Knowledge Compensates for Five Years of Reading Ability

by Robert Pondiscio
March 2nd, 2011

One of the principal arguments for a coherent, content-rich curriculum is that background knowledge — knowing something about the topic you’re reading about – compensates for weak reading ability.  But how great is the effect?  A tantalizing article by reading researcher Tom Sticht on suggests that in adult readers background knowledge can close a gap of five grade levels of general reading ability. 

If you want to test what someone knows about a subject, Sticht writes, “you might give them a simple multiple choice test in a written format, and then ask questions about the subject matter of interest.”  However this “confounds the assessment of the person’s knowledge about the subject with their ability to read.”  In other words, it’s difficult to tell whether a person taking a reading test doesn’t know the meaning of a word, for example, can’t decode a word, or lacks the background knowledge of the subject needed for adequate comprehension.   As Sticht puts it, we risk confusing ignorance with illiteracy.  “Generally there is no attempt to separately determine a student’s knowledge in the content area separately from the person’s ability to read in the content area in an unskilled or skilled manner,” Sticht observes.  

Sticht uncoupled reading ability from subject knowledge in work that he and colleagues performed for the U.S. Navy several years ago.  They developed “a 45 hour reading development program to help sailors improve their reading ability while increasing their knowledge needed for upward mobility in their career progression…In assessing learning outcomes in this course we considered both improvements in Navy career progression knowledge and increases in reading skill,” he writes.

They designed two separate assessments–one on the Navy-specific learning taught in the course; the other a more general reading assessment.   By comparing the two “we could determine separately the extent to which personnel had increased their Navy knowledge as well as their reading skill for incrementing their long term knowledge store using an external knowledge store,” Sticht says.

In additional work for the U.S. Navy we developed separate readability formula for determining how much general reading ability as measured by a standardized, normed reading test a person needed to be able to comprehend Navy material with 70 percent accuracy. We developed formulas for those with high and low prior knowledge about the Navy. We found that with low background Navy knowledge, a person needed a general reading ability of about the eleventh grade to comprehend with 70 percent accuracy. But highly knowledgeable personnel needed only a sixth grade level of general reading to comprehend Navy-related material with 70 percent accuracy. In this case, then, high levels of background knowledge substituted for some five grade levels of general reading ability.

The Armed Services, Sticht says ”have long understood the difference between general reading ability and specialized bodies of knowledge.”  When selecting people for service,” he points out, “lower general reading ability scores may be offset by higher scores in specialized bodies of knowledge.”  Confusing ignorance with illiteracy “contributes to a serious underestimation of the intellectual abilities of America’s children, youth, and adults,” he concludes.

Sticht’s eye-opening work validates a content-rich approach to K-12 education and once again demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of treating reading as an all-purpose, transferable skill, which it clearly is not.   Sticht’s point that we confuse ignorance with illiteracy has two big takeaways for educators:  the achievement gap is mostly a knowledge gap; if a “poor reader” and a “good reader” take a reading test where both share the same background knowledge, the perceived differences in their reading ability will likely narrow or disappear (this is also an argument for reading tests that are based on curriculum taught, not randomly chosen subjects). Secondly, if we know that knowledge correlates with general reading ability, then the best strategy for raising achievement across the board is with a rich and rigorous curriculum from the first days of school.  Teaching content IS teaching reading

“By not talking about the knowledge needed by the workforce people think they can teach any content and thereby improve the skill needed for workingi n a broad set of occupations,” Sticht wrote to me in an email. ”Failure to focus on knowledge leads to inefficient and too often ineffective career education or job training or retraining that many out of work people need,” he concludes.

Fractured Skills

by Robert Pondiscio
February 24th, 2011

Fascinating post — and responses — over at Common Core’s blog.  The organization, which advocates for content-rich curriculum and teaching has found a mole and invited her to blog about her experience teaching at a New Tech High School, a hotbed of the 21st Century skills movement.

With 62 schools in 14 states, New Tech’s mission is to help students gain both ”the knowledge and skills they need” but teacher  Emma Bryant says don’t be fooled, it’s really all about the skills.   “We practice project based learning, utilize the latest technology, and hold to a mission of helping our students acquire ’21st century skills,’” she writes.”  And what does that look like, exactly? 

