World Studies Could Make a World of Difference

by Lisa Hansel
November 5th, 2013

In my last post, I tossed out a not-quite-baked idea for a new academic major for elementary teachers: World Studies. That major would ensure teachers have the broad range of knowledge they need to introduce our students to the world via literature, history, geography, science, mathematics, and the arts.

One point that is obvious to the Core Knowledge community—yet somehow shocking and mysterious to most of the education world—is that before we could decide what academics future teachers need to study in their prep programs, we need to decide what all elementary students must learn. Drum roll: We need a core K-5 curriculum.


Refusing to identify and teach essential knowledge has consequences. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)


Some people might think we kinda sorta have a core curriculum with the Common Core standards. In math, I would agree—the actual math that has to be mastered each year is specified. It’s far from a full-blown curriculum, but it does provide concrete guidance on what math to teach. However, the Common Core ELA standards are nearly content free. They indicate the reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills students need to develop, but they do not outline content to be taught grade by grade. Instead, the ELA standards call on schools to create content-rich curricula infused with nonfiction texts, thereby systematically building broad knowledge across academic subjects.

I am grateful that the Common Core ELA standards explain the benefits of building knowledge. In implementation, schools need to realize that when they forge ahead without any shared core of content for each grade, they miss out on the many benefits of a coherent educational system. I’ve written about the problems with student mobility; today I want to share a terrific, little-known article by education professor David Cohen. In “Learning to Teach Nothing in Particular,” he explains the massive leaps forward we could make in student and teacher evaluation if only we specified what students are supposed to know:

Because local control and weak government were the foundations of U.S. public education, most of our school systems never developed the common instruments that are found in many national school systems…. These include a common curriculum or curriculum frameworks, common examinations tied to the curriculum, teacher education grounded in learning to teach the curriculum that students are to learn, and a teaching force whose members succeeded in those curriculum-based exams as students, among other things. Teachers who work with such infrastructure have instruments that they can use to set academic tasks tied to curriculum and assessment. They have a common vocabulary with which they can work together to identify, investigate, discuss, and solve problems of teaching and learning. Hence, they can have professional knowledge and skill, held in common….

Because there is no common infrastructure for U.S. public education, it has developed several anomalous features. One of the most important concerns testing: because there is no common curriculum, it is impossible to devise tests that assess the extent of students’ mastery of that curriculum. So, even though we’ve been testing student learning for nearly 100 years, only isolated programs (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate) have tested whether students learned what they were supposed to have been taught. In the early 1900s, when E. L. Thorndike and his colleagues and students invented tests of students’ academic performance, they devised tests that were designed to be independent of any particular curriculum. Nonetheless, those tests, and more recently developed similar tests, were and are used to assess students’ progress in learning. That has to rank as one of the strangest creations in the history of education.

Teacher education is a second anomaly: absent a common curriculum, teachers-in-training could not learn how to teach it, let alone how to teach it well. Hence, teacher education consists of efforts to teach future teachers to teach no particular curriculum. This is very strange, since to teach is always to teach something, but the governance structure of U.S. education has long forbidden the specification of what that something would be. For the most part, teacher education has been accommodating: typically, teacher candidates are taught how to teach no particular version of their subjects. That arrangement creates no incentives for those training to be teachers to learn, relatively deeply, what they would teach, nor does it create incentives for teacher educators to learn how to help teacher candidates learn how to teach a particular curriculum well. Instead, it offers incentives for them to teach novices whatever the teacher educators think is interesting or important (which often is not related to what happens in schools) or to offer a generic sort of teacher education. Most teachers report that, after receiving a teaching degree, they arrived in schools with little or no capability to teach particular subjects….

Absent a common curriculum, common assessments, common measures of performance, and teacher education tied to these things, it will be terribly difficult to devise technically valid and educationally usable means to judge and act on teaching performance. Building a coherent educational system would be a large task, but not nearly as daunting as trying to solve our educational problems without building such a system. Without standards and measures of quality practice—grounded in linked curriculum, assessments, and teacher education—it will be impossible to build a knowledgeable occupation of teaching, and a knowledgeable occupation is the only durable solution to the problem of quality in teaching.


