, Seven Myths of Education, which was adapted by the American Educator as “Minding the Knowledge Gap: The Importance of Content in Student Learning.

Christodoulou taught for several years in a high-poverty school in England without the success she desperately wanted. She describes faithfully following what she had been told in her teacher training program — she had set up discussions, organized group projects, and encouraged individual problem solving — many of the same kinds of things American teachers are told to do. But she did not systematically teach her high school students the content of her field (English) because she had been told that was neither necessary nor good practice.

When she discovered a large body of research in cognitive science demonstrating that people need a large store of knowledge in order to think creatively, have deep discussions, and solve problems, she wrote what amounts to a cri de coeur.

Educators who wonder why they work so hard without getting the results they hoped for will find a sympathetic ear and an introduction to many of the answers they’re looking for in Christodoulou’s article and book.

 

“Houston, we have a problem”

by Lisa Hansel
July 23rd, 2014

We do indeed have a crisis on our hands, but year after year we fail to diagnose and address it. With 21st century skills, learning styles, comprehension strategies, blame-the-teacher “reforms,” and dozens of other fads clouding our thinking, research-driven common sense improvements get little attention.

It’s frustrating, but our Core Knowledge community is dedicated to spreading the word on rigorous academics. For anyone out there who needs yet more evidence of the desperate need for building broad knowledge and skills, two new reports are worth examining.

“Just the facts, ma’am”

Cold, hard facts are what we get from ACT and Mathematica Policy Research. We learn (yet again) that there are massive disparities in preparation for college and kindergarten.

ACT’s The Condition of College & Career Readiness tackles the high school problem with stark graphics. The one below, showing the massive gaps among youth by race and ethnicity, is especially striking:

ACT 7-22-14 A

Then, a ray of hope. Taking a “core curriculum” in high school appears to greatly increase the odds that a young adult is well prepared. In the chart below, “Core” stands for core curriculum, which ACT defines as “4 years of English and 3 years each of mathematics, science, and social studies” in high school.

ACT 7-22-14 B

That gives us one clear step to take in closing college- and career-readiness gaps. But things are never so simple. You see, most students are already taking a core curriculum:

ACT 7-22-14 C

Clearly, all core curricula are not created equal. But we know better that to lay all blame at the high school doorstep. And in case we forget, Mathematica’s Kindergartners’ Skills at School Entry: An Analysis of the ECLS-K reminds us. This study is interesting because it does not look just at the usual race/ethnicity and income factors. Instead, it focuses on four specific “risk factors”: “the child lives in a single-parent household, the child’s mother has less than a high school education, the child’s household income is below the federal poverty line, and the primary language spoken in the home is not English.”

You may be surprised to see that nearly half—44%—of entering kindergartners face at least one of these risk factors:

Mathematica 7-22-14 A

Sadly, you may be even more surprised to see how devastating even just one risk factor is in terms of reading, math, and working memory:

Mathematica 7-22-14 B

Mathematica 7-22-14 C

(Note: IRT stands for “item response theory.” The children were given two-stage assessments in which their performance in the first stage determined the difficulty of the test items they were given in the second stage.)

If these two new reports tell us anything, it’s that we must intervene early. Gaps that exist at kindergarten entry still exist at the end of high school—ripe for replication when our underprepared young adults have children of their own.

“May the Force be with you”

Schools with coherent, cumulative curricula that build academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills are intervening. Curriculum is not the solution, of course, but it is a necessary part of the foundation for student (and teacher) learning. Unfortunately, far too many school, district, and policy leaders are unaware of how to make their curricula stronger, much less how to harness a rigorous curriculum for benefits such as early identification of students’ needs and increased teacher collaboration. For those looking to take the first step, I strongly recommend Harvard’s Lead for Literacy series. In 16 one-page memos, Lead for Literacy clearly identifies best practices for literacy programs, assessments, professional development, and program selection. The series may not be as powerful as the Force, but they’ll give leaders a good shot at dramatically increasing students’ knowledge and skills, and enabling them to learn more both in and out of school.

Even in Kindergarten, Advanced Content Advances Learning

by Lisa Hansel
July 8th, 2014

In a must-read post last week, the Albert Shanker Institute’s Esther Quintero explored several studies showing that bringing more academic content into the early grades is beneficial for children. The final study she summarized, by Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago and Mimi Engel and Chris Curran of Vanderbilt University, particularly caught my eye. As Quintero wrote, this nationally representative study of kindergartners “found that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or early childhood care experiences, ‘likely benefit from exposure to more advanced and less basic content.’ ”

That’s great, but it raises an obvious question: What is “advanced” content?