“Roughly once a month we present students with a new project which must result in a “product.” According to our model the more “real world” the product, the better. Real world, meaning the product mirrors what could reasonably be demanded in a corporate setting — from a redesigned company logo and slogan to a promotional video or a press release. Students work in small teams to complete projects, with each team member receiving the same grade at the end. After all, it’s not about what individual students learn but the final product. Students are assessed on a handful of learning outcomes — collaboration, communication, innovation, work ethic, technological literacy, information literacy and content. Content usually makes up between 15 and 30 percent of a student’s grade.”

Content, as she describes it, takes a backseat to the student work product.  Emma’s students “might work a quote from a short story into a reworded company slogan,” for example. ”Or perhaps they might work with Photoshop to create a company logo depicting an event from European history.”

“Apart from being grafted onto ‘real world’ products, content is rarely discussed in the classroom. Instead, students deal with content in teams or individually, with little to no scaffolding from the teacher. Dialogue, questions, critical thinking, and debate surrounding content are low on the list of things you will see in a 21st century classroom. And so students end up with convoluted ideas about history, a cursory understanding of and appreciation for literature, and a shaky foundation in math and science.

Just as fascinating as Emma’s post is the comments it has engendered on Common Core’s blog.  Several New Tech teachers have complained strenuously–some  earnestly, others sarcastically.  All take issue with the idea that the schools are giving short shrift to academic content.   “If Ms. Bryant feels that content is pushed aside in her classroom, perhaps she should turn her critical eye toward the curriculum she creates and how it is implemented in her classroom,” writes one. 

But it’s worth asking why teachers are creating curriculum at all, and whether this doesn’t bolster Emma’s claim that content is fungible and skills non-negotiable.  If you view a subject–any subject–as a body of knowledge to be studied and mastered, then “coverage” (a dirty word among progressive and skill-driven educators) leading to deep appreciation and understanding matters.  A curriculum–a coherent grade-by-grade overview of all the topics within a discipline that students are expected to know– becomes very important.  It’s not something teachers are expected to create, but rather to use their creativity and skills to deliver.  The students’ ability to produce a “product” become a means to demonstrate mastery.  Put the emphasis on the skills and products, however, and the content becomes merely a delivery mechanism–something the product is “about.”   If teachers are creating their own curriculum, then is it not perfectly obvious that they view the content as unimportant or secondary to the skills being taught?

I have written previously my belief that this is not some nefarious scheme to devalue content.  Rather, I tend to think that 21st century skills advocates are genuinely perplexed by the criticism that they do not value content.  After all all of those products produced by project-based learning are about something.  And that’s content, right?  Not exactly.  The disconnect comes down to coherence.  Critical thinking, language development, vocabulary growth and many of the most desirable ends of education are “domain specific.”  You cannot be an all-purpose critical thinker or problem solver.  These “skills” are largely a function of the depth of your knowledge of a particular subject or domain and do not readily translate from one domain to another.  Thus any attempt to privilege or emphasize skills at the expense of coherence or rigor is doomed to produce less than complete understanding–and less than compelling “products.” 

As always, the issue is not content vs. skills as an either/or proposition.  Both are essential and desirable.  It’s a question of which is the horse and which is the cart–and which is most likely to succeed in producing the desired results we all want for kids.

Update:  Joanne Jacobs joins the fray.

A Model for Excellent Teaching?

by Guest Blogger
August 19th, 2010

by Diana Senechal

Note:  This essay by former Core Knowledge teacher Diana Senechal originally appeared at Gotham Schools.

The path toward teacher certification is laden with demands that prospective teachers prove that they’re sensitive, socially conscious, and self-critical. If a national group of education agencies has its way, those demands could soon extend throughout teachers’ careers.

Teachers and others would do well to look at the “Model Core Teaching Standards: A Resource for State Dialogue,” released in July for public comment. Developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC), the new teaching standards (separate from the Common Core State Standards that have been in the news recently) retain much of the language of the 1992 teaching standards, with some reordering and rewording to match the “new times.” Whereas the 1992 standards were intended for beginning teachers (and adopted by 38 states), the new standards are for all teachers.