World Studies: An Academic Major for Elementary Teacher Prep

by Lisa Hansel
October 30th, 2013

From teacher surveys to policy papers to major research projects, it’s clear that most traditional elementary teacher preparation programs aren’t cutting it. Scrapping them in favor of short alternative programs is tempting, but a menu of prep options seems to me to be the wisest route—at least until we’ve done enough experimenting to identify best practices.

Among those looking to improve traditional preparation programs, some of the best work I’ve seen has come from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). Yes, it’s hard hitting—but it’s also finding programs worthy of praise and making constructive suggestions. Last spring NCTQ’s president, Kate Walsh, published a terrific article with several important recommendations regarding what elementary teachers must know before they enter the classroom: research on early reading, the Common Core for mathematics and English language arts, classroom management, cognitive psychology (especially how memory works), and assessment.

I can’t argue with any of these recommendations—but I can add to them. Terrific elementary school teachers introduce children to the world through literary, scientific, historical, and artistic lenses. They field questions that even very well-educated adults have a hard time answering—and they do so in engaging ways that make accurate answers accessible to children.

Why is the sky blue? Who was Shakespeare? Where does rainwater go? How were the pyramids built? What did Martin Luther King Jr. do? What happens to fish when a pond freezes? Who invented writing? Can astronauts land on Jupiter? How does a violin work?

Many prep programs either assume that elementary academics are simple or are unaware of the importance of building broad knowledge and academic vocabulary in the elementary grades. Thus, they devote the vast majority of their course time to educational philosophies, child development theories, pedagogical techniques, and the like. (Some prep programs offer subject specializations, such as in science or language arts, but that doesn’t help much since elementary teachers usually teach all subjects.) This shortchanging of elementary academics has terrible consequences: expectations for what children can and should learn tend to be too low, teachers’ knowledge is often insufficient to answer children’s many questions, and children’s eagerness to learn slowly dulls.

Let’s stop shortchanging elementary academics. Let’s create an academic major for elementary teacher prep: World Studies.

To be well prepared to learn by reading in the later grades, children need to complete elementary school with some basic knowledge of the sciences, mathematics, literature, history, geography, and the arts. They need to know a good bit about our world. So do their teachers.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Getting from Here to World Studies

This is the hard part. First, we have to decide what knowledge is most essential for all elementary students—and thus all elementary teacher candidates—to learn. It’s tempting to simply use the Core Knowledge Sequence for K-5 as is. But everything Kate Walsh outlined is extremely important as well, so time allocation will be tricky. It is more realistic to carve out some subset of the K-5 Sequence as essential for teacher preparation, and then to support teachers in continuously deepening their knowledge in all areas—from assessment to behavior management to early world civilizations—throughout their careers.

Second, we have to use the essential student knowledge to develop a parallel, though somewhat deeper and broader, essential body of knowledge to be learned in teacher prep.

Third, we have to identify related pedagogical content knowledge. This is a relatively new focus of educational research that (over the next couple of decades) promises to make teaching more effective.  Say, for instance, that understanding the phases of the moon is included in the essential elementary knowledge. World Studies majors would learn about the moon’s phases and the ways children often misunderstand them—such as thinking that they are caused by the earth’s shadow.

Fourth, we have to consider if these subject matter demands on our elementary teachers are unrealistic. The more I think about the breadth of knowledge and vocabulary that elementary teachers need to teach, the more I wonder if elementary schools—and thus teacher prep programs—should consider departmentalizing instruction in fourth and/or fifth grades. For example, Hung-Hsi Wu, a professor of mathematics at Berkeley, has argued that teaching elementary mathematics is quite complex; he calls for having dedicated math teachers starting no later than fourth grade.

Fifth…. Okay, I give up. This is as far as I’ve gotten. What do you think? Teachers, professors, parents—do you think a World Studies major would enhance elementary teaching? If not, why? If so, how would you refine the idea and go about doing it?


