History: Taught Poorly or too Little?

by Guest Blogger
January 13th, 2014

It’s one of those days when Jaywalking, Leno’s bit on the street that often pokes fun at ignorance, is worrying me. I have to remind myself that he probably has to stop a lot of people to get those silly answers to basic questions like “What is the name of the ship the Pilgrims came over on?”, that people must be nervous, and that the bit would not be funny if the audience (i.e., millions of people) did not know the answers.

Still, why does the bit resonate? Because there are far too many people who really don’t know basic facts. It’s easy to chuckle, but hard to stop worrying about them and their children.

Apparently readers of Education Week are worried too. As I was catching up on my end-of-year reading, I was surprised to see that a piece on students’ lack of history knowledge was #2 in a list of the 10 most-viewed Ed Week commentaries of 2013. The author, Vicky Schippers, claims that we’re teaching history wrong—as “a litany of disconnected names, dates, and events to be memorized before an exam” instead of as “a study of struggles, setbacks, and victories.” If that’s true, it’s a shame. I see history as a fascinating web of stories, and I’ve purposefully memorized key names, dates, and events to help anchor those stories in time and place—and to reveal connections.

Schippers, who tutors students, focuses on a dedicated young man struggling to pass the history regents’ exam in New York so he can get his diploma:

What astonishes me about Tony, as it does about any of my students, is how little he knows about the world. The five or six blocks he travels between his home, school, and work circumscribe his entire life….

When we first started to study together, Tony, like all my students, had no sense of U.S. presidents, the sequence of wars in which the United States has been involved, the U.S. Constitution and the structure of government, and the central issues over which our democracy has struggled since we separated from England more than two centuries ago.

He knew the name Abraham Lincoln, but drew a blank when I asked him which war Lincoln was associated with. He was unfamiliar with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Segregation and civil rights were not concepts he could articulate.

Is that Lincoln crossing the Delaware? If your exposure were limited to the six blocks around your home, how would you know?

It could be that all of Tony’s history classes consisted of terribly boring facts that Tony decided not to memorize. But I’d guess that at least some of Tony’s teachers delivered the facts along with the struggles and stories—and I’d guess that Tony’s listening and reading comprehension were too limited to follow along. Rather than making a spectacle of himself with strings of clarifying questions, Tony probably sat in the back of the class, with confusion understandably leading to disengagement.

With Schippers tutoring him, in contrast, Tony asks questions. Schippers doesn’t have a full class to handle; she answers each question directly, making connections between Tony’s life and the content he needs to learn. She’s clearly helping him—but we should ask: What could have been done to prevent Tony from needing a tutor?

Schippers could be right that Tony got very unlucky with his history teachers. But I have reason to believe that there’s more than one cause of his devastating lack of knowledge. I’d bet that Tony received little to no history instruction in elementary school, leaving him with little to no historical knowledge and vocabulary, and little to no chance of comprehending history classes in later grades.

Consider this table from the Report of 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education:

Average Number of Minutes per Day Spent Teaching Each Subject in Self-Contained Classes, by Grades

Number of Minutes

Grades K-3

Grades 4-6

Reading/Language Arts









Social Studies



(Source: Report of 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education, Chapter 4, Table 4.2, page 54.)

One to two hours per week on social studies between kindergarten and sixth grade?! That’s shockingly low—but Tony could have had even less since these are averages.

In the 2010 NAEP Civics assessment, teachers of fourth graders were asked how much time they spent on social studies each week. Three percent reported spending 30 minutes or less per week; another eighteen percent reported 30 – 60 minutes per week.

So maybe Tony doesn’t know any history not because it wasn’t taught well in secondary school, but because it wasn’t taught at all in elementary school.


Part 2: The High Cost of Ignorance

Squishiness Watch

by Robert Pondiscio
October 22nd, 2012

A “draft framework” for common social studies standards is scheduled for release next month.  If a report by Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz is any indication, they might be so devoid of curricular content as to be functionally meaningless.

