Knowledge at the Core

Knowledge at the Core, a new Fordham e-book of essays, argues that Common Core standards won’t work without a “sequential, content-rich curriculum.”

The essays in Knowledge at the Core also pay tribute to the work of E. D. (Don) Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy  and other education reform books and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Essays include: Me, My Sons, and E. D. Hirsch by Sol Stern, Complex Texts Require Complex Knowledge by Ruth Wattenberg, There Are No Shortcuts by Robert Pondiscio and Building Teacher Enthusiasm for Core Knowledge by the Farkas Duffett Research Group. Hirsch contributes Sustaining the American Experiment, Romancing the Child and Why I’m For the Common Core.

Hirsch: If kids learn content, they’ll ace tests

Students will ace Common Core language arts tests if they’ve learned history, civics, literature, science and the fine arts, write E.D. Hirsch on the Core Knowledge Blog. But it’s a big if, concedes Hirsch, who backed the new standards.

He quotes a comment from an “able and experienced teacher” on the blog: “A giant risk, as I see it, in the implementation of Common Core is that it will spawn skills-centric curricula. Indeed, every Common Core ‘expert’ we hear from seems to be advocating this approach.”

The best-selling books about teaching the Common Core advocate techniques for “close reading” and for mastering “text complexity,” independent of content.

. . . students’ ability to engage in “close reading” and to manage “text complexity” is highly dependent on their degree of familiarity with the topic of the text. And the average likelihood of their possessing the requisite degree of familiarity with the various topics they encounter in life or on tests will depend upon the breadth of their knowledge. No amount of practice exercises (which takes time away from knowledge-gaining) will foster wide knowledge. If students know a lot they’ll easily learn to be skilled in reading and writing. But if they know little they will perform poorly on language tests—and in life.

The new Common Core standards call for “a well-developed, content-rich curriculum” that is “coherently structured,” writes Hirsch. But will schools switch their focus from teaching skills to teaching the knowledge children need to understand what they read?

Will 1st graders be lost in the ziggurat?

New York’s first-grade curriculum module on Early World Civilizations is troubling Chris Cerrone of Schools Matter @the Chalk Face. The vocabulary includes priests, religion, ziggurat, caravan, chariots, pyramid, archaeologist, hieroglyphs, sarcophagus, afterlife, prophet, etc.

Nearly all the Chalk Face commenters believe the unit is not “developmentally appropriate” for first graders, writes Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist. Some cited Piaget’s stages of development, arguing little kids can’t learn abstract ideas. Others cited their experience teaching first grade.

Willingham doesn’t think much of Piaget’s theories. And the experience argument cuts both ways:

 . . . if we adopt a proof-of-the-pudding-is-in-the-eating criterion, lessons on ancient civilizations are fine because they are in use and children are learning. The material shown above is part of the Core Knowledge sequence, around for more than a decade and used by over a thousand schools. (NB: I’m on the Board of the Core Knowledge Foundation.)

. . . Another curriculum has had first-graders learn about ancient civilizations not for a decade, but for about a century: Montessori. (NB again: my children experienced these lessons at their school, and my wife teaches them–she’s an early elementary Montessori teacher.)

Montessori schools teach the “Five Great Lessons” at the beginning of first, second and third grades on: the history of the universe and earth, the coming of life, the origins of human beings, the history of signs and writing and the story of numbers and mathematics.

“Our understanding of any new concept is always incomplete,” Willingham argues.

For example, how do children learn that some people they hear about (Peter Pan) are made up and never lived, whereas others (the Pharaohs) were real? Not by an inevitable process of neurological maturation that makes their brain “ready” for this information, whereupon  they master it quickly. They learn it bit by bit, in fits and starts, sometimes seeming to get it, other times not.

And you can’t always wait until children are “ready.” Think about mathematics. Children are born understanding numerosity, but they understand it on a logarithmic scale–the difference between five and ten is larger than the difference between 70 and 75. To understand elementary mathematics they must learn to think of numbers of a linear scale. In this case, teachers have to undo Nature. And if you wait until the child is “developmentally ready” to understand numbers this way, you’ll never teach them mathematics. It will never happen.

Developmental psychology  provides some help in thinking about how children learn, Willingham concludes, but isn’t a good guide to what children can learn.

I just spent two days in Disneyland with Julia, 4, and Lily, 2. A major fan of Peter Pan, Julia thinks “fairy dust” enabled us to fly back to northern California. (I suggested the plane had been sprinkled with aerodynamics.) She also watches Little Einsteins, which teaches music terms. On the drive from the airport, she told her grandfather he was driving presto and should instead drive moderato.