Are We Really Waiting for Superman?

by Lisa Hansel
May 10th, 2013

Having spent the last week thinking a lot about teacher preparation, I’d like to share a few more thoughts on teaching, teacher preparation, and student achievement. In the last two posts, we’ve seen that far too many teacher preparation programs eschew preparation and that, instead, there’s an emphasis on social-justice activism, which often results in academic programs that try to build character while ignoring the social-justice lessons embedded in many great works of literature.

So the typical new teacher is minimally prepared, yet feels responsible for ameliorating the ills of society. On top of that, few administrators, leaders, or reformers offer any meaningful support.

We really are waiting for Superman (and using the dedicated, non-superhero teachers as scapegoats).

Most who care about education seem to agree that, while many of our schools are doing great things, many are not. Yet we skirt around the one lever for improvement that has shown the greatest potential: curriculum.

In a policy paper last year, two Brookings scholars, Matthew M. Chingos and Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, argued that we ought to be paying far more attention to curriculum:

Students learn principally through interactions with people (teachers and peers) and instructional materials (textbooks, workbooks, instructional software, web-based content, homework, projects, quizzes, and tests). But education policymakers focus primarily on factors removed from those interactions, such as academic standards, teacher evaluation systems, and school accountability policies. It’s as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors give their patients.

There is strong evidence that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning—effects that rival in size those that are associated with differences in teacher effectiveness. But whereas improving teacher quality through changes in the preparation and professional development of teachers and the human resources policies surrounding their employment is challenging, expensive, and time-consuming, making better choices among available instructional materials should be relatively easy, inexpensive, and quick.

Administrators are prevented from making better choices of instructional materials by the lack of evidence on the effectiveness of the materials currently in use. For example, the vast majority of elementary school mathematics curricula examined by the Institute of Education Sciences What Works Clearinghouse either have no studies of their effectiveness or have no studies that meet reasonable standards of evidence.

The two problems noted—ignoring curriculum and not having adequate studies of curriculum—go together. Since curriculum is not a policy priority, it is very hard to win grant money to study curriculum. The Core Knowledge Foundation, for example, has some evidence of the student achievement increasing with high-quality implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence and Core Knowledge Language Arts—but we are not satisfied with the amount of research we currently have. (Calling all researchers, doctoral students, and grant makers: We would welcome additional studies!) Core Knowledge materials are based on an extremely strong research foundation from cognitive science showing that reading comprehension, critical thinking, and other important abilities rely heavily on having relevant knowledge stored in memory. Still, we would love to have an even stronger set of classroom-based studies comparing Core Knowledge with other programs.

Let’s briefly imagine a new educational universe in which we did put time and money into studying curricula and could say with confidence that programs A, B, and C are more effective than programs X, Y, and Z. Then we could take a crucial step toward excellence and equity: We could build educational systems around effective programs.

School districts could select a specific program (or more than one, assuming they did not overlap or interfere with each other) and have more intensive, targeted professional development. Students that changed schools (at least within the district) would not fall so far behind academically because their academic program would not change dramatically with each school change.

Best of all, teacher preparation programs could offer minors in the most-effective curricula. So, an aspiring elementary-grades teacher could, for example, major in elementary education and minor in Core Knowledge Language Arts. An aspiring 8th grade science teacher could major in secondary science and minor in the Core Knowledge Sequence with a specialization in how the Sequence enables teachers to make cross-curricular connections.

Contrast this with typical preparation, in which, as University of Michigan education professor David Cohen puts it, aspiring teachers learn to teach nothing in particular:

Absent a common curriculum, teachers-in-training could not learn how to teach it, let alone how to teach it well. Hence, teacher education consists of efforts to teach future teachers to teach no particular curriculum. This is very strange, since to teach is always to teach something, but the governance structure of U.S. education has long forbidden the specification of what that something would be. For the most part, teacher education has been accommodating: typically, teacher candidates are taught how to teach no particular version of their subjects. That arrangement creates no incentives for those training to be teachers to learn, relatively deeply, what they would teach, nor does it create incentives for teacher educators to learn how to help teacher candidates learn how to teach a particular curriculum well. Instead, it offers incentives for them to teach novices whatever the teacher educators think is interesting or important (which often is not related to what happens in schools) or to offer a generic sort of teacher education. Most teachers report that, after receiving a teaching degree, they arrived in schools with little or no capability to teach particular subjects.

