Stop Spinning Wheels, Start Spinning Webs

by Lisa Hansel
April 3rd, 2014

Last week I quoted a great piece by Annie Murphy Paul on the importance of analogies (and, by extension, broad knowledge for making analogies) for innovation. That piece left me thinking about one of my favorite analogies for what knowledge does for our ability to learn. Knowledge is like a spider’s web—the bigger your web (i.e., the more knowledge you have), the more new knowledge sticks to it. Credit here goes to Jessica Lahey, so I’ll gladly let her explain:

Remember when you were in high school or college, in that class where nothing seemed to stick? No matter how much you studied? For me, those classes were Indo-Iranian Mythology and Greek and Roman Mythology. I was overworked (long, not particularly interesting story), exhausted, and frustrated by my inability to keep it all in my head. I did not have enough of a knowledge base to be able to link the stories of Hera’s jealousy to Hercules’ labors to what it might mean if Atlas shrugged. These stories are all linked, and knowing one story helps me remember another because the details of those stories form a sticky net, like a spider web. Once I have accumulated enough threads of knowledge, my net is fine enough to catch the new fragments of knowledge that came drifting by.

And that’s when the magic begins. That’s when connections across subjects begin to happen, when a reading of Great Expectations can evolve into a discussion of the Victorian Era, Frankenstein, Icarus, the tower of Babel, and Prometheus unbound.

Of course, as Lahey knows well, we all start building our webs long before college. The more opportunities we have to learn, the bigger, stickier, and finer our webs will be. Lahey is making sure her children—and students—build webs that even a Darwin’s bark spider would be proud of:

My youngest son, Finnegan, is in third grade, at my Core Knowledge school. Three times a week, he leaves the comfort of his classroom and attends a bona fide history class. Not “social studies,” but capitol-H History class. Content. History. Facts.

This month, he’s learning about the Vikings and Rome, Leif Erickson and Julius Caesar. When he gets to fifth grade and Dr. Freeberg’s reading of The Odyssey, he will have a context for the journey of the hero, lust for power, and land, and exploration. This might evolve in to discussions of Napoleon, colonialism, and slavery. In sixth grade, when I finally get my pedagogical talons in him, his web will be sticky enough to hold on to Julius Caesar, the geography of the Roman Empire, the literal and figurative meaning of “alea iacta est” and the controversy surrounding the quote “Et tu, Brute?”

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Spider web at sunrise courtesy of Shutterstock.

Now, a new study, published in the April issue of Cognition, shows the early stages of web building. By 19 months, babies are already starting to use what they have learned to acquire new vocabulary. While the Cognition article is well worth purchasing, the summary by Northwest University’s news team offers a good overview:

Even before infants begin to talk in sentences, they are paying careful attention to the way a new word is used in conversations, and they learn new words from this information in sentences.

For example, if you take an infant to the zoo and say, “Look at the gorilla” while pointing at the cage, the infant may not know what exactly is being referred to. However, if you say, “Look! The gorilla is eating,” the infant can use the word that they do know—“eating”—to conclude that “gorilla” must refer to the animal and not, for example, the swing she is sitting on.

The zoo scenario mirrors the method the researchers used for their experiment. First, infants at ages 15 and 19 months were shown several pairs of pictures on a large screen. Each pair included one new kind of animal and a non-living object. Next, the objects disappeared from view and infants overheard a conversation that included a new word, “blick.” Finally, the two objects re-appeared, and infants heard, for example, “Look at the blick.”

“After overhearing this new word in conversation, infants who hear a helpful sentence such as ‘the blick is eating’ should look more towards the animal than the other, non-living object,” said Brock Ferguson, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Northwestern and lead author of the study. “We show that by 19 months, they do just that. In contrast, if infants heard the new word in an unhelpful sentence such as ‘the blick is over here’ during the conversation, they don’t focus specifically on the animal because, after all, in this kind of sentence, ‘blick’ could mean anything.”…

“What’s remarkable is that infants learned so much from hearing the conversation alone,” said Sandra Waxman, senior author of the study, the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern. “This shows how attuned even very young infants are to the conversation around them. It also shows how well infants build upon what they do know to build their vocabulary.”

