Learn to teach knowledge

Julius who?

Julius who?

For decades — long before No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing — elementary teachers have focused on reading and math, spending little time science and social studies, writes Natalie Wexler in a New York Times commentary.

That’s because teachers believe their students need reading skills and strategies, such as “finding the main idea,” she writes. They don’t realize that reading comprehension requires a broad base of knowledge about the world.

Many elementary students spend hours practicing skills-based strategies, reading a book about zebras one day and a story about wizards the next, flitting among subjects.

. . . For students to understand what they’re reading, they need relevant background knowledge and vocabulary.

Common Core calls for “building knowledge systematically,” writes Wexler. But the standards “don’t specify what knowledge students should learn in each grade, because they’re designed to be used across the country.” So most educators are still focusing on skills.

In a comment, Emile, a professor at a “mid-tier university” for more than 25 years, calls for K-12 schools to forget “about instilling love of learning.” Instead, schools should “provide the basic scaffolding for knowledge, and let students take it from there.” Professors won’t have to teach about Enlightenment ideals to students who’ve never heard of the Roman empire.

‘Thinking like a scientist’ — without facts

Memorizing is out, thinking like a scientist is in, thanks to Michigan’s proposed new science standards, reports Lori Higgins in the Detroit Free Press. 

Instead of “memorizing the ins and outs of life cycles, photosynthesis and matter,” Michigan students will “ask questions, investigate, analyze data, develop evidence and defend their conclusions,” writes Higgins. “In short, they’re going to have to think, act and learn like scientists.

What does this mean? Projects.

“There’s a lot more hands-on activities, a lot more getting your hands dirty, trying things out, taking the core ideas and scientific and engineering practices and putting them together,” said Brian Peterson, a fifth-grade teacher at Musson Elementary in Rochester Community Schools.

Take a popular balloon rocket experiment, he said. Nowadays a teacher might give students the basic materials (a balloon, string, straw and tape), then step-by-step instructions. Under the new method, a teacher might provide kids with different sizes of balloons, different lengths of straws, and different materials for string, then turn them loose.

The kids design their own balloon rocket — then defend why they made the material and size choices they did.

“Scientists think like scientist because THEY #$%@! KNOW SCIENCE!,” writes Robert Pondiscio on Facebook.

This isn’t new. In The Music Man, Professor Harold Hill promised Iowans their sons would learn to play music via the “think system.”

Be a learner, then a ‘critical’ thinker

If there is anything in education on which everyone agrees, it’s the vital importance of “critical thinking,” writes Alexander Nazaryan in Newsweek. However, before students can think, they need to learn. Call it “uncritical thinking,” the “unquestioning reception and retention of facts.”

In pure lexical terms, “critical thinking” is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.” Translated into pedagogy, it’s teaching students to be intellectual mavericks, cognitive cowboys who poke bullet holes into every received concept, who duel with Aristotle and Dickinson, who are never complacent, submissive or even quiet. They brim with what Walt Whitman called “original energy.”

. . . Uncritical thinking is pretty unsexy, often requiring rote memorization, deadening repetition and, not infrequently, humility before intellects greater than your own (whether Louise Erdrich’s or Albert Einstein’s or just Mr. Greenberg’s during third-period geometry class). Only someone who has uncritically mastered the intricacies of Shakespeare’s verse, the social subtexts of Elizabethan society and the historical background of Hamlet is going to have any original or even interesting thoughts about the play. Everything else is just uninformed opinion lacking intellectual valence.

In any discipline, whether trigonometry, biology or Spanish literature, “There is a lot more to absorb than to critique,” writes Nazaryan.

Success Academy: 93% excel in math

Nothing succeeds like Success Academy, New York City’s rapidly expanding charter network, writes Jim Epstein on Reason‘s Hit & Run blog.  Newly released test scores for the schools, where 92 percent of students are black or Hispanic, are “remarkable.”