If teacher preparation were largely devoted to the content teachers will be teaching, then there would be time to address not only content knowledge, but pedagogical content knowledge. Pedagogical content knowledge is about knowing the most effective methods for teaching the particular content students must master. It is a relatively young concept, but it appears powerful. So far, what seems most important is being able to predict and correct students’ misconceptions.

A recent study of middle schools science teachers provides a good example:

The study, conducted by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, targeted middle school physical science. The researchers enlisted 181 teachers to administer a multiple-choice test of student knowledge of science concepts. Twelve of the 20 items were designed to have a “particularly wrong answer corresponding to a commonly held misconception,” explained Philip Sadler, the lead author and a senior lecturer at the Harvard-Smithsonian center.

The “unusual” part of the study, he said, was that teachers also took the test, and were asked to identify both the correct answer and the one students were most often likely to incorrectly select. Although the teachers overall did “quite well” at selecting the correct answer, the results were more mixed in predicting students’ incorrect response.

“Teacher knowledge was predictive of higher student gains. No surprise there,” Sadler explained in an email. “However, for more difficult concepts where many students had a misconception, only teachers who knew the science and the common misconceptions have large student gains.” What’s key, he said, is knowing “what was going on in their students’ heads.”

Over time, many teachers do see patterns in students’ questions and errors, and eventually figure out which misconceptions are common and how to prevent or correct prevent them. If the whole educational field would take curriculum more seriously, studies could be done to rapidly accumulate such knowledge.

Ultimately, the achievement gap is a knowledge gap, which has its roots in an opportunity-to-learn gap. For students and teachers, we could close the opportunity gap by figuring out which curricula are most effective, conducting ongoing studies to increase effectiveness, and making the best curricula the foundation for teacher preparation.

We don’t have to wait for Superman. We can make teaching a profession that “regular” teachers (i.e., many of our country’s most dedicated, caring people) can succeed in. The nation’s teachers don’t deserve blame; they deserve support. Let’s start with developing better curricula and training.


Reading Comprehension Is “Useless”

by Lisa Hansel
March 29th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regarding any new social studies framework, Lazar writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Best of the Blogs: Dumbing Down and Building Up

by Lisa Hansel
March 27th, 2013

Good sense, sound research, and cultivated open-mindedness—these three things help us all live healthier, happier lives. But they tend to be in short supply.

Not so yesterday in blogdom: E. D. Hirsch shared his good sense, Daniel Willingham offered a guide to sound research, and Diana Senechal revealed the joys of cultivated open-mindedness. I hope you’ll read their posts in full, so here are just a few highlights.

Over at the Huffington Post, E. D. Hirsch asks, “Are Schools Dumbing Down the Common Core Standards?

The arguments against [the Common Core State Standards] grow ever more fierce — as if … schools were being forced to descend from their current level of excellence to study “informational texts” like tax codes which will drive Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson out of the curriculum.

None of the horrid scenarios need happen — given an ounce or even a milligram of common sense. Since the standards do not prescribe a definite curriculum, many different curricula could fulfill them. It’s no more reasonable to claim that Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson will be excluded as to claim that they will be required. One could easily insist that within language arts courses “informational texts” such as historical ones must qualify as “literature” — a word that is not limited to fiction and poetry, yet does exclude tax codes.

Moreover many of the current criticisms aren’t really directed against the standards themselves but against the frantic directives that principals and superintendents are sending out to teachers. I agree that some school administrators are reacting to the coming of the standards in strange and unproductive ways — just as they did when No Child Left Behind became law. But the standards don’t require folly — against which the gods themselves struggle in vain….

The Core Knowledge example proves that effective curricula can be based on the new standards. It will be up to the critics and the practitioners themselves to create effective curricula. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the standards but in ourselves, if we should fail in this unique new chance to improve our schools.

On his Science and Education blog, Daniel Willingham explores “A New Push for Science in Education in Britain.”