Lessons in virtue from Macbeth and a duck

Jessica Lahey is a convert to character education after teaching at Crossroads Academy, a private K-8 school in New Hampshire, that uses Core Knowledge and Core Virtues curricula.

Schools that teach character education report higher academic performance, improved attendance, reduced violence, fewer disciplinary issues, reduction in substance abuse, and less vandalism. . . . students who attend character education schools report feeling safer because they know their fellow students value respect, responsibility, compassion and hard work.

And it’s “easier to teach children who can exercise patience, self-control, and diligence,” she writes in The Atlantic.

The core virtues — prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice — make it into nearly every lesson we teach at our school and every facet of our daily lives on campus.

. . . In my middle school Latin and English classes, we explore the concept of temperance through discussions of Achilles’ impulsive rages, King Ozymandias’ petulant demand that we “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,” Macbeth’s bloody, “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other.”

Literature isn’t the only teacher. When a mother duck built her nest near the main school pathway, students had to learn to control their curiosity. Mom Mallard could handle students walking by, but left her nest if they paused for a look.

 In Stanford’s famous experiment on self-control, children were faced with the immediate reality of one marshmallow versus the promise of two marshmallows if they can just wait for fifteen minutes. The children who were able to resist temptation and wait fifteen minutes for that second marshmallow had better life outcomes in the form of lower obesity rates, higher SAT scores, and higher levels of education. Self-control itself does not make a kid smarter, or fitter, or more proficient at test-taking, but it’s the essential skill hidden within all of these positive outcomes.

. . . Here on our campus, our marshmallow is a duck. Our students must weigh their desire for a quick peek at Mom Mallard with the promise of ten ducklings waddling around our playground in 28 days.

“Character education teaches children how to make wise decisions and act on them,” writes Lahey. It’s not a bit of “fluff” tacked on to the real curriculum. It must be woven into lessons on Achilles, Ozymandias, Macbeth and a mother duck.

Reading, writing and knowing

Core Knowledge got its start from E.D. Hirsch’s years teaching literary theory as an English professor, he writes in How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement in The Atlantic. He discovered the importance of background knowledge when he looked at ways to improve college students’ writing.

When the topic was familiar to readers, you could measure the benefits of good writing (and the problems caused by bad writing) quite consistently. But the time and effort it takes to understand a text on an unfamiliar topic completely overwhelms the effects of writing quality.

At a Richmond community college, students couldn’t read or write clearly because they lacked a base of knowledge, Hirsch writes.

These students, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, could easily read a text on “Why I like my roommate.” But even after controlling for vocabulary level and syntax, they could not easily read about Lee’s surrender to Grant. These Richmond students, surrounded by Civil War mementos on Monument Avenue, were clueless about the Civil War. Their lack of knowledge was the reason they were unable to read well about anything beyond the most banal topics.

Researchers have found that “relevant prior knowledge — information already stored in one’s long-term memory — is the single most important factor in reading comprehension,” Hirsch writes.

Schools talk about “grade level” reading skills. This makes sense for decoding skills, but not reading comprehension, Hirsch argues. Students can comprehend a reading passage if the content is familiar, but struggle if it’s unfamiliar. ”

For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot,” Hirsch concludes.

The listening deficit

A few weeks ago, I held a “parents’ philosophy roundtable” at my school. Parents came to discuss passages from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which the eleventh graders had been reading for their course in political philosophy. When the parents read the passages out loud (their first encounter with this text, in most cases), I was struck by how carefully they read, how much they relished the phrases. Their listening bolstered the discussion.

Do today’s students know how to listen? Many lack the practice, from what I have seen. It is not their fault; entire school systems emphasize group work and rapid activity over anything contemplative or sustained. Before they have a chance to think, or even take something in, students must turn and talk, complete a chart, or fulfill a role within a team. Moreover, their days are filled with rush and noise.

Listening may be more important to education than we realize. In a recent post, E. D. Hirsch points out that we actually listen to texts when we read them silently:

The old debate about whether silent reading has an active, internal auditory component is over.  Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently.  We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening. Gaining expertise in listening thus transfers rather directly to expertise in reading.

