Boredom in Class

by Guest Blogger
September 19th, 2013

By Mark Bauerlein

Last month in Education Week, I penned a commentary on relevance in the curriculum with survey data on high school dropouts. The trend is clear: ask recent dropouts why they left school and they set boredom at the top of the list. One 2006 study found that 47 percent of them claimed that school was boring and 69 percent said that school didn’t motivate or excite them. For those students, it wasn’t the difficulty of the work that drove them away. It was the tediousness.

A standard answer to the disengagement problem is that we need a more relevant curriculum. After all, people note, how can an African American junior in Chicago relate to a poem about an 18th-century English country churchyard at night? Added to that, the surveys show that teachers all too often stick to the most uninspiring teaching method, the lecture format, which the students  find deadening (so they say). Let’s have more contemporary novels and fewer classics, more topical themes and fewer historical contexts, and let’s incorporate more collaborative and self-direct learning, fewer podium presentations.

What will really help this young woman graduate from college? (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.)

It sounds commonsensical, to be sure. Boredom can ruin academic achievement, even for bright students. Materials closer to their actual lives will surely raise their interest, we assume, and consequently their scores, too. Besides, if we wish to train students for the real world in 2013, why force-feed them texts and facts from long ago and far away? Sixteen-year-olds wonder how studying a group of hard-core Christians who landed on Cape Cod 400 years ago will help them get a job, understand the health care debate, become adept with digital tools, and win friends and influence people. And, in fact, lots of 40-year-olds ask that question as well.

Before joining the call for relevance in the curriculum, let’s put boredom and relevance in the light of what is, perhaps, the overriding factor in secondary curricular reform today: college readiness. College readiness has become the standard by which a high school education is measured, the foundation, for instance, of Common Core standards in math and English (as well as literacy in science, technical subjects, and social studies). Formerly, educators aimed to ensure access to college for all high school graduates, setting college admission at the end of the secondary school mission. But having witnessed hundreds of thousands of high school graduates enter college, be forced to take remedial classes, and drop out before they finish their first year, educators have shifted their focus to college retention. Now, they believe, it isn’t enough to get students into college—we have to keep them there until they earn a degree.

So, curriculum and standards experts work backwards, determining what students learn in high school by that which will serve them well in college, what they will learn in middle school by that they will need in high school, and so on. The Common Core initiative followed this pattern, and so the standards and accompanying materials rightly called for a curriculum rich in the content presumed in the next grade levels, including exemplary informational texts that will accumulate year-to-year in the mind of a student and prepare him or her for college history, science, English and civics.

Increasingly, however, people are realizing that college retention depends not only on cognitive skills and academic knowledge, but also on a set of “soft skills.” They include persistence, time management, self-motivation, and other attributes of independence and organization. Now that they have left home and high school, first-year college students no longer have parents to monitor their hours and teachers who see them every weekday and check their homework. The guidance and command of the home have ended, and the teachers they have in college see them only a few hours a week and often never connect names with faces.

Here is where the boredom factor enters and can prove damaging. In high school, when students get bored, parents and teachers notice and urge, push, motivate, and assist them past it so that the work gets done. They seek out relevance-inducing adjustments to let students know, “Listen, this material is important to you, and we can make it interesting,” and far too often they proceed to drop that nineteenth-century novel and choose a popular contemporary one, hoping to plant a novel-reading habit that someday will extend to finer and older works.

But when students get bored in college, professors aren’t so reactive and flexible. If a student tunes out in class and submits C-level, work, the teacher may invite the student to office hours for a chat about the next paper or test, but that’s about it. If the student never shows up, well, life goes on. Parents aren’t around, either, so what is a student accustomed to being coddled and entertained to do?

Another soft skill becomes crucial: working through boredom on your own. It’s a disposition that has little to do with intelligence or knowledge, more a matter of stamina than intellect. If the U.S. history textbook bores you to death, it says, you still must get through 20 pages in the next hour. Biology 101 may have no relevance to your career plans or personal tastes, but you still have to complete it to fulfill a General Education requirement. Many first-year students don’t easily absorb such blank and impersonal facts of college—especially when their home and high school environments catered more to their personal interests than their actual needs—but they are binding and they call for a different attitude. The more you can ignore your ennui, the easier it will be to pass the course. The less you judge the course on personal grounds, the less likely will you recoil from it and consider dropping out of college. (You might even learn something that sparks genuine curiosity.)

Perhaps we should add “coping-with-boredom” to the list of college-readiness indicators, and K – 12 pedagogy should temper the quick and easy tactic of relevance. Yes, teachers should select materials true to the learning goals of the subject and also likely to interest the students. But they should also recognize that some materials that students must learn can’t be avoided or compromised, even though students will find them oh-so-dull. Boredom is bound to happen, and instead of trying to escape it by changing course contents, teachers should try to neutralize it by changing student expectations. It is possible that teachers may go too far in presenting an exciting, relevant curriculum, unintentionally giving students the message that their boredom is a justifiable condition that somebody else must remedy. Better for them to absorb a different lesson: boredom, in itself, is no reason to stop working.

 

Reading as a Second Life: Why Classic Lit Matters for Teachers

by Guest Blogger
September 10th, 2013

By Dave O’Shell

Dave O’Shell is a 6th and 7th grade English teacher at Wood Middle School in Montgomery County Public Schools. He has been teaching for seven years and blogs about education at thelivingteacher.com.

Artwork courtesy of Shutterstock.

At 32 I am finding that I am really only good at one thing. I can teach early adolescents how to write essays and how to read better. That’s it. I’ve been doing it for seven years now in a middle school outside of D.C., teaching at a suburban school that is actually pretty diverse. My school is a lot of rich and poor, kids of parents with PhD’s and kids whose parents don’t speak English. And I want to argue that there are some classic works of fiction that can help a developing teacher connect with his or her students and with the world of learning.

Classic literature is crucial to growing an individual. Certain texts have not only inspired hundreds of thousands of fortunate readers to grow, they have grown with humanity; they have been read, reread, and reevaluated.

I am surprised at the number of English teachers I meet who have little or no background or even interest in the classics. This is a problem because a grounding in classic works in the humanities is essential for success in teaching. Teaching is the most human profession; no other occupation involves such a basic I-thou relationship on a day to day basis.