“Social studies specialists have been working with state department of education officials and others to create standards in that subject,” Gewertz notes.  That means expert guidance on the history and geography subject matter children should learn in each grade–the seven continents and oceans of the world in kindergarten; Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt in first grade; the U.S. Constitution in second grade–right?  I mean that is the point of this exercise, isn’t it?   Gewertz’s blog post indicates those looking for specificity might be disappointed.

“Early signs suggest that you shouldn’t expect something that prescribes the specific issues, trends, or events that students should study, but rather describes the structure, tools, and habits of mind they need in order to undertake an exploration of the discipline, and offers states a frame for the content they choose.”

Just asking: If the “framework” for social studies takes a pass on detailing what’s worth knowing and contents itself instead with a squishy and unsatisfying description of the “structure, tools and habits of mind,” how–how exactly, please–will that be anything than redundant with the CCSS ELA standards?

The ELA standards strike a hammer blow for a content-rich vision of literacy in U.S. classrooms without detailing the content.  It’s a step in the wrong direction if social studies specialists are unwilling to begin to detail at least some of what that content should include.

Perhaps the authors of the draft framework would like to help themselves to the Core Knowledge Sequence for Pre-K to 8th grade.  It’s free for your downloading.  Take it.  Steal it.  Call it your own.


Meet the Children Where They Are…and Keep Them There

by Robert Pondiscio
February 27th, 2012

A lot of people whose opinions I respect don’t care much for Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Some of my friends view the standards as an abuse of power or coercive.  Some think them no better or even worse than their existing state standards.  Others bemoan the lack of specificity.

Say what you will about CCSS, but there are three big ideas embedded within the English Language Arts standards that deserve to be at the very heart of literacy instruction in U.S. classrooms, with or with or without standards themselves:

1. Students should read as much nonfiction as fiction.

2. Schools should ensure all children—and especially disadvantaged children—build coherent background knowledge that is essential to mature reading comprehension.

3. Success in reading comprehension depends less on “personal response” and more on close reading of text.

In an astonishing commentary in Education Week, Joanne Yatvin, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English (!) reads the Common Core ELA Standards and pronounces herself “truly alarmed” and “aghast at the vision of the dreariness and harshness of the classrooms they aim to create.”  Why?  Precisely because of the three ideas enumerated above.

I’m alarmed and aghast that anyone can fail to connect building background knowledge with language growth, or long-term success in reading comprehension.  Not for nothing are the standards titled “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, K-5.”

Yatvin’s bill of particulars boils down to a complaint that all that subject matter content is too hard, too soon and too boring for children. The standards “overestimate the intellectual, physiological, and emotional development of young children,” she writes. Her smoking gun is within the publisher’s criteria that accompanies the standards:

In kindergarten-grade 2, the most notable shifts in the standards when compared to state standards include a focus on reading informational text and building a coherent knowledge within and across grades; a more in-depth approach to vocabulary development; and a requirement that students encounter sufficiently complex text through reading, writing, listening, and speaking.  By underscoring what matters most in the standards, the criteria illustrate what shifts must take place in the next generation of curricula, including paring away elements that distract from or are at odds with the Common Core State Standards.

“This is a pretty strong dose of academia for children just beginning their schooling, with not even a ‘spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down,” she writes, forgetting that the teachers are free to dispense as many spoonfuls of C6H12O6  as they see fit to enable the prescription to enter the digestive tract.

News flash: It’s precisely the lack of coherent background knowledge—the kind of taken-for-granted knowledge of the world, and the gains in vocabulary that accompany it—that is holding back reading comprehension and language growth among our most disadvantaged children.  This is something that CCSS nails, emphatically and correctly.  If you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.

“For young children, the focus on academic vocabulary seems strange,” continues Yatvin, apparently believing teachers are expected to read directly from the Common Core Standards during story time on the rug.  “At this time in their development, would it not be more sensible for children to learn words connected to their everyday lives and their interests rather than to things and experiences as yet unknown?” she ask.

Well, no.  It would not be more sensible. Most of the words we acquire we learn not through memorization or direct instruction, but in context.  So while it certainly it makes sense to connect words to kids “everyday lives and experiences” it’s something very close to educational malpractice not to make a concerted effort to expand a child’s knowledge base beyond their immediate experiences.  If there is anything that ensures a low-level of academic achievement it is the idea that kids can only learn from their direct experiences. Matthew Effect, anyone? It is incredibly condescending even to suggest that if a child cannot personally relate to a story or topic, they can’t possibly be interested or successful.

