Predicting Failure

by Guest Blogger
October 8th, 2013

Caution: Frustration Ahead! Yes indeed, this post needs a warning label.

The BBC, in conjunction with the British Council, is aiding and abetting the spread of edutainment and comprehension strategies through its website TeachingEnglish.


BBC thumbs down courtesy of Shutterstock.


A look at the most recently added lesson plans reveals far too much trivial content. The first two pages have “lessons” on snacking, playground words, food festivals, gossip, and texting. Out of the 10 lessons shown on those two pages, there is one substantive lesson on carnivores vs. herbivores, which draws on “Triumph of the Herbivores” from BBC Earth. With the BBC’s in-depth news coverage and documentaries, I assumed all its lessons would draw on its treasure-trove of content.

To be fair, I must say that I have merely perused the site. These recently added lessons could grossly misrepresent the bulk of the content—and I hope they do. I also hope the BBC starts vetting the lessons to remove the many that are substance free. In particular, I hope it removes this one: “Pause & predict – YouTube technique.” It encourages teachers to use Mr. Bean clips to teach children to make predictions. This is a couple years old, so I wish I could just shudder and forget about it. But over the weekend, this time-wasting lesson spread to the US:

By fourth grade, students are often proficient at making predictions about what will happen at the end of a book…. What they aren’t as used to is making small predictions–close predictions–thinking about how a character might respond to the next big event or interaction based on how that character has responded in the past…. Mr. Bean is a great character to use for prediction work, because he has a very clear M.O. He tries to solve his problems in ways that fix the immediate issues, but miss the main point. For example, in the short clip, “Packing for a Holiday,” Mr. Bean manages to fit everything in a suitcase, but he does so by making the items useless, like packing only half a shoe.

Mr. Bean on the high dive is priceless, but my knowledge of Mr. Bean—including my ability (or lack thereof) to predict what he’ll do next—never helped me in college, in the voting booth, in keeping up with current affairs, etc. Simply put, the lovable Mr. Bean’s purpose is laughter and relaxation—not education. In the US, youth only spend 20% of their waking time (about 12% of their total time) in school. Given the great breadth of knowledge, vocabulary, and skills they need to acquire to become literate adults, we just don’t have time for Mr. Bean.

The sad fact is, the teachers who are excited about this Mr. Bean lesson don’t know any better. As NCTQ has clearly demonstrated, the majority of teachers are never taught that knowledge, vocabulary, and fluent decoding are essential to reading comprehension. Many are taught about comprehension strategies; but without strategies being placed in the larger context of how comprehension develops, teachers end up with a very skewed notion of best practices. Predicting how Mr. Bean will pack for a holiday is the result.

So long as teacher and administrator preparation passes on mistaken beliefs instead of cognitive science research, such silliness is inevitable. Poor preparation leads to weak curriculum selection and development, which is then reinforced with professional development based on the same mistaken beliefs. Our current teachers would be far more effective if they were given a better education and better instructional materials.

In that spirit, let’s see what cognitive science tells us about comprehension strategies. Daniel Willingham summed up the research as follows:

[Comprehension strategies] don’t really improve the comprehension process per se. Rather, they help kids who have become good decoders to realize that the point of reading is communication. And that if they can successfully say written words aloud but cannot understand what they’ve read, that’s a problem. Evidence for this point of view include data that kids don’t benefit much from reading comprehension instruction after 7th grade, likely because they’ve all drawn this conclusion, and that increased practice with reading comprehension strategies doesn’t bring any improved benefit. It’s a one-time increment.

Willingham goes on to explain that “the one-time boost to comprehension can be had for perhaps five or ten sessions of 20 or 30 minutes each” and that the rest of the time spent on comprehension strategies is both a waste of time and counterproductive: It makes reading boring. That’s probably why some teachers have turned to Mr. Bean. A better solution would be to spend far less time on comprehension strategies and far more on science, history, literature, art, geography, and music.


A Wince a Day Keeps My Hopes at Bay

by Guest Blogger
April 17th, 2013

I’ve long been aware of the widespread misconception that comprehension, critical thinking, and the like are content-free skills. Wanting to help correct that delusion is one of the main reasons I joined the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Having been with the foundation for a little over a month, I’m seeing the skills-don’t-need-content fallacy everywhere. My neck is starting to ache from all this wincing.

Today’s encounter really caught me by surprise. It came from one of my favorite organizations: the American Library Association (ALA). Maureen Sullivan, ALA’s president, wrote a compelling plea on the Huffington Post to save the nation’s school libraries:

Recently the ALA has tracked multiple news reports regarding school districts that have placed school librarian positions on the chopping block in response to budget deficits…. For example, Pasco County (Fla.) School Superintendent Kurt Browning proposed a plan to eliminate 28 school media specialist positions in the next school year because of a budget shortfall…. In Sarasota, Florida, more than 18,000 middle and high school students may be without a school librarian. Local school board officials there are considering a proposal to eliminate all school media specialists…. School Districts in Louisiana, Maryland, Washington State and New York State also are considering proposals or reorganization plans that would eliminate school librarians.