Basic scientific knowledge gleaned from cognitive and developmental psychology (and other fields) can not only help us to interpret the results of randomized trials, that knowledge can be useful to teachers on its own. Just as a physician uses her knowledge of human physiology to diagnose a case, a teacher can use her knowledge of cognition to “diagnose” how to best teach a particular concept to a particular child.

I don’t know about Britain, but this information is not taught in most American schools of Education. I wrote a book about cognitive principles that might apply to education. The most common remark I hear from teachers is surprise (and often, anger) that they were not taught these principles when they trained.

Elsewhere I’ve suggested we need not just a “what works” clearinghouse to evaluate interventions, but a “what’s known” clearinghouse for basic scientific knowledge that might apply to education….

When building a house an architect must respect certain basic facts set out by science. Physics and materials science will loom large for the architect; for educators it might be psychology, sociology et al. The rules represent limiting conditions, but so long as you stay within those boundaries there is lots of ways to get it right. Just as physics doesn’t tell the architect what the house must look like, so too cognitive psychology doesn’t tell teachers how they must teach.

Guest blogging for Joanne Jacobs, Diana Senechal considers “The pull and counter-pull of teaching.”

Education is filled with opposing principles, where neither is absolutely correct…. Most teachers have certain leanings, but those leanings are not the whole of their understanding or of the truth. Often I find that when I tip just a little bit against myself, interesting things happen.

For instance, my philosophy courses have focused on reading and discussion of texts—for good reasons. The texts are compelling, and the students approach them thoughtfully and enthusiastically. Yet when I give students a chance to take off with their own ideas, I find that they bring forth some of their best work. The moral is not that I should abandon the texts, but rather that I should vary the type of assignment now and then.

My ninth-grade students are studying rhetoric and logic. Most recently, they read G. K. Chesterton’s essay “The Fallacy of Success.” We examined how Chesterton takes apart the idea of success, and how his reference to the myth of King Midas enhances his argument. They did well with this.

Then I thought: why not have them take apart a concept themselves? … Much came out of this exercise. Yet it was informed by our reading and discussion of “The Fallacy of Success.” There need not be a contradiction between analyzing someone else’s essay and writing your own (with your own ideas). In the best of scenarios, the two support each other.


Miss Lahey’s Epistle to the Romans

by Guest Blogger
December 28th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

When Robert Pondiscio wrote “How to Get a Big Vocabulary,” I knew it was just a matter of time before I my defenses would weaken, and I would have to start spouting off about the beauty of language, Latin, etymology, and classical roots. I can’t help it. I get excited about these things. I teach Latin, English, and writing, and my happy place lies at the nexus of these subjects.

Just when I thought it was safe to take a break from grading my students’ writing assessments and see what’s happening on the internet, Core Knowledge blog reader John Webster had the nerve to ask specifically for a Latin teacher’s opinion on the value of Latin, and Robert had the unmitigated gall to publicly provoke me into a response to John’s comment.

@Robert (comment 30). Here in Minnesota, I know of several public schools that offer – require – Latin. They’re called charter schools, and all of them are also Core Knowledge schools. Yet another reason why some alleged supporters of Core Knowledge who oppose all charter schools are in no practical sense real friends of Core Knowledge. My two kids, 9th and 7th grades, study Latin and do the obligatory grumbling about having to learn a “dead” language. I rely on the authority of teachers I respect that Latin helps in developing literacy and vocabulary skills, but I’ve never read anything addressed to laypeople why this is so. Anyone know of any articles/essays that explain the value of Latin, or can any Latin teachers in the CK blog audience explain this value in a practical, meat-and-potatoes way?  Comment by John Webster — December 27, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

Before I get all in a twist about the word “value” as it relates to anything I teach, (Latin valere, to be strong, vigorous, in good health, to have force) let me begin with the low-hanging statistical fruit, all thanks to Bolchazy-Carducci, the publishers of the textbook, Latin for the New Millennium:

1. Studies performed by the Educational Testing Services show that students of Latin outperform all other students on the verbal portion of the SAT.

2. In the District of Columbia, elementary school students who studied Latin developed reading skills that were five months ahead of those who studied no foreign language and four months ahead of those who studied French or Spanish. Two years earlier, the same students had been excluded from foreign language classes because of substandard reading performance.

