What should students know?

What should students know? Robert Pondiscio asks Deborah Meier on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences blog.

In an earlier post about the “hidden curriculum,” Meier said a good school is judged by how it  “responds to the cultural norms, conditions, language, relationships that all the constituents bring to school with them.”

What about history, math and science? asks Pondiscio.

Meier’s schools — Central Park East Secondary School (Harlem) and Mission Hill (Boston) — set very clear graduation requirements, she responds.  The schools teach history, math, physical and natural science, literature and the arts in a “more interdisciplinary manner.” The schools encourage “curiosity, debate, skepticism, and a commitment to getting at the truth about the ‘essential questions’ in each discipline.”

Students work was expected to demonstrate five intellectual habits of mind:

 What’s the evidence? Is there a pattern?  Is there an alternate perspective, explanation? What if? And who cares?

. . . Students were rated on their written and oral ability to present their views and defend them.  We thought the five “habits” met both academic and “real life” standards. (We developed a separate list of work and social/moral habits—meeting deadlines, etc.)

“Our students’ record of success” satisfied many skeptics, despite the lack of a list of “specific information” to be taught, writes Meier. 

“I want our students to be prepped for the real world, and I hope colleges do, too,” Meier concludes. Students did well in college interviews — and in college — because “they were unusually well prepared to carry on a conversation with adults in a thoughtful and lively way.”

Uncommon curriculum

Closing the vocabulary gap would help close the opportunity gap, argues Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, a guest on the Bridging Differences blog. Children from low-income families start kindergarten with an enormous vocabulary deficit, he writes. Preschools and elementary schools can build children’s vocabulary by teaching them history, science, art, music, literature and geography.

Yes, to little kids. (You know, the ones who are curious about EVERYTHING. Who can learn a TON just by listening to a good read-aloud story.)

E.D. Hirsch has argued for 30 years that the key to building students’ vocabularies, and thus their ability to read and learn, is content knowledge. Once a child learns to decode, her “comprehension” ability mainly comes down to the store of knowledge she’s got in her head. If she can sound out words but can’t read a passage about dinosaurs, it’s not because she hasn’t been taught “comprehension skills”—it’s probably because she’s never been taught anything about dinosaurs.

Yet our preschools and elementary schools systematically reject this obvious approach because they deem it not “developmentally appropriate.” Furthermore, they say, why teach all those “facts” when kids can just Google them?

High-poverty schools make it worse if they delay teaching social studies and science — usually untested — until fourth or fifth grade to spend more time teaching reading in the early grades. This is “nuts,” writes Petrilli. “Teaching content is teaching reading.”

Building vocabulary doesn’t require a common curriculum, responds Deborah Meier. She’s all for teaching “stuff.” But there are many ways to do that, she writes.

As with our first language we need to rely on building vocabulary by: (1) having a more diverse student body (racial and class integration); (2) having a lot of adults around to interact with and smaller class sizes (like good private schools do); (3) engaging in studies that require collaboration between students and students, and students and adults—including adult-written texts; (4) encouraging reading in settings that are designed to naturally arouse interest—motivate—or that answer questions youngsters really want to know; and (5) remembering that vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and spelling are most efficiently learned the same way we learn everything else that matters.

We learn to drive by driving and to cook by cooking, which means allowing 6- to 12-year-olds to read (and listen to) repetitive and engaging books which do not present too much of a “cognitive” or empathy challenge.

Progressive preschools don’t think knowing facts is “developmentally inappropriate,” Meier writes. But they believe direct instruction isn’t needed to ”

kick in this love of reading, of hobbies, of facts, of curiosity, of indefatigable and repetitive practice in subjects and skills” kids are fascinated by. “Our job is to extend” kids’ curiosity, she concludes. Too often, schools kill it.

Slow learning

Jen Li, who grew up in China during the violently anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution, has spent her academic career in the U.S. “trying to understand how Asians and Westerners think about learning,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks in The Learning Virtues.

Westerners see learning as “something people do in order to understand and master the external world,” Li believes. “Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.”

In the Western understanding, students come to school with levels of innate intelligence and curiosity. Teachers try to further arouse that curiosity in specific subjects. There’s a lot of active learning — going on field trips, building things. There’s great emphasis on questioning authority, critical inquiry and sharing ideas in classroom discussion.

In the Chinese understanding, there’s less emphasis on innate curiosity or even on specific subject matter. Instead, the learning process itself is the crucial thing. The idea is to perfect the learning virtues in order to become, ultimately, a sage, which is equally a moral and intellectual state. These virtues include: sincerity (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.

Westerners stress the “aha moment of sudden insight,” while Chinese respect “the arduous accumulation of understanding.” (It reminds me of the “slow food” movement.) Of course, Chinese wouldn’t think of teasing nerds, if they had such a concept. “Western schools want students to be proud of their achievements, while the Chinese emphasize that humility enables self-examination,” Brooks writes.

Brooks wonders if the U.S. can find “moral/academic codes” to motivate our students. Could we add a dash of Confucianism (he also likes Jewish Torah study) to our culture?

Teaching unmeasurable skills

The Content vs. Skills War rages on:  Sandra Stotsky, a University of Arkansas professor, takes a shot at Harvard Professor Tony Wagner’s call for students to learn “21st century skills” for “survival” in the global economy.

Wagner does not seem to care if students can read and write grammatically, do math or know something about science and history – real subjects that schools can teach and policy-makers can measure.

Unfortunately, Wagner dismisses measurable academic content while embracing buzzwords like “adaptability” and “curiosity,” which no one could possibly be against, but also which no one could possibly measure. Do we really care if our students are curious and adaptable if they cannot read and write their own names?

Wagner also knocks the time spent on testing. But the research doesn’t support the claim that testing crowds out learning, Stotsky writes.

. . . my colleague Gary Ritter finds that here in Arkansas public schools the most tested students — those in grades five and seven — spend only 1 percent of total instructional time being tested, probably less time than spent in class parties or on field trips.

If our kids learned 20th century skills really well, wouldn’t 21st century skills be easy to pick up?  I’ve always used my content knowledge to question, communicate, explore, etc.  And I don’t see excess knowledge as a big problem for today’s students. There are kids who don’t know what to do with the facts they’ve crammed, but there are more who don’t know enough to think intelligently or usefully.

Update: Jay Greene piles on here and here, arguing that Wagner “shows no evidence that higher levels of critical thinking can be found in places or at times when there was less content and less testing.”