We all know that there are far too many students without books in their homes and without the safe streets or bus fare necessary to access a community library. School libraries are essential—the very fact that Sullivan has to plead for them is a sad commentary on America’s priorities.

All of that is wince worthy. But this is what got me:

School librarians help more than 30 million students each week navigate a vast landscape of digital content, because the majority of students still lack the ability to analyze information found online.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project Online Survey of Teachers found that although the Internet has opened up a vast world of information for today’s students, their digital literacy skills have yet to catch up. Twenty-four percent of those surveyed stated that students lack the ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online. Another 33 percent reported that students lack the ability to recognize bias in online content.

Of course they “still” lack those abilities. Assessing the quality, accuracy, and potential biases of information—no matter where that information is found—can only be done by those with lots of content knowledge. By the very nature of schooling, students are almost always studying content that is new to them, so they very rarely have the extensive knowledge needed to make such judgments.

These questions are asked regarding information found online because adults want students to be able to use the internet more effectively. We might be able to teach students to be generally cautious and skeptical online, but for real analysis, content knowledge is the only option.

To make my point, I’m going to share two “mere facts” that will make us all wince. Fact 1: It’s not just the internet that is full of inaccurate information, even widely used mathematics textbooks are highly error-prone. Fact 2: Very few of us, even few our mathematics education professors, have “the ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find” in these textbooks.

The extensive errors in five widely used algebra textbooks were documented in chapter 3 of the report by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. The lack of awareness of these problems has been explored by Hung-Hsi Wu, an emeritus mathematics professor at Berkeley. He places blame not on the math education professors (and certainly not on teachers), but on mathematicians:

As a mathematician surveying this catastrophic education mess, I have to admit that, when all is said and done, the mathematics community has to take the bulk of the blame. We think school mathematics is too trivial, and we think the politics of education is a bottomless pit not worthy of our attention. So we take the easy way out by ignoring all the goings-on in the schools…. even though we are daily confronted with evidence that it is not working.

Why doesn’t Wu blame the math education professors or the teachers—and why does he blame the mathematicians? Because he knows that this analysis of the accuracy of mathematics textbooks could only be done by those with deep knowledge of mathematics. Knowledge that, largely due to their neglect of the rest of us, only mathematicians have.

In school, when students are learning about things for the first time, why should we expect them to be able to analyze the information they find online? I can show you a 12-year-old boy who, having been crazy about dinosaurs since he first chewed on a T. rex, can analyze the accuracy of almost anything about dinosaurs. But that same boy would likely fall for the tree octopus.

Out of curiosity, I dug up the Pew survey Sullivan mentioned. The survey sample is not representative of all teachers; it is about two-thirds Advanced Placement teachers and one-third middle and high school National Writing Project teachers. Asked to rate their students excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor, the teachers rated

  • 61% fair or poor on “Ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online.”
  • 71% fair or poor on “Ability to recognize bias in online content.”
  • 59% fair or poor on “Ability to use multiple sources to effectively support an argument.”

Are these results good or bad? We have no way of knowing. These teachers could be challenging their students with a steady stream of new information and ideas. Students may be acquiring broad knowledge that can provide a foundation for future studies. The fact that so many do not yet have the deep knowledge needed for independent online research need not be a great concern—it merely tells us that they need to learn more. Or, these students could be generally uninformed; expected to build analysis skills but not taught relevant knowledge, they may be headed for failure in future studies.

If Pew wanted to find out, it could do a follow-up study to investigate the students’ academic content knowledge. It would likely find, as so many cognitive scientists already have, that students’ analytical skills and content knowledge develop together.


Reading Comprehension Is “Useless”

by Guest Blogger
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.


Happy 85th Birthday E. D. Hirsch, Part 3: Breaking Free from the Siren Song

by Guest Blogger
March 21st, 2013

Three decades ago, in the spring of 1983, E. D. Hirsch published an essay titled “Cultural Literacy” in the American Scholar. He also turned 55. At an age when most people are getting serious about their retirement planning, Hirsch was embarking on a new career. He didn’t know it at the time; he thought the research on the need for background knowledge for skilled communication was so clear that all schools would rapidly revise their curricula and his job would be done. The research was clear, but the resistance to new ideas and evidence was not. Today, the siren song that elevates skills above content remains strong. Here is an excerpt from “Cultural Literacy” in which Hirsch explains how he broke free.

The received and dominant view of educational specialists is that the specific materials of reading and writing instruction are interchangeable so long as they are “appropriate,” and of “high quality.”…

I call this the doctrine of educational formalism….

During most of the time that I was pursuing research in literacy I was, like others in the field, a confirmed formalist. In 1977 I came out with a book on the subject, The Philosophy of Composition, that was entirely formalistic in outlook. One of my arguments, for instance, was that the effectiveness of English prose as an instrument of communication gradually increased, after the invention of printing, through a trial-and-error process that slowly uncovered some of the psycholinguistic principles of efficient communication in prose. I suggested that freshman could learn in a semester what earlier writers had taken centuries to achieve, if they were directly taught those underlying psycholinguistic principles….