Yet Yatvin also doesn’t much care for the “significant increase in nonfiction materials at all grade levels” and CCSS’s call for “a mix of 50 percent literary and 50 percent informational text, including reading in [English/language arts], science, social studies, and the arts.”

“The fact that fiction now dominates the elementary curriculum is not the result of educators’ decisions about what is best for children, but a reflection of children’s developmental stages, their interests, and their limited experience in the fields of science, geography, history, and technology. It is one thing for a child to read The Little Engine That Could for the pleasure of the story and quite another for her to comprehend the inner workings of a locomotive.”

Wait.  Children have limited knowledge in science, geography, history and technology, so we shouldn’t muddy their minds with such marginalia?  The story is ripe with opportunities to build background knowledge, not about (strawman alert!) “the inner workings of a locomotive,” but colors, mountains, trains and transportation, to name but a few.  There are no shortage of age appropriate, richly illustrated nonfiction picture books that would go a long way toward building prior knowledge on these and many other topics that are a natural extension of The Little Engine That Could.

I’m all for reading for the pleasure of the story.  But start building background knowledge of the world beyond a child’s immediate surroundings today, and you geometrically expand the number of stories a child can read for pleasure tomorrow.  Weirdly, Yatvin gets this.  She just seems reluctant to teach it:

“Reading any text requires more than decoding, fluency, and inferring meaning from context; the reader must form mental images of things mentioned based on previous experience or imagination. Although illustrations in many nonfiction books help considerably, there is a limit to how many unfamiliar things can be adequately illustrated in a book for young children.”

Right.  Which is exactly why we need to expand a child’s base of knowledge, not view it as too high a hurdle to clear.

“Ultimately, the authors show their contempt for teachers’ competence, the use of supplementary materials, and children’s experiences,” Yatvin claims.  But she shows her contempt for children in her assumption that if it’s not a part of a child’s everyday experience they couldn’t possibly be interested or expected to appreciate or understand it.

By placing subject matter content at the very heart of English Language Arts instruction from the first days of school, the authors of the Common Core Standards got it absolutely right.  In order to read, write, speak and listen with comprehension, children need more content, not less.   We learn new words by understanding the context in which we hear unfamiliar words.   Every reading teacher has encouraged a struggling reader to “activate your prior knowledge” when reading a difficult passage; or to “use your context clues” when stumped by an unfamiliar word.  Where – where exactly – do we expect that prior knowledge and context to come from if building it is not a primary function of language arts instruction?

Are there problems with Common Core Standards? Certainly. But there are far more problems with a view of literacy and teaching that boils down to “meet the children where they are…and keep them there.”

A Little More Text, A Little Less Self

by Robert Pondiscio
December 19th, 2011

When studying a story or an essay, is it possible to be too concerned with what the author is saying? In an opinion piece in Education Week, Maja Wilson and Thomas Newkirk complain the publisher’s criteria for Common Core State Standards are overly “text dependent,” discouraging students from bringing their own knowledge and opinions to bear on their reading.

Wilson, a former high school English teacher, and Newkirk, a University of New Hampshire English professor applaud the guidelines’ “focus on deep sustained reading—and rereading.” However they pronounce themselves “distressed” by the insistence that students should focus on the “text itself.”

“There is a distrust of reader response in this view; while the personal connections and judgments of the reader may enter in later, they should do so only after students demonstrate ‘a clear understanding of what they read.’ Publishers are enjoined to pose ‘text-dependent questions [that] can only be answered by careful scrutiny of the text … and do not require information or evidence from outside the text or texts.’ In case there is any question about how much focus on the text is enough, ‘80 to 90 percent of the Reading Standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis; accordingly, aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions.”

Consider me undistressed. If this means less reliance on the creaky crutch that is “reader response” in ELA classrooms, then I’m very nearly overjoyed.