Now, teaching in a middle school is a fairly grounding experience. There is no forgetting that you are in the world, living among people. You’re not among the celestial spheres. Yet there is no text that comes to mind more often in my everyday experience as a middle school English teacher than Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The central theme in the novel is the dynamic between one’s inner life (peace) and one’s relation to the rest of the world (war). The characters in the novel, particularly Andrei and Pierre, develop as individuals by wrestling with their inner and outer worlds. Andrei is steeped in the bureaucracy of the military. He struggles to put forward his battle plans to General Kutuzov, only to find scores of others like him with equally ingenious battle plans equally useless in the chaos of war. His outer life is stopped suddenly on the battlefield (a famous scene in the novel) when he has a quiet moment—really a near-death experience—contemplating the sky as he is surrounded by smoke, gunfire, and shouting. These kinds of moments abound in Tolstoy’s works, where characters’ inner lives are suddenly and profoundly confronted with the world.

A teacher will inevitably face these same moments on the battlefield, these experiences where strategy meets the human heart.

William James calls this a mystical experience, essential for real change in an individual. I saw this last year in one of my students, we’ll call him Brian, whom I was working with and cleaning out the nightmare that was his school binder. I was lecturing him on throwing away papers he didn’t need, like the Edgar Allan Poe packet we finished last quarter. Throw it away!  “Oh,” he said, “I keep that in there ‘cause I like to read some of the poems to my sister before she goes to bed.” Suddenly your student’s humanity becomes so real before you. He stops becoming these lists of issues for you to solve, test scores and observable behaviors. He becomes real in his beauty and limitations. Teaching is filled with these kinds of Tolstoy moments, these dialectics of care and ambition.

Hamlet is essential reading in contemplating the limitations of our own intellect. This model of education is useful to the teacher. It isn’t so much that we must see in the mundane aspects of managing a classroom a direct relationship between Hamlet and teaching. There is no bard in signing a pass for the nurse. It is rather that we are able to maintain our why in teaching. In the guidance I give to my students in their reading and writing, in the conferences I give surrounding the work in their portfolios, Hamlet is present. He is present because I see that students have a desire to become educated. What does this mean? It means, for them, becoming an Odysseus, always having an answer, not being the fool Hamlet pretends at being (“I’m reading words,” a student with might say to me with a sneer); it means not being a pedantic nerd like Polonius who can’t get through a sentence without commenting on his own phrasing. Hamlet’s tragedy, like the tragedy of many of our students who (wrongly) believe that hard work will not increase their intelligence, is that learning cannot make an individual perfect. There is only so much we can promise our students they will get from schooling. It’s up to them to eventually make their schooling count toward something meaningful.

The third book I would put into the hands of an aspiring teacher, if I were limited to only three, would be Don Quixote. The relation between Sancho and the Knight of the Sad Face mirrors the student-teacher dynamic better than any other model. Quixote demands that his world adhere to the laws of chivalry. When he sets out in seek of adventure, an adventure must present itself within a few pages or else. Or else windmills will become giants, flocks of sheep will become warring armies, and a traveling lady will become a kidnapped princess. And when it becomes clear that the windmills are not giants, then a magician must be invented to explain their transformation.

Sancho is the real and Quixote is the imagined. Sancho is also a student and Quixote is his teacher. A teacher wants the world to fit into his notion of the law of meritocracy. The teacher’s job is to dream for the student. Just as Quixote knows Sancho cannot buy fully into the dream of chivalry, he must promise Sancho an island. We as teachers promise our students an island named College, though how they will govern this island will be up to them to learn. We dream for them and they return reality for us to modify our dream.

I would argue that any text that can best grow us is best in preparing those whose job will be to create future heroes. Melville’s radical individual, Ahab, has a lot to teach us. John Milton was at heart a great teacher, a schoolmaster of the world, and reminds us that the world and its inhabitants need fixing. James Joyce, great hero of learnedness and great reader of Dante, demonstrated how the world is united in history and language in every moment of every uttered word. Joyce is a good conveyance to talking about the oral tradition in non-Western cultures and how their narratives unite them with the world. And finally I will pass over in silence the Koran, the Thousand and One Nights, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and other non-Western texts I have not yet mastered and which perhaps constitute further reaches of the teacher’s stars to steer by.

My students do not wrestle with these great works in sixth grade, it’s more of a thumb war with some Shakespeare right now, but I hope that when they become grown men and women that they will see these works as mysteries, as a kind of mystery that is not solved, but lived. Thus we gain a kind of second life from books. It is knowing many lives and worlds through reading, combined with authentic life experiences (falling in love, having a child, failing, succeeding) that make us fuller persons. The work of a teacher is to grow young people. Pedagogy, methods, observation, reflection, and all of the practices in place are important to becoming a teacher. But it is personal growth in one’s life and one’s second life through literature that makes a great teacher, because teaching results from living.

 

Promethean Plan: A Teacher on Fulfilling the Intent of the Common Core, Part 3

by Guest Blogger
August 20th, 2013

By Mark Anderson

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

In part 1 of this three-part series, Anderson discusses why skills-based teaching should no longer be predominant in ELA. In part 2, he discusses the problems with placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA.

 

Prometheus statue, Rockefeller Center

 

Mistake #3: Infantilizing teachers

Teaching is an incredibly dynamic and complex endeavor. Yet teachers are all too often managed as if it were a low-skill profession.

Calls for increasing standards for hiring, training, and retaining teachers, thankfully, are now in ascendancy. Yet we continue to treat teachers in the field like children incapable of independent thought. This is brutally evident in the manner in which the Common Core standards are currently getting rolled out in schools across our nation.

Rather than centering the hard work of implementation of the Common Core on teachers—the ones who will implement them and are ostensibly the most knowledgeable on matters of pedagogy and students’ needs—we instead see resources focused on external consultants and organizations who have a tendency to transmogrify the rich content and ideas of the standards into checklists and shallowly “aligned” materials. The end result is that schools and districts look over a quick reference sheet, check off a few boxes from the list, and determine that their curriculum and practices are “aligned” to the Common Core. It’s easy to pretend that something is aligned to the Common Core. Look, we have nonfiction texts! Look, we write essays that require online research! Such simplistic renderings effectively declaw the standards of any of their transformative power.

But none of this comes as a surprise: It parallels our decades-long push to infantilize our students by denying them access to real academic discipline and to systematic exposure to domain-specific knowledge. An unfortunate outcry against Common Core and the introduction of complex texts, such as we just witnessed in reactions to New York’s release of test scores, is that some students can’t possibly be expected to meet such rigorous standards. Students most desperately in need of access to knowledge and literature are too often denied that access, thus falling further and further behind. Those students need the Common Core—not some declawed facsimile.