So intent was I upon this idea that I undertook some arduous research…. For about two years I was deeply engaged in this work. It was this detailed engagement with the realities of reading and writing under controlled conditions that caused me finally to abandon my formalistic assumptions….

[My colleagues and I] devised a way of comparing the effects of well-written and badly written versions of the same paper…. To our delight, we discovered that good style did make an appreciable difference, and that the degree of difference was replicable and predictable. So far so good. But what became very disconcerting about these results was that they came out properly only when the subjects of the papers were highly familiar to our audiences…. What we discovered was that good writing makes very little difference when the subject is unfamiliar. We English teachers tend to believe that a good style is all the more helpful when the content is difficult, but it turns out that we are wrong….

While the variability of reading skills within the same person was making itself disconcertingly known to me, I learned that similar variability was showing up in formal writing skills—and for the same reasons. Researchers at the City University of New York were finding that when a topic is unfamiliar, writing skill declines in all of its dimensions—including grammar and spelling—not to mention sentence structure, parallelism, unity, focus, and other skills taught in writing courses. One part of the explanation for such results is that we all have limited attention space, and cannot pay much heed to form when we are devoting a lot of our attention to unfamiliar content. But another part of the explanation is more interesting. Part of our skill in reading and in writing is skill not just with linguistic structures but with words. Words are not purely formal counters of language; they represent large domains of content….

It would be useful … to have guidance about the words that high school graduates ought to know—a lexicon of cultural literacy. I am thinking of a special sort of lexicon that would include not just some ordinary dictionary words, but would also include proper names, important phrases, and conventions. Nobody likes word lists as objects of instruction; for one thing, they don’t work. But I am not thinking of such a lexicon as an object of instruction. I am thinking of it rather as a guide to objects of instruction. Take the phrase “First Amendment,” for instance. That is a lexical item that can hardly be used without bringing in a lot of associated information. Just what are the words and phrases that our high school graduates should know?

So began E. D. Hirsch’s 30-year struggle to close the achievement gap by giving all children the skills and the broad knowledge that enable strong reading and writing. In the years following his American Scholar essay, Hirsch wrote a bestselling book version, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and developed a lexicon of what high school graduates should know: the Core Knowledge Sequence. To find out how the Sequence came about, we turn to The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. Pages 74 – 77 answer the question “Which Knowledge Do We Need?”*

What exactly does that enabling knowledge consist of? That is the nuts-and-bolts question….

It is assumed by the American educational community that any “representative” knowledge will do. My colleagues Joseph Kett and James Trefil and I set out to develop more useful guidance for schools than this imprecise and inaccurate notion back in the 1980s. We asked ourselves, “In the American context, what knowledge is taken for granted in the classroom, in public orations, in serious radio and TV, in books and magazines and newspapers addressed to a general audience?” We considered various scholarly approaches to this problem. One was to look at word frequencies. If a word appeared in print quite often, then it was probably a word whose meaning was not going to be explained by the speaker or writer. We looked at a frequency analysis of the Brown Corpus, a collection of passages from very diverse kinds of publications that was lodged at Brown University, but we found that this purely mechanical approach, while partially valid, did not yield altogether accurate or intelligent results. For example, because the Brown Corpus was compiled in the 1950s, “Nikita Khrushchev” was a more frequent vocabulary item than “George Washington.”…

A much better way of finding out what knowledge speakers and writers take for granted is to ask these people themselves whether they assume specific items of knowledge in what they read and write. This direct approach proved to be a sounder way of determining the tacit knowledge, because what we must teach students is the knowledge that proficient readers and writers actually use. From people in every region of the country we found a reassuring amount of agreement on the substance of this taken-for-granted knowledge….

Several years after our compilation of such knowledge was published, independent researchers investigated whether reading comprehension ability did in fact depend on knowledge of the topics we had set forth. The studies showed an unambiguous correlation between knowledge of these topics and reading comprehension scores, school grades, and other indexes of reading skill. One researcher investigated whether the topics we set forth as taken-for-granted items are in fact taken for granted in newspaper texts addressed to a general reader. He examined the [New York] Times by computer over a period of 101 months and found that “any given day’s issue of the Times contained approximately 2,700 occurrences” of these unexplained terms, which “play a part in the daily commerce of the published language.”

An inventory of the tacit knowledge shared by good readers and writers cannot, of course, be fixed at a single point in time. The knowledge that writers and radio and TV personalities take for granted is constantly changing at the edges, especially on topical issues. But inside the edges, at the core, the body of assumed knowledge in American public discourse has remained stable for many decades…. If we want to bring all students to reading proficiency, this stable core is the enabling knowledge that we must teach.

That’s more easily said than done. One essential, preliminary question that we faced was, how can this necessary knowledge be sequenced in a practical way for use in schools? We asked teachers how to present the topics grade by grade and created working groups of experienced teachers in every region of the country to produce a sequence independently of the others. There proved to be less agreement on how to present the material grade by grade than there had been in identifying what the critical topics are…. The sequencing of many topics is inherently arbitrary. While it’s plausible in math that addition needs to come before multiplication and that in history Greece probably ought to come before Rome, maybe it’s not plausible that Greece should come before George Washington.