Between research like this, initiatives like Too Small to Fail, and advances like the Common Core standards calling for “content-rich curriculum,” perhaps eventually we’ll have a society in which all children have excellent opportunities to build their webs.

 

Stifling Innovation

by Lisa Hansel
March 28th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, Paul takes care of widespread misconceptions:

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

Then she turns to the power of analogies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Do We Underestimate All Learners?

by Lisa Hansel
March 21st, 2014

Last week, Dan Willingham asked if we underestimate our youngest learners. It seems we do, given the research he reviewed showing that seven- and eight-year-olds can understand a concept as complicated as natural selection. Willingham clarifies that, “No one would claim that these children have a complete understanding of natural selection. But they got much farther along in their understanding than I think most would have guessed.” He also noted one way in which it might be easier to teach complex ideas to younger children than to older children: “The authors speculate that … explaining natural selection at a younger age may have worked out so well because they were not old enough to have developed naïve theories of species change; ideas that would become entrenched and potentially make it more difficult to understand natural selection properly.” And he ends with an important question: “whether we do students a disservice if we are too quick to dismiss content as ‘developmentally inappropriate.’”

Almost everything Willingham writes sticks with me, rolling around in the back of my mind. This piece on young children kept coming to mind as I read a couple of articles in the spring American Educator. Could it be that our tendency to underestimate our youngest learners sets us up for a lifetime of underestimation? I think so.

It was a short step from Willingham’s piece to Daisy Christodoulou’s Educator article. Adapted from her book, Seven Myths about Education (now out in paperback), it’s all about how little knowledge is systematically and coherently taught to students:

In 2007, I trained as a teacher and started teaching English in a secondary school in Southeast London that enrolls students between the ages of 11 and 18. One of the first things that struck me when I was teaching was that my pupils seemed to know so little. Even the bright and hard-working pupils seemed to me to have big gaps in their knowledge….

I was born in East London to a working-class family. My father’s parents were immigrants from Italy and Cyprus. My father said that when he was in school as a child in England, he very often felt as though he was on the outside of a conversation. He didn’t know what the conversations were about, and he couldn’t go home and ask his parents because they didn’t know either. He was very determined that I wouldn’t have that experience, and I didn’t want my pupils to have that experience. Middle-class children pick up a lot of knowledge from home, from books, from programs on the radio, and so forth. Working-class children and the children of immigrants don’t always get those advantages. A lot of the pupils I taught were just as bright and hard-working as the pupils at private schools, but they lacked crucial knowledge, and this deficit held them back in their studies….

Too often, people think that teaching knowledge is somehow right wing and elitist. But this isn’t the case. The kind of powerful knowledge that’s in the Core Knowledge curriculum in the United States doesn’t “belong” to any class or culture. The great breakthroughs of civilization were made by a whole range of people from different classes and cultures, and if they belong to anyone, they belong to humanity. Teaching these insights to children isn’t elitist—not teaching them is! …

When we commit facts to long-term memory, they actually become part of our thinking apparatus and have the ability to expand one of the biggest limitations of human cognition…. Long-term memory is capable of storing thousands of facts, and when we have memorized thousands of facts on a specific topic, these facts together form what is known as a “schema.” When we think about that topic, we use that schema. When we meet new facts about that topic, we assimilate them into that schema—and if we already have a lot of facts in that particular schema, it is much easier for us to learn new facts about that topic.

Critics of fact learning will often pull out a completely random fact and say something like, “Who needs to know the date of the Battle of Waterloo? Why does it matter?” Of course, using one fact like this on its own would be rather odd. But the aim of fact learning is not to learn just one fact—it is to learn several hundred, which taken together form a schema that helps you to understand the world. Thus, just learning the date of the Battle of Waterloo will be of limited use. But learning the dates of 150 historical events from 3000 BC to the present day, and learning a couple of key facts about why each event was important, will be of immense use, because it will form the fundamental chronological schema that is the basis of all historical understanding….

Factual knowledge is not in opposition to creativity, problem solving, and analysis. Factual knowledge is closely integrated with these important skills. It allows these skills to happen. In a sense, these important skills are the functions of large bodies of knowledge that have been securely committed to memory.

