Knowledge For Literacy

by Guest Blogger
May 18th, 2015

By Marilyn Jager Adams

Marilyn Jager Adams, a visiting scholar in the Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Department of Brown University, is internationally regarded for her research and applied work in cognition and education, including the seminal text Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. This post, which originally appeared on the Shanker Blogis adapted from Literacy Ladders, an anthology of articles on early childhood literacy learning.

Liteacy Ladders Cover

The very purpose and promise of schooling is to prepare students for responsible adult lives—to be civically minded and informed, to pursue higher education, and to find gainful work that allows them to grow and contribute to society. To accomplish this, students must be given ample support and practice in reading, interpreting, and writing about texts as complex as those that characterize life beyond high school. But here lies our great dilemma. Increasing the sophistication of assigned texts, all by itself, is unlikely to do much good. After all, we know that many students are unable to understand such rigorous texts, and nobody learns from texts that they cannot understand.

What this means is that we, as educators, need figure out how to help raise our students’ language and literacy skills to levels that enable them to understand and gain from complex texts. Working with the Albert Shanker Institute, the American Federation of Teachers, and Core Knowledge Foundation, I recently helped produce an anthology of research essays — Literacy Ladders — that addresses this challenge. Below are a couple of the key takeaways.

Comprehension Depends on Knowledge

The overarching theme of these essays is that if we wish to advance our students’ literacy, we must devote ourselves to increasing the breadth and depth of their domain knowledge.

Through language, novel concepts are communicated in the form of novel combinations of familiar concepts. That is, new concepts and the meanings of new words can be verbally explained only in terms of known words. Sometimes a new word can be adequately explained by comparing and contrasting it with familiar concepts (e.g., a mayfly looks like a giant mosquito but it is harmless). Otherwise, we must define the word by decomposing it into familiar concepts and then piecing together the whole. Either way, the usefulness of the effort depends on the familiarity of the supporting concepts we offer.

Yet the role of prior knowledge runs far deeper. The core definition of a word is only a tiny fragment of the meaning that makes it useful in understanding language. Neuroimaging confirms that the full meaning of a familiar word extends broadly through the mind, including associations to every trace that your experience with that word or its concept has left in your memory. For instance, your full knowledge of the word “apple” extends to the traces in your memory of the many apples in your life and how they have looked, felt, tasted, smelled, or sounded (e.g., when you bit into, dropped, or sliced them); of where you were and what else and who else was there with each apple; of picking apples, peeling apples, and bobbing for apples; of cider, apple pie, caramel apples, and Waldorf salads; of apple trees, teachers’ apples, and poison apples; of “rotten apples,” “apple-cheeked,” “apple a day,” and the “Big Apple;” of Adam and Eve, William Tell, George Washington, Steve Jobs, the Beatles, and so on. The more strongly or frequently any such association has been tied to the apples in your life, the more strongly it dominates your overall concept of an apple. But all of your experiences, be they direct or linguistic, are there — waiting to be activated and used in making sense of “apple” the next time you see or hear the word.

When you encounter “apple” in conversation or text, it will automatically activate its entire, extended complex of associations in your mind, and the same thing happens when you encounter each successive word in the sentence. As the associations tied to each ensuing word in the sentence become activated, subsets of knowledge from different words that overlap effectively become “superactivated.”*

Alternatively, consider what happens if — whether due to vocabulary or reading difficulties — you cannot recognize a word at all. What you lose is not just the meaning of that particular word, but also the work it was supposed to do in providing context and precise meanings for the other words around it. In between — to the extent that you recognize the word but have scant knowledge of its meaning and usage — your understanding is commensurately impoverished.

In other words, knowledge is the medium of understanding and therefore of reading with understanding.

Topical Units Can Help

Research demonstrates that, for comprehension, relevant knowledge is even more important than general reading ability. When high- and low-knowledge groups are divided into good and poor readers, those with little knowledge relevant to the text at hand perform relatively poorly, regardless of how well they read in general. In contrast — and this is important — the performance of the poor readers with higher background knowledge is generally better than that of the good readers with less background knowledge, and nearly as good as the good readers with lots of background knowledge.

Prior knowledge about a topic is like mental velcro. The relevant knowledge gives the words of the text places to stick and make sense, thereby supporting comprehension and propelling the reading process forward. In one study, scientists monitored readers’ eye movements while reading about topics that were more versus less familiar to them. Given texts about less familiar topics, people’s reading slowed down and the progress of their eye movements was marked with more pausing and rereading. In other words, not only do readers with less topic-relevant background knowledge gain less from reading about that topic, less-knowledgeable readers must also expend more time and effort to arrive at what limited understanding they do gain.**

What does information have to do with text complexity? They are closely related in two important ways. On one hand, texts that are more complex in vocabulary and syntax also tend to be more presumptuous of readers’ background knowledge. On the other, texts that strive to present more precise argument or more specific information on a topic are unavoidably more complex in vocabulary and syntax. In order for students to become comfortable and competent with these sorts of texts, they must first develop a supportive understanding of the broader topic under discussion. And that’s where topical units come in.

In a topical reading unit, all texts are about some aspect of a single main concept. Topical readings provide a natural and highly productive way of revisiting and extending learning. Across readings, as the books build interlaced networks of knowledge, the similarities, contrasts, and usages of the words gain clarity. In tandem, the stories gain plot and excitement, and the informational texts gain structure and provoke wonder. Further, as the knowledge network is enriched, the mind is ever better prepared to understand the language of each new sentence.***

The deeper domain knowledge that topical units help students acquire is of inestimable importance in itself, but topical units also bring a number of other benefits. Direct benefits include increases in reading fluency, accelerated vocabulary growth, and improvements in the spelling, style, organization, and ideas in students’ writing. Because topical units offer a means of scaffolding texts, they allow students to rapidly work their way up to engage productively with texts that would otherwise be beyond their reach. In turn, experience in understanding more sophisticated texts brings additional benefits. For example, an expert oceanographer can be expected to penetrate an advanced text in oceanography with ease. However, people who have engaged deeply with complex information in any scientific field —  experts in biogenetics, mineralogy, physics, or marine biology, for example — could be expected to be able to understand the same text far better than a person without any specialized knowledge (even if with significantly more effort than the oceanographer). The advantage of the oceanographer is due to the fact that knowledge is domain specific.****

The advantage of the other well-read scientists is due to the fact that the modes of thought and analysis that deep knowledge affords are part of the literate mind and can be applied across known andunknown domains.