We collected the accumulated wisdom of these independent groups of teachers, made a provisional draft sequence, and in 1990 held a conference where 145 people from every region, scholarly discipline, and racial and ethnic group got together to work extremely hard for two and a half days to agree on an intelligent way to teach this knowledge sequentially. Over time, the Core Knowledge Sequence has been refined and adjusted, based on actual classroom experience. It is now used in several hundred schools (with positive effects on reading scores), and it is distinguished among content standards not only for its interest and richness, but also because of the carefully-thought-out scientific foundations that underlie the selection of topics.


* For the endnotes, please refer to the book.


Do you have a birthday message for E. D. Hirsch or favorite quote from him? Please share it with all of us in the comments.

You may also be interested in other posts in this birthday retrospective:

Part 1: The Secret to Lifelong Learning

Part 2: Avoidable Injustice

Part 4: Passing the Test



Myths Come From Values, Not From Ignorance

by CKF
November 19th, 2012

Today’s guest post is by Cedar Riener, assistant professor of Psychology at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia.  It originally appeared at Cedar’s Digest, Riener’s blog about “education reform, college teaching, history and philosophy of science” and other subjects. 

Like many interested in how we apply basic cognitive science to education, I was interested in the recent finding that many teachers still endorse many myths and misconceptions about neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Here is the original paper, and an excellent op-ed by Chris Chabris and Dan Simons in the Wall Street Journal. One interesting element of the experiment was that teachers who knew the most were also the most misinformed (from Chabris and Simons):

Ironically, in the Dekker group’s study, the teachers who knew the most about neuroscience also believed in the most myths. Apparently, teachers who are (admirably) enthusiastic about expanding their knowledge of the mind and brain have trouble separating fact from fiction as they learn. Neuromyths have so much intuitive appeal, and they spread so rapidly in fields like business and self-help, that eradicating them from popular consciousness might be a Sisyphean task. But reducing their influence in the classroom would be a good start.

I have spent a fair amount of time trying to change one of these myths, the learning styles myth, and I have learned some lessons that I think apply to the rest of them. By way of reference, here are a couple of past posts and writings of mine on the topic: Dialogue with a teacher who defended learning styles. An article (accessible to non-scientists) with Dan Willingham in Change Magazine (picked up by Andrew Sullivan!).

Despite my strong belief that these myths are have a pernicious effect on education, I think it is important not to simply dismiss those who hold them as ignorant or thoughtless. In fact, as this study showed, those who hold the myths are just as often the most thoughtful, reflective, and knowledgeable, rather than the least. How can a myth which seems to signify a lack of knowledge be an indicator of someone who is knowledgeable? Because many myths, and these myths in particular are rooted not in ignorance, but in strongly held values.

In the case of learning styles, many well-meaning people hold a strong value that all children can learn. I too hold this value. However, when we take this to its extreme, it becomes: all children can learn all content equally well and quickly. Unfortunately, this is false. There are differences in cognitive ability, which have consequences for how quickly and easily some children learn some material. the temptation of learning styles is partly a hope that students who struggle with a subject simply have not found the right “channel” yet. Their unlimited reservoir of intelligence simply hasn’t been tapped properly. Unfortunately, some of us have bigger reservoirs than others (although we do all have different reservoirs for different content).

To dismiss the learning styles myth, we have to let go of equating cognitive ability (or intelligence) with some sort of larger social value. Further, ability also does not have to stand in as potential. I may have little artistic ability, but if I was inspired to draw, struggled with  drawing classes for a few years, I have no doubt I could become a capable at drawing. We can nurture interest while acknowledging that some will struggle more than others. As I write in the links above, in confusing ability from style, the learning styles myth also distracts us from the dimensions that really matter, such as individual attention and presenting content to be interesting for all students.

Similarly, the “we only use 10% of our brain” myth reflects a belief that we have untapped potential. This is surely true. Most of us at any given moment we have an awareness that our mind is not as focused as it could be. This might be because many of us get to occasionally experience those great moments that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” when we are totally immersed in the task at hand. In all other times, we can observe our own mind wandering and feel the cognitive costs. We have also observed experts at work, doing things effortlessly which we could not even imagine. If we could only use 25% of our brain, that would be within our grasp! Like many brain myths, this doesn’t hold up to any scientific scrutiny. But the point is that most who endorse this myth in this see it as a neuroscientific translation of their belief in untapped cognitive potential. And they are right! We do have untapped potential. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to how much you can hold in your long term memory. And it seems to stay there forever! But this is not because we only use 10% of our brain.

My final point is that these myth studies often reveal language differences between scientists and the public. One of the myths in the study is the following:

“Environments rich in stimuli improve the brains of preschool children.”