The ten standards fall into four categories: The Learner and Learning, Content Knowledge, Instructional Practice, and Professional Responsibility. Each standard is broken down into Performances, Essential Knowledge, and Critical Dispositions. Like the 1992 standards, the Model Core Teaching Standards downplay subject matter knowledge while emphasizing the social processes of the classroom and the attitudes that teachers should have. Because these standards come so soon after the Common Core State Standards, they might influence how the Common Core standards are interpreted and implemented.

The 1992 document devoted the first standard to content knowledge; the new standards address content in standards 4 and 5. Two standards devoted to content seem like more than one, but neither standard addresses the need for specific knowledge. They treat content as fluid and relative, not enduring or precise. One of the “critical dispositions” for the fourth standard states that

the teacher realizes that content knowledge is not a fixed body of facts but is complex, culturally situated, and ever evolving. S/he keeps abreast of new ideas and understandings in the field.

This statement reflects only part of the truth. Content is both changing and unchanging. Teachers should be aware of developments in one field, but they must know the subject well, down to the details. One cannot teach physics unless one knows its rudiments–regardless of recent discoveries in physics. One cannot teach a language well unless one is thoroughly versed in its grammar, idioms, pronunciation, inflection, and nuances. Anyone can babble about the latest theories on Shakespeare’s identity; fewer can illuminate the logic of Sonnet 146 or help students grapple with folly and reason in “Lear.” Such understanding requires years of immersion and thought.

The standards appear to treat knowledge as a subjective, personal, social matter. Consider one of the “performances” for the second standard, “Learning Differences”:

The teacher brings multiple perspectives to the discussion of content, including attention to students’ personal, family, and community experiences and cultural norms.

Why should this be expected of all teachers? There is a time and place for multiple perspectives, but when you take this too far, the teacher may deny students the clarity of a right answer or direct approach to a problem. In algebra class, for instance, it is important that students actually learn how to solve algebra problems. Personal experiences, likewise, can obscure as well as illuminate. Even champions of “text-to-self connections” warn that faulty connections can lead to confusion and distraction.

Collaboration is mentioned far more often in the standards than independent work; this imbalance may undermine the collaboration itself. Collaboration is valuable when students have something to collaborate over. Sadly, the more they are asked to collaborate, the less they will bring to the table, unless they also learn how to wrestle alone with problems, ideas, and language. There should be equal emphasis on rigorous solitary thought. The best collaboration happens when the members have worked on their own and put thought into the project. If they are unable to do that, the collaboration quickly degenerates into chatter.

The standards articulate many attitudes and “critical dispositions” expected of teachers. The ninth standard (Reflection and Continuous Growth) states that a teacher

reflects on his/her personal biases and seeks out resources to deepen his/her own understanding of cultural, ethnic, gender, and learning differences to build stronger relationships and create more relevant and responsive learning experiences.

Yes, teachers should be able to question their own actions and assumptions. An introspective bent is important if not essential to good teaching. However, things become murky when teachers must show evidence of their self-questioning. Teachers who resist that sort of public display might receive low evaluations in this area, while those who produce confessions may be praised. It is fair to expect teachers to abide by an ethics code; it is not fair to require them to display their self-questioning. This may be hardest on teachers who take introspection seriously (and there are many such teachers), for they will be asked to bare their souls or else come up with a superficial version of their thoughts.

All in all, the “Model Core Teaching Standards” rely on faulty premises. They downplay the importance of concrete knowledge. They disregard the enduring aspects of subject matter, the things that need to be learned, pondered, read, and reread. They emphasize collaboration without likewise emphasizing independent thought. They expect teachers to be reflective, but without autonomy of thought. None of this is particularly new; many education schools have similar value systems. Once upon a time, such requirements were part of a teacher’s initiation; once you made it through the hoops, people left your thoughts alone, unless there was reason for concern. Now teachers may have to demonstrate “correct” attitudes and thoughts throughout their careers.

Far from meeting the needs of a new world, these standards ignore the qualities that have characterized fine teachers over the centuries: knowledge and love of the subject; keen awareness of the students and respect for their privacy; and the ability to demand concentration, precision, integrity, and hard work. Within this, there are many personalities and variations — but these qualities are not outdated, nor will they ever be.