The very worst that can be said about an over-reliance on text-dependent questions is that it’s an overdue market correction. As any teacher can tell you, it’s quite easy to glom on to an inconsequential moment in a text and produce reams of empty “text-to-self” meandering using the text as nothing more than a jumping off point for a personal narrative. The skill, common to most state standards, of “producing a personal response to literature” does little to demonstrate a student’s ability to read with clarity, depth and comprehension.

Indeed, educator, author and occasional Core Knowledge Blog contributor Katharine Beals points out in a response to the piece that Wilson and Newkirk have it precisely backwards: research from cognitive science suggests that making external associations during reading can actually worsen comprehension. She cites a paper by Courtenay Frazier Norbury and Dorothy Bishop which found that “poor readers drew inferences that were distorted by associations from their personal lives. For example, when asked, in reference to a scene at the seashore with a clock on a pier, ‘Where is the clock?’ many children replied, ‘In her bedroom.’”

“Norbury and Bishop propose that these errors may arise when the child fails to suppress stereotypical information about clock locations based on his/her own experience. As Norbury and Bishop explain it: ‘As we listen to a story, we are constantly making associations beween what we hear and our experiences in the world. When we hear “clock,” representations of different clocks may be activated, including alarm clocks. If the irrelevant representation is not quickly suppressed, individuals may not take in the information presented in the story about the clock being on the pier. They would therefore not update the mental representation of the story to include references to the seaside which would in turn lead to further comprehension errors.’

Struggling readers in particular would benefit from a lot more text and a lot less self. As Beals explains, “Text-to-self connections, in other words, may be the default reading mode (emphasis mine) and not something that needs to be taught. What needs to be taught instead, at least where poor readers are concerned, is how not to make text-to-self connections.”

Wilson and Newkirk illustrate their concern about over-reliance on text by describing their preferred way of teaching Nicholas Carr’s 2008 essay from The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

“Before assigning the essay, we would have students log their media use for a day (texts, emails, video games, TV, reading, surfing the Internet) and share this 24-hour profile with classmates. We might ask students to free-write and perhaps debate the question: “What advantages or disadvantages do you see in this pattern of media use?” This ‘gateway’ activity would prepare students to think about Carr’s argument. As they read, they’d be mentally comparing their own position with Carr’s. Surely, we want them to understand Carr’s argument, but we’d help them do that by making use of their experiences and opinions.”

It’s critical to understand that this approach to teaching Carr’s essay would not be verboten under CCSS publishing guidelines, which have nothing whatsoever to say about teaching methods. In fact, there’s much to recommend Wilson and Newkirk’s approach. But the test of whether the students understand Carr’s line of argument has nothing to do with the “gateway” activity, which serves mostly as an engaging hook to draw students into Carr’s thesis. Students cannot be said to have understood the piece—or any piece—of writing without the ability to show internal evidence.

Thus if publishers are “enjoined to pose text-dependent questions [that] can only be answered by careful scrutiny of the text” that is at heart not a teaching question–it’s an assessment question that probes whether or not the student understands the text.

All those connections—to our own experience, to other works of literature, make the study of literature thrilling and rewarding. But for those connections to be deep and meaningful requires more than just the superficial, paper-thin connections that too often pass for “personal response.”

What often gets lost in our rush to engage young readers and make their reading personally relevant is the simple fact that text has communicative value. When someone commits words to print, they mean to communicate facts, ideas, imagery or opinions. They should expect, if they’ve done their job well, to be understood. Might the reader have a response? Let’s hope so. But unless they have understood the author’s words and intent clearly, any response they make is less than satisfying and may not be particularly relevant as a “response.”

The bottom line: Demonstrating comprehension based on what a text says is not a problem. It’s a baseline skill for any literate human being.

Study Finds Lectures Worth Insulting

by Guest Blogger
June 2nd, 2011

by Diana Senechal

I am fond of the old-fashioned lecture. It gives me something to sink into, something to think about. It’s often supplemented with discussions and labs, so students don’t just sit and listen. If it is taught well, it can be intriguing, even rousing, even lingering. I remember those packed lecture halls in college, and other superb lecture courses as well.