A scientist such as myself might zero in on this and ask “hmm, what do they mean by stimuli?” I could follow the logic that I know certain interventions do help preschool children learn. I also know that a home environment rich in vocabulary helps some preschool children enter school with a larger vocabulary. This greater content knowledge has huge implication in elementary school. Like any kind of learning, there must be some sort of brain change involved. But the critical part of this myth is the “rich in stimuli.”  Simply adding stimulation (colors, mobiles, toys) does not improve your child’s brain. But to the teachers who endorsed this myth, I would imagine that it simply reads as “Good environments help the brains of preschool children.” This is obviously true, but it doesn’t begin to address what is good (or even what counts as environment).

This study (and those like it) show that scientists must be careful and sympathetic in explaining our research to the public. First, we need to recognize that the reason people hold myths is that these myths become attached to values. If we simply try to yank the myths away through overwhelming force of logic and evidence, without addressing the values, the myths simply won’t come off. I see this often with debates over evolution (and I try to apply it in my own classroom when we cover evolution). We need to make the case that one can accept evolution without giving up their sacred values. With learning styles, we need to show that we can still give individual attention and value each student’s contribution while letting go of the learning styles myth.

Second, we need to recognize that the way we use language is often different and sometimes more precise than popular usage. In psychology, this is often the same words (such as “intelligence” or “emotion” or “attention”). When people say “we only use 10% of our brain power” they they don’t mean that only 10% of the neurons are active, or that each neuron is only used 10% of the time it could be, or that each mitochondria in each neuron is only running at 10% of capacity. They mean that humans have untapped cognitive potential. Let’s join them in agreeing with that first, before explaining that in fact, even though you can always learn more, all of your brain is always on.

Is Grit Enough?

by Robert Pondiscio
September 5th, 2012

I highly recommend Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed.  Tough’s premise – that IQ and cognitive ability matter, but character traits like tenacity, curiosity and optimism matter more—is a strong challenge to my long-held notion that when students struggle, in high school or college, much of that is attributable to a lack of academic preparedness.  How Children Succeed largely argues otherwise, but there is a brief but fascinating passage late in the book that suggests we shouldn’t be too quick to worship at the altar of grit alone.

The first half of Tough’s book unpacks clinical research that demonstrates the importance of parents protecting children from adversity in the first years of life.  But it is the ability to persist in difficult tasks that ultimately seems to lead to success.  Tough’s book, broadly speaking, makes the case that to the degree to which there is a formula for success in life, it starts with a child’s need for protective, nurturing parenting, followed by independence and challenge to develop resiliency and “grit.”

A chapter entitled “How to Think” discusses at great length and thrillingly, the remarkable success of the chess team at IS 318 in Brooklyn, New York and the uncompromising approach of teacher Elizabeth Spiegel, whose unconventional methods involve “spending most of her time telling her students how they were messing up” in chess tournaments. “Spiegel often defied my stereotype of how a good teacher, especially a good inner city teacher, should interact with her students,” Tough writes.  “She does not hug.  She clearly is devoted to her students and cares about them deeply, but when a student gets upset after a loss, Spiegel is rarely one to go over and offer comfort.”

At the end of the chapter, Spiegel takes on the challenge of preparing James Black, one of her star chess players, for New York City’s specialized high school test, the entrance exam for Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and other elite public schools.  Under Spiegel’s tutelage, James, an African-American boy from Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, became a national chess champion and achieved “master” status in chess, one of only three African American masters under age 13.

“John Galvin, the vice principal, told her that she had given herself an impossible mission, that there was no way a student who consistently scored below average on statewide standardized tests could ace the specialized-school exam.  But Spiegel had seen James absorb chess knowledge astonishingly quickly and she had faith in her own teaching ability.  As she put it to me in an e-mail message in April, ‘I figure with six months, if he’s into it and will do the work, I can teach a smart kid anything, right?’”

Wrong.  By mid-July, Tough writes, Spiegel was getting frustrated.

“She was working hard with James on the test, and he was applying himself, even on hot summer days, but she was daunted by how much he didn’t know.  He couldn’t locate Africa or Asia on a map.  He couldn’t name a single European country.  When they did reading-comprehension drills, he didn’t recognize words like infant and communal and beneficial. By September, they were working together after school and on weekends for hours at a time, and she was starting to despair, trying to keep James’s spirits up while her own were sinking.  When James would get downhearted, and say that he just wasn’t any good at analogies or trigonometry, Spiegel would reply cheerfully that it was just like chess: a few years earlier, he had been no good at chess, and then he got specialized training and worked hard and mastered it.”

Is school just like chess?  Perhaps not.  UVA cognitive scientist Dan Willingham points out there are several differences between becoming a chess master and a earning a high score on a school’s entrance exam.  For starters, the relationship between chess and intelligence is not unambiguous.  “Though it’s considered an intellectual game, you don’t see straightforward connections between chess ability and intelligence,” he says.  

At an elite level, chess becomes in part an exercise in memory, Willingham points out.  You and I look at a chess board and have to painstakingly evaluate endless permutations of attacks and counter attacks.  James and other masters see patterns.  “Even if they see a chess board in the middle of a game it feels familiar to them because they’ve played so many games,” he notes.  Elite players have as many as 50,000 board positions stored in their long-term memory.   Plus anytime kids try something new, some of them really seem to take to it rapidly. That’s especially notable with skills like music, math. . . and chess.  “For some kids their learning curve is rapid.  They get good quickly in ways that most people do not,” says Willingham.