Can advanced texts really be made accessible to less proficient readers in this way? Yes. As a concrete example, no text on dinosaurs would get through a readability formula for second-graders. However, having built up their vocabulary and domain knowledge in an area of interest, many second-graders are able to read and understand remarkably sophisticated texts about dinosaurs with great satisfaction. Gradually and seamlessly, students build the knowledge networks that prepare them to tackle texts of increasingly greater depth and complexity.

__________

* For an educator-friendly review of the neural connections from letters to meaning, see: M. J. Adams, “The Relation between Alphabetic Basics, Word Recognition and Reading,” in What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction, 4th edition, eds. S. J. Samuels and A. E. Farstrup (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2011), 4–24.

** For a summary of the studies in the preceding two paragraphs, see Willingham’s “How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking.” p. 42 in Literacy Ladders.

*** Be warned: Some reading programs mistake what might better be called “thematic units” for topical units. As a quick rule of thumb, if it is a topical unit, then the word or words naming the same core concept should appear frequently in every text. Note: Superficial treatments and texts about different concepts labeled with the same word don’t count.

**** E. D. Hirsch, “Beyond Comprehension: We Have yet to Adopt a Common Core Curriculum that Builds Knowledge Grade by Grade–But We Need To,” p. 54 in the Literacy Ladders.

A Successful Formula: Shared Curriculum + Shared Responsibility

by Lisa Hansel
May 12th, 2015

A shorter version of this post originally appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Like pretty much everyone who is passionate about closing the achievement gap, I’m interested in Success Academies. I’ve read Eva Moskowitz’s book, Mission Possible: How the Secrets of the Success Academies Can Work in Any School, and watched the videos that come with it. But I’m still not sure what to think. The extraordinary results might be due to creaming motivated families or not backfilling after the early grades or too much test prep. These questions will likely be answered over the next several years.

Still, it seems clear that lots of students are getting a good education in Success Academies. If there were no test prep (or any manipulations of the student body), then I think the test scores would still be impressive, if not extraordinary.

So, what are they doing? Charles Sahm’s recent article in Education Next provides some answers. Having visited four Success Academies and interviewed staff, supporters, and critics, he presents a richer picture of the schools than previous accounts.

Without detracting from the complex array of supports needed to attain strong results, I think two of Success Academies’ focal points anchor the whole endeavor: a shared curriculum and a shared responsibility for teaching quality. Sahm reaches a very similar conclusion, “What separates Success, in my opinion, is a laser focus on what is being taught, and how.” But I’d like to highlight a small difference that, in my opinion, has a huge impact. It’s the sharing.

Curriculum itself matters, of course, shared or not. And Success Academies are driven to improve what they teach. I was overjoyed to read that they find Core Knowledge helpful:

This year, Success is piloting two additional two-week “mini Core Knowledge” project-based learning units. “We love [Core Knowledge founder] E. D. Hirsch,” says Michele Caracappa, Success’s director of literacy.

I hope that this endorsement gets more reformers thinking about content-specific, rich, cumulative curriculum. School choice and teacher evaluation might be sexier topics, but curriculum is a primary factor in opportunity to learn. Perhaps that fact that New York City’s top two charter networks look to E. D. Hirsch will get them thinking. As Sahm writes:

New York’s second-highest performing charter network, the seven Icahn schools in the Bronx, uses the content-rich Core Knowledge ELA curriculum, which is well aligned with the Common Core—further evidence that curriculum counts.

Many teachers outside these charter networks see the value of their school having a strong curriculum; Sahm quotes one, who says “What each school needs is what Success has: a team of people whose primary job is to create a high-quality curriculum for their own school.”

That would be a step forward for the vast majority of schools. It worked well for PS 124, a neighborhood school in Queens that greatly increased student achievement over 15 years under the leadership of Valarie Lewis. Lewis, who is now a Core Knowledge Fellow, implemented the Core Knowledge Sequence starting in 1999. By 2007, she won a Dispelling the Myth Award from the Education Trust. To get there, she made tough choices, including forgoing two assistant principals to fund extra learning time. In 2014, when Lewis retired, PS 124’s economically disadvantaged students significantly outperformed the city; their percentage proficient was 8 points higher in reading and math. But I am convinced that PS 124 could have done even better if it had the support of a network of schools all using the same curriculum.

When several schools work together on a shared curriculum, great benefits become possible. Sahm offers a powerful example:

Shortly before a lesson is taught across the network, an experienced teacher delivers (and video-records) the lesson early to her students, and shares the recording with other teachers.

Here’s the result:

All the teachers I spoke with agree that Success prepares its teachers well. “You know the material at such a high level that it gives you a real confidence in the classroom,” one teacher stated.

And the kicker:

Even critical former teachers credited the network with having improved their craft.

Which brings me to the other focal point: shared responsibility for teaching quality. Once you have a shared curriculum, you have a platform for helping teachers improve. You have a reasonable basis for comparing performance and figuring out what’s more and less effective. Comparing one teacher’s lesson on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to another’s on Esperanza Rising really is comparing apples to oranges. In contrast, shared curriculum leads to shared knowledge and shared pedagogical content knowledge.