Sixty-eight percent of Success Academy students tested as proficient in English, compared to 30 percent of city students. Math was the shocker: 93 percent of Success Academy test-takers were proficient in math, compared with 35 percent citywide.

Children play with blocks at a Success Academy school in Brooklyn.

As part of the blocks curriculum, Success kindergarteners collaborate on a design before building their project.

Sixty-eight percent of Success Academy students tested as proficient in English, compared to 30 percent of city students. Math was the shocker: 93 percent of Success Academy test-takers were proficient in math, compared with 35 percent citywide.

Success Academy made up 1 percent of tested schools in the city — and 5 out of the 10 highest-scoring schools in math. All 12 Success schools were ranked in the top 40 for math.

Parents who apply to Success probably are savvier and more motivated than  low-income and working-class blacks and Hispanics who don’t fill out a charter application. (Seats are filled by lottery.) Are they better education parents than the affluent, educated parents who pay top dollar to live near the city’s best public schools?

Two-bedroom apartments near Brooklyn’s P.S. 321 tend to sell for more than a million dollars, in part because parents are desperate to get their kids into the famed Park Slope elementary school. At P.S. 321, 82 percent of test takes were proficient in math this year. That’s respectable—56th highest in the city—but well below all 12 Success Academy schools.

At P.S. 87, which is P.S. 321’s counterpart on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (except the kids are even richer), 80 percent of students were proficient in math. That earned the school 67th place citywide, or well below every Success Academy school.

Most kids learn math at school. If they’re taught well, the children of poorly educated parents can excel.

“Content is king” at Success schools, writes Charles Sahm, who describes the network’s rigorous, well-thought-out English and math curriculum in Education Next.

How schools make kids smarter

Schooling makes students smarter largely by increasing what they know,”writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham in The Atlantic. That includes “both factual knowledge and specific mental skills like analyzing historical documents and learning procedures in mathematics.”

Intelligence has two components. One is akin to mental horsepower—how many pieces of information a person can keep in mind simultaneously, and how efficiently that person can use it. Researchers measure this component with simple tasks like comparing the lengths of two lines as quickly as possible, or reciting a list of digits backwards.

The other component of intelligence is like a database: It entails the facts someone knows and the skills he or she has acquired—skills like reading and calculating. That’s measured with tests of vocabulary and world knowledge.

Going to school boosts IQ primarily by increasing students’ knowledge, writes Willingham. People with more schooling aren’t faster at mental judgments, research shows.  High-performing schools do little to boost kids’ mental horsepower.

It’s the knowledge, stupid

Adults remember more than they realize about subjects studied years earlier in school, writes Willingham. “Knowledge sticks if it’s revisited.”

“It’s important to get a better understanding of what content will be most valuable to students later on in their lives,” he writes, and to revisit subjects over several years to make knowledge memorable.

Beware of bite-sized curricula

Buying bites of curriculum is popular these days, reports Education Week. Districts “mix and match with selections from other content providers, material that teachers and students have created, and open educational resources.”

A tapas-style curriculum can be awesome — or a disaster, writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge blog.

“It’s awesome for schools that have a coherent, cumulative, grade-by-grade, topic-specific curriculum” that serves as a scaffold.

Without such a curriculum, “a tapas-style curriculum will only lead to malnutrition.” Some students will get “mostly fried cheese and bacon-wrapped sausage, while others get mostly sautéed spinach and grilled chicken.”

In school, they need rigorous and rich academics—including history, art, geography, music, and science every year. And they need the topics they study in each of these domains to logically expand and deepen year to year.

In too many schools, the pursuit of personalized learning—with the end goal being each student learning to learn while pursuing individual interests—has caused some educators to lose sight of the bigger picture.

For all the talk about “learning how to learn,” little is said about “what makes it possible to learn new things quickly,” writes Marc Tucker. “Learning something new depends importantly on having a mental framework to hang it on or put it in.”