3. In Philadelphia, students in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades received 15 to 20 minutes of daily instruction in Latin for one year. The performance of the Latin students was one full year higher on the Vocabulary Subtest of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) than the performance of matched control students who had not studied Latin. 

4. Sixth-grade students in Indianapolis who studied Latin for 30 minutes each day for five months advanced nine months in their math problem solving abilities. In addition, the students exhibited the following advances in other areas:

·      Eight months in world knowledge
·      One year in reading
·      Thirteen months in language
·      Four months in spelling
·      Five months in science
·      Seven months in social studies

But the fun part – the “value” – in learning Latin has nothing to do with these statistics or test scores. It lies in the evolution of our language, the stories revealed through etymology, the history of our culture articulated through the words we preserve and the words we discard.

As Robert’s post points out, a big vocabulary does not come from sheer memorization. Anyone who has ever been subjected to an 11th-hour SAT prep course knows that. It comes from a deeper understanding of word origins and repeated exposure to novel words through reading. If I know that the Latin acer means “sharp,” I can deduce that “acid” has a sharp taste, an “acute” angle is sharp, “acrid” is a sharp smell, and an “acerbic” person has a sharp wit.

I am all for the memorization of vocabulary; in fact, my school teaches vocabulary using a lovely series called Vocabulary fromClassical Roots and my students memorize their share of vocabulary lists. However, if we want our students to achieve true depth and breadth of vocabulary, it’s worth spending some time among the Romans. A working knowledge of Latin is worth more than the weight of its word roots. It is an exercise in reverse-engineering our own language in order to understand how all the parts fit together to create a whole.

And as for the greatly exaggerated rumors of Latin’s death? Latin teachers squall and writhe in horror when confronted with this rumor as evidence of Latin’s obsolescence, but I couldn’t care less. In arguing for the relevance and necessity for the continued study of Latin, I call on Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer at The Guardian.

“The  most frequent charge laid against the door of Latin – aside from the absurd accusation of elitism – is that it is useless. Why not learn Mandarin, people ask, or Russian or French? For me the pleasure of Latin is precisely because – aside from the points sketched above - it is “useless.” Latin doesn’t help to turn out factory-made mini-consumers fit for a globalised 21st-century society. It helps create curious, intellectually rigorous kids with a rich interior world, people who have the tools to see our world as it really is because they have encountered and imaginatively experienced another that is so like and so very unlike our own.”

I couldn’t agree more. My students can “amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant” with the best of them, but they can do even better than that. They can tell their friends Amy and Amanda where their names come from. They understand how amare meandered north and became amour. They can become enamored, have inamorata, wax rhapsodic about their first paramour. They will know what Catullus meant when he lamented that odi et amo, and take solace in Virgil’s observation that omnia vincit amor.

Latin is alive and well in my classroom, thank goodness. My mother likes to remind me that she was the one who forced me to take Latin in seventh grade, and like John Webster’s kids, I moaned and groaned about having to study a dead and hopelessly irrelevant language. But thank goodness for my mother’s stubborn insistence. My students are  far more accomplished readers, writers and students of the world for their years spent among the Romans.


Words Get in the Way

by Robert Pondiscio
November 30th, 2012

This blog has long kvetched about the tendency to use terms like standards (what proficiencies kids should be able to demonstrate) and curriculum (the material that gets taught in class) interchangably.  Michael Goldstein, founder of Boston’s MATCH school observes that education lacks a common vocabulary, which makes life harder for teachers.  “They get bombarded all the time with new products, websites, software that all claim they can get students to ‘deeper learning.’ But without a common understanding of what actually qualifies, it’s hard to know if X even purports to get your kids where you want them to go,” he writes.

Goldstein compares education to medicine where there is broad agreement, for example, on the five stages of cancer–and that makes it easier for for medical professionals and patients to work together.  “When scientists come up with treatments,” he notes, “they often find them to be effective for cancers only in certain stages. So when they tell doctors: ‘treatment only effective for X cancer in stage two,’ everybody knows what that means.”