Of course, the curriculum alone does not do this; the system has to believe in shared responsibility for teaching quality. Sahm quotes Moskowitz as saying, “It really is the level of preparation of the teacher and the teacher really understanding the book, the poem, the read-aloud…how much feedback the teacher gets.” Novice teachers and principals are placed in apprenticeship-type positions and given lots of time and feedback to hone their craft. Expert teachers and leaders are responsible for supporting others.

In all, Sahm has given us a valuable look inside Success Academies. He remains duly skeptical, but impressed. The one spot where I think he stumbles is in wondering, “If tests are high quality and well aligned with a high-quality curriculum, is ‘teaching to the test’ necessarily bad?” He continues:

I visited a 4th-grade English class where a boy was asked to identify the main idea from a short story. He started to retell the story. The teacher corrected him, and, with gentle prodding, he identified the author’s central point. Some might call that “test prep” because there are main-idea questions on the state exam. But it’s also a skill that’ll make that boy a better reader and communicator.

The problem is that the test is not aligned to the curriculum. To be aligned, the test would have to sample the knowledge in the curriculum, not just the skills. In math, the tests are aligned—the Common Core standards clearly state what math knowledge and skills students must acquire each year, and the tests cover both. But in language arts and literacy, the Common Core standards only state the skills—they do not say what knowledge students must acquire. Finding the main idea is a skill—and it depends on having knowledge of the topic in the text.

The fact that the actual knowledge needed for the reading tests is unpredictable is the reason why Success Academies get much better results in math than in reading. In math, it is possible to fully prepare for the test by teaching all of the required knowledge and skills. But in reading, the best one can do is to have students practice the skills while acquiring broad knowledge. The broader the students’ knowledge, the higher the odds that they’ll have the knowledge needed for whatever passages are on the test. This is why there is such a strong correlation between reading scores and socioeconomic status. Kids with better-educated parents tend to have broader knowledge.

According to Sahm, Success Academies have a broad, rich, specific, shared curriculum. Their reading achievement leads me to believe that’s true. And, their professed love of E. D. Hirsch is a good sign too! Which leaves just one question: Will the Success Academy network release its curriculum? The Core Knowledge Sequence and Core Knowledge Language Arts are online for free. From the beginning, Hirsch has hoped for another Sequence—another specific, rich, broad approach to educating children. Success Academies seem to have it, so I hope they’ll share.

From Dull to Vibrant: How Core Knowledge Provided an Excellent Platform for Student Writing

by Guest Blogger
April 30th, 2015

By Debbie Reynolds

Debbie Reynolds has been teaching for over ten years in grades K-2; she currently teaches second grade at Diedrichsen Elementary School in Sparks, Nevada. Diedrichsen is located in a middle- to lower-socioeconomic neighborhood, with 44% of students being of low-SES background. The student exemplars presented in this article are from a student that is in the lower 30% of Reynolds’s class. All of her students, except two special education students, are able to accomplish these writing tasks with very similar outcomes.

Not long ago, I dreaded my second grade students’ writing. I agonized over helping them have something meaningful to say, elaborating on their ideas, and adding information and details. Despite my best efforts, their writings were often flat, repetitive, and rigid.

Today, I truly look forward to my students’ writing activities—especially their final products.

Here are three excerpts from a recent assignment in which my students wrote as if they were participants in early America’s Westward Expansion:

My family and I are heading to San Francisco. I am getting there on the Oregon Trail in a wagon. I am going so I can mine some gold and have a better life.

We faced many hardships on our journey. We sometimes broke a wheel going across the dirt. We faced the cold at night. We faced the heat in the desert. We faced danger in the Snake River. We faced ruts in the dirt on the trail.

We felt tired from the long trip and can’t wait to meet new people.

My students’ writing changed when I began teaching Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA). At first, I did not see the potential for their writing, but as I tried different strategies and organizational tools, their writing transformed, becoming reflective and thorough. When students are given an opportunity to build knowledge and a way to organize what they’ve learned, their writing thrives. They are motivated to share their newly formed thoughts and ideas. Having taught second grade for six years, I’ve found some of their finished projects quite amazing.

In my class, we use a four-step process to produce great writing:

1. Build Background Knowledge. First, I begin our writing projects by building my students’ knowledge and vocabulary through listening to and discussing CKLA’s read-alouds. The read-alouds are grouped by topic; each topic takes two to three weeks and has ten or so read-alouds. My students have learned about fascinating domains like Greek Myths, Cycles in Nature, and Immigration. At the conclusion of each read-aloud, my students answer comprehension questions and discuss key details from the story with their peers, as CKLA suggests. We use this time to clarify misconceptions and deepen understanding. Listening and speaking about the content really helps them gain knowledge and grasp concepts.

2. Transition Oral to Written: Students then participate in some sort of writing exercise, such as whole group or individual brainstorming to list key ideas and details, individual or group note-taking, summarizing, or illustrating a scene or idea—anything that helps them take the content they’ve heard and write it out. This helps them solidify their understanding. We do this with almost every read-aloud. Sometimes it’s independent, sometimes it’s in small cooperative groups, and sometimes it’s whole group.

3. Organize Information: Once we finished all or most of the read-alouds for a given topic, I provide my students with a graphic organizer to help them organize and build their writing piece. Throughout CKLA’s domains, we use a variety of different forms of writing such as narrative, informational, argumentative/opinion, reflective, or a friendly letter.

4. Publish: Once the graphic organized is filled out, they begin a rough draft. What they bring to each part of their story is truly amazing and individualized. Although you will see some of the same ideas, no two stories are alike. They each carry their own voice and their own selection of details. After completing a draft, they edit their writing independently for mechanics and grammar, and have a peer edit it for a second time. After self-editing and peer-editing is complete, I conference with them individually to offer ideas for revisions and sometimes further editing. At long last, they rewrite their rough draft into a final copy and finish with an illustration.