President Obama’s Standards-Based Speech

by Robert Pondiscio
September 8th, 2009

If there’s a bright side to the past week’s uproar over President Obama’s speech to schoolchildren it’s this: when was the last time we had a robust national debate about what our kids actually do in school?  A Niagara of ink was spilled debating whether the speech and a set of recommended classroom activities represented political propaganda, indoctrination or an abuse of presidential power.  But here’s an overlooked, yet indisputably accurate description of Obama’s speech and those controversial lesson plans: 


The draft national standards in reading, writing, speaking and listening worked up by National Governors Associations (NGA) and The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), specify only the skills our children should be able to demonstrate.  Whether President Obama and the Department of Education realize it or not, they are revealing exactly how empty and meaningless these “standards” are as currently written.  For example, in order to be “college and career ready,” the draft standards hold that students must be able to “listen to complex information and understand what was said, identifying main ideas and supporting details.”  This is a standard you can apply to today’s speech by President Obama, a Glenn Beck talk show rant, the films of Michael Moore, or the conspiratorial ravings of the 9/11 “truth” movement.   So while conservatives can rest assured that Obama’s speech to schoolchildren will not be a part of the emerging national standards, neither is Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, Lincoln’s second inaugural address or Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.   In fact, no speech, book, poem or play is required.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all speeches are created equal. 

But wait a minute, you might be thinking, “isn’t that what national standards are supposed to do?  Doesn’t it mean that kids from Maine to Montana are learning the same thing?”  No, that’s what a national curriculum would do.   It’s become distressingly clear that even people in education who should know better use the terms “standards” and “curriculum” interchangeably.  Yong Zhao, a distinguished professor of education at Michigan State University wrote in the Detroit Free Press last week that national standards “stifle creativity and reduce diversity of talents by instilling a single view of worthwhile knowledge” thereby doing “irreversible damage” to American education.  There are many criticisms one can level at the national standards movement.  That’s not one of them.

What conservative critics like Beck, Michelle Malkin and others might have focused on but did not is that the Administration’s suggested activities meet literally every one of the draft common core standards.  In order to be “college and career ready” students should be able to “sustain focus on a specific topic or argument through careful presentation of essential content;” “support and illustrate arguments and explanations with relevant details and examples;” and “represent and cite accurately the data, conclusions and opinions of others” among other skills.  Even the “inartfully worded” suggestion, that students ”write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president” is not in conflict with such standards. 

This is the dilemma of process standards:  they are aggressively, adamantly agnostic on the content of a good education.  Anything goes.  What speeches and texts are important to know?  Right now, the official answer is “none.”   Perhaps that’s a silver lining in this otherwise strange and irritating controversy that has greeted the President’s speech to school children.  If you don’t think that listening and responding to a Presidential address is a productive use of school time, the question you need to address is, “What exactly do you think your child should be reading and listening to all day?”

It’s a debate that is worth having.  At present, 46 states and the District of Columbia are close to answering the question “What should children learn in school” with “whatever.”    If you don’t think “whatever” is a good or helpful answer, then your choices quickly narrow to two:  You can fight to define what is (or is not) the appropriate content of a sound, well-rounded public education.  Or you can keep your child home every time he or she is assigned a text that you don’t like.

Update: Jay Greene comes at this from a similar angle.  “Parents sense a lack of control over what their children are taught in school,” he notes. “This is as true of every day’s social studies lesson as it is of Obama’s speech.”

The Slippery Slope of “Content”

by Robert Pondiscio
March 30th, 2009

The 21st Century Skills debate is back on again.  Lynne Munson of Common Core caused a ruckus at a P21 event at the NEA last week.  That sparked a response by Paige Kuni of Intel, who chairs the P21 board, over at Flypaper.  I won’t rehash the debate, but reading it and thinking about the ongoing dustup prompted a flashback.

Back when the World Wide Web was the Next Big Thing, I worked at TIME Magazine when it became the first major magazine to make its complete contents available each week on a then little-known service called America Online.  The project was regarded within the House the Luce Built with anything from amusement to irritation.  Those of us who were mixing it up online with readers were dismissed by some ink-stained colleagues as wasting our time on a fad, one that had more in common with CB radio than publishing.  But one criticism had merit then and still rings in my ears today.  It bothered many reporters and writers that we referred to their magazine pieces as “content.”  The very word connoted a commodity, something cheaply made, processed and packaged, sold by the ton and shipped in containers. 