I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing a devastating double whammy. We start the early years with an unwarranted belief that sophisticated content is developmentally inappropriate. Then, we continue through elementary and secondary grades with the misconception that skills can be developed without extensive knowledge. The result is that we systematically underestimate what our children are capable of learning. Such underestimations seem to become self-fulfilling prophecies, with especially long-lasting, truly harmful consequences for our least-advantaged learners.

With Willingham and Christodoulou on my mind, I dove into the next article in the spring Educator: Jennifer Dubin on the three-week summer institute for K–12 teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. These institutes—which require teachers to read 2,000 – 3,000 pages of texts like Prometheus Bound, Antigone, Hamlet, Crime and Punishment, and Beloved just to get ready to participate—are described by teachers as “divine” and “some sort of heaven.” In contrast, teachers often complain bitterly about typical professional development. Mind-numbing and time-wasting are descriptions I’ve heard frequently. It seems we’re underestimating our adult learners too.

At the Dallas Institute, teachers aren’t given tools for increasing students’ test scores. Teaching is hardly ever mentioned. Teachers are immersed in many of humanity’s most profound works and are trusted to apply these works to their professional lives in their own ways:

“Teachers work with human material, and the best way traditionally to gain access to human things is through the humanities, which are the foundation of a liberal arts education,” says Claudia Allums, who directs the Summer Institute. But a liberal arts education encompasses more than literature or philosophy or history courses, she says. It’s a particular spirit with which one approaches any discipline. “If a teacher has a broad, strong liberal arts education, then he or she is going to have a broad, strong foundation in human sensibilities. That’s the foundation we believe is important for any teacher’s wisdom.” … “The institute is where you recover what it means to be a teacher.”

It appears to be working. As the article states, “In a survey of participants from 2008 to 2013, nearly 70 percent said the program transformed the way they think about the teaching profession.”

It’s a sad state of affairs to see our education systems continually underestimating their learners, from preschoolers to experienced teachers. Perhaps the Dallas Institute—and teachers everywhere who know the joy of challenging studies—can end such fruitless practices by showing how high they, and their students, can reach.

 

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Prometheus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

Educators: Don’t Assume A Can Opener

by Guest Blogger
March 11th, 2014

By Paul Bruno

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

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

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

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(Imaginary can opener courtesy of Shutterstock.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Federal Policy, Teacher Effects

by Lisa Hansel
March 5th, 2014

My objective today is to put words in a few prominent researchers’ mouths—or better yet, their paper, “Learning that Lasts: Unpacking Variation in Teachers’ Effects on Students’ Long-Term Knowledge.” Benjamin Master, Susanna Loeb, and James Wyckoff have posted online a “preliminary draft,” which no one is supposed to cite. Blogging, I assume with all online content, is fair game. This paper is terrifically important. I just want to see a draft that more fully discusses the many factors that contribute to teacher effects.

Let’s start with why this paper is worth your time: It’s a blockbuster for those worried about the negative consequences of annual high-stakes test-based teacher evaluations. Looking at the long-term impact of teachers with high value added, the researchers conclude:

Evaluation and accountability systems may incentive educators to focus excessively on short-term tested outcomes in ways that are not ultimately beneficial for students…. Collectively, this body of evidence demonstrates that teachers’ instructional practices can influence their short-term value-added performance in ways that do not correspond with long-term success for students…. Overall, our results demonstrate that teachers’ effects on students’ long-term skills can vary substantially and systematically, in ways that are not fully captured by short-term value-added measures of instructional quality.

We clearly need education policy to incentivize (or at least not impede) meaningful educational gains, so I hope policymakers will heed this research.

To increase the odds that they will heed it, the paper needs one quick little addition: more forceful acknowledgement that teachers’ effects are influenced by many factors. Several federal and state policies could be explored as means of positively influencing curriculum and instruction. This is not simply a teacher issue. It is a standards, curriculum, assessment, accountability, teacher preparation, professional development, leadership, and resource-allocation issue.

Is it really these researchers’ job to remind readers of the broader context? No. It’s just something that, given the importance of the issue, I’m hoping they’ll want to note.