Let’s be honest for a second here: no one really knows exactly what the Common Core will look like in implementation in a given classroom or curriculum. There are models, exemplars, and plentiful suggestions, many of them quite good (check out EngageNY, LearnZillion, and TeachingChannel) but much of that is based on an isolated standard or text, as opposed to a fully contextualized curriculum or scope and sequence (even Core Knowledge Language Arts, which is content-rich and brings history and science into the ELA block, is not a complete curriculum). And those curricula that are being developed can be vastly different, dependent on a given author’s pedagogical and theoretical standpoint.

So who are the “experts” here? Must we wait for the major textbook publishing companies to figure it out for us?

I have a revolutionary suggestion: how about we put our chips down on the scholarship of our nation’s teachers, and provide them with the space and time to immerse themselves deeply in the analysis and interpretation of the Common Core?

If our teachers haven’t fully contextualized the Common Core standards into their own understanding, then how else are they supposed to actualize them in their classrooms?

If our teachers haven’t steeped themselves deeply in the study of the content and texts they are going to teach, how else are they supposed to transfer knowledge and skills to their students?

There’s one answer to those questions, and that is the answer that most districts seem to have unthinkingly adopted: hand teachers a packaged curriculum and expect them to deliver it with unquestioned fidelity.

This is the wrong answer. Classroom practice will not be transformed if teachers are not treated as professionals and scholars. It takes professionalism to deeply engage with one’s colleagues on curriculum and pedagogy. It takes scholarship to carefully select and study complex texts that will build students’ domain-specific knowledge and understanding of literary history.

It takes a systematic, school-wide effort to then integrate and align practices, texts and content across all grade levels in a manner that builds knowledge sequentially and coherently. It then takes a systematic, district-wide or state-wide effort to integrate and align different school curricula such that core content is consistent, such that if a student transfers from one school to another, large gaps in knowledge will not be created.

Or alternately, it may require disrupting location-based integration altogether, and seeking to harness online collaborative resources to establish a measure of coherency.

The best professional development I have experienced on Common Core has been with LearnZillion. At first glance, LearnZillion appears to be just another Gates Foundation-funded edtech startup. But dig a little deeper beyond the surface, and you will begin to notice that the folks who are making those video lessons are actual classroom teachers (full and happy disclosure: I am one of them). Earlier this year, LearnZillion gathered 200 educators from 41 different states to meet, learn from one another and from “experts,” and design Common Core aligned lessons together. In other words, LearnZillion is doing something that almost no district is seeking to do, and to do it at scale: invest in teacher scholarship, expertise, and interpretation of Common Core. Most of the materials these teachers are creating are freely available, and other teachers can utilize them as they deem fit.

This is the model that districts and schools need to adopt if we are to actualize the Common Core with the true transformative intent and spirit that the authors envisioned. Give teachers the time and space to plunge deep into the Common Core and struggle with how they would teach to the standards in their classrooms. Then allow them to share, discuss, and modify their materials with one another.

The AFT has invested in TES’s Share My Lesson platform, and the NEA went with BetterLesson. I like to just use Google Drive. There’s great potential for harnessing online platforms to more coherently build a collective repository of curricular resources for the Common Core that can better refine and build our collective understanding of how it should be implemented. Personally, I believe (and have argued elsewhere) that since we have a system of public education, our curriculum should also be fully transparent and accessible to the public.

But such an investment in teacher expertise and scholarship is just the beginning. I’m not suggesting that teachers don’t need guidance, support, and direction from researchers, professors, organizations, and practitioners in other fields. A great place to begin for guidance would be to sit down as a school and look at the Core Knowledge Sequence together, in addition to Common Core’s list of text exemplars in Appendix B. I have also created templates (6th, 7th, and 8th grades), based on PARCC’s suggestions for a curricular framework, that has the text suggestions from both at the bottom, as well as suggested authors and texts from Massachusetts’ ELA standards.

My point is that the Common Core standards must be interpreted and understood by each teacher who is to teach to them. They must be contextualized. They must be studied and challenged and debated by grade level and content department teams. Only in this way will the difficult transition from rhetoric into practice be successfully enacted.

Otherwise, Common Core will remain little but a grand vision ossified in text.

Here’s one short-term measure we can take to ensure that we do not continue to infantilize our nation’s teachers:

  • Provide scheduled and paid time for teachers to work together to explore, interpret, and actualize the Common Core into either their own curriculum and materials, or teacher-selected curriculum and materials.

For longer-term measures, we need to continue to focus on raising the expectations and standards for the teaching profession, such as by requiring a national bar exam, as Randi Weingarten and Joel Klein have suggested, and raising standards for schools of education, as NCTQ has suggested.

The pitfalls for effective implementation of Common Core are legion, and we are already witnessing states and districts plunging straightaway into them. That’s OK. As any teacher could tell you, it’s part of the learning process. The question is not whether we will make these mistakes, but whether we will learn from them and move forward with a focus on what will take our students and our system of public education to the next level.

I can assure you of one thing. If we continue to perpetuate skills-based teaching, place the entire burden of teaching literacy on ELA, and ignore the need for teacher scholarship and professionalism, then Common Core’s transformative power and potential will not be realized.

 

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

by Lisa Hansel
August 8th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page _________

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

Page _________

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

Page _________

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

Page _________

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

Page _________

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

Page _________

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

 

Core Knowledge: A Lifeboat in the Sea of Information

by Lisa Hansel
July 29th, 2013

Here’s a question I’m often asked: Now that we have Google and smartphones are becoming less expensive, isn’t the Core Knowledge approach obsolete?

For anyone who knows that (1) cognitive science shows that having some relevant knowledge already stored in long-term memory is essential to reading comprehension and critical thinking and (2) Core Knowledge is about providing a broad base of skill-enabling knowledge in preschool through eighth grade, the answer is obviously “No.” If anything, Google makes the Core Knowledge approach even more essential. In a sea of information, young people need a lifeboat.