But broad general knowledge is different.  Willingham notes. “Academic knowledge and skills are wide ranging and accumulate over a very long time.”  It is nearly impossible to “get good quickly.”  Spiegel’s principal might have been exactly right.

Tough writes that James “represented for me (and for Spiegel, I suspect), a challenging puzzle.  Here was a young man clearly possessed of a keen intelligence. (Whatever intelligence means, you can’t beat Ukrainian grand masters without plenty of it.) And he seemed to be a case study in grit.”  Yet despite his own and his teacher’s clear and obvious effort, James failed to win entry into Stuyvesant, New York’s best high school, whose best chess players, Tough ruefully notes, James “will no doubt crush.”  Why?

“When Spiegel talked with me that fall about studying for the test with James, she sometimes sounded shocked at how little non-chess information he had been taught thus far in life. “I feel angry on his behalf, she told me. “He knows basic fractions, but he doesn’t know geometry, he doesn’t get the idea of writing an equation.  He’s at the level I would have been at in second or third grade.  It feels like he should have learned more.”

“The specialized high-school exam is, by design, difficult to cram for,” Tough writes.  “Like the SAT, it reflects the knowledge and skills that a student has accrued over the years, most of which is absorbed invisibly throughout childhood from one’s family and culture” [emphasis added]

Tough is undoubtedly correct that much essential knowledge is indeed family driven.  There are clear benefits to growing up in a home filled with books, college-educated parents who engage their children in rich dinner table conversation, museum visits, travel, and other enriching cultural experiences. But even without knowing a thing about James’s schooling, it’s not hard to surmise that Spiegel is precisely right.  James should have learned more and it’s his failure to accrue a lifetime’s worth of academic content, background knowledge and vocabulary—not his grit or raw intellectual talents—that likely doomed his effort to get into Stuyvesant.

Family background matters.  But it doesn’t follow that schools cannot or should not make a concerted effort from the very first days of school to provide as much rich content knowledge across the curriculum that kids need to be successful—especially for “school dependent” learners who are less likely to be exposed to it, like second-hand smoke, through their daily lives, contact with educated adults, or via what Annette Laureau termed “concerted cultivation.” Tough hints at this when he observes, “It might not have been possible to turn him into an elite student in six months, as Spiegel had hoped.  But how about in four years?  For a student with his prodigious gifts, anything seems possible—as long as there’s a teacher out there who can make succeeding in school as attractive a prospect as succeeding on the chessboard.”


Long-time readers of this blog know it is a misconception to think of knowledge as mere grist for the mill—content to exercise critical thinking skills or other cognitive processes upon.   “A reading of the research literature from cognitive science shows that knowledge does much more than just help students hone their thinking skills,” Willingham wrote in an important 2006 article in The American Educator titled, “How Knowledge Helps.”

“It actually makes learning easier. Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more — the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes — the very ones that teachers target — operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate the smarter they become.”

Paul Tough has written an outstanding book, and one that will no doubt be deeply influential on parents and educators, and deservedly so.   But I fear the takeaway—through no fault of Tough’s—will be “it’s all about character” or “grit trumps cognitive ability.”  Not quite right.  As James’ experience shows, grit matters a lot, but it’s not sufficient to compensate for a lack of knowledge if we expect kids to clear the high academic bars we place in front of them.

The suggested takeaway for educators:  Kids need grit.  But schools need to be very smart and strategic from the very first days of school about the knowledge and skills we ask kids to be gritty about.

Education Homilies and Other Empty Buckets

by Robert Pondiscio
July 5th, 2012

Teaching, more than any other profession, loves its homilies.  “Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.”  “Teach the child, not the lesson.”  We unthinkingly repeat these phrases not because they are correct, but because they are inspiring and ennobling.  Of all the homilies in education, none rankles more than this one: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”  The quote is typically (and apparently mistakenly) attributed to the poet William Butler Yeats.

Writing at the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog, Carol Corbett Burris, a high school principal and former “New York State Outstanding Educator,” cites this homily to drive a takedown of the Relay Graduate School of Education (RGSE), an independent graduate school of education, which trains teachers for KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First and other so-called “no excuses” charter schools.   At Relay, “teacher education that balances research, theory and practice has been replaced by ‘filling the pail’ training,” Burris writes.  (Full disclosure: Relay started as “Teacher U” and was incubated by former Core Knowledge board member David Steiner at New York’s Hunter College, where Steiner heads the School of Education).

Burris watches a RGSE video on “Rigorous Classroom Discussion” and is not impressed.  “The teacher barks commands and questions, often with the affect and speed of a drill sergeant,” she writes.  “She is performing as taught by a system that, in my opinion, better prepares students for the dutiful obedience of the military than for the intellectual challenges they will encounter in college,” she observes. In Burris’s view RGSE and its methods portend something dark.