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When it comes to teacher effects, context matters.

Reading this paper, it’s easy to get swept up in thinking the teacher makes all the difference. For example, the more academic knowledge teachers have, the more they seem to infuse that in their instruction, to great effect:

The within-subject value-added persistence of ELA teachers who attended a more competitive undergraduate institution is significantly and substantially higher than that of teachers who attended a less competitive institution…. Differences in persistence are similarly large when comparing teachers whose SAT Verbal exam scores or LAST licensure exam scores are in the top third of the teacher distribution, in comparison to lower-scoring teachers. In both cases, higher scoring teachers show greater persistence…. It is notable that our teacher ability characteristics predict large differences in ELA teachers’ value-added persistence, even though they are not themselves correlated with teachers’ short-term value-added effects.

One might be tempted to think these direct teacher effects are simply teacher-quality issues. But nothing in education is so simple. Ask yourself: what’s likely to make a person with the potential to have lasting effects want to be a teacher for years to come? Rigorous standards and engaging curriculum, meaningful assessments that support instruction, accountability policies that don’t incentivize test prep, academically demanding preparation programs, tailored professional development, helpful leaders, etc.

Much of the paper is devoted to examining potential student- vs. teacher-level drivers of the variation in teachers’ long-term impact. That, obviously, is a key question—I just want to see more acknowledgement that the “teacher effects” are federal-, state-, district-, and school-policy effects. Here’s the heart of the research:

Observable student characteristics related to their socio-economic status or prior ability also predict substantial variation in their ELA teachers’ value-added persistence. The persistence of achievement gains coming from having an effective teacher is far lower for students who are eligible for free lunch, are black or Hispanic, or whose twice-lagged ELA achievement scores are below the mean…. These students may be receiving ELA instruction that is less focused on long-term knowledge, or they may be less skilled at acquiring or retaining long-term knowledge.

Ultimately, the researchers conclude the primary issue is likely “instruction that is less focused on long-term knowledge”:

We see evidence of the importance of instruction in the positive association between teachers’ academic ability and their contributions to students’ long-term knowledge. Even more compelling, we find that schools that serve more disadvantaged students or that hire fewer of these high-ability teachers have lower value-added persistence in ELA for all of their students. Students, regardless of their prior test performance, who attend schools with many low-performing students demonstrate lower persistence of the learning gains they achieve from having a high value-added teacher. The persistence in low-achieving schools is less than half the rate of that in other schools. These findings provide evidence that instructional quality is a key driver of the variation that we observe in value-added persistence, and that school-level curriculum or instructional norms may foster differences in instructional quality. Unfortunately, we are unable to directly observe the instructional practices of teachers or schools in our sample. However, in light of prior research on educators’ responses to high stakes accountability pressures … one plausible explanation for our findings could be that schools serving lower performing students systematically prioritize gains in short-term tested achievement in ways that detract from teachers’ focus on long-term knowledge generation.

As I’ve said, there’s a whole lot beyond “school-level curriculum or instructional norms” that “may foster differences in instructional quality.” The authors of this paper know that—and it’s certainly not their fault that many policymakers need to be reminded. But they do. And if more policymakers get the message that we have a multifaceted, highly complex problem to address, perhaps more desperately needed research dollars will be provided and more varied policies will be piloted.

We Teach Beauty

by Lisa Hansel
February 27th, 2014

What is the purpose of our public schools? It’s a question some answer quickly—too quickly, and too easily—with “college and career readiness.” I’m not against those things, but they seem to me to set the bar too low, so low that many of our students don’t buy in. It’s all utility, no passion, a monotone call to hop on a conveyor belt toward becoming a worker bee. (I’m not saying that’s what the adults intend, but the teenager in me remembers it that way.)

There is a loftier goal, one that would appeal to many youth but that, sadly and wrongly, tends to be reserved only for our most privileged: classical intellectual and character education—the type of liberal education that opens the door to the highest forms of freedom. This form of education gets the college and career part done by intentionally embedding necessary knowledge and skills in humanity’s enduring questions.