But I must defer to research-based research. Research has just shown that certain research-based methods bring greater learning gains in physics than the lecture approach. Sarah D. Sparks describes the study in an Education Week blog, but I got curious and decided to read the report for myself (Science, May 13, 2011, available by subscription or purchase only).

Yes, indeed. Researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver conducted a week-long experiment near the end of a year-long physics course. They found—

Wait—for a week? Near the end of a full year?

Don’t interrupt. This blog doesn’t get interactive until I’m done.

Yes, ahem, as I was saying, the students had been taking a lecture course in physics. The lectures were supplemented throughout the year with labs, tutorials, recitations, and assignments. In week 12 of the second semester, the researchers conducted an experiment with two of the three sections of this course. There was a control section (267 students) and an experimental section (271 students).  The instructor of the control section continued teaching through lectures. The instructors of the experimental section used “deliberate practice”—in this case, “a series of challenging questions and tasks that require the students to practice physicist-like reasoning and problem solving during class time while provided with frequent feedback.

The experimental group did much better than the control group on the test, which was administered in the first class session of week 13. All students were informed that this test would not affect their grade but would serve as good practice for the final exam. (Wait—what? —No interruptions. This is your second warning.) In the control section, 171 of the 267 students (64 percent) attended class on the day of the test; 211 out of the 271 students in the experimental section (78 percent) attended. The control section scored an average of 41 percent on the test; the experimental section, 74 percent. Victory for experimental things! Students in both sections took an average of 20 minutes to complete the test. (All this stir over a twenty-minute quizzy-poo that doesn’t affect the grade? —I’ve already warned you. If you interrupt again, I’m calling your parents).

The researchers state confidently at the end:

“In conclusion, we show that use of deliberate practice teaching strategies can improve both learning and engagement in a large introductory physics course as compared with what was obtained with the lecture method. Our study compares similar students, and teachers with the same learning objectives and the same instructional time and tests. This result is likely to generalize to a variety of postsecondary courses.”

Or, as they put it succinctly in the abstract: “We found increased student attendance, higher engagement, and more than twice the learning in the section taught using research-based instruction.”

I am convinced. It doesn’t matter that all of the students had been learning through lecture, lab, tutorial, and recitation all year long. What matters is what happened in this one week. The present is now. What happened was magical. There was learning. Even more learning in the experimental group—oh, much more—than in the control group. What this means—if you can just hold your horses for a moment—I’m telling you, I’m serious, I’ve got my cell phone here—what this means is that we should expand the findings to other courses. We should expand it everywhere! We should get rid of lectures altogether, or, at the very least, insult them.

Sarah D. Sparks seems to agree with the researchers: “While the study focused only on one section of college students, it gives yet more support for educators moving away from lecture-based instruction.” (One does this just as one might slide away from a misfit at a party.) According to Sparks, this study suggests that “interactive learning can be more than twice as effective as lecturing.” Take that, lecture!

Well, anything can be anything, except when it can’t. But that isn’t the point. The point is that lots of people are excited about this, and we really shouldn’t let them down. If I were to be reasonable about it, I’d suggest that “deliberate practice” of this sort works well when students already have a strong foundation. They need to know what they’re practicing. To get rid of the lectures would be simply reckless. But why be reasonable? Insulting can be fun. Bad lecture! Good experiment! More effective! Chopped thoughts! Research-based!

Diana Senechal’s book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in November 2011.

The Hessians Are Coming

by Robert Pondiscio
February 17th, 2010

Hard to believe he doesn’t already have one, but the prolific Rick Hess has launched a blog for Edweek.  In his debut post, Hess promises a look at education through the “dyspeptic, skeptical, and occasionally cynical lens through which I tend to view the world.”

It’s my impression that, in most walks of life, impassioned do-gooders are a crucial corrective to cynicism and self-interest. I’ve long worried that in schooling, however, we’ve a curious malady–a surfeit of passion, good intentions, and big plans. For what it’s worth, I find K-12 schooling to be one of the few places in life where we suffer a shortage of cynics and skeptics. The cost is a dearth of observers willing to deliver some bitter medicine to a sector gorged on saccharine sentiment.