In education, no such common vocabulary exists.

“Our sector talks a lot of “Deeper Learning.” Or “Higher-Order Skills.”

“But what does that mean? There’s not a commonly-accepted terminology or taxonomy. Instead, there are tons of competing terms and ladders.

“In math, for example, here’s language that the US Gov’t uses for the NAEP test. Low, middle, and high complexity. I suppose they might characterize the “high” as “deeper learning.”

“Here’s Costa’s approach, a different 3 levels. Text explicit, text implicit, and activate prior knowledge. Again, perhaps the last is “deeper learning.”

“Here’s another take, more general than math-specific, from Hewlett.

“A software like MathScore has its own complexity ratings.

“And so on. You could find 10 more in 10 minutes of Googling.

Goldstein posts a question from Massachusetts’ MCAS tests, a perimeter question that shows four different rectangles and asks, “Which of these has a perimeter of 12 feet?”

“First you need to know what perimeter means. Second you need to know you that you need to fill in the “missing sides.” Third you need to know what to fill in, because you understand “rectangle.” Finally you need to add those 4 numbers. If you only understand 3 of the 4 ideas, you’ll get the question wrong.

“Does this question probe “deeper learning” for a 3rd grader? Who the heck knows?

If this strikes you as mere semantics, think again.  A lack of an agreed vocabulary — what is a “basic skill?”  What is “higher order thinking?” — is not merely irritating, it can lead to bad practice and misplaced priorities.   A third-grade teacher looking to remediate a lack of basic skills might seek help from a software product but she would have “no real idea on how ‘deep’ they go, or how ‘shallow’ they start,” Goldstein notes.  “No common language for ‘Depth’ or ‘Complexity.’”

I would add that the problem is more fundamental than that.  If a teacher is told “teach higher-order thinking” she might incorrectly assume that time spent on basic knowledge, math skills or fluency is a waste of time.  Or, in the worst case scenario, that reading comprehension or higher order thinking can be directly taught.  

In reality, without the basic skills and knowledge firmly in place, there’s no such thing as higher order anything and never will be.  Yet terms like “higher order thinking” and “complexity” are held up as the gold standard we should be teaching toward.  Basic knowledge and prerequisite skills are the unlovely companions of “drill and kill” rather than, say, ”fluency” or “automaticity.” Mischief and miplaced priorities are the inevitable result.

A common vocabulary of diagnosis and treatment would help. 






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.

Teaching to CCSS: Making Bricks Without Straw?

by Robert Pondiscio
October 17th, 2012

The following post originally appeared on Schoolbook, the education blog of WNYC, New York City’s public radio station.  It appears here with the permission of the author.  – rp

Bricks Without Straw
By Matthew Levey

A decade into the education reform movement in New York, we have doubled our school budget to $24 billion. We’ve focused on teacher quality, and how to measure it. We’ve created many new, often smaller, schools.  Unfortunately our students’ scores on the key tests like the SAT and NAEP haven’t budged.

Frustrated reformers have pinned their hopes on new Common Core State Standards (CCSS ) that make explicit what a college-ready student should be able to do in math, reading and writing. The CCSS say content matters, but the authors didn’t dictate which content to teach or how to deliver it.

Under CCSS, third graders “develop an understanding of fractions, beginning with unit fractions” but the CCSS do not say how. Eighth graders should be able to “produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience” but the CCSS don’t pick the topic.

How we implement the CCSS will determine whether we improve student outcomes or not.. What I have observed so far, as a parent of three children in public schools and the husband of a teacher, suggests our approach to implementing the CCSS is not off to a great start. In selecting content and teaching children how to respond thoughtfully to it, we seem to think whatever we were doing before was good enough to meet the new standards.  Our schools, and our teachers, need to invest meaningfully in training and curriculum redesign; on the front lines that doesn’t appear to be happening.

Where’s the Content?

Non-fiction matters more than ever before, according to the CCSS. So how does my tested-above-proficient 8th grader come to believe that the Confederacy was winning the Civil War prior to the Battle of Gettysburg?  Perhaps it starts with history textbook with too many empty graphics, organized around themes rather than time. Maybe it starts by asking them to write about the battle before they were assigned the right chapters in the book? If content is king children don’t seem to be getting enough.