At Ridgeview Classical Schools (a charter with an elementary, a middle, and a high school), the curriculum is so carefully planned that even simple grammar lessons are infused with a higher purpose. I haven’t (yet) had the pleasure of visiting, but I feel like I have after reading a terrific new policy brief on the school by William Gonch. Gonch, with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, wrote the brief for AEI’s Program on American Citizenship. Here’s Gonch:

One important element of the Ridgeview approach is the way in which texts and assignments are made to do double duty, so that assignments teach grammar and logic while introducing students to profound ideas and artistic beauty. T. O. Moore, the founder and first principal of Ridgeview, describes the way in which the school integrates skills and core knowledge:

A classical education requires more than functional literacy, however. It teaches students high standards of grammar, precision in word choice, and eloquence. Throughout his education, the student will be exposed to the highest examples of eloquence attained by the greatest writers in the language.

“. . . I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Shakespeare

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Paine

These sentences are entirely grammatical. They could just as easily be used to teach grammar as “I come to help Jane, not to hurt her.” By preferring Shakespeare to an anonymous “See Jane” sentence we teach three things rather than one. We teach grammar. We teach cultural literacy. We also teach beauty. Our purpose is to introduce students to the masters of the language so they will begin to emulate them.

Actually, that’s just one of their purposes. As Gonch explains, Ridgeview uses Socratic, discussion-based classes in which “students spend their time interpreting texts and interrogating arguments and assumptions.” In K–8, its curriculum is guided by the Core Knowledge Sequence, and throughout K–12, the “Hirschean idea that Americans are defined by certain shared ideas and ideals, and that a school is the main vehicle for passing on those ideas, is central to Ridgeview’s understanding of civic education.”

Education for freedom is invigorating, but not easy. As readers of this blog know well, the critical thinking it takes to interrogate a text depends on having extensive relevant knowledge. Ridgeview’s curriculum is intentionally designed to build that knowledge starting in the early grades:

Ridgeview’s faculty have designed their curriculum as a coherent whole; ideas and approaches that are introduced when students are six or eight years old are developed, expanded, and drawn into increasing complexity as students turn 12, 14, or 18. One parent described this as a “cycling back process:” the curriculum introduces young children to a simple form of an idea, an intellectual method, or a story, and then brings it back recurrently in increasingly complex forms. A student might read a picture book of Greek myths in first grade, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology in sixth grade, and Euripides’s Medea in ninth….

The climax of the Ridgeview experience comes when students write their senior theses. The thesis is a 25–32 page research paper that asks students to sum up and reflect on their education. Students often describe the paper’s question as “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is the good life?” Students draw on texts that they have read throughout their schooling, especially the landmarks of their 11th­ and 12th­grade literature classes: The Scarlett Letter, Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, The Apology of Socrates, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Crime and Punishment, and Heart of Darkness.

Because the thesis is the climax of students’ work, students begin thinking about it early in high school. Whether or not they talk about it explicitly, they know that the questions they ask about the nature of honor in the Iliad, the law of consciousness in Emerson’s Self-Reliance, or the nature of the American political community in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address will return in their final papers and that they will have to draw from those texts a theory of the good life that they can defend before their parents and peers….

But the senior thesis, the final product of a self-conscious community of inquiry, might be the most individual thing that any student does. John Herndon, a high school history teacher who frequently advises thesis writers, urges students to address the question by asking, “Given everything I’ve seen in my education up until this point, what can I actually put stock in?” Students … have read Augustine and Plato but also Nietzsche and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Necessarily they must pick and choose, rejecting some texts (at least partly), while making others their own. And they must do it in full view: Herndon says that, standing in front of their peers and fielding questions from their teachers, “They can’t hide anymore.”

As a result, students have a unique freedom to interrogate their own lives and experiences.

If there were one thing I wish all educators would understand about classical education, it is the dedication to questioning. All too often, I see specific traditional content derided as indoctrination. But I never comprehend this point of view. It seems to me that all of the works that have stood the test of time push readers to question themselves, to juxtapose ideas, to see that things are never as simple as they may seem, to see that a good life is one of striving toward ideals, not meeting concrete goals. I understand and agree with those who say traditional content alone is too narrow, that students benefit from more recent and varied perspectives. That’s a yesterday-plus-today approach that can create great challenges for students. It stands in stark contrast to those who wish to toss yesterday out of the curriculum, to leave students anchorless, without the power to use longstanding questions and ideals to keep pushing humanity to better itself.