(Lifeboat in the sea of digital information courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Fortunately, at least some of those who are up on smartphones and down on memorization are realizing that knowledge is necessary. Take, for example, a July 25th article on Scientific American’s website: “Smart Phones Mean You Will No Longer Have to Memorize Facts.” It starts with a bit of a straw man about memorizing the presidents. Do you need to be able to rattle off the presidents? Probably not. But can you really grasp US history without solid factual, contextual, and conceptual knowledge stored in your long-term memory about Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, etc.? No.

What I find most interesting about this Scientific American article is that it greatly downplays the need for memorization—but then in a sidebar it highlights the need to commit to memory pretty much everything in the Core Knowledge Sequence! I think we have a simple case of the author, a knowledgeable adult, taking the broad knowledge he learned early in life for granted.

In the article, we read:

Maybe we’ll soon conclude that memorizing facts is no longer part of the modern student’s task. Maybe we should let the smartphone call up those facts as necessary—and let students focus on developing analytical skills (logic, interpretation, creative problem solving) and personal ones (motivation, self-control, tolerance).

Of course, it’s a spectrum. We’ll always need to memorize information that would be too clumsy or time-consuming to look up daily: simple arithmetic, common spellings, the layout of our hometown. Without those, we won’t be of much use in our jobs, relationships or conversations.

Then in the sidebar, “6 Reasons Smartphones Won’t Replace Our Brains,” we read:

We’ll never consult our phones for everything. Some things are so important we’ll have to commit them to memory even if we reach the age of universal digital retrieval. Here are a few of the life categories where memory will always beat digital lookups….

  • The Cultural Factor: You can’t function for long in society without some basic grounding in history and culture. Without knowing these references you won’t have the context to comprehend current events—or even know what you’re missing or what questions to ask. You won’t understand advertisements, editorials or even news articles. And you won’t get anybody’s jokes. You’ll be unemployable and undatable….
  • The Productivity Factor: Even if your daily work requires something you could easily look up, like molecular weights, stock symbols or commonly prescribed drugs, your work would bog down to a halt if you had to interrupt your flow every few minutes for a lookup. You need fluency in your own career facts to operate effectively.
  • The Lookup Factor: Our gadgets may always be able to call up information on demand—but only if you know how and where to look for it. You still have to know how to use the tools of modern up-lookings: like Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Dictionary.com or—What’s the other one? Oh, yeah—Google.

What does a “basic grounding in history and culture” consist of? What knowledge is needed to “understand advertisements, editorials or even news articles”? Those are questions E. D. Hirsch asked three decades ago. His research—and that of many cognitive scientists—found that a great deal of content knowledge was needed in long-term memory to function as a literate adult. Through a series of studies Hirsch and his colleagues identified the specific knowledge that is most essential—and then that became the Sequence.

For a well-researched and thoughtful look at the impact of Google on education, let’s turn to “Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education,” an article by Paul Kirschner and Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer that was recently published in Educational Psychologist:

[One] legend has it that all that one needs to know and learn is “out there on the web” and that there is, thus, no need to teach and/or acquire such knowledge any more. This has led, for example, to the demotion of the teacher from someone whose job it was to combine her/his knowledge within a domain combined with her/his pedagogical content knowledge so as to teach those lacking this knowledge to someone whose role is standing on the sidelines and guiding and/or coaxing a breed of self-educators. These self-educators can self-regulate and self-direct their own learning, seeking, finding, and making use of all of the information sources that are freely available to them….

The premises underlying the idea of substituting information seeking for teaching is that the half-life of information is getting smaller every day, making knowledge rapidly obsolete, and because it is all out there on the web, we should not teach knowledge but should instead let kids look for it themselves….

The idea that the present body of knowledge is rapidly becoming out of date or obsolete is far from true. First, a distinction needs to be made with respect to the difference between knowledge obsolescence and information growth…. The fact is that much of what has passed for knowledge in previous generations is still valid and useful. What is true is that there is an increasing amount of new information becoming available, some of it trustworthy, some not….

Although students are often thought of as being competent or even expert in information problem solving (i.e., that they are information and digitally literate) because they are seen searching the web daily, research reveals that solving information problems is for most students a major if not insurmountable cognitive endeavor…. Learners not only have problems finding the information that they are seeking but also often trust the first thing they see, making them prone to “the pitfalls of ignorance, falsehoods, cons and scams”….

Prior knowledge largely determines how we search, find, select, and process (i.e., evaluate) information found on the web…. Unfortunately, in most cases students’ prior knowledge of the subject matter is minimal. From research, it is known that low prior knowledge negatively influences the search process….

This leads to essays on Baconian science with texts about the 20th-century British artist Francis Bacon and on the problems that Martin Luther King had with Pope Leo X and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Since research clearly shows that effectively using the internet requires knowledge, does that mean students should be kept offline when they are first learning about a topic? I don’t think so. Later in their article, Kirschner and van Merriënboer discuss ways teachers can direct and support students’ learning online and offline. The key takeaway is pretty simple: don’t expect students (of any age) to be able to Google effectively about topics that are new to them. One obvious option appears: limit their research to a small pool of trusted sources.

Museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions have been particularly great about making online collections teachers can draw from for engaging, but appropriately limited, online research. I couldn’t possibly list even a small fraction of the good ones, so I’ll close by noting one I recently learned about: the Primary Source Sets created by the Library of Congress. There are more than two dozen sets, designed for classroom use, on topics ranging from baseball to women’s suffrage.

 

What’s the Difference Between Great Lessons and a Great Education?

by Lisa Hansel
July 11th, 2013

As many have hoped, the Common Core standards are giving educators across the country a platform for sharing lesson plans. While some online instructional collaboration was happening before the Common Core, we clearly see the benefits of common standards: a common language aimed at common goals has opened the door to a massive increase in teachers learning from each other.

Of course, teachers are not the only ones uploading resources; the whole landscape of educational materials is changing. Sean Cavanagh of Education Week, writes, “The menu of products available to educators today includes not only textbooks and digital products offered at a cost, but also a growing number of ‘open educational resources’ developed or supported by nonprofit groups, universities, philanthropies, individual teachers, and entire states.”

What does this mean for teachers? One teacher Cavanagh spoke with has a compelling answer:

Mr. Lemon, a math teacher at American Fork Junior High School, south of Salt Lake City, worked on a team that helped design open resources in that subject. Today, he uses the state’s open resources to guide his 9th graders through “mathematical tasks,” core daily lessons. He said he still turns back to materials produced by commercial publishers, mostly to give students extra practice and increase their “procedural fluency.”