To listen to a text while reading silently is to take in its tones, textures, and shapes; its hidden jokes and ironies; its contrasts and contradictions; its rising and falling; its speeding up and slowing down. To do any of this, one must, at the outset, set aside practical tasks (such as finding the topic sentence). One must cede to the text for a while and let it show itself. Then one can appreciate a passage like this (from Mill’s On Liberty):

Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

Part of the meaning lies in the syntax. If one listens to the repetition of “tyranny” and “eccentricity” (or “eccentric”) in the first sentence, one hears the clash of the two. One may question Mill’s assertion that eccentricity has generally been proportional to genius, etc. (this sounds plausible but cannot be proved)—but this is subordinate to the larger point: that the loss of eccentricity suggests the loss of much more, and that we should keep eccentricity alive, if only to break through the forces that squelch it. I would say the same about listening.

How does one practice listening? First, one must have good things to listen to. Humdrum, clunky texts will tire and pain the ear. Well-tempered works will wake the hearing up. Second, one must set aside time for listening and only listening—with no other tasks or expectations. This allows one to pay full attention to whatever it might be and to put aside distractions. Third, one must do it regularly.

I worry that schools are placing far too little emphasis on listening. The Common Core ELA standards for listening and speaking make almost no reference to listening; almost all of the standards in this section refer to speaking. I think I understand why: listening (without an accompanying assessment) is difficult to measure. Nonetheless, anyone taking the Common Core literally may assume that classrooms should be abuzz with student talk and activity. The author and educational consultant Sue Cowley captures a common sentiment when she writes, “As far as possible, keep teacher talk to a minimum and active student learning to a maximum.”

Other rubrics reinforce this message. The Danielson Framework, currently used for teacher evaluation in many districts, gives highest rating to teachers whose students initiate discussion, arrange their own instructional groups, and select their own material—and not to teachers who lead the lesson and have something to say. Some curricula, such as the Core Knowledge Language Arts Program, treat listening as essential, but far too many others would push it to the edges.

This is a shame. When listening to something for a stretch, I find great freedom, because my mind has time to do what it wants. I can take the text (or music, or whatever it may be) and consider it from this or that angle, play with it, raise questions about it, follow it beyond its conclusion, go on tangents here and there, and simply enjoy it. I can find eccentricity in listening, since I don’t have to socialize my reactions right away. Listening is rarely perfect; the mind wanders and returns, but even those wanderings have their reasons.

Listening allows us to immerse ourselves in something and to leave behind the stress and frazzle. It is more than a skill; it is an encounter. Take away the listening, and we are left with little more than a closet full of clanging tools. We get things done, we walk away with a takeaway, but something is taken away from us in turn.

Why I teach stuff

Jessica Lahey teaches stuff, she writes on Coming of Age in the Middle, which I’ve added to the blogroll. One of her Twitter “followers” has posted what purports to be a quote from Albert Einstein: “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Lahey disagrees.

I can see how this sentiment would be attractive to teachers, because it implies that all we have to provide is an inviting atmosphere, a bubble of trust and creativity with comfy chairs to cradle students’ tushies, and the rest will magically happen.

Creating a supportive atmosphere for learning is just square one, writes Lahey, who teaches at a Core Knowledge school dedicated to teaching content.

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

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

“America’s educational system contains enough empty platitudes and kitten posters,” Lahey concludes. Students need to learn “real content” to create connections that will enable new learning to “stick.”  (I’d bet boys enjoy learning about Viking explorers and Roman conquerors.) Her analogy is weaving strands of knowledge into a sticky web that catches new facts and ideas. I like to think of knowledge as Velcro, which is made of many small loops and hooks. The more Velcro, the easier it is to learn more.

A wealth of words

Vocabulary is (academic and economic) destiny, writes Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch, Jr. in City Journal.  Teaching “a systematic curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts” enables students to build a large vocabulary, while “acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds.”

Countries that use a “coherent, content-based curriculum to teach language” show the highest verbal achievement and narrow the gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children, Hirsch argues. Korea, Finland, Japan and Canada combine excellence with equity.

In those countries’ classrooms, opportunities for a student to make correct meaning-guesses and build vocabulary occur frequently because the schools follow definite content standards that build knowledge grade by grade, thus offering constant opportunities to learn new words in contexts that have been made familiar.

France slipped on the equity index when its elementary schools abandoned a specific sequential curriculum to follow the American roll-your-own model, Hirsch writes. But French preschools remain excellent.