“We teach grammar. We teach cultural literacy. We also teach beauty.” Now that’s a Core Knowledge school!

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Ridgeview’s homepage. Seems far more gripping than “Where Will You Work Someday?”

Knowledge Is Sticky Stuff

by Lisa Hansel
February 20th, 2014

Earlier this week, I highlighted a terrific new book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Today’s post is a short follow-up to point out just how sticky Core Knowledge’s approach is.

By intentionally introducing topics in early grades and then deepening and extending knowledge of those topics in later grades, Core Knowledge exemplifies several of the highly effective practices explained in Make It Stick. Lucky us, we get to see them at work in Heidi Cole’s second grade classroom using Core Knowledge Language Arts.

In this 5-minute video, we see Cole engaging her students in the last read-aloud in the Early Asian Civilizations domain. It’s about the Chinese New Year, and it gives students an opportunity to recall what they learned about the phases of the moon in their first-grade Astronomy domain.

 

Cole Chinese New Year Fall 2013

Click here to watch 5 minutes of Cole’s read-aloud on the Chinese New Year.

 

As you watch, you’ll see six well-established methods for learning, all of which are explained in Make It Stick:

1) Retrieval practice: Recalling information strengthens memory. Cole pauses her read-aloud to give students time to share what they recall about the phases of the moon.

2) Feedback: Retrieval works even better with feedback; accurate memories are reinforced, while failed or inaccurate recall is corrected. Cole engages students in conversation, asks questions, and provides feedback about the moon.

3) Spaced-out practice: Having time pass between recall and feedback sessions results in longer lasting memories than cramming. This example with the phases of the moon is just one of hundreds of instances in which information is intentionally repeated and expanded within and across domains in CKLA.

4) Prior learning: As stated in Make It Stick, “all new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge.” For Cole’s students growing up in rural North Carolina, the Chinese New Year is likely a totally new concept. The read-aloud makes it easier to learn about by comparing the Chinese New Year with New Year’s Eve celebrations that are more common in America. In addition, drawing on their knowledge of the moon helps them make sense of a celebration that is wonderfully different from their personal experiences.

5) Elaboration: Discussing new information in your own words and connecting it to things you already know makes learning more efficient and longer lasting. Cole engages her students in elaboration by frequently pausing during the read-aloud to ask them questions.

6) Larger context: Similar to prior learning and elaboration, being able to tie something new to a larger context with which you’re already familiar facilitates learning. The key here is that the larger your store of information is—i.e., the larger the context you already have in memory—the more you learn. Cole’s read-aloud is not an isolated exercise; it is embedded in the much larger context of the many history and science domains that build on each other. By the time Cole’s students begin the third-grade domain Astronomy: Our Solar System and Beyond, they will have a rich scientific and cultural understanding of the moon. That larger context will be sticky indeed, making the new information much easier to learn.

 

UPDATE: For those who would like to see more of Heidi Cole’s read-aloud, here’s a 33-minute video.

 

Memory Is the Mother of All Wisdom

by Lisa Hansel
February 18th, 2014

Aeschylus’s pearl, “Memory is the mother of all wisdom,” is the epigraph to a profoundly important new book: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, III, and Mark A. McDaniel.

It’s extremely rare to find a book that everyone should read, but Make It Stick deserves such praise. You could consider it a book of cognitive psychology or education policy—I think it might be the ultimate self-help guide.

Facts, skills, concepts, knowhow—Make It Stick will make you more efficient and effective in every aspect of learning. It’ll even boost your perseverance. And if you follow its advice, soon your critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity will improve, since these are knowledge-driven skills.

Throughout the book, stories—like a mid-flight engine failure—are used to explain well-established findings—like the necessity of practicing in realistic settings. From a struggling medical student, we learn that rereading and highlighting are not effective studying techniques, though they are often the only techniques students know. And from baseball players and math students, we learn the importance of “interleaved” practice—practicing with a mix of pitches or problems so that you not only have to hit the ball or solve the problem, you have to figure out what type of pitch or problem is coming at you.

shutterstock_4501807

Curveball courtesy of Shutterstock.