So it is with P21.  I’ve come to conclude that they are genuinely bewildered by those of us who complain they are soft on rigor and academics.  Ken Kay and Co., I think, earnestly believe that they support “world class skills and world class content.”  But it’s the word content that causes the disconnect.  By referring to history, art, science, math, and literature as “content,” it seems to betray an orientation that dismisses the best of our accumulated knowledge, thought and expression as simply a bunch of stuff.  P21 is by no means alone in this.  Lots of people who favors a rigorous curriculum throw the word content around as convenient shorthand, present company included.   

Many of my erstwhile print colleagues adamantly — and in retrospect, correctly — refused to see themselves as “content providers.”  They were White House correspondents, investigative reporters, bureau chiefs, editors, writers and photojournalists.  They were probably right, even as they ended up on the wrong side of history.  One of the problems bedeviling print media today is precisely that newspapers and magazines have allowed themselves to become commoditized.  The reader doesn’t see the value (and doesn’t want to pay) for commodity news, cheaply available everywhere.   There’s a lesson in here for education somewhere.  It concerns who we are, what we do, and what–if we’re not thoughtful–we will allow ourselves to become. 

Over in the comments sections in Flypaper, Diana Senechal responding to Paige Kuni, nails the reductive nature of viewing everything as content. 

“I question the value of the sort of analogies you describe. The life cycle of the butterfly is fascinating in itself. The transformation from egg to butterfly is not just a story of “success”—it has intricate processes and startling beauty. There is no need to make superficial analogies with business. There is much of interest right here, in the subject, and it becomes more interesting with deeper study….Making connections is very important, but we have to be judicious about the kind of connections we make, lest we trivialize the subject. I am not a biologist, but I believe many a biologist would agree.

Biology teachers, who clearly see themselves as teaching science not content, would doubtless agree too.  Indeed, I doubt there are too many great teachers who view what they do in class as teaching “content.”  Those of us who worry that a skills orientation dulls academics need to find a better word to describe what we value if we want others to prize it as highly as we do.

21st Century Skills Fadbusters

by Robert Pondiscio
February 25th, 2009

Who you gonna call?

Diane Ravitch, E.D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham played FadBusters at a panel discussion on 21st Century Skills hosted by Common Core in Washington, DC on Tuesday afternoon, along with Ken Kay, who heads the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21). 

For those who have only just arrived on our planet this morning, the highly visible and well-financed 21st Century Skills movement seeks to put information and communications skills, critical thinking and problem solving “at the center of US K-12 education.” Ravitch pointed out that the zippy name notwithstanding, most of the ideas promoted by P21 have been with us for over a century.  “After examining the materials associated with P21,” she quipped, “I concluded, to quote the noted philosopher Yogi Berra, that ‘it’s like déjà vu all over again.’”

There is nothing new in the proposals of the 21st century skills movement. The same ideas were iterated and reiterated by pedagogues across the twentieth century. Their call for 20th century skills sounds identical to the current effort to promote 21st century skills. If there was one cause that animated the schools of education in the 20th century, it was the search for the ultimate breakthrough that would finally loosen the shackles of subject matter and content.

Bending over backwards to applaud its motives and goals, Hirsch nonetheless observed that the entire premise of 21st Century skills rests on a flawed assumption about critical thinking, problem solving and innovation:  “The error at the heart of P21 is the idea that skills are all-purpose muscles that, once developed, can be applied to new and unforeseen domains of experience,” he noted.  “This error is fundamental, and it is fatal,” he said. 

It will lead to the same disappointments as the idea that reading comprehension is a how-to skill that can be developed through strategy drills. On the contrary, reading comprehension, communication, critical thinking, and the rest are inherently constituted by specific knowledge. More than that, if you have domain knowledge yet lack mere technical proficiency, you will nonetheless perform more skillfully than a proficient person who lacks relevant knowledge. There are many experiments supporting this, going back to de Groot’s famous 1946 experiments with chess masters. Incautious claims about the transferability of 21st-century skills from one domain to another are very misleading. No, let me put it more strongly. The how-to concept is just plain wrong.