For the domain on Westward Expansion, which has nine read-alouds, I chose to use the CKLA activity of creating quilt squares and ultimately a final quilt. This engaged the students in writing every day about key ideas. After each read-aloud, I began by having them brainstorm a list of key ideas and details from the read-aloud. Then they filled in their individual quilt square template (which is provided in the CKLA Westward Expansion Anthology’s workbook pages).

DR8

Here’s a sample from one of my students. The front of the quilt square has key details and phrases, as well as an illustration of the story.

DR2

The back of the quilt square has a summary of the story’s main ideas and details.

DR1

Once they are assembled, student’s individual quilt squares help them create a writing piece that conceptualizes their leaning.

DR4

Here is the final quilt that I made alongside my students. (It’s much easier to read because I did mine in black ink instead of pencil.) As they completed their squares, I did the same. We enjoyed sharing our pieces as we completed them. Once all squares were completed, I put my quilt together as an example for them to follow. We glued them onto a 24” X 24” colored piece of chart paper, and we talked about making a 3 X 3 array on each side being careful to line up the right fronts and backs.

DR6

DR5

For this particular domain on Westward Expansion, I chose to have them write a narrative piece about traveling west with their families and what they may encounter on their journey.  The graphic organizer I used, shown below, breaks down each part of their story into smaller pieces, so that students are not overwhelmed by the breadth of the information they need to cover or hindered in trying to organize all of it. I give my students one prompt and topic sentence a day to work on from “sloppy copy” to final copy. The activity takes about 30-45 minutes a day as I have them use their new knowledge (and often background knowledge developed in prior domains) to develop each part of the story. Since they’ve also been writing and summarizing information every day on the same topic, they have a nice repertoire of information to pull from.

DR Directions for journey west Narrative

 

Voilà! A beautiful and meaningful masterpiece…written by a second grader!

DRS1

DRS2

 

DRS4

DRS3

DRS5

An appraisal of Core Knowledge Language Arts

by Guest Blogger
April 21st, 2015

By Ilene Shafran

Ilene Shafran is a 2nd-grade teacher at PS 34 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This appraisal was originally published as a Teacher to Teacher column in the New York Teacher, the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers, and was posted on the UFT website. The opinion expressed in the column is the author’s own and should not be construed as an endorsement by the union.

As a 24-year veteran of teaching in elementary school, I have seen literacy programs come and go. Each new program that claims to be “Common Core-aligned” always seems to fall short of experienced teachers’ expectations. So when I finally had the opportunity to try out and pilot a Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum that I felt had potential, I jumped at the chance.

The program, which is called Core Knowledge Language Arts, is the recommended New York State ELA curriculum for elementary schools. All the materials are available on the EngageNY website. I admit that when you first look at this program, it seems overwhelming and daunting. But I have found that the advantages of getting to know this curriculum on an intimate level far outweigh the risks of being lost in a sea of learning objectives.

Any longtime teacher will tell you that there is no magic, all-encompassing curriculum that is perfect right out of the box. As educators, we know that ELA curriculum needs to be adapted to meet the needs and demands of our students, whether they are struggling readers or high-achieving students. Good teaching means we adapt and differentiate the best that we can with the resources we have available to us.

When I piloted Core Knowledge Language Arts at my school last year, I was generally familiar with the components and basic premise of this program from my work as a New York City Common Core Fellows member, who for two years evaluated different types of Common Core-aligned curriculum options.

The program has two main components: First, there are 10 to 12 domains, or units, depending on the grade, that are heavily content-based (in social studies, history and science) and focus on vast academic vocabulary, background knowledge, critical thinking skills and class discussions. Then, there is a second component that focuses on reading skills, allowing teachers to meet reading foundational standards. Students have their own readers and skill workbooks to practice these important skills. The program is designed to meet students where they are and help them grow as readers.

So far, teachers at my school see our students engaged in the content as well as the vocabulary. Students participate in turn-and-talk discussions about real-world events and form opinions about real-world learning.

There are a few challenges with the program. Each lesson begins with a list of core content objectives as well as language arts objectives. Teacher teams need to come together and make instructional decisions on which ones to focus on in the classroom. Collaboration and sharing of ideas are essential for getting through these extensive lesson plans. Individual teachers also need to determine the needs of their students and choose the objectives that will be most effective in meeting their needs.

The lessons are rigorous, and questioning is extensive. Lessons are delivered in 60-minute blocks of time (60 minutes for listening and learning and 60 minutes for skills). In addition, teachers need to plan for independent reading and guided reading times. There is a lot of oral discussion, which is good for developing critical thinking and lends itself well to developing writing activities; however, the writing extensions included in the daily lessons are hit-or-miss. Some activities have perfect writing activities and some lack writing tie-ins altogether, so teachers will need to develop their own writing activities.

The listening-and-learning strand is primarily focused on teacher read-aloud and questioning, which means teachers will need to develop more interactive discussion through accountable talk. It is always a challenge to engage all of our students in discussions. This program lends itself to think/pair/share discussions with rich questioning and discussion topics.

Because of the large volume of vocabulary taught in each lesson, teachers also need to provide additional instructional opportunities to reinforce the new vocabulary. The skills strand is designed to meet students at their current reading level and support their growth throughout the school year.

In my 2nd-grade classroom, my students are eager to learn and discuss some grown-up topics thanks to this curriculum. It is allowing me and my fellow teachers to meet the demands of the Common Core — not in terms of testing, but in terms of meeting the high expectations we have for all of our students.

Reading Comprehension: There’s No Workaround for Knowledge

by Guest Blogger
April 13th, 2015

By Greg Ashman

Greg Ashman is a teacher in Australia. Supported by his school (but not necessarily representing its views), he has developed a love of educational research. Ashman is  now pursuing a PhD. This post originally appeared on his blog, Filling the Pail.

To mark the recent cricket world cup, I thought it might be a good idea to quote a section from a BBC report on the semi-final match between Australia and India:

“…Australia failed to fully capitalise on the second-wicket stand of 182 between Smith and Finch, as Michael Clarke’s men were stunted by the off-breaks of Ravichandran Ashwin and a curious collective failure against back-of-a-length bowling.”