One highly effective way to learn is with “retrieval practice,” which boils down to quizzing. Quizzing yourself as you read, using flashcards, taking classroom quizzes—anything that dredges your memory. Retrieval practice is explored through multiple stories, including one middle school that opened its doors and minds to the benefits of storing facts in long-term memory:

In 2005, we and our colleagues approached Roger Chamberlain, the principal of a middle school in nearby Columbia, Illinois, with a proposition. The positive effects of retrieval practice had been demonstrated many times in controlled laboratory settings but rarely in a regular classroom setting. Would the principal, teachers, kids, and parents of Columbia Middle School be willing subjects in a study to see how the testing effect would work “in the wild”?

Chamberlain had concerns. If this was just about memorization, he wasn’t especially interested. His aim is to raise the school’s students to higher forms of learning—analysis, synthesis, and application, as he put it. And he was concerned about his teachers, an energetic faculty he was loath to disrupt. On the other hand, the study’s results could be instructive….

A sixth grade social studies teacher, Patrice Bain, was eager to give it a try…. The study would be minimally intrusive by fitting within existing curricula, lesson plans, test formats, and teaching methods. The same textbooks would be used. The only difference in the class would be the introduction of occasional short quizzes. The study would run for three semesters (a year and a half), through several chapters of the social studies textbook, covering topics such as ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China….

For the six social studies classes a research assistant … designed a series of quizzes that would test students on roughly one-third of the material covered by the teacher…. The teacher excused herself from the classroom for each quiz so as to remain unaware of which material was being tested….

There was concern that if students tested better in the final exam on material that had been quizzed than on material not quizzed, it could be argued that the simple act of reexposing them to the material in the quizzes was responsible for the superior learning, not the retrieval practice. To counter this possibility, some of the nonquizzed material was interspersed with the quizzed material, provided as simple review statements, like “The Nile River has two major tributaries: the White Nile and the Blue Nile,” with no retrieval required. The facts were quizzed for some classes but just restudied for others.

The quizzes took just a few minutes of classroom time…. [Afterward, correct answers] were revealed, so as to provide feedback and correct errors….

Unit exams were the normal pencil-and-paper tests given by the teacher. Exams were also given at the end of the semester and at the end of the year….

The results were compelling: The kids scored a full grade level higher on the material that had been quizzed than on the material that had not been quizzed. Moreover, test results for the materials that had been reviewed as statements of fact but not quizzed were no better than those for the nonreviewed material…..

In 2007, the research was extended to eighth grade science classes, covering genetics, evolution, and anatomy. The regimen was the same, and the results equally impressive. At the end of three semesters, the eighth graders averaged 79 percent (C+) on the science material that had not been quizzed, compared to 92 percent (A-) on the material that had been quizzed….

What about Principal Roger Chamberlain’s initial concerns about practice quizzing at Columbia Middle School—that it might be nothing more than a glorified path to rote learning?

When we asked him this question after the study was completed, he paused for a moment to gather his thoughts. “What I’ve really gained a comfort level with is this: for the kids to be able to evaluate, synthesize, and apply a concept in different settings, they’re going to be much more efficient at getting there when they have the base of knowledge and the retention, so they’re not wasting time trying to go back and figure out what the word might mean or what that concept was about. It allows them to go to a higher level.”

Knowledge does indeed enable thinking at a higher level. As Make It Stick points out, switching from ineffective to highly effective instructional and studying techniques can be done right away, at very little cost, and with great benefits.

 

Close Reading (aka Not Skimming)

by Lisa Hansel
February 11th, 2014

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

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

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

An Olympics in the Shadow of a War Zone

By Steven Lee Myers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alrighty, let’s apply some comprehension strategies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Top Scholars, Great Reads

by Lisa Hansel
February 6th, 2014

It’s been a tremendous few weeks for those who love to read about building knowledge. Here are three great resources that are worth studying.

I. Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core

This slim volume from the Fordham Institute has an agenda-setting introduction by Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli, then several terrific essays:

  • “Me, My Sons, and E. D. Hirsch” by Sol Stern
  • “Complex Texts Require Complex Knowledge: Will the New English Standards Get the Content Curriculum They Need?” by Ruth Wattenberg
  • “There Are No Shortcuts: Mending the Rift between Content Knowledge and Deeper Learning” by Robert Pondiscio
  • “Building Teacher Enthusiasm for Core Knowledge” by the Farkas Duffett Research Group

Even better, there are three must-reads by Hirsch: “Sustaining the American Experiment,” “Romancing the Child,” and “Why I’m For the Common Core.”

II. Nate Silver and E. D. Hirsch

Daisy Christodoulou, author of Seven Myths about Education (which will be published in the US in March), writes great blog posts all the time, but this one stands out. Christodoulou has a critical message for data-driven education reformers: “We can’t just predict using statistics alone. We need a theory.” She continues:

Without this theoretical understanding, we are more likely to conduct meaningless tests, mistake correlation for causation and confuse statistical significance with causal significance. This is something that E. D. Hirsch has written an absolutely brilliant article about…. Hirsch notes that we do have a strong theory from cognitive science about how pupils learn. We can use this theory to guide our teaching…. Here is his list of reliable general principles (in the article he discusses each at length).

• Prior knowledge as a prerequisite to effective learning.
• Meaningfulness.
• The right mix of generalization and example.
• Attention determines learning.
• Rehearsal (repetition) is usually necessary for retention.
• Automaticity (through rehearsal) is essential to higher skills.
• Implicit instruction of beginners is usually less effective.

It seems to me this is an excellent and easily accessible summary of what we know from cognitive science. If we used these as a basis for devising RCTs [randomized controlled trials] and as a starting point for discussing the findings we get from them, I think we would be doing well.

III. Why We All Have a Stake in the Common Core Standards

This brief essay by Mark Bauerlein drives home a key point for critics of the Common Core standards to consider: Most students are not well prepared for college. The standards alone won’t guarantee that more students are college ready, but they do nudge schools in the right direction. Writing for a higher education audience, Bauerlein argues:

When ACT, one of the best-known judges of college readiness, examined why so many first-year students end up in remedial courses and perform poorly, it identified one factor above all others: “Performance on complex texts is the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are likely to be ready for college and those who are not.” Students three months out of high school enroll in freshman composition, a survey of U.S. history, and Econ 101 eager and hopeful, only to find that they can’t comprehend a Supreme Court opinion, 100-year-old oration, contemporary poem, and other texts.

Those pages prove too much for half of them (according to ACT), and colleges have insufficient resources to help…. To comprehend the texts they will face in college, students need general knowledge about science, math, history, civics, geography, arts and literature, religion, and technology….

Willy Loman, satire, and the poetry of King James stand proudly beside Gettysburg, separation of powers, and photosynthesis in the procession of cardinal things. The only adjustment English teachers need make is to add more literary nonfiction, which may include letters by Emily Dickinson, essays by Richard Rodriguez, chapters from Up From Slavery, and other unsurprising titles. Common Core readily admits them if they impart verbal facility and background knowledge that serve students well at the next level.

Critics of Common Core rightly worry, however, that curricula currently in development interpret “informational text” too nonliterarily and disregard cultural literacy. A troubling example comes from the National Council of Teachers of English, in a self-proclaimed guide to the standards. It declares, “the CCSS focus is on skills, strategies, and habits that will enable students to adapt to the rhetorical demands of their future learning and contributions.”

The authors mention “prior knowledge that gives context to the complexities of further reading,” but the “context texts” they recommend include film excerpts, blogs, radio shows, podcasts, and graphic novels, options often nonliterary and minimally fruitful for cultural literacy. Indeed, the choice of materials is secondary: “How the texts are used to scaffold the reading experience takes precedence over which texts are chosen.”

The burden, then, lies with college teachers to ensure that “which texts” does take precedence, specifically, that new informational texts in high school pay off in freshman year. They must be compellingly literary and rich in historical, social, psychological, or moral content. “Do not spend precious hours on media and topics that will not build familiarity that will be rewarded at the next level,” we must insist. Select informational texts that augment the knowledge base and enhance literary understanding.