Open resources give teachers more power—and more responsibility, Mr. Lemon said. Teachers are obligated to vet open materials and figure out whether they make sense for lessons, rather than relying on textbooks for guidance, he said. States and districts would be wise, he said, to back professional development to help them figure that out.

I think Mr. Lemon is absolutely right—and I would extend his point further. Teachers have to make sure the materials suit their lessons; they also have to make sure their lessons form coherent units and courses, and contribute to a coherent prek–12 education.

That’s why I find growing efforts for teachers to share their curricula even more exciting than the websites for sharing materials and lesson plans. Better Lesson, for example, isn’t just offering a massive database of resources—it has a “Plan Your Curriculum” option that invites teachers to “upload, organize, and share with fellow educators, down the hall or across the globe.”

Having great lessons is essential, but great lessons do not automatically create a great education. Knowledge and skills must build within an across grades, so all those great lessons need to be organized into a coherent, spiraling curriculum.

Coordination within schools and across schools—especially in the transitions (i.e., elementary to middle school) and in areas of high student mobility—is essential to prevent gaps and repetitions. Students shouldn’t end up practicing persuasive letter writing two years in a row but never write a science lab report. They shouldn’t do two close readings of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address but never read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Some structure for organizing lessons month to month and grade to grade is obviously necessary. With the Common Core, most schools now have a shared language and shared goals. Why should curriculum development remain a task that each teacher or school tackles in isolation? Just as lessons get better through being shared, critiqued, and revised, so could content maps and curricula. And just as teachers both upload lessons and revamp the lessons and materials they download, schools could both contribute to a shared curriculum and customize their particular curriculum. Nothing about sharing has to result in rigidity. Between the free-for-all of each teacher selecting his own content and the restrictiveness of a mandated, scripted curriculum, there is a fruitful middle ground in which students get a coherent education from teachers who have embraced both the power and the responsibility this new resource landscape provides.

I hope educators seize this moment to use their collective wisdom to not only develop great lessons, but to develop several paths to a great education. The Common Core standards provide a strong scaffold—could it lead to five or five dozen truly world-class curricula that have been developed (and are continuously enhanced) by tens of thousands of teachers?

There is no guarantee that will happen, but it is possible.

A quick example makes the importance of trying quite clear. As readers of this blog know, before the end of the summer kindergarten – third grade Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program will be online for free. Preschool will be online for free soon thereafter, with everything coming well in advance of when it needs to be taught. All of us at the Foundation are excited to see CKLA spreading as teachers are already downloading the sample units we’ve had online for the past several months.

And yet, I can’t help worrying just a bit. In March, when I helped with the final edits of CKLA’s Listening & Learning strand for third grade, I wrote about how carefully constructed the domains are:

In Classification of Animals, I learned about vertebrates, which then carried into The Human Body. In The Human Body, I also learned about vision and hearing, which then carried into Light and Sound. Light and Sound, in turn, prepared me for Astronomy by telling me a bit about the sun and light waves. I won’t get into the details, but as you can imagine, The Viking Age, Native Americans, and European Exploration wove together often.

The grouping of read-alouds into focused domains and the intentional sequencing of the domains are both really important for building knowledge and vocabulary…. By staying focused on a domain for two to three weeks, students get the multiple exposures they need to grasp and start using new words. And then, by having later domains build on previous ones, students get additional exposures that reinforce and refine the words and concepts learned previously.

This goes to the heart of why a string of great lessons may or may not result in a great education. And it highlights how right Mr. Lemon is when he says the new landscape of educational resources increases teachers’ power and responsibility.

Let’s look at the domains in the Listening & Learning strand in kindergarten:

1. Nursery Rhymes and Fables

2. The Five Senses

3. Stories

4. Plants

5. Farms

6. Native Americans

7. Kings and Queens

8. Seasons and Weather

9. Columbus and the Pilgrims

10. Colonial Towns and Townspeople

11. Taking Care of the Earth

12. Presidents and American Symbols

Each domain takes two to three weeks to teach, so a couple of questions arise frequently: Why does the Columbus and the Pilgrims domain come so late in the year? Wouldn’t it be better to teach that domain on Columbus Day?

Teachers certainly could preview the domain on Columbus Day, but if you study the list of domains, you’ll see why it comes so late in the year. We don’t want students to memorize a few isolated facts about Columbus; we want them to learn a great deal about Columbus and understand his place in history from multiple perspectives. That’s doable, even with kindergartners, but careful attention must be paid to slowly building up all the prerequisite knowledge.The information needed to really grasp Columbus and the Pilgrims starts with the Plants domain. That leads directly to Farms and Native Americans. Now children have a good foundation for understanding what Columbus encounters when he gets to the “New World.” But from what perspective is this land Columbus stumbles into either new or a different world? Students find out in the Kings and Queens domain.

Okay, you get the picture. Great lessons matter. Great lessons in a thoughtful, coherent, grade-by-grade, spiraling curriculum make for a great education.

I Love Joe Kirby—and You Should Too

by Lisa Hansel
June 25th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Curriculum: A Springboard to Creativity

by Guest Blogger
June 20th, 2013

By Diana Senechal

Diana Senechal’s book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, was published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in January 2012. She is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. She has written numerous articles and blogs for American Educator, Education Week, The New Republic, The Core Knowledge Blog, The Answer Sheet (Washington Post), GothamSchools, The Cronk of Higher Education, and other publications. She teaches philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in NYC.

 

One chilly day in February, I sat down with a stack of tenth-grade philosophy tests to grade. Within minutes, I was roaring. This is not typical of my grading experience, so I will explain.

I teach ninth-, tenth-, and eleventh-grade philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering, a selective public school in Harlem. (Through our partnership with Columbia University, eligible high school students may take courses at Columbia.) The high school philosophy curriculum, which I wrote in consultation with colleagues and the principal, focuses on philosophical and literary texts. The ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the tenth-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the eleventh-graders, political philosophy. (In several pieces published by GothamSchools, I have written more about these courses.)

The tenth-grade Ethics and Aesthetics course consists of four long units. The first unit focuses on human choices in the face of suffering. Students read the Book of Job, Blaise Pascal’s “Wager” (from his Pensées), a substantial excerpt of Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, the first part of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, and Saul Bellow’s novel Seize the Day. The second unit focuses on virtue, measure, and symmetry; students read Book IV of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, selections from Epictetus’s Discourses, Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose,” and selections from Desiderius Erasmus’s treatise Praise of Folly. The third unit, on freedom and responsibility, includes the story of the ring of Gyges (from book II of Plato’s Republic), Leo Tolstoy’s story “Three Questions,” the prologue of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. The last and shortest unit, on ethics and aesthetics, features works of art, music, and poetry, as well as commentary by Søren Kierkegaard, Oscar Wilde, and others.