Nearly every child in France attends a free public preschool—an école maternelle—and some attend for three years, starting at age two. The preschools are academically oriented from the start. Each grade has a set curriculum and definite academic goals, and the teachers, selected from a pool of highly qualified applicants, have been carefully trained.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the French conducted an experiment with 2,000 students to determine whether sending children to preschool at age two was worth the public expense. The results were remarkable. After seven years of elementary school, disadvantaged students who had started preschool at age two had fully caught up with their more advantaged peers, while those who had started at three didn’t do quite as well, and those who had started at four trailed still further behind. A good preschool, it turned out, had highly egalitarian effects.

U.S. schools have adopted “how-to-ism—the notion that schooling should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge,” writes Hirsch. “These tools typically include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknowable future.”

 In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.” These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary. The increasingly desperate pursuit of this empty, formalistic misconception of reading explains why our schools’ intense focus on reading skills has produced students who, by grade 12, can’t read well enough to flourish at college or take a good job.

Hirsch recommends French-style preschools, classroom instruction based on immersing students in a field of knowledge and “a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool.” He hopes Common Core State Standards for language arts will move U.S. schools in this direction.

From Core Knowledge to civics

After five years writing the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio is moving on. He’ll help “launch a new organization to advocate for civic education, to renew and revitalize the civic purpose of education.”

He says some guy named E.D. Hirsch will take over the blog for now.

Pondiscio will remain focused on “the content of our children’s education–what teachers teach and children learn.”

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, much of the energy around school improvement is now squarely focused where it belongs: inside the classroom.  Does this mean K-12 education is now safe for content?  That curriculum is the most favored reform lever?  Not hardly.  CCSS implicitly rescues literacy from its status as a content-free, skills-driven intellectual wasteland, but questionable, ineffective literacy practices are the seven-headed Hydra of Greek mythology—cut off one head and two more grow in its place.

I choose to be optimistic.  The essential point made by E.D. Hirsch for nearly 30 years – literacy is a function of background knowledge – is settled science. For the first time in the reform era, American education is having a deep and fruitful conversation about what gets taught.  The understanding that the more kids know across knowledge domains, the more likely they are to read, write, listen and speak with comprehension and confidence, is enshrined in the Common Core ELA standards.

But the fight “will never be over,” he writes. “Education has a peculiar talent for endlessly re-litigating disputes, regardless of the weight of evidence, and relabeling old ideas as new and innovative.”

Also on the CK Blog, check out Jessica Lahey’s Epistle to the Romans on teaching Latin.

Latin students learn more, Lahey writes. But the best part “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.

I learned Greek and Latin roots in a seventh-grade class called Vocabulary Reading. Etymology really is fun.

A good school washed away

New York City schools have reopened, but nothing is normal in hard-hit neighborhoods, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. Citywide, 79 schools in 44 buildings have been relocated.

P.S. 333, the Goldie Maple Academy, is less than two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in Queens’ Rockaway Peninsula. A Core Knowledge school, it started the year with 578 students. Fewer than 30 children showed up for the first scheduled day of class since hurricane Sandy devastated the neighborhood and the school building. Even fewer made the 90-minute bus ride to a Long Island City intermediate school, which will house P.S. 333 students for a week.

P.S. 333’s principal, Angela Logan, was not surprised.  She can’t even estimate how many of her school’s families have left the neighborhood, for now or for good. “When you look around, you don’t see people outside.  There’s no reason to come outside.  The stores are all gone.  There was a lot of looting and there’s a curfew in place,” she says.

Logan and her teachers are trying to reach parents who find out how many students plan on coming to the relocation site, which will change next week.

The storm surge flooded their own school’s basement, destroying its boiler. Water damaged the first floor. Power may not be restored for weeks. It’s one of 11 schools out of commission in the Rockaways.

P.S. 333, which serves low-income black and Hispanic students, was one of ten New York City schools that tested the Core Knowledge Language Arts program, posting such good results that the program is being used in school statewide.

(Core Knowledge) materials are still in the school in undamaged classrooms in the upper floors, but Logan and her staff are not able or even allowed to retrieve them.  “The Department of Ed said we’ll just purchase you new materials.  I guess for them that’s just easier,” she fumed.  “They have no idea we’re a Core Knowledge school.  I don’t need Dr. Seuss books.  I need the Romans and Greek books.”

. . .  With the loss of instructional time, the lack of continuity, and the disruption wrought by Sandy, Logan fears it will be a lost school year for many of her children, most of whom can ill afford it.

Eleven school buildings are closed in the Rockaways alone.

Gotham Schools reports on the challenge of getting displaced students to their new school sites. To start with, there aren’t enough buses. Some schools were used as shelters for storm victims, who’ve been moved out to make room for students.