“I worry that the pail fillers are determining the fate of our schools. The ‘filling of the pail’ is the philosophy of those who see students as vessels into which facts and knowledge are poured. The better the teacher, the more stuff in the pail. How do we measure what is in the pail? With a standardized test, of course. Not enough in the pail? No excuses. We must identify the teachers who best fill the pail, and dismiss the rest.”

Having spent a fair amount of time in “no excuses” charter schools that use the techniques that Burris finds objectionable, I understand her criticism.  Such high-energy, tightly structured teaching techniques can seem militaristic, and in the hands of less skillful practitioners a bewildering blur.   But Burris misses badly when she dismisses what she sees as mere “pail filling.”  This badly and broadly misstates the critical role of knowledge (the stuff in the pail) to every meaningful cognitive process prized by fire-lighters: reading comprehension, critical thinking, problem solving, etc.   Dichotomies don’t get more false than between knowledge and thinking.

Few recent authors have been more pointed in decrying instructional practices that kill students’ love of reading than Kelly Gallagher, the author of Readicide.  He has been outspoken in criticizing “the development of test-takers over the development of lifelong readers.”  Yet I strongly suspect he too would dimiss pitting “bucket-filling” versus “fire-lighting” as wrong-headed.  In his 2011 book, Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts, Gallagher writes:

“I don’t want my students to read in only one particular genre.  I want my students, of course, to develop a wide spectrum of reading tastes.  To become eclectic readers, they need to broaden and deepen their background knowledge.  Likewise, one of my goals is to broaden my students’ writing spectrum, and if I have any chance of accomplishing this, again, I have to work on building their background knowledge.  whether we are talking about reading or writing, background knowledge is critical.  You have to know stuff to write about stuff.”

The damage done by those who denigrate the importance of a knowledge-rich classroom—especially for our most disadvantaged learners—can scarcely be overstated.   Education is neither the filling of a bucket or the lighting of a fire.  It’s both.

You can’t light a fire in an empty bucket.

Is Teaching an Art or a Science?

by Robert Pondiscio
May 30th, 2012

That’s the question Dan Willingham poses in a new video.  As you likely know, Willingham is a University of Virginia cognitive scientist whose work focuses almost exclusively teaching and learning.  The video is worth watching, but – spoiler alert! – his conclusion is that teaching is neither art nor science, but “somewhere in between.”  He draws a parallel to being an architect, who understands enough about physics and materials science to design a building that won’t fall down.  But like an architect, a teacher “then also uses creativity and ingenuity to go beyond any strictures that science can offer, to create something wholly original, functional, and enduring.”

What is most interesting, and should spark the most informed and intense viewing of the video, is Willingham’s take on how science should inform teaching.

“I think what we know about how kids learn, and develop, interact and so on, can suggest boundary conditions. I mean by that things that, if you ignore them, will likely lead to trouble. For example, if you think that someone will acquire a skill without practice, that’s probably not going to work.  Providing practice for skills is a boundary condition. Another example, most kids benefit a lot from explicit instruction in letter-sound correspondences when they are learning to read, so providing that instruction is another boundary condition. Notice this doesn’t tell you how to implement practice, or how to implement teaching letter-sound correspondences—it just says that those things have to happen. I call these ‘must have’ principles.”

But in addition to the “must haves” there are a series of “could dos.”  In Willingham’s architecture analogy, there are ways to put a window in the middle of a brick wall that protect the integrity of the wall so it’s structurally sound.  But there is no rule saying you must have a window in a particular location, or have one at all.  This allows for a broad range of teaching approaches and activities, all of which could be good, useful or even elegant.  Just like architecture.

“The ‘must haves’ and the ‘could dos’ do not tell you what the house is going to look like.  The ‘must haves’ are boundary conditions, within which there is a HUGE amount of room for variation, and the ‘could dos’ are tools that you can use to help you get there, but you don’t have to use them if you don’t want to, as long as you respect the ‘must haves.’

Willingham is offering up his usual dose of fact-based common sense, but I’m tempted to suggest there might be little agreement on “boundary conditions” for teachers.   The preponderance of evidence may indeed come down on the side of phonics, as he suggests, but that hasn’t entirely settled the issue.  Whole language still has its adherents and repackagers.  Discredited ideas like learning styles remain hardy perennials.   The larger problem, to put it bluntly, is that education  pays insufficient evidence to science.

Boundary conditions in architecture or civil engineering are inherently self-policing.  Violate them and things fall down.  I’m having a difficult time thinking of a set of universally agreed upon “boundary conditions” for teaching.  But this creates an enormous opportunity for the cognitive scientists like Willingham to frame the discussion and offer evidence-based guidance on those “must haves.”  And an enormous obligation on the part of ed schools and programs that train teachers to pay attention.

It will take a whole lot of science to move the field past its self-image as an art, its neglect of science–and the tyranny of its philosophers.

Larry Summers Calls Higher Education Stubborn and Anachronistic, Offers Suggestions

by Robert Pondiscio
January 23rd, 2012

The following guest post is from Cedar Riener, assistant professor of Psychology at Randolph-Macon College  in Ashland, Virginia.   He blogs about education reform, college teaching, history and philosophy of science at Cedar’s Digest, where this post also appears.