If you are reading this then you are probably an educated person. I suspect that you can decode all of the words in that quote with ease. However, I am uncertain as to whether you will have comprehended it. This will depend, I suggest, on how much you know about cricket.

What if you read through it slowly, asking yourself questions about the quote as you go along? If you struggled with the quote then try this. Does it help?

shutterstock_59517607

Watching a match or reading about it, knowledge is essential to comprehension (cricket photo courtesy of Shutterstock). 

Strategies such as self-questioning do clearly lead to greater comprehension. There is little doubt about this. And interestingly, the most effective way to teach such strategies appears to be with explicit instruction, even if they do seems to resolve down to just two strategies; questioning and summarising. However, if you don’t know what an “off-break” is then you may still struggle with the cricket quote, regardless of how many times you stop to ask yourself questions.

This might not matter a great deal. I am sure that many people pass through life knowing little of cricket and caring even less. But what if the passage was about a political situation; one that affected the reader? Perhaps the reader, if well-informed, would want to use her democratic rights to protest. Yet when she reads the relevant report in the New York Times, on the BBC website or after following a Twitter link, she finds that she cannot comprehend the relevant texts because they are full of the equivalents of ‘off-breaks’ and ‘back-of-a-length’ bowling.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Instead of simply teaching comprehension strategies, we could also ensure that students leave school in possession of the bodies of knowledge that are likely to be needed to understand common sources of information; knowledge that is historical, political, scientific and literary. This is the argument of E. D. Hirsch. It is difficult to fault scientifically or logically; background knowledge clearly does aid comprehension.

Hirsch goes further. He argues that children from the most deprived backgrounds are the ones who are most likely to move schools frequently. These children will suffer if they end up learning about the Ancient Egyptians three times but never hear of Apartheid. And so this leads to the logic of a common curriculum, shared across schools; not a particularly radical notion in those countries with a national curriculum like the UK or Australia. Unfortunately, the idea has created the opportunity for people to misunderstand Hirsch. The charge is that he is trying to impose his view of a white, middle-class, male, European, Judeo-Christian culture on diverse groups of people.

This is far from Hirsch’s aim. He references the New York Times and asks what knowledge is required in order to comprehend it. So Hirsch takes an empirical line. If you have a beef with anyone for trying to define culture then you need to take it up with the New York Times or BBC journalists. Hirsch is not the guilty party.

But what of relevance?

Is it appropriate to teach children from diverse backgrounds about Shakespeare? He is dead, white, male and European. Perhaps a different playwright might be more contemporary and relevant? Perhaps. But if the newspapers are full of inferences and allusions that require a passing familiarity with Shakespeare then these students will be disadvantaged. And such knowledge may serve the revolutionary and the subversive well. As Sun Tzu advises us; know your enemies and know yourself.

However, I think I can sympathise with Hirsch’s critics. It seems unfair that the inequities of the past would define what we teach our students today. Teachers tend to be idealists, after all. Perhaps we can get around the requirement for background knowledge if we teach transferable comprehensions strategies. This way, when our students don’t understand a text they can apply one of these strategies and thus understand it. We would then be free to reset the clock and select content that best suited our personal views about what is most relevant to our students. We would be free from the tyranny of culture as it actually exists.

And reading comprehension strategies are promising in this regard. They clearly have some effect. There is strong evidence for this.

Although they also seem a bit dull. Would your students rather learn about the Ancient Egyptians or a strategy for asking themselves questions whilst reading prose? And what if reading scores don’t improve much? Then we’ll need more of this strategy instruction and less of other things; music or art or science.

This would be an error. It seems that instruction in reading comprehension strategies provides a boost but it is a limited one. A short course will do as much good as a long one and so these strategies probably shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the curriculum. Rather, they should be perhaps revisited from time-to-time in the context of something else; a unit on government, perhaps.

The reality is that we cannot develop a workaround for background knowledge. Perhaps we need to embrace this reality and start to celebrate the beauty that lies in knowing about our world. This might have the added benefit of raising reading comprehension levels.

 

Nothing in Common

by Lisa Hansel
February 24th, 2015

According to a recent survey, fifty-five percent of Americans believe that the Common Core standards address “sex education, evolution, global warming and the American Revolution.” Pro or con, left-leaning or right-leaning, misperceptions were widespread. Sadly, the problem isn’t merely lack of information—it’s misinformation: there were more mistaken beliefs about what’s in the Common Core among those who say they are informed about the standards than those who say they are not.

I’m tempted to dismiss these results as yet another sad-but-funny commentary on American politics. We’ve got more passion than reason, but perhaps that’s the human condition.

And yet, I can’t dismiss them. I think they are a symptom of a systemic problem in education: We talk past each other. Pretty much nothing in education is well defined. Take “standards” and “curriculum.” Some people use them as synonyms; others (like me) see a huge gulf between the two (e.g., ELA standards rarely specify what to teach). We’ve got lots of jargon, but very little to help us understand each other. Coleridge captured our predicament: “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a few opportunities to push past that jargon in long, detailed conversations with educators. Educators are so busy that such conversations are rare; I feel fortunate to have spent hours speaking with educators in California, Texas, and Georgia. Speaking with them essentially back to back, one thing became clear: each one had a different concept of what teaching is. They all used the same jargon, but fundamentally, what they meant by “teaching” was very different—and had very different implications for their students.

For one teacher, to “teach” a topic or skill just meant to cover it. She hadn’t considered the impact on the students. (I think this notion of teaching is pretty unusual these days—it has been many years since I last encountered it.)

Another teacher focused on students’ comprehension. He had “taught” only if his students understood all the essential concepts in the lesson. My best guess is that this notion of teaching is fairly widespread. If students don’t even grasp the lesson, most teachers will rethink their approach and try again. That sounds pretty good, but is it enough? Is comprehension the same thing as learning? Unfortunately, no.