When my 5th grader’s teacher told us about the social studies curriculum, she practically apologized that she had to teach about government for two months, “because the kids find it boring.” The good news, she said, was that she too was learning a lot about the topic as she prepared her lessons. When a parent asked whether the current election campaign would be incorporated into the unit, the teacher said, “Oh that’s a good idea, maybe we could have them make ads for a candidate.”

Structure Matters too

Getting the content right is just part of the challenge.  Our children also need much more explicit instruction in how to put that content in context.

My daughter’s first written assignment this year was to imagine herself as a delegate in 1787, and explain whether she would vote for the Constitution if the Bill or Rights wasn’t included. Since my daughter hadn’t learned anything about the small states vs. big states debate, or any of the other big ideas that roiled Philadelphia that summer, all she could express was her feelings.  Like a true New York City resident, she didn’t feel the 2nd amendment made a lot of sense, but it was hard to say why.

Asked to write about the inevitability (or not) of the Civil War, my son struggled.  He knew about slavery and industrialization, but years of the Teacher’s College writing model used in our local schools left him ill-prepared to organize his knowledge effectively. Judith Hochman, whose program is credited, in part, for helping save New Dorp High School correctly observes that  “much writing instruction prior to ninth grade … is based around journals, free writing, memoirs, poems and fiction.”

The result, Hochman notes, is that students don’t know “how to communicate effectively to an audience. Students are given little or no preparation for the types of expository writing required in high school, college, and the workplace.”

Following her advice I pushed my son to think about using words like “although,” “unless” and ‘if” to build more complex thoughts. After a few hours of work, he turned to me and asked, “Why don’t they teach this in my school?”

In Exodus, when the Israelites asked to leave Egypt, Pharaoh forced them to make the same quantity of bricks, but without straw.  This ancient story has become a metaphor for an absurdly hard task.

Parents rightly expect our schools will improve if we use higher standards. But to do so, district and school leaders must look closely at the content they’ve selected and how it is delivered. Repurposing our existing approach and declaring it ‘new and improved’ simply will not do. It’s like asking schools to make bricks without straw, and that’s a recipe for trouble.  Just ask the Pharaoh.

Matthew Levey is the father of three New York City public school students. He is the co-founder of Bright Track, an educational advisory service, and a former Community Education Council president.

Poles Apart

by Robert Pondiscio
August 29th, 2012

“Are we hopelessly polarized, or are we suffering from fatigue?” legendary PBS education correspondent John Merrow asks in a thoughtful blog post. “I think many of us are just tired, worn out from listening to the rants and negativity.”

What he said.

To his credit, Merrow is saying out loud what a lots of folks in the education blogosphere have been saying privately for a while now.  “Debate” has become trench warfare, with the usual suspects saying the usual things, over and over, louder and louder.  They’re merely getting more shrill and strident.  It’s getting tedious out there.  Hearts and minds are not being won.

Merrow’s no fool or squishy appeaser pleading, can’t we just get along?  “Sometimes one position is correct, or largely correct. Sometimes people’s strongly held convictions are just plain wrong,” he writes.

Merrow lists several ways in which education debate is polarized: accountability, the achievement gap, school management and structures, assessment, technology, and our expectations for what we should expect of schools and teachers. Are we also polarized about the purposes of public education? Here Merrow hits his stride:  “The goal of school is to help grow American citizens. Four key words: help, grow, American, citizen.  Think about those words,” he writes

“Help: Schools are junior partners in education. They are to help families, the principal educators.

“Grow: It’s a process, sometimes two steps forward, one back. Education is akin to a family business, not a publicly traded stock company that lives and dies by quarterly reports.

“American: E Pluribus Unum. We are Americans, first and foremost.

“Citizen: Let’s put some flesh on that term. What do we want our children to be as adults? Good parents and neighbors, thoughtful voters, reliable workers? What else?”

“We need to get beyond polarization and figure out what we agree on,” Merrow writes.  Wise and heartfelt words from one of education’s elder statesmen.