The fallback position of 21CS proponents has become something to the effect of “we’re not saying academic content doesn’t matter.  Kids need content AND skills.”  But Dan Willingham pointed out that it’s inaccurate even to conceive of skills and factual knowledge as separate.

I often hear people say ‘Yes, yes, of course, knowledge is important. After all, you need something to think about.’ But there is more to it than that. Knowledge is not just something that skills operate on-knowledge is what enables skills to operate in the first place.

“Everyone understands that memorizing facts without skills is not enriching,” Willingham noted. ”People forget that training skills without facts doesn’t work.” 

All credit and praise to Kay for taking on the challenge of defending 21st century skills in the face of such skepticism.  He nonetheless found himself backpedalling, continually reminding the audience that P21 believes content is important.  Ultimately, he conceded that the principal contribution of the 21st Century skills movement is ”offering a vision of a desired outcome.” Students need to be prepared to be more engaged civic participants and highly skilled workers. “It’s not our job to develop the model,” he said. 

Alas, there was little in Kay’s comments that suggests he gets the idea that his vision cannot be realized by the specific methods he is promoting.  Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a Middle Ages version of Ken Kay, “offering a vision” of alchemy as the proper purpose of education.  “It’s not our job to develop the model,” he might have said.  “We’re merely articulating a vision that says the transmutation of lead into gold and discovering the elixir of life are vital 14th century skills.”

Good luck with that. 

A broad, solid knowledge-based curriculum is square one for developing “21st Century Skills.”  Inspired, creative teaching–not wish fulfillment codified by squishy, ill-defined standards–gets us the rest of the way.  That might not fit on a bumper sticker, but it might work.

Linda Darling-Hammond Gives Props to Core Knowledge

by Robert Pondiscio
February 20th, 2009

Tout le blogs, following Politics K-12′s lead, note that Linda Darling-Hammond will not be joining the Obama administration as many expected, but has instead opted to remain at Stanford.  Another interesting LDH note appeared in the form of a letter to the editor of this morning’s Boston Globe. Titled “Knowledge, skills are not mutually exclusive goals” Darling-Hammond responds to a recent op-ed by Kathleen Madigan of the Pioneer Institute:

We note that many of the Core Knowledge schools of E.D. Hirsch, whom Madigan cites in her attempt to polarize, develop solid knowledge and rigorous thinking skills through a project-based curriculum, defying the silly idea that we can’t develop both knowledge and skills in our schools.

I’m not sure where Professor Darling-Hammond (and DFER’s Joe Williams, who helped author it) got the idea that the Core Knowledge curriculum is “project-based” (it’s up to teachers to use their professional judgement to decide how to teach the material), but her observation that solid knowledge and rigorous thinking skills are not mutually exclusive is certainly welcome–as is her citing the accomplishments of Core Knowledge schools. 

Alas, several reports cite a seriously ill family member as a prime reason for Darling-Hammond staying in California.  We pray it proves to be not serious, and wish her well.

21st Century Skills and the Tree Octopus Problem

by Robert Pondiscio
February 5th, 2009

The 21st century skills movement has a problem.  It’s a problem that can’t be solved by all of the innovation, creativity and information literacy lessons under the sun, yet it can be deftly handled by a little bit of science knowledge.  Call it the tree octopus problem.

The Partnership for 21st  Century Skills describes its mission as to serve as a catalyst to position 21st century skills at the center of US K-12 education.  Based on “hundreds of hours of research, development and feedback from educators and business leaders across the nation,” it has developed “skills maps” for educators to help teach the supposedly new skills of demonstrating originality and inventiveness in work and developing, implementing and communicating new ideas to others.  To its credit, the Partnership does not dismiss traditional curricular content, but rather ”advocates for the integration of 21st Century Skills into K-12 education so that students can advance their learning in core academic subjects.” 

So what does a 21st Century ELA lesson actually look like in the classroom?  Here’s an example of a 4th grade “information literacy” activity taken directly from the 21st Century Skills Map.