Only one teacher conceived of “teaching” as a variety of activities that are intentionally designed for students to get something new into their long-term memories. This, to me, should be the definition of teaching. Likewise, the definition of learning should be adding something to your long-term memory.

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Is it really useful to have many different ideas of what teaching is? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Even though plenty of teachers will say long-term retention is a goal, much of the instruction I’ve seen seems designed mainly for comprehension, not retention. Wanting to be sure students understand a text, for example, a teacher will lead a really interesting, well-planned, text-based discussion. So far, so good. But then, seeing that the students got it, the teacher moves on. New text, new topic, new concept to comprehend.

The teacher I spoke with who focuses on long-term memory argued that most teachers move on way too soon (usually because they feel like they have to). Comprehension is important, but not sufficient to support future learning. She had realized this after many years in the classroom, but there’s actually a body of research on it. Psychology professor Daniel Willingham has written about the difference between familiarity and recollection; it seems to me that familiarity is what you get is you teach for comprehension but move on before ensuring retention. Here’s Willingham in American Educator:

Psychologists distinguish between familiarity and recollection. Familiarity is the knowledge of having seen or otherwise experienced some stimulus before, but having little information associated with it in your memory. Recollection, on the other hand, is characterized by richer associations. For example, a young student might be familiar with George Washington (he knows he was a President and maybe that there’s a holiday named after him), whereas an older student could probably recollect a substantial narrative about him….

Although familiarity and recollection are different, an insidious effect of familiarity is that it can give you the feeling that you know something when you really don’t.

This “insidious effect” is something all teachers and students should know about. I’ll take a closer look at teaching for retention in my next post.

While I deeply appreciate the time all of these teachers gave me, my only regret is that we could not all speak at once. I’d love to hear how the “coverage” and “comprehension” teachers would react to the “retention” teacher. Perhaps, if teachers were given time to collaborate within and across schools (just as other professionals have time to engage each other), then eventually the education field would have common understandings and a shared path to improvement.

“Et tu, Mrs. McCarthy?”

by Guest Blogger
January 22nd, 2015

By Bridgit McCarthy

Bridgit McCarthy teaches third grade at New Dimensions, a public charter school in Morganton, North Carolina.

Today in social studies, we assassinated Julius Caesar!

My students’ faces registered shock, sadness, and a sprinkling of outrage, all nicely mixed with understanding.

“How mean!  Why would anyone kill their ally? I bet his wife feels sad.”

“JC helped get France for them—except it was, you know, Gaul back then. Plus, his rules helped the plebeians get more stuff from the laws.”

These comments show comprehension and recall—a good start. Here’s one of the most telling comments from our class discussion; notice how it combines historical knowledge and understanding with a bit of empathy.

”Well, it did kinda seem like he wanted to be a king—and the Romans said no way to kings waaaay back—like in last week’s … lesson.”

These quotes demonstrate comprehension of rigorous content and use of sophisticated vocabulary. They came from third graders.

Yes, the words “stuff” to describe political change, and “sad” to describe a distraught wife may smack of 8 and 9 year olds and, but “plebeians” and “ally”? I would have expected such vocabulary from the middle school students I used to teach. This is my first year teaching third grade; I’ve been delighted to see how eager younger students are to dig into history and science content.

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Caesar courtesy of Shutterstock.

The assassination and subsequent discussion came about two-thirds of the way through our Core Knowledge Language Arts unit on ancient Rome. That unit takes about three weeks, starting with the basic question “What Is Rome?” and then introducing students to legends and mythology, daily life in Rome, and major wars and leaders. It ends with Rome’s lasting contributions.

I am thrilled with what students are saying and writing as we progress. While I always have high expectations in my classroom, I was a bit nervous when we started the ancient Rome unit. The objectives are complex, the vocabulary is challenging. The content itself includes a great deal of geography and culture, plenty of politics, and an assumption that Core Knowledge kids already knew quite a bit about ancient Greece.

The opportunity to check and refresh some of that knowledge of Greece was an early order of business. In CKLA, second graders spend several weeks on ancient Greece with two back-to-back units: The Ancient Greek Civilization and Greek Myths. In the third-grade unit on Rome, a review of the Greek gods and goddesses was the introduction to a lesson on their Roman counterparts. Seventeen of my twenty students attended second grade at New Dimensions, and sixteen attended first (which has a unit on Early World Civilizations), so I was curious to see how much they would remember.

In theory, recall of these facts of Greece ought to come fairly easily. According to one student, they spent “forever” on ancient Greece—and they loved it. In our school, teachers combined the CKLA materials and additional teacher-created materials to really immerse students.

As a result, my third graders had no problems here. Building on their existing knowledge of other cultures’ gods and goddesses made the new material easier to access. I also didn’t have to “teach” polytheism because the very idea that people had separate deities for different aspects of their lives was old hat to them, having explored it in first grade with Mesopotamia and Egypt and again in second with ancient Greece. The three students who didn’t attend New Dimensions in second grade did need a little more support. I helped them do some additional reading and partnered each one with a student who has been at New Dimensions since kindergarten. Because the unit lasted a few weeks, these new students had time to catch up by learning about Greece and Rome together.

For teachers in schools without a really rich, cumulative curriculum in which the topics build off of each other, it can be hard to understand just how much children can learn in the early grades. For example, I have a good friend who teaches third grade in another school—one that does not use Core Knowledge. In a recent conversation, she shared her “word a day” way to tackle tiered vocabulary words and complained about highly scripted practice-test items that she must teach to prepare for the end-of-grade tests. I shared that my Rome unit is going well, but she worried for me: Are we covering the state standards? She meant this as a genuine professional concern, and she wondered what my students’ real “take-away” would be from our unit on Rome. I shared a little anecdote from my class, showing that my students are developing sophisticated language and useful knowledge: A student was playing a dune-buggy race car computer game in my room during indoor recess. I scoffed at its total lack of educational value. He pouted at me a bit and said, “Dang, that’s what my mom said last night! Et tu, Mrs. McCarthy?”