For the test, which I gave at the end of the second unit, I asked my students to write a letter from a character (or author) of one work to a character (or author) of another, or else to create a dialogue between the two. They had to demonstrate knowledge of both works and relate them in a meaningful way. The responses were intensely imaginative and funny, yet grounded in the texts. In discussing one student’s piece (which you can read in full below), I hope to show how literary and philosophical study can inspire creativity instead of stifling it. Beyond that, I want to give readers a chance to enjoy the piece for its own sake.

What is creativity, and why does it matter? Merriam-Webster’s Concise Encyclopedia defines it as the “ability to produce something new through imaginative skill, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic object or form. The term generally refers to a richness of ideas and originality of thinking.” Creativity matters because it enlarges our sense of the possible; even to a minuscule degree, it alters how we see the world. Sometimes the alteration is profound, as in Rilke’s sonnet “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends with the injunction, “You must change your life.”

For all its importance, creativity in education is often misunderstood. Many perceive it as spontaneous, unfettered activity that is stifled by traditional schooling; this is a misconception. Creativity demands working material, among other things. A poet is immersed in poetry, words, etymology, sound, rhythm, and more; a potter, in the work of potters past and present, in nature and art, clay and wheel, kiln and glaze. A strong curriculum can provide much of the working material for creativity. If students read interesting texts that have been combined thoughtfully, they can find interesting things to do with them.

The student’s piece, a comic dialogue, draws on Gogol’s story “The Nose” and a chapter from Epictetus’s Discourses. The continuation (which the student wrote voluntarily, after the test) additionally invokes Tolstoy’s story “Three Questions” and Erasmus’s Praise of Folly. The first three works were part of the unit on virtue, measure, and symmetry; the second, part of the unit on freedom and responsibility. How on earth would one relate these four works through dialogue? It turns out that there is a way.

Some background is required. I recommend reading these works in full; for now, brief summaries will have to do.

“The Nose” is about a barber, Ivan Yakovlevich, who discovers a nose in his bread one morning, and a certain Major Kovalev (given name: Platon) who finds his nose missing. (I use the word “about” warily, as we could endlessly debate what the story is about.) Toward the end, when Kovalev recovers his nose, he asks the doctor to reattach it; the doctor refuses. Kovalev finally finds his nose reattached, but there’s no telling how this happened.

Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher of the first and second centuries. In Book I, Chapter 2, of his Discourses, he advises his listeners to act according to their true character. To illustrate his point, he tells of a certain Florus and Agrippinus. Florus is deliberating whether to attend Nero’s festival; Agrippinus replies that the very consideration of that question indicates a wish to be like the others, whereas he wants to be the red thread, the thread that stands out and makes the cloth beautiful.

Leo Tolstoy’s story “Three Questions” concerns a king who seeks answers to three questions: What is the right time to begin things? Who are the right people to listen to? What is the most important thing to do? He ultimately visits a hermit; during the visit, he answers the questions for himself without realizing it. The answers are: (1) now, (2) the person you are with, and (3) good.

The Renaissance humanist Erasmus wrote a treatise titled Praise of Folly, in which Folly, personified, praises herself and explains why she is essential to life. (Students enjoyed this work tremendously; many were disappointed that we didn’t read it in full.)

Now for the student’s piece. In the first part of the dialogue, we find the doctor and Kovalev (“Platon”) from Gogol’s story arguing about the reattachment of the nose. They have summoned Epictetus, who gives advice in keeping with his philosophy and character.

I would raise the suggestion that, because pain and pleasure are subjective to a person, there is no greater violation of the Hippocratic Oath than allowing someone to die. Thus, I suggest you consider all harm you could do by inaction greater than any you could perform, and reattach his nose even if you have to use hot tar to do it, for this man is not one that would ask such a thing lightly; it is his specific nature to value his appearance on any level more than his life.

Funny, dark, and true to the texts, this speech of Epictetus brings out aspects of “The Nose” that I hadn’t seen before. Indeed, one paradox of Gogol’s story is that Kovalev’s very superficiality makes his loss profound.

Later, in the second part, which begins after Epictetus’s exit, the comedy rises to another level. In walks the hermit from Tolstoy’s story, followed by a Familiar-Looking Disciple of the Hermit (FLDOTH), clearly the king, and a Guy Following Him (GFH). The hermit begins: “What have we here? It appears that I have arrived at exactly the perfect time. For the perfect time is always now.” Swiftly, in few words, the student has shown the silly side of Tolstoy’s moral. The parody doesn’t stop there:

HERMIT: The time is now. This man is the most important. Reattach his nose immediately, while you can.

DOCTOR: Or what?

HERMIT: Or the world will conspire against you.

DOCTOR: Are you threatening me?

HERMIT: No, I’m terrifying you. There is a difference, and it is as important as everything else.

Through the hermit’s words, the student nails the problem: if the most important time is now, and the most important person is the one you are with, then there can’t really be any importance at all. Anything is as important as anything else, as long as it is now. Understandably, the doctor becomes enraged and throws everyone out, including Folly (but not before Platon’s life wish comes true). I wish Russian majors and scholars knew about this piece. Platon, the doctor, Epictetus, and Folly have probably never been in a room together before, and they make the most of the occasion (the most important occasion, after all, since it is now).

This was one of many inspired pieces I read that February afternoon. One must know the original texts, or something of them, in order to enjoy the wit—but isn’t that always the case? We are in continual dialogue with texts; the richer the text, the more substantial the dialogue, and the more it asks of us. Of course, that doesn’t explain this particular piece’s existence. No curriculum or pedagogy could produce it predictably. I initially set out to demonstrate that a rich curriculum can inspire creativity; I ended up with more. Education has purposes and goals, as well it should, but sometimes it shakes us into something greater, like a glass bead game, where the beads and their combinations (the books, the thought, the writing) take us to things we haven’t known or planned.

 

The student (who requests anonymity) and his parents have given permission for his piece to be quoted, discussed in this article, and posted in full on Scribd (where it is easier to read).