Know-nothings at Yale

Yale students are “as smart as any in the world” and they’re also “ignorant,” David Gelernter tells Bill Kristol.

. . . it’s very hard to grasp that the person you’re talking to, who is bright, articulate, advisable, interested, and doesn’t know who Beethoven is. Had no view looking back at the history of the 20th century – just sees a fog. A blank. Has the vaguest idea of who Winston Churchill was or why he mattered. And maybe has no image of Teddy Roosevelt, let’s say, at all. . . . We have failed.

They know nothing about art. They know nothing about history. They know nothing about philosophy. . . . They know nothing about the Bible. They’ve never opened it. They’ve been taught it’s some sort of weird toxic thing, especially the Hebrew Bible, full of all sorts of terrible, murderous, prejudiced, bigoted. They’ve never read it. They have no concept.

Previous generations also didn’t know much, Kristol responds. “There was a lot of faking it.” In “middlebrow culture,” people felt they should know the name of an artist, even if they didn’t really know anything about his work.

Today, “there’s not even that sense of lack or of not knowing or knowing that you don’t know or admiring the people who really know.”

In the past, students “would know nothing about Beethoven in any deep sense but they would have heard a phrase from the Fifth Symphony, they would have heard a phrase from the Ninth Symphony or the Moonlight Sonata,” says Gelernter. “Doesn’t mean they know Beethoven, but it means if they love music, the door is open . . . If you are the sort of person who responds to painting or who loves history or cares about writing or poetry, you still know it’s there.”

A professor of computer science and an author, Gelernter has written a “refreshingly judgmental” book, America-Lite. It attacks “imperial academics” who “preach disdain for mere facts and for old-fashioned fact-based judgments like true or false.”

To learn words, learn about the world

First grader Noah Bayu, left, writes a sentence incorporating vocabulary words as his classmates, Madelis Salvador Lopez, right, and Josue Nava-Lanza, center, look on at the Center City Public Charter School’s Brightwood Campus, in Washington. The school is moving vocabulary instruction into thematic units.
First grader Noah Bayu, left, writes a sentence using vocabulary words as Madelis Salvador Lopez, right, and Josue Nava-Lanza, center, look on at the Center City Public Charter School’s Brightwood Campus, in Washington. Photo: Swikar Patel/Education Week

“Learning about the world” is a great way to learn words, reports Liana Heitin in an Ed Week story about Common Core teaching.  In Washington D.C., Center City Charter School is moving vocabulary instruction into thematic units.

On a rainy day this spring, kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Masi led her students through a picture book about colonial towns and families. The lesson was peppered with words that seemed far above 5-year-olds’ heads: “miller,” “sheer,” “linen,” “spindle,” “carder.”

. . . “The spinners and the weavers use materials like cotton and wool to make “garments,” she pointed out.

“Garment” is a “tier two” vocabulary word, which means it’s not so common that kids will pick it up on their own, but not so esoteric they won’t need it. These words need to be explicitly taught, advise the standards.

Center City now teaches vocabulary within topics, using the Core Knowledge curriculum.

“I initially saw it and was like, ‘You want me to teach 6-year-olds about colonial independence and Mesopotamia?’ But it’s been so much fun,” said Adrienne Williams, a 1st grade teacher at Center City.

She now has pupils read and listen to multiple texts about a single topic that use similar tier-two words. For instance, in a unit on habitats, the class read a book on the world’s rarest animals and two books on endangered species, watched the “Rainforest Rap”video by the World Wildlife Fund, and used the Brainpop Jr. online videos and lessons on the topic.

Students heard words such as “predator,” “survive,” “adaptations,” “coexist,” and “temperate” in context.

Young readers need “familiarity with a broad range of subjects,” writes Robert Pondiscio.