It’ll be interesting to see how Hess develops this meme, but on the evidence of his first post, which fires shots across the bow of cheerleaders for differentiated instruction, school choice, teacher quality, ed tech, mayoral contol, and Race to the Top, he seems to have set phasers on stun.

Welcome to the jungle, Rick.   Speaking of Edweek, some sad news: veteran reporter Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, who has long covered curriculum, is leaving education’s paper of record after a 13-year run.

Literacy Creep

by Robert Pondiscio
January 11th, 2010

An article in last week’s Education Week looks at the increasingly common practice of reading aloud to middle and high school students.  In discussing the practice with Mary Ann Zehr (I’m quoted briefly in the piece) I made the point that while there is certainly nothing wrong with reading out loud to teenagers, it is symptomatic of what I call “literacy creep” — the tendency of elementary school-style instructional techniques to find their way deeper into K-12 education across all content areas.  

Reading aloud can be engaging for students of any age.  Poetry and drama, for example, are written to be heard, not read.   The danger comes when we use read-alouds as a crutch, to make up for students’ inability to read independently ignoring the root causes.   Zehr quotes one middle school teacher who reads The Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar Fraction Book to her 7th and 8th grade math students.  That particular book is one that Scholastic markets for children from PreK to 3rd grade.  It’s hard to imagine such a basic picture book engaging middle schoolers.  The clear implication is that the students’ reading and math ability is nowhere near where it ought to be, thus a read aloud is making a virtue of necessity.

It’s unfair to pick on an isolated example, no matter how egregious.  But there is a clear move afoot to make explicit literacy instruction something that doesn’t end in elementary school, or ever.   The recent Carnegie Foundation Report, Time to Act: An Agenda for Advancing Adolescent Literacy for College and Career Success calls quite clearly for “explicit instruction in reading and writing all the way through grade 12.”  The report bases its recommendation for continued literacy instruction on the observation that “promising early performance and gains in reading achievement seem to dissipate as students move into and through the middle grades.”  Is that due to discontinued reading instruction?  A more likely culprit is the failure to impart a broad body of content knowledge to students in the elementary grades, a point E.D. Hirsch has written and lectured about repeatedly for decades. 

Calls for reading instruction to continue all the way through high school tend to ignore the fact that reading fluency increases with “domain knowledge.”  When you read about a familiar subject you make rapid connections between your prior knowledge and the new information the author wants to communicate.  It is not hard to imagine how metacognition, the “thinking about your thinking” that is encouraged in reading strategy instruction in beginning readers, may work against comprehension of complicated texts.  You can’t think about the content of an advanced text while monitoring your comprehension.  By comparison when you read with background knowledge, all of your mental resources are focused on making connections between the new material and what you already know.  You’re free to to draw inferences, and consider the implications of the new information.  Hirsch has used the metaphor of a snowball to describe how knowledge builds on knowledge:

The words that children hear in school are like so many snowflakes falling on the school ground. Disadvantaged children may hear the words, but they do not pick up the meanings, whereas children who have already accumulated a covering of knowledge and vocabulary will be picking up knowledge rapidly. As their academic snowball grows, so does their ability to accumulate still more knowledge — in strong contrast to disadvantaged students whose initially meager learning abilities get smaller and smaller by comparison, humiliating them still further and destroying their motivation. This continual widening of the learning gap cannot be halted unless schools make a systematic effort to build up the specific background knowledge that disadvantaged children need.

Rather than make the connection between prior knowledge and comprehension, the Carnegie report instead focuses on the physical attributes of print: texts become longer, word and sentence complexity increases, graphic representations become more important, the report notes.  

Not only do textual demands increase as young people move through the grades, but the types of text used begins to vary widely across content areas. Each content area in middle and high school demands a different approach to reading, writing, and thinking. Texts read in history class are different from those read in biology, which in turn are substantially different from novels, poems, or essays read in English language arts (ELA). As a result, reading comprehension and writing demands differ across the content areas including ELA.

Surely this is an overstatement. Yes, reading a science text is fundamentally different than reading a history text or a novel.  One is about science, the other history and the third a work of fiction.  Once you have the ability to decode and understand most of the words, the difference maker is background knowledge. If we have shortchanged children’s foundational knowledge in the content areas as elementary school students, we should not be surprised that they struggle to make sense of more advanced content readings in high school.  The answer surely cannot be to treat science, history, math and literature texts and strange beasts that require different sets of muscles to wrestle with. 