For Equity, for Kids, for Democracy—Let’s Create a Model District with a Well-Rounded Curriculum

by Lisa Hansel
January 15th, 2015

Last week, I shared that the Core Knowledge Foundation is seeking a courageous district to partner with. A district that will push back against pressure to teach to the test, and instead commit to a content-rich, coherent, cumulative curriculum (including art, music, civics, and all the other important things that are too often neglected) in all of its elementary schools. The response has been heart-warming; I’m having a wonderful time getting to know districts with a passion for closing the achievement gap. (If you would like to work with us, please get in touch: lhansel@coreknowledge.org.) 

This week, as we look forward to celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, I’d like to explain a little more about our dream of partnering with a district to collaboratively develop and implement a well-rounded elementary curriculum. A rich curriculum creates a magical—and empowering—childhood. From ancient civilizations to faraway galaxies, our universe offers wonders that children eagerly explore if they are given an opportunity. Too often, social inequities are blamed for the achievement gap, even as curricular inequities are overlooked. Social inequities are deep and real; they must be addressed. At the same time, schools are part of the solution—especially schools that focus on equalizing opportunity to master academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills.

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The elementary grades are perfect for introducing students to our fascinating universe. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

While Core Knowledge already works with well over 1,000 schools, some that use our materials to deepen and round out their curriculum and others that teach the full preschool through eighth-grade Sequence, we believe children would benefit even more if schools worked together. Imagine all of the elementary schools in a small district, or a coalition of schools in a larger district, co-constructing their curriculum—voluntarily. If administrators create sufficient time for teachers to collaborate, teachers’ collective wisdom grows as they share expertise and materials. Teachers’ collective impact grows too, as they now have the opportunity to support learning across several schools, not just inside their classrooms.

In far too many elementary schools, teachers are not given opportunities to work together. Two fourth-grade teachers may teach totally different content—they don’t know what the second- or third-grade teachers taught, so they can’t reliably build on what students already know. Some topics get repeated in two or more grades; other topics are never taught. Grade by grade, students study an array of different topics, leaving little for the class as a whole to build on together. In such schools, each teacher must build each lesson from scratch. It’s exhausting and inefficient. Having to plan the whole curriculum alone, teachers don’t have enough time for diagnosing and addressing individual needs. And since they often teach different topics, teachers can’t easily share their materials.

Contrast this with schools that do have a schoolwide curriculum. Students’ knowledge and skills grow predictably and reliably year to year. Teachers know what to build on, are able to share lesson plans, and can help each other refine best practices for the specific content they are teaching. The common curriculum should not be a rigid script; teachers ought to have the freedom to extend topics that their students love and pause when needed to reinforce knowledge and skills. But with an agreed upon set of topics for each grade, teachers get the benefit of working as a team—and students get the benefit of a well-rounded, coherent education.

Sounds pretty good. So good that some elementary schools have done the hard work of developing their own schoolwide curriculum.

Things can get even better when several nearby schools create a common curriculum. More teachers working together means more expertise to share. If students change schools, they will not fall behind or disrupt their peers’ learning. Because of the common curriculum, the receiving teacher will be able to get very detailed information on the student’s knowledge and skills. And if teachers change schools or a new teacher is hired, the common curriculum creates a strong foundation for excellent instruction.

But wait! What about choice? What about schools with special themes? There’s room for those. Currently, nearly 40% of schools using Core Knowledge are charters. We’d love to partner with a district that has charter and neighborhood elementary schools—and to involve all the schools that are interested in collaboratively developing a common curriculum. Likewise, we’d welcome schools with special themes.

Just as the shared curriculum should give individual teachers room to breathe, it should give schools the flexibility to customize. The shared curriculum could be designed to take two-thirds of instructional time, leaving teachers and schools ample time to pursue unique strengths and interests. In fact, once the shared curriculum is in place, teachers and schools will find they have more time for such customization. Knowing that the shared curriculum gives all children a well-rounded education in literature, history, geography, the sciences, mathematics, and the arts, educators will be able to give more attention to how they want to extend children’s learning.

Together, we can achieve Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “complete education.” Writing for Morehouse College’s Maroon Tiger in 1947, King called us to duty:

It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture…. The function of education … is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society…. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.

 

 

If Only We Had Listened…

by Lisa Hansel
July 15th, 2014

Thanks to my history-loving father-in-law, I’m holding a perfectly preserved editorial from the 1948 Washington Times-Herald—Tuesday, February 24, 1948, to be exact. It’s self-explanatory, so here goes:

More About Schools

A few days ago, we shot a short editorial under the title “Something Wrong With Education.” The piece told how the New York State Department of Education, after an exhaustive survey, had estimated the only about 65% of high school juniors can spell everyday words such as “develop,” “meant,” “athletic,” etc.

From this we inferred that something was moldy in present-day public education methods, and that the something probably wasn’t traceable to either the teachers or the children.

A couple of mornings after that editorial was printed, three mothers of primary public school children in the first and second grades visited your correspondent. There ensued what seemed to us a most interesting conversation—interesting enough to boil down to its essential here. Let’s call the ladies Mrs. A, Mrs. B, and Mrs, C.

Mrs. A: “The editorial was all right, and I only wish you’d put it at the top of the column instead of the bottom. But the trouble doesn’t start in the high schools. It starts right down in the first grade.”

Mrs. B: “Which they’re turning into kindergarten, where the children don’t learn a thing. Likewise the second.”

Mrs. C: “They call it progressive education. Humph.”

Mrs. A: “Puppets.”

Mrs. C: “Yes, puppets. Puppets they want the children to make out of carrots and things. Even have a book called ‘Puppetry in the Classroom’ or something like that.”