A child, for example, may read that “annual flooding in the Nile Delta made Egypt ideal for agriculture.” If she’s doing a unit on ancient Egypt, she has the background knowledge to contextualize the unfamiliar word “annual.” If she knows nothing of Egypt and the Nile, or has no idea what agriculture or a delta is, then “annual” is just one more word in a stew of non-comprehension.

I’ve been reporting for a story on educating English Learners to meet Common Core standards, which require much more language mastery, even in math. Successful programs teach English in context through science, social studies, math, literature, etc.

Knowing is essential to writing

Her second graders’ writing was flat, repetitive and dull — until she gave them “an opportunity to build knowledge and  way to organize what they’ve learned,” writes Debbie Reynolds, a Nevada teacher, on Core Knowledge Blog.
Before students wrote about America’s westward expansion, she read 10 Core Knowledge “read alouds” on the topic and had students discuss details with classmates and answer comprehension questions.

Students then did an exercise, such as “whole group or individual brainstorming to list key ideas and details, individual or group note-taking, summarizing, or illustrating a scene or idea.”

Reynolds created a graphic organizer to help students build their essay. They wrote as if they were moving west as pioneers — or as displaced Cherokees on the Trail of Tears.

DR1After writing a first draft, students edited their work and showed it to a classmate for peer editing. The teacher met with each student “to offer ideas for revisions and sometimes further editing.”

Finally, students wrote and illustrated a final draft.

For the westward expansion project, each student also made a quilt square.

Reynolds provides excerpts:

My family and I are heading to San Francisco. I am getting there on the Oregon Trail in a wagon. I am going so I can mine some gold and have a better life.

. . . We faced many hardships on our journey. We sometimes broke a wheel going across the dirt. We faced the cold at night. We faced the heat in the desert. We faced danger in the Snake River. We faced ruts in the dirt on the trail.

. . . We felt tired from the long trip and can’t wait to meet new people.

That’s not bad for second graders.

“I get admirable essays, stories, poems and songs from kids AFTER a unit in which I’ve supplied them with knowledge,” writes Ponderosa in the comments. “Then they are good writers ABOUT THAT SUBJECT.”

“The essential ingredient in good writing is knowing,” writes Ponderosa. “Knowing the subject, but also knowing the conventions of English and knowing a good deal of words with which to express what you know about the subject.”

Most student writing is bad because the student has nothing to say, but is obliged to turn in something to a teacher, who is obliged to read it.

Test reading early — and stop by third grade

Federal rules require reading and math tests in third through eighth grade. That’s way too late to start, writes Robert Pondiscio in U.S. News. It would make more sense to stop reading tests in third grade.

Schools should be held accountable for teaching decoding skills in the early grades, he writes. “A struggling reader in first grade has a 90 percent chance of still struggling in fourth grade; a struggling third grade reader has only a one-in-four chance to catch up by high school.”

By third grade, what matters is comprehension. A reading comprehension test is a “de facto test of background knowledge and vocabulary acquired in school and out,” Pondiscio writes.

People think of reading as a transferable skill, like riding a bike, he writes. “Once you learn how to read, you can read anything – a novel, the sports page, or a memo from your boss – with relative ease and understanding” — they believe. But that’s not how reading works.

Broadly stated, there are two distinct parts to learning to read. The first is “decoding.” We teach small children that letters make sounds, and how to blend those sounds together so c-a-t becomes “cat.” Decoding is definitely a skill and a transferable one.

But the second part, reading comprehension, is much trickier. You certainly need to be able to decode to read, but reading with understanding and subtlety is intimately intertwined with background knowledge and vocabulary. In order to understand a story about a basketball game, for example, you need to know something about basketball.

Good readers almost certainly know “at least a little about a lot of different things.”

Instead of wasting time “trying to teach the ersatz ‘skill’ of reading comprehension,” teachers should build strong readers by teaching history, science, art, music, etc.  (I’d throw in literature.) The more students understand the world, the more they’ll be able to make sense of what they read.