Outcome: Evaluate information critically and competently.

Example: Students are given a teacher-generated list of websites that are a mixture of legitimate and hoax sites.  Students apply a website evaluation framework such as RADCAB ( to write an explanation for deciding whether each site is credible or not.

“RADCAB,” if you’re not familiar with it, is a trademarked “critical thinking assessment tool for online information” that teaches kids to evaluate the information on a website.  RADCAB is an acronym for Relevance, Appropriateness, Detail, Currency, Authority and Bias.  OK, RADCAB, say hello to my little friend, the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, an endangered species and Internet cause célèbre.

RADCAB features a rubric that helps students evaluate online information.  Level 3 of 4 (the “Research Pro” level, and presumably a reasonable goal for all learners) includes things like “I create ’slam-dunk’ keywords from my research questions and use them to find relevant information” and “I leave information sources quickly that are too hard for me or offend my core values.”  Nothing very helpful in determining if the Tree Octopus is for real or not. The rubric also tells us we are research pros if we “look for copyright information or ‘last updated’ information” in the source.  Very well: The tree octopus site was created in 1998 and updated within the last two months, so it must be a current source of tree octopus information.  We are also research pros if we ”look for the authority behind the information on a website because I know if affects the accuracy of the information found there.”  Merely looking for the authority tells us nothing about its value, but let’s dig deeper.  The authority behind the site is the “Kelvinic University branch of the Wild Haggis Conservation Society.” Sounds credible. It is, after all, a university, and one only has to go the extra mile to be a Level 4, or “Totally Rad Researcher.”  The Tree Octopus site even carries an endorsement from, and I’ve heard of them (haven’t I?) and links to the scientific-sounding ”Cephalopod News.” 

It’s possible to spend countless hours looking at the various RADCAB categories without getting the joke.  Unless, of course, you actually know something about cephalopods — such as the fact that they are marine invertebrates that would have a tough time surviving or even maintaining their shape out of the water — then the hoax is transparent. 

Here’s where we come smack up against the limits of information literacy skills in the absence of content knowledge.  Researchers at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education asked 25 seventh-graders from middle schools across the state to review the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site, the results were unsurprising:

  • All 25 students fell for the Internet hoax;
  • All but one of the 25 rated the site as “very credible;”
  • Most struggled when asked to produce proof – or even clues – that the web site was false, even after the UConn researchers told them it was; and
  • Some of the students still insisted vehemently that the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus really exists.

If you were on the research team you might fairly conclude that science knowledge was lacking in the 7th graders in the study.  (One dead giveaway on the site is the reference to the Tree Octopus’s natural predators, the bald eagle and the sasquatch.)  But the team at the University of Connecticut saw things differently.  Their verdict: “Classroom instruction in online reading and other ‘new literacies’ is ‘woefully lacking.’” 

(Cue the sounds of palms smacking on foreheads)

It’s one thing to talk about how 21st century skills can “advance learning in core academic subjects.” It’s quite another to put it into practice.  To a hammer, everything is a nail, and to 21st century skills enthusiasts, it’s all about technology tools, information literacy, innovation and collaboration. All the rest is ”facts you can find online in a maximum of 20 seconds.” So the question for the Partership for 21st Century Skills is this: are you prepared to argue just as strenuously for content standards and a broad, rich curriculum as for innovation, critical thinking and problem solving standards?  Because ultimately 21st Century skills without content knowledge is a non-starter and probably a step backward.  Dan Willingham proved to be not just a great cognitive scientist, but a good history student recently when he noted a familiar pattern in education:

Pendulum swings between an emphasis on process (analysis, critical thinking, cooperative learning) which fosters concern that students lack knowledge and generates a back-to-basics movement that emphasizes content, which fosters concern that student are merely parroting facts with no idea of how to use their knowledge, and so on.  In calmer moments, everyone agrees that students must have both content knowledge and practice in using it, but one or the other tends to get lost as the emphasis sweeps to the other extreme.

Wise words.  Maybe if we start listening, history will stop repeating itself.

21st Century Snake Oil

by Robert Pondiscio
February 3rd, 2009

Yesterday, Alfie Kohn; today Tony Wagner.