It seems obvious that a commitment to building background knowledge, and a national commitment to a shared body of knowledge across academic disciplines would be far more efficacious than insisting that the act of reading a science text is somehow fundamentally different act than reading a history text.  It is like suggesting that driving to the grocery store is fundamentally different than driving to school, or that a different kind of vehicle is required.

“Content area teachers must be prepared to support the literacy skills of students who have mastered basic reading skills but who struggle with the more sophisticated demands of reading within the content areas,” the Carnegie report argues.   To a hammer everything is a nail. And to advocates of skills-driven instruction, there are only skills.  In short, we are all literacy teachers now.  No more reading to learn.  There is only learning to read.   Instead of bringing literacy instruction to the content areas, it makes far more sense to bring content into literacy instruction from the very start of schooling.

Failure to acknowledge the critical role of background knowledge in comprehension can only lead – is only leading – to an endless process of scaffolding and backfilling, including reading aloud to high school students.  The best that can be said of enshrining such basic techniques of emerging literacy instruction at all points from K to 12 is that it’s making a virtue of necessity.   We would be far better served if we committed ourselves to ensuring that children leave elementary school with the background knowledge they need for fluency in the content areas, rather than sentence them to what feels like perpetual remediation.

The Questions Get Tougher For P21

by Robert Pondiscio
December 4th, 2009

Common Core’s aggressive skepticism about the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) is slowly emerging as one of the great David vs. Goliath stories in education.   The tiny Washington-based nonprofit, which is less than two years old, has been relentless in questioning the whole concept of 21st century skills.  A big piece in next week’s Ed Week by Stephen Sawchuk gives big play and credibility to one of Common Core’s more troubling charges: that P21 is “a veiled attempt by technology companies—which make up the bulk of the group’s membership—to gain more influence over the classroom.”  Sawchuk writes:

Although business-education partnerships are by no means new, P21 stands apart for the number of its partners, their influence in the technology world, and the sheer size and scope of the work it is trying to perform.  And for that reason, it is worth asking: What is P21? And how does the group plan to respond to criticism as states adopt its prescription for student learning?

The piece also examines the background of P21′s executive director Ken Kay, a veteran technology policy advocate.  The most interesting new tidbit:  “According to P21’s publicly available 990, a federal form required of 501(c)3 tax-exempt organizations, the group used to share an address with Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, a Washington-based technology lobbying firm,” Sawchuck reports.   So what do all those technology companies get out of being part of the Partnership?

In exchange for dues, the member organizations receive several benefits, Mr. Kay explained. They become part of “a proactive process for creating a new vision of education.” They have new networking opportunities and better access to federal policymakers and state leaders. Finally, they can access “early intelligence” about where the education system may be headed in order to help ensure that products and services align with that vision.

P21 spent “in excess of $1 million of its revenue” two years ago to promote 21st-century skills, EdWeek reports.  About half of the sum went to E-Luminate, “a marketing and communications-consulting firm of which Mr. Kay is the co-founder and chief executive officer. The firm has a contract with P21 to handle day-to-day operations of the organization,” Sawchuk notes.

To be sure, P21 the questionable 21st Century Skills meme is still an education bumper sticker — a phrase people throw around without thinking much about.  But thanks to Common Core and Lynne Munson, the chorus of skeptics is growing louder and louder.

Trick or Tweet?

by Robert Pondiscio
October 27th, 2009

Some months ago, I challenged teachers to give examples of good classroom uses of Twitter without using the term “engagement.”  In other words, is it possible to use the micro-blogging site to extend learning or create understanding in a superior way to other teaching methods?  It led to a lively discussion, but I’m not sure I ever heard a compelling answer.

Along comes a recent EdWeek look at classroom uses of Twitter, which describes how teachers “first found Twitter valuable for reaching out to colleagues and locating instructional resources. Now, they’re trying it out in the classroom as an efficient way to distribute assignments and to foster collaboration among students.”  Kathleen Kennedy Manzo’s piece also sounds a cautious and skeptical tone, noting the educational effectiveness of Twitter “or the implications those quick, short-form communications may have for students’ thinking and learning are not known.”