 

Does Knowledge Have Any Value in the 21st Century?

by Lisa Hansel
April 3rd, 2013

In the UK, a debate is raging about Michael Gove’s proposal to implement a Core Knowledge–style curriculum. The discussion largely parallels criticisms and defenses of Core Knowledge in the US, so it’s both interesting and relevant to those of us who would like to see American students become more knowledgeable.

Sadly, strong opposition to the new curriculum is coming from the National Union of Teachers (NUT).  I don’t know anything about teacher preparation in the UK, but if it is anything like teacher preparation in the US, then the teachers are not to blame for their own lack of understanding of the many benefits of a rich, broad, carefully sequenced, knowledge-building curriculum. The UK teachers have probably never been taught about the decades of cognitive science demonstrating that knowledge and skills develop together; they probably have no idea that the higher-order skills we all want students to possess simply cannot be developed without simultaneously ensuring that they also have lots and lots of knowledge.

Now would be a good time for them to learn. As David Green (the director of Civitas, which is publishing a UK Core Knowledge Sequence) points out, the NUT is appropriately concerned about the de-professionalization of teachers—but it fails to see that the new curriculum is an opportunity to right that wrong:

Michael Gove’s planned national curriculum, heavily influenced by American reformer E.D. Hirsch, came under strong attack over the weekend. Critics claim that it will de-professionalise teachers. NUT activists and their allies insist that teachers will have to abandon the ideas that were prevalent when they were trained, and teach in a different way, which risks alienating and demoralising them.

There are good reasons for being concerned about the de-professionalisation of teachers, but Hirsch’s curriculum for the UK is not one of them….

Two main forces have contributed to the de-professionalisation of teaching: the politicisation of performance targets; and the impact of falsely named ‘progressive’ education that assigns a diminished role to teachers. Assessment is useful as a guide to teachers, parents and pupils about how much young people have learnt. However, assessment became dysfunctional in the last few years…. An official report in June 2011 … recognised that narrow ‘drilling’ had become common, squeezing out real learning and denying children a broad education. Lesson time in primary schools was used to rehearse answers instead of deepening and extending knowledge. The focus on results in English and maths meant that other subjects were neglected.

Critics of Hirsch have not realised that his work is an alternative to rehearsal and drilling, not an extension of it…. Cramming for exams is not the same as equipping the memory with useful information that will aid future understanding. Learning times tables, for example, involves memorisation in order to increase fluency in the use of numbers. It is about acquiring knowledge to make analysis and critical thinking possible.

Confusion over the symbiotic relationship between knowledge and skills is so widespread that the sociologist Frank Furedi decided to weigh in too. He sees very basic misconceptions in teachers’ objections to the new knowledge-building curriculum:

Education has been so instrumentalised that its main function is now to ‘provide skills’. The teaching of knowledge itself, for its own sake, is frequently dismissed as an old-fashioned custom that is not relevant to the twenty-first century….

In any discussion about the relationship between analytical skills and knowledge, it is easy to become one-sided. Often, too much of a polarising distinction is made between knowledge and its application. It is possible to make a distinction: knowledge is accomplished through learning principles, concepts and facts, while skills represent the capacity to use that knowledge in specific contexts. But in reality, these two things are inextricably bound together….

Knowledge is not simply the sum total of a body of facts; it is based on concepts, theories and specific structures of thought. So even if some of the content of knowledge changes in line with new developments, its structure and concepts can retain their significance for very long periods of time. Geometric theorems may be contested over time, but they nonetheless express a body of knowledge that transcends centuries….

A liberal humanist education is underpinned by a conviction that children are the rightful heirs to the achievements and legacy of the past. It is precisely because education gives meaning to the human experience that it needs to be valued in its own right.

Anyone who takes a careful look at the Core Knowledge Sequence for the US or the UK will see a curriculum that builds broad knowledge of the world and engages students in grappling with ideas and questions that are central to the human condition. As Green explains, it is a curriculum that could fully restore the teaching profession because it restores teachers to their rightful position as guides to the world:

Many young teachers are still being taught that lessons should be 10 per cent the teacher and 90 per cent the children. Teachers find themselves being criticised for being ‘too didactic’, which is a bit like criticising a doctor for being ‘too medical’. There were two sources for these attitudes: child development theories and political theories that saw teaching as no more than a kind of authoritarianism….

We now know that theories which devalue the teacher are especially harmful to children from poor backgrounds.  The bottom quarter of young people, whether defined by their school attainment, or by their parents’ income, are badly served by ‘progressive’ methods….

Hirsch’s core knowledge curriculum is designed so that every child from every background can benefit. It represents what children from all social groups can be taught. And it is based on the belief that teaching is a vocation. Teachers are custodians of the best interests of children. Their role is not to facilitate learning defined by the children themselves as interesting or relevant to their lives. The teacher’s calling is to open up new possibilities that children simply don’t know about….

Content-rich education offers a broad curriculum for every child. Expectations are high. They are not just taught the three Rs but a wide array of subjects to prepare for modern life. Out of six chapters in Hirsch’s UK primary school curriculum, one is on the visual arts and one on music.

Trade union activists assume that to be a professional is be autonomous, essentially free to do as you wish. But teaching is not only a vocation, which implies dedication to bringing out the best in every child, it also has much in common with the ‘learned professions’, occupations that are constantly open to the discoveries of science or experience. No true professional would resent having to abandon ideas taught in early training. The self-conception of the teacher as a learned professional is of someone constantly developing a better understanding of how best to teach and what to teach. It’s normal to be asked to do things differently because earlier ideas have been discredited by practical experience or the sciences. This idea of the learned professional is closely linked to autonomy. But it does not mean never having to change your ways unless you choose to; it means being guided by an independent search for the truth and being willing to change pre-conceptions when necessary.

True professionals do not object to applying their craft in a different way when new methods have been shown to be more effective.

Educators should be celebrating knowledge for its own sake and should be fighting for this new curriculum. It offers students the best of what humanity has discovered and created—and it builds knowledge and skills in the only way that really works: together.

Reading Comprehension Is “Useless”

by Lisa Hansel
March 29th, 2013

I have been trying to ignore it. Really. You see, I have great respect for Stephen Lazar. He clearly cares about America’s youth—and America. And even though I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing him teach, I’m certain he knows his stuff: Lazar is a National Board–certified social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City.