Mrs. B: “It has diagrams—do this and do that, with letters A-B-C to show you what to do to make a puppet. But they don’t teach the children what letters are, or what they mean, or how to read, so how can they make head or tail of the diagrams?”

Mrs. A: “There’s a rule, too, against having any letters or figures on the blackboard. They claim a child of 6 can’t grasp those things and mustn’t be bothered with them, or his co-ordination will go bad—at least I think they call it co-ordination.”

Mrs. C: “Of course the fact is that a child at that age is as curious as can be, and loves to fool with pencils, and is usually just crazy to find out how to write like grownups, how to read the papers, how to count—”

Mrs. B: “Oh, yes, about counting. They don’t teach them nowadays to learn figures and add ‘em or subtract ‘em. Oh no—they’ve got to count beads on strings, or bounce rubber balls up and down. Ant they mustn’t learn to go above number 5 for a year or two, because that would strain their brains. Humph.”…

Mrs. C: “It’s not the teachers’ fault. I’m sure of that. Plenty of them will tell you on the quiet that they think these progressive—humph—methods are terrible, and just don’t educate and never will. But they can’t say so in public, because if they did they’d lose their jobs.”

In today’s context, the part of this that most jumps out at me is the mothers’ and editors’ confidence that these poor practices and results are not the teachers’ fault. Indeed, these methods are being imposed on teachers. It’s a sad tale that I continue to hear—teachers who have to close their doors and find spare moments to bring rigor and research-based practices to their classrooms.

Like E. D. Hirsch, I find today’s blame-the-teacher rhetoric shocking and disheartening. How did we get to this point? Hirsch offers a compelling explanation:

The favored structural reforms haven’t worked very well. The new emphasis on “teacher quality” implies that the reforms haven’t worked because the teachers (rather than the reform principles themselves) are ineffective. A more reasonable interpretation is that reforms haven’t worked because on average they have done little to develop “rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

If we are to improve the education we offer all children, reformers must stop blaming teachers and start working with them. As Hirsch explains, “The single most effective way to enhance teacher effectiveness is to create a more coherent multi-year curriculum, so that teachers at each level will know what students have already been taught.” A cumulative, rigorous curriculum is not a cure-all, but it is an essential platform for teachers to work together within and across grades. Schools can choose to write their own curriculum, adopt one, adapt a few—whatever works for them, so long as the result is a content-specific, coherent, cumulative body of knowledge and skills to be learned in each grade. Such a curriculum narrows the gaps in children’s abilities, makes differentiation more doable and effective, and enables the school community to deeply understand and support each child’s year-to-year progress.

In reform circles, however, curriculum is rarely discussed. Rather than wade into the hot water of precisely what students ought to learn, most reformers tinker around the edges of the educational enterprise (which boils down to what gets taught and what gets learned). To that, I say Humph! It’s the reformers’ ideas that are ineffective—not the hardworking teachers.

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Stop blaming teachers for reformers’ faulty ideas.

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.) 

Plato for Plumbers—and 6th Graders

by Lisa Hansel
May 13th, 2014

Once, when I told a guy on a plane that I taught philosophy at a community college, he responded, “So you teach Plato to plumbers?” Yes, indeed. But I also teach Plato to nurses’ aides, soldiers, ex-cons, preschool music teachers, janitors, Sudanese refugees, prospective wind-turbine technicians, and any number of other students who feel like they need a diploma as an entry ticket to our economic carnival. As a result of my work, I’m in a unique position to reflect on the current discussion about the value of the humanities, one that seems to me to have lost its way….

The problem facing the humanities, in my view, isn’t just about the humanities. It’s about the liberal arts generally, including math, science, and economics. These form half of the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects, but if the goal of an education is simply economic advancement and technological power, those disciplines, just like the humanities, will be—and to some degree already are—subordinated to future employment and technological progress. Why shouldn’t educational institutions predominately offer classes like Business Calculus and Algebra for Nurses? Why should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history? So, what good, if any, is the study of the liberal arts, particularly subjects like philosophy?  Why, in short, should plumbers study Plato?

My answer is that we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”…

My experience of having taught at relatively elite schools, like Emory University and Oglethorpe University, as well as at schools like Kennesaw State University and Kirkwood Community College, is that there are among future plumbers as many devotees of Plato as among the future wizards of Silicon Valley, and that there are among nurses’ aides and soldiers as many important voices for our democracy as among doctors and business moguls.

Oh good. You’re hooked. Read the rest of this marvelous little article, “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers,” by Scott Samuelson over at The Atlantic. As you read, remind yourself that at its most basic, Core Knowledge is about Plato for all. To live freely, all students need the broad knowledge that frees the mind to think analytically. Core Knowledge provides a liberal arts education to the P–8 set; just as in higher education, the “goal is liberating a person from ignorance and superstition.”

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Plato courtesy of Shutterstock (and Athens).

That may be a lofty goal for the early grades, but much can be accomplished. The Core Knowledge Sequence introduces Plato in second grade. As a note to teachers explains, “The goal of studying selected topics in World History in second grade is to foster curiosity and the beginnings of understanding about the larger world outside the child’s locality, and about varied civilizations and ways of life. This can be done through a variety of means: story, drama, art, music, discussion, and more.” In studying ancient Greece, second graders develop “the beginnings of understanding” about democracy, worshipping gods and goddesses, the Olympics past and present, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—and more. In short, they develop the beginnings of their own freedom.

By sixth grade, Core Knowledge students have learned a good bit about major civilizations from all over the globe, as well as a great deal of American history. They are ready to build broad and deep knowledge of America’s debt to Athens, and to grasp how rare and precious their freedom is. Whether they become plumbers or business moguls (or both), this knowledge will serve them well. They will never be slaves to their jobs, or others’ beliefs, or the unexamined life. They will be free—as will every teacher who had a hand in their liberation.