Quite reasonably, the researchers distinguished between basic and advanced content by assessing what the kids know:

Specific mathematics and reading content is considered to be basic or advanced depending on whether the majority of children had mastered that content at kindergarten entry. If over half of children entering kindergarten have mastered a particular content area, we define it as basic. Content that most children have not yet mastered is defined as advanced.

Using that gauge, here’s what was deemed basic and advanced:

Basic Math:

Count out loud

Work with geometric manipulatives

Correspondence between number and quantity

Recognizing and naming geometric shapes

Using measuring instruments

Identify relative quantity

Sort into subgroups

Ordering objects

Making/copying patterns

Advanced Math:

Know value of coins

Place value

Reading two-digit numbers

Recognizing ordinal numbers

Adding single-digit numbers

Subtracting single-digit numbers

Adding two-digit numbers

Subtracting two-digit numbers, without regrouping

 

 

Basic Reading:

Alphabet and letter recognition

Work on learning the names of the letters

Practice writing the letters of the alphabet

Writing own name

Advanced Reading:

Matching letters to sounds

Work on phonics

Common prepositions

Conventional spelling

Using context cues for comprehension

Read aloud

Read from basal reading texts

Read text silently

Vocabulary

That’s not as much detail as I’d like to see, but it is helpful. Kindergarten teachers could use it as a minimal checklist when first exploring new programs or revising their curriculum. Anything that does not cover at least this “advanced” content is not likely to be a good use of school time because advanced content benefitted all students—those who had and had not attended preschool, and those from high- and low-income families:

We find that all children, regardless of preschool experiences or family economic circumstances, benefit from additional exposure to advanced reading and mathematics content in kindergarten. Complicating these results, we find that most children gain less in mathematics and stagnate (at best) in reading with additional exposure to basic content…. Our study suggests that exposing kindergartners to more advanced content in both reading and mathematics would promote skills among all children.

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Advanced content courtesy of Shutterstock.

For making the most of the kindergarten year, an important first step may be ensuring that all teachers are aware of the benefits of advanced content. One component of this study is a survey of kindergarten teachers regarding their content coverage; it revealed that they spend far more time on basic content than on advanced content.

Time on content (days per month)

Basic math

9.79

Advanced math

6.46

Basic reading

18.06

Advanced reading

11.41

To be clear, these researchers are not calling for advanced content all the time. They note that basic content must be introduced often even just to segue to advanced content. Their recommendation is rather modest:

Our results indicate that shifting the content covered in a kindergarten classroom to 4 more days per month on advanced topics in reading or mathematics is associated with increased test score gains of about .05 standard deviations. While this is a modest gain, changing content coverage might be an inexpensive means of intervening…. Further, the consistently null (reading) or negative (math) effects of basic content in our study indicate that the often tricky issue of ‘‘finding the time’’ to implement curricular changes might be accomplished with relative ease in this case. Time on advanced content could be increased while time on basic content is reduced without the need to increase overall instructional time.

Four more days sounds reasonable to me. In reading, such a change would merely result in a roughly 50-50 split between basic and advanced content.

Although the researchers do not delve into it, there’s one more result from the kindergarten teacher survey that jumped out at me—the paltry amount of time devoted to science and social studies:

Time on subjects (minutes per week)

Lessons on math

186.18

Lessons on reading

292.33

Lessons on science

68.11

Lessons on social studies

74.74

You can check out pretty much any other post (including Quintero’s) on Core Knowledge’s blog to see why that’s of concern. If you’re interested in using an early grades reading program that is filled with “advanced” content and addresses science and social studies, we’ve got you covered.

Summer Slide: Denial Is Dangerous

by Lisa Hansel
June 18th, 2014

I’ll guess that pretty much all educators are aware of the “summer slide” or “summer learning loss.” Even if there is a teacher who hasn’t heard those terms, all teachers have to deal with the consequences—wasting 2 to 5 weeks each fall reteaching content and skills. Naively, I thought the reteaching ritual was so widely lamented that parents, too, were aware of the summer slide. So I was shocked to see that 61% of parents do not believe that their children decline in reading ability over the summer.

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Summer slide courtesy of Shutterstock.

The finding comes from a new survey of 1,014 parents with children ages 5–11. Conducted by Harris Interactive, it kicks off the summer campaign by Reading Is Fundamental and Macy’s to provide books to needy children.

Sadly, that 61% foreshadows all of the findings.

For example, playing outside is the top priority: “By a wide margin, parents of 5-11 year olds identify playing outside (49%) as the most important activity they want their child to do this summer. Reading books (17%) takes second place, followed by: relax and take it easy (13%), improve athletic skills (10%), travel (4%), work at a summer job (1%), and other activities (6%).” If forced to choose, I would also rank playing outside #1 and reading #2; I was lucky enough to do both pretty much every day as a kid. But reality settles in when we look at how kids are actually spending their time: “Parents of 5-11 year olds report that their child spent an average of 5.9 hours per week reading books last summer. This is lower than the time spent playing outdoors (16.7 hours), watching TV (10.8 hours), or playing video games (6.6 hours).” There’s a curmudgeonly voice in my head wondering how many of those outdoor hours were spent like this:

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“Playing outside” courtesy of Shutterstock.