I squirmed a lot reading Larry Summers’ recent piece in the New York Times on where he thinks and hopes higher education will go in the future. Here’s a point by point analysis:

He begins by undermining his own credibility:

A paradox of American higher education is this: The expectations of leading universities do much to define what secondary schools teach, and much to establish a template for what it means to be an educated man or woman.

REALLY? Have you paid attention to any of the K-12 school reform of the administration you have been a part of? The encouraged emphasis on basic reading and math skills at the cost of social studies, science, physical education and extracurricular activities runs exactly counter to the template of colleges and universities in which diverse offerings, and choices of majors proliferate. But I’ll forgive this vague handwaving and move on. Summers’ point is that colleges are seen as cutting edge, but in fact offer stale education which is stuck in the past because tenured faculty (who are often in charge of the curriculum) are stubborn. Dismissed college president says faculty are stubborn and old-fashioned, the Times is ON IT!

The paragraph in which he lays out the reasons that colleges are old fashioned seemed to me to be amazingly disingenuous. Colleges are staid and stuck in the past because… departments and courses have the same names as they did 50 years ago? Students take four classes and exams in blue books? Students pick a major? So the biology major is the same as it was 50 years ago because it is still called biology? Really?

Summers wants higher education to better reflect how the mind and world works. But as someone with expertise in mental processes who works in higher education, Summers’ understanding of both the current state of higher education and the science of cognitive psychology are simplistic and off base. As a result, we shouldn’t take his six “guesses and hopes” seriously except as a warning of the perils of breezy theorizing by famous intellectuals.

1) College curriculum will become “more about how to process information and less about imparting it”.

This is the standard: “You don’t need to know any facts because you can Google them, you just need critical thinking skills of finding and evaluating facts.” It is so tempting. Information is everywhere, it is at our fingertips, and the ubiquity of this information will spare us from keeping any of it in our heads, just like we don’t have to remember phone numbers, or directions anymore. Unfortunately, this is not how the brain works. As Daniel Willingham reminds us in his book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” “Factual knowledge precedes skill.” Whenever cognitive psychologists look closely at critical thinking, we find that it is tightly integrated with background knowledge. Any definition of critical thinking involves the creative and rigorous application of a network of facts. It is impossible to think critically about neuroscience unless you know dopamine from acetylcholine, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex from the occipitotemporal junction. Not remembering phone numbers is not the same as facts which we will sometime need to recruit to do our thinking. Summers shows he doesn’t have certain facts about language education and cognitive psychology, which he could easily look up, but which undermine the validity of his “critical thinking.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Quality of Homework is Not Weighed

by Robert Pondiscio
September 12th, 2011

The perennial debate over whether U.S. students get too much homework or too little misses the point. The question is not quantity, but the quality of the assignments, says science writer Annie Murphy Paul. Writing in the New York Times, Paul says what should matter is how effectively homework assignments advance learning. Neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and educational psychologists “have made a series of remarkable discoveries about how the human brain learns,” she writes. “They have founded a new discipline, known as Mind, Brain and Education, that is devoted to understanding and improving the ways in which children absorb, retain and apply knowledge.”

“But the innovations have not yet been applied to homework. Mind, Brain and Education methods may seem unfamiliar and even counterintuitive, but they are simple to understand and easy to carry out. And after-school assignments are ripe for the kind of improvements the new science offers.”

Paul offers several examples. As its name implies, “spaced repetition” means exposing students to the same material in shorter sessions over a longer period of time. “Instead of concentrating the study of information in single blocks, as many homework assignments currently do — reading about, say, the Civil War one evening and Reconstruction the next,” she writes, “students are re-exposed to information about the Civil War and Reconstruction throughout the semester.”

Another technique, “retrieval practice,” suggests using tests “not to assess what students know, but to reinforce it.”

“We often conceive of memory as something like a storage tank and a test as a kind of dipstick that measures how much information we’ve put in there. But that’s not actually how the brain works. Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting, so that testing doesn’t just measure, it changes learning. Simply reading over material to be learned, or even taking notes and making outlines, as many homework assignments require, doesn’t have this effect.”

According to Paul one experiment showed that students using retrieval practice remembered 80% of the vocabulary words they studied, compared to one-third for those using conventional methods. She also describes a technique called “interleaving” which mixes up different kinds of situations or problems to be practiced, instead of grouping them by type. “When students can’t tell in advance what kind of knowledge or problem-solving strategy will be required to answer a question, their brains have to work harder to come up with the solution, and the result is that students learn the material more thoroughly,” observes Paul. Each of these concepts, she concludes, are untapped opportunities to improve student achievement.

Paul’s article is unlikely to be persuasive to anti-homework dead-enders. But she offers a fresh way of considering one of education’s thorniest debates. It’s a must-read for teachers and parents. Paul herself is someone to watch. She is at work on a book titled Brilliant: The New Science of Learning. More importantly she’s proving to be a savvy chronicler of cognitive science and its lessons for educators–of critical importance in a field where “brain-based” is tossed around by hucksters as casually as “new and improved.”