Jay Greene goes after the education guru on his blog and in an op-ed in the Northwest Arkansas Morning News.  The Fayetteville Public School system has purchased 2,000 copies of Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap and is holding a series of public meetings, according to Greene, on how Wagner’s vision for 21st century skills ”might guide our schools.”  Be afraid, says Jay.  Be very afraid. 

It’s hard to get people to think critically about people who push a focus on critical thinking.  To be for critical thinking is like being for goodness and light.  The tricky part is in how you get there.  To the extent that Wagner has any concrete suggestions, he seems to be taking folks down the wrong path.  He wants less emphasis on content and less testing.  But he shows no evidence that higher levels of critical thinking can be found in places or at times when there was less content and less testing.  In fact, the little evidence he does provide would suggest the opposite.

Joanne Jacobs weighs in as well, pointing to a Sandra Stotsky op-ed on Tony Wagner, and noting succinctly: “I don’t see excess knowledge as a big problem for today’s students.”

Cultural Literacy Bonus:  Check out the illustration atop Jay’s blog post.  It’s Bugs Bunny dressed as a Wagnerian Valkyrie from the cartoon, What’s Opera, Doc?  Can you imagine a kid’s cartoon using Wagner’s Ring Cycle as the basis of a parody today?  It’s a bromide to suggest that entertainment has been dumbed-down over time, but it’s hard not to notice the difference in the vocabulary of Mary Poppins, for example, or the Rex Harrison version of Doctor Doolittle compared to contemporary kids’ fare.  Quantifying the change in cultural references and vocabulary level in children’s entertainment over the last 50 years or so would make for an interesting study, if it hasn’t already been done.

Reading War II: Content Knowledge vs. Reading Strategies

by Robert Pondiscio
January 19th, 2009

If phonics vs. whole language was Round One of the reading wars, the new battle is shaping up to be reading strategies vs. content knowledge, says Dan Willingham at Britannica Blog.  “Like Round 1 of the battle, one side is mostly right (content knowledge) but there is some merit on the other side,” says Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

Most of us think about reading in a way that is fundamentally incorrect. We think of it as transferable, meaning that once you acquire the ability to read, you can read anything. That is true for only part of what it takes to read. It’s true for decoding—the ability to translate written symbols into sounds….But being able to decode letter strings fluently is only half of reading. In order to understand what you’re reading, you need to know something about the subject matter. And that doesn’t just mean that you need to know the vocabulary—you need to have the right knowledge of the world.

Willingham produced a YouTube video that underscores the connections between content knowledge and comprehension.  His blog post points out what virtually every elementary school teacher knows: once children learn to decode, reading instruction is almost exclusively focused on comprehension “strategies”–asking students to find the main idea of passage, identify the author’s purpose, etc.  Reading strategies work “but it’s a one-time boost,” he notes.  “Fifty sessions of practice is no better than five sessions of practice” since strategies serve mainly to give students a better idea of what reading is for.

In early grades, there is tremendous emphasis on decoding, and there must be. But this emphasis leads kids to feel that if they’ve decoded a passage, then they have read it, whereas teachers want them to have the idea that they shouldn’t be satisfied with decoding—they need to understand. Reading strategies help drive home this new notion of reading—that it’s about communication. Small wonder that practicing reading strategies gives no added benefit. Reading strategies are an easily-learned trick, like checking your work in math. Useful, to be sure, but not something that needs to be practiced.  I’ve discussed this matter in more detail here.

This is important stuff, dimly appreciated inside schools and as a practical matter, not at all in the education policy and advocacy communities.  The message needs to be delivered early, often and loud: boosting class time spent on reading instruction is of little use, and could actively be damaging kids if that time is coming at the expense of a well-rounded curriculum.  The title of Dan’s video says it best:  teaching content IS teaching reading.

“The tragic irony is that schools desperately trying to meet AYP are reportedly cutting time from subjects like social studies and science to devote more and more time to reading. Unless they are using content-rich reading materials, that strategy not only won’t work, it will actually backfire,” Willingham writes.

Willingham is not sanguine about that “people will be persuaded by what is truly a mountain of data,” but if it takes Round Two of the reading wars to drive this point into the consciousness of parents, policymakers and educators, the fight will be well worth it.