The piece reproduces a series of Tweets from an 11th grade history class in Virginia:

teacher From slavery 2 White House, Michelle Obama’s slave roots revealed. Comments please!
7:46 PM Oct 8th from web

student 1 @fhsush this is really shocking that they traced it back that far and found a tie it really just amazing
8:07 PM Oct 8th from web

student 2 @fhsush thats AMAZING. times have really changed. that is amazing that they can trace back that far.
8:11 PM Oct 8th from web in reply to fhsush

student 1 @fhsush WOW! i would have never guessed that. its awesome to see such a connections to slavery in our own White House. amazing
8:19 PM Oct 8th from web in reply to fhsush

I don’t wish to be unkind, but this is not exactly a riveting exchange for 11th graders, although to be fair, 140 characters is not a lot to work with unless you write headlines for the New York Post.   Lucas Ames, the history teacher in the above exchange apparently gives students the choice of “participating in the Twitter feed or writing an extra research paper.” (Somewhere Will Fitzhugh is clutching his chest and gasping for breath.)

“These students are not always sure about how to use the Internet to find and filter information, so this is forcing them to do that,” said Mr. Ames, who requires students to submit only school-related tweets. “It’s getting kids who aren’t necessarily engaged in class engaged in some sort of conversation.”

Manzo quotes Dan Willingham extensively in the piece.  His attitude seems more agnostic than skeptical. 

Like any other tool, the way we make it useful is to consider very carefully what this particular tool is very good at, rather than simply say, ‘I like Twitter, so how can I use it?’ ” said Mr. Willingham, who is the author of the new book, Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.  “The medium is not enough,” he added. “People talk about the vital importance of Web 2.0 and 3.0, and that kids have got to acquire those skills. But we can’t all just be contributing to wikis and tweeting each other. Somebody’s got to create something worth tweeting.”

Having started out as a Twitter skeptic, I’ve warmed to it a little.  I’ve certainly found it helpful, as Manzo writes, as a way to share resources and keep up with what others are saying and reading.  But it’s not very satisfying for anything other than one-way communication—sending or receiving.   It’s the equivalent of scanning the headlines of the paper.  When something intrigues me, I need more than the headline offers.  Thus my challenge to describe a learning activity for which Twitter offers more than student engagement may be a fool’s errand.  In the end, that might be the alpha and omega of what Twitter is good at, per Willingham.  That’s not nothing.  But engagement isn’t learning–it’s a prerequisite to learning.

Aggregating Content is a 21st Century Skill

by Robert Pondiscio
March 4th, 2009

EdWeek’s Steven Sawchuk files a big 21st Century Skills piece off last week’s Common Core event in the new Edweek.  It’s well-worth reading if you’re new to the debate and looking for a straight, dispassionate take on the argument over P21. 

Diane Ravitch has lots more to say at Bridging Differences, and the reader comments, as always, have plenty of caloric value.  Here’s CK Blog contributor Diana Senechal, for example:

It seems to me that P21 wants to promote advertising skills more than critical thinking skills. Make a commercial of your favorite short story. Make a soundtrack and video display for a poem. Make a Venn diagram, using online “concept mapping” tools, to compare world religions….The worst projects promote a culture in which students are called upon to “sell” a work of literature or a snack (more or less side by side). Instead of delving into the language, they clip it and package it. Instead of studying history, they build their “financial literacy” by developing a strategy for selling snacks.

Joanne Jacob also weighs in with a lengthy recap of the ongoing debate;  Finally, a hat tip to Jay Greene, who provides comic relief with a 21CS spoof from The Onion:  An impossibly deadpan Fox News-style panel discussion on Are Violent Video Games Adequately Preparing Kids for the Post-Apocalyptic Future?  “The games make it all seem deceptively simple,” one panelist opines.  “A kid’s not going to be able to kill a six-foot long irradiated beetle just by pushing a few buttons.  He’s going to have to get down there with an axe and hack and hack and hack…”