Six hours a week is definitely not enough time reading. Sadly, I think it shows how few children are finding books they love and having that magical experience of being absorbed in another world. With the right book, six hours a day doesn’t feel like enough. But according to the survey, I’m in the minority here: “Nearly six in ten parents of children age 5-11 say their child does just the right amount of reading during the summer (59%).”

But wait; it gets worse. There’s a 7% gap in what parents most want their sons and daughters to do over the summer. The number jumped out at me because 7% is the spread between female and male college degree attainment (i.e., in 2013, among 25- to 29-year-olds, 37% of females but only 30% of males had a bachelor’s). In this survey of parents, 7% is the pro-reading bias of parents for daughters (i.e., 21% of parents said reading was the most important activity for their daughters, but only 14% said as much for their sons). Coincidence? Only kinda sorta. There are stark differences in girls’ and boys’ summer activities: “Girls … spent an average of 6.6 hours per week reading books last summer, significantly higher than the average time spent by boys (5.2 hours). By contrast, boys spent an average of 8.0 hours per week playing video games last summer, compared to just 5.2 hours among girls.”

In discussions of the summer slide, most emphasis seems to be on the disparities between more- and less-advantaged children. That emphasis is necessary: while advantaged children tend to make gains in reading each summer, disadvantaged children tend to fall behind. Research shows these disparities to be due not just to differences in parenting, but also differences in the libraries and book stores available in different communities. What this parent survey shows is a need to also emphasize disparities between boys and girls. Hour after hour, summer after summer, boys are falling behind.

In Memoriam

by Lisa Hansel
May 21st, 2014

Memorial Day weekend is my favorite few days of the year. I surround myself with friends and family, and I’ve got the whole summer ahead. But even though I gladly partake in typical beer and burger festivities, there are always quiet moments when I wish more of us—including me—devoted more of our holiday to remembering. Remembering is a form of honoring, and that is the very least that those who have given everything to our nation deserve.

Last week I described Core Knowledge as education for liberation, a P–8 extension of the liberal arts idea. With a Core Knowledge education, one of the many wonderful things a person can choose to do is remember. Because I remember the sacrifices of American service members, I smile nonstop through Memorial Day weekend. I smile knowing that our founders (all of them, not just the Founding Fathers) hung together, not apart. I smile for the Union, which nudged our nation closer to its ideals.  For those who defeated tyranny and dictatorship. For those who died trying to bring the freedoms we take for granted to others. I smile when I think of what could be, but for today’s service members; you’ll see me grinning when I’m stuck in traffic to honor those who enable me, a woman, to drive.

If I’m not smiling, it’s because I’m worried about all the young people who are not getting a knowledge-filled, liberal arts education. What does Memorial Day mean to them? I’m sure most youth have a general understanding, but is that enough? Not for me. To honor soldiers’ sacrifices, we must remember the details of what they were fighting for, why, where, under what conditions, against what odds. Research shows that most of our youth do not know these things. On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress in U.S. History, 55% of 12th graders scored below basic. Lest you think that’s a high bar, here’s now the basic level is described:

Twelfth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to identify the significance of many people, places, events, dates, ideas, and documents in U.S. history. They should also recognize the importance of unity and diversity in the social and cultural history of the United States and have an awareness of America’s changing relationships with the rest of the world. They should have a sense of continuity and change in history and be able to relate relevant experience from the past to their understanding of contemporary issues. They should recognize that history is subject to interpretation and should understand the role of evidence in making a historical argument.

That most students—even as they are becoming eligible to vote, be jurors, and join our armed forces—are not performing at this level is shameful.

 

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Gettysburg national cemetery courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Common Core standards for English language arts and literacy are designed to diminish such ignorance. But they call for greater knowledge for the sake of increasing reading comprehension, not for the sake of remembering; a close reading of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address won’t suffice. A more reasonable place to turn is social studies standards. Sadly, the hodgepodge of documents I find (including a damning review of state standards, a proprietary set of national standards, and a new inquiry framework) only shows me why students know so little history. Inquiring may or may not result in learning. The quality of the questions and the rigor of the responses both matter.

Core Knowledge students know that a “house divided against itself cannot stand” (Sequence p. 134). They know what it means to make the world “safe for democracy” (Sequence p. 180). They know about a particular “day that will live in infamy” (Sequence p. 184). They know why we celebrate Memorial Day. And that makes me smile too.

 

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.