In a blog post last week, he discussed the Common Core State Standards and New York’s draft grades 9-12 Social Studies Framework, I was nodding in agreement for most of it. Here are the parts that made me cheer:

We cannot possibly continue to move solely in the direction of “college and career readiness” in History & Social Studies education without ensuring that “civic” readiness is valued equally. Additionally, we need to ensure that as states write new curricula, that they contain the proper balance of content, skills, and understandings….

It is imperative that our public schools do not forget their core responsibility and civic mission. Primary and secondary schools cannot merely be a farm system for universities and jobs. Rather, as public institutions, they must ensure that a new generation will be prepared for active civic engagement as youth and adults.

I also found his remarks on the relationships that ought to exist between standards, curricula, and assessments wise:

As any strong teacher knows, the development of a curriculum should occur hand-in-hand with the development of standards and assessments. As Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe remind us in Understanding by Design:

…though the three stages present a logic of design, it does not follow that this is a step-by-step process…don’t confuse the logic of the final product with the messy process of design work.

It will take revision to ensure that the assessments actually address the standards, and that the curricula actually prepare students for them. As each is developed, alterations will be necessary at all three stages; it is naive and simplistic to assume that changes to the standards and assessments will not be necessary once implementation occurs.

Good stuff. Until I got to the three specific recommendations. While I agree with the spirit of the recommendations, the inescapable fact is that they go against decades of findings from cognitive science. I can’t blame Lazar for not knowing this research. Our colleges of education and professional development workshops typically do not teach it; and Lazar doesn’t have an easy job like mine in which he can decide to dig into a topic and stay focused until a body of evidence starts to show itself. There is a cacophony of conflicting voices out there—Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, wrote a whole book on how hard it is for educators to know when to trust the “experts.”

Understanding that I truly want Lazar to succeed, please allow me a friendly critique of his recommendations.

Regarding any new social studies framework, Lazar writes:

  1. The framework should emphasize questions and inquiry, not answers.
  2. The framework should emphasize transformative depth rather than useless breadth.
  3. The framework should provide the freedom for school communities to choose from a menu of paths and emphases to best serve their students.

What I want to focus on is recommendation number 2. For 1 and 3, I’ll just quickly point out that they are contradictory. A framework can’t both emphasize inquiry and leave many paths open—the very emphasis on inquiry effectively closes the more traditional path. Research shows that in the hands of a master teacher—which I believe Lazar to be—inquiry approaches can be effective. But research also shows that more traditional methods—including lectures, Socratic dialogs, term papers, and plain old reading—can also be effective. So let’s just stick with recommendation number 3 and keep all the paths open. That way, Lazar can use the inquiry methods he finds so effective—and teachers like Diana Senechal, who has written beautifully in support of varied methods, can use whatever approach seems best suited to the content and the students.

Now back to recommendation number 2: “The framework should emphasize transformative depth rather than useless breadth.” This is a wonderful idea. So wonderful that educators and researchers have spent decades pursuing it—but to no avail. It turns out, breadth is not useless—it is essential.

To ensure that the “new generation will be prepared for active civic engagement as youth and adults” one of the most important things educators can do is provide breadth of knowledge and vocabulary. If there is anything civic engagement depends on, it is language comprehension and critical thinking. And what do comprehension and critical thinking depend on? Having some relevant knowledge already stored in long-term memory. Written or spoken, we simply can’t grasp the meaning of language if we don’t know anything about the topic. If we know at least a little bit about it—if we have at least some of the relevant terms already in our vocabulary—then the door is cracked open and we have a chance to ask questions, search for answers, and bit-by-bit deepen our knowledge—thereby deepening our understanding and our capacity to act (or our capacity to decide not to act).

There is no telling which issues may become important over the next several decades. We can predict certain long-lived topics will persist: states’ rights, voter access, and taxation without representation are a few that come to mind. But what will become the critical issues that we need our youth to engage in? That’s like trying to decide which YouTube video will go viral next year.

There’s only one thing that will ensure that today’s youth are prepared no matter which issues arise tomorrow: breadth of knowledge. Students with really broad knowledge are able to read and think about a wide array of topics. Students with narrow knowledge are not. They may have expertise in a few topics, but that won’t help them grasp a newspaper article on a topic they have never encountered.

In Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (a terrific book that should be required reading in all teacher preparation programs), Daniel Willingham explains that “Successful thinking relies on four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and space in working memory. If any one of them is inadequate, thinking will likely fail.” So, having a bunch of facts (and other stuff) stored in long-term memory turns out to be a great thing. Willingham offers a full explanation in his book, here’s just a little more (drawn from an excerpt of the book) to help clarify the upshot of the research he summarizes:

It’s hard for many people to conceive of thinking processes as intertwined with knowledge. Most people believe that thinking processes are akin to those of a calculator. A calculator has a set of procedures available (addition, multiplication, and so on) that can manipulate numbers, and those procedures can be applied to any set of numbers. There is a separation of data (the numbers) and the operations that manipulate the data. Thus, if you learn a new thinking operation (for example, how to critically analyze historical documents), it seems like that operation should be applicable to all historical documents.

The human mind does not work that way. When we learn to think critically about, say, the start of the Second World War, that does not mean that we can think critically about a chess game, or about the current situation in the Middle East, or even about the start of the American Revolutionary War. The critical thinking processes are tied to the background knowledge.

In his blog post, Lazar writes that he wants “to spark an effective resistance to the ‘laundry list approach’ to social studies standards.” I don’t see a laundry-list approach in New York’s draft—I don’t see any indication that teachers will be encouraged to teach isolated facts instead of teaching facts in the context of exploring important people, events, and ideas. But those who don’t know the importance of broad knowledge and vocabulary tend to see a “laundry list” when presented with an appropriate, research-based effort to ensure that all students have facts in their long-term memories.

And, by the way, depth is not transformative—at least not in the general skill-building way it is usually discussed. Depth is great—every student should seriously investigate and develop some expertise in at least one topic. It’s an essential character-building and self-defining experience in which students come to know that they really do have the ability to meet challenges and accomplish important goals. But the widespread notion that by doing an in-depth project students are going to develop some critical thinking or problem solving skills that they can then apply in different settings to different problems on different topics just isn’t correct. Without some relevant knowledge already stored in long-term memory, it just doesn’t work.

So, here’s a friendly amendment to recommendation 2: The framework should provide time for in-depth investigations and ensure that all students develop essential breadth of knowledge and vocabulary.