Be skeptical of ‘deeper learning’

Beware of educators promising deeper learning, writes Tom Loveless on Brookings’ Chalkboard blog.

The notion is that schools spend too much time focused on the acquisition of knowledge, especially knowing facts. In the past century, several alternatives have arisen to dethrone the prominent role of knowledge in schools: project-based learning, inquiry and discovery learning, higher-level thinking, critical thinking, outcome based education, and 21st Century Skills.  Now it is deeper learning.

All such strategies claim to transcend learning academic content organized within traditional intellectual disciplines, writes Loveless.  For example, it’s more important for students to be able to analyze any history they study than to learn the major events of U.S. history. It’s better for students to do science than to know about science. “It is less important to learn the algorithms and articulated procedures of mathematics than to apply them in real world contexts while solving real world problems.”

As E.D. Hirsch argued in The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them, these anti-knowledge movements lack evidence to support their claims, Loveless writes. Furthermore, “in disparaging academic content” they “exacerbate social inequality.”

If public schools don’t teach algebra or chemistry or history or great literature or how to write well—the old-fashioned learning that has been around for centuries and remains high status knowledge in most cultures—rich kids will get it somewhere else.  Poor kids won’t.

Common Core won’t be able to test deeper learning, writes John Merrow on Taking Note. A recent NewsHour story looked at a four-month “expeditionary learning” project at a Maine middle school.

. . . what sort of standardized paper-and-pencil (or computer-based) assessment can test for grit, teamwork, communication, innovation, ambition and the like?  To test those skills and capabilities, we would have to be willing to go back to the days when we trusted teachers to assess their students.  We would have to back away from our current small-minded policies that embrace test results as a way to judge, threaten and punish teachers–and instead use tests and assessments as we once did, to improve learning and teaching.

In a comment, Merrow calls for spending whatever’s necessary “to develop a sophisticated instrument that can assess those skills and capabilities that we value.”

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.

Reading list is diverse, inclusive and useless

California’s new recommended reading list of books for English, science and socials studies teachers is so inclusive and “relevant” that it’s useless writes Mark Bauerlein on Core Knowledge Blog.

Recommended Literature: Pre-Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve will help students meet Common Core Standards, claims the state education department. Bauerlein disagrees.

. . . the list is too long and too indiscriminate. It contains 7,800 titles—2,500 for grades 9 – 12 alone—and it sets dozens of classics among thousands of contemporary, topical titles without distinction. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is followed by Macho, a 1991 tale of an illegal immigrant who becomes a field worker. Little Women makes the list, but the description of it says nothing about its historical status. Every work gets the same treatment, a one-sentence statement of content. The field is overwhelmingly wide and it has only one level, ranking Leaves of GrassHuck Finn, etc. equal to pop culture publications.

Common Core Standards call for students to “demonstrate knowledge” of the ‘foundational works of American literature,” such as Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and Emily Dickinson’s poetry, Bauerlein writes. The California list buries the classics in a pile of pop lit.  The Iliad is on the list. So is Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven and a sequel to The Da Vinci Code

Students who’ve read trendy modern books won’t be prepared for college, Bauerlein writes.

When professors in U.S. history, sociology, or political science mention the American ideal of self-reliance, those who have read Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, and Washington have a decided advantage over those who haven’t. . . . Many contemporary works are superb, of course, but they do not provide the background learning that goes with Gulliver’s Travels, Jane Eyre, and 1984. And few of them, too, contain the exquisite sentences of Gatsby, the piercing metaphors of Blake, the characters of Flannery O’Connor . . .

. . . How much of our understanding of the Depression comes from The Grapes of Wrath, of the American South circa 1930 from William Faulkner, of old New England from Hawthorne?

“A more culturally relevant curriculum” gives students ” a thin and haphazard version of the culture they inhabit,” Bauerlein concludes.

The practical university

“Are universities mostly sorting devices to separate smart and hard-working high school students from their less-able fellows so that employers can more easily identify them?” asks New York Times columnist David Brooks in The Practical University. ”Are universities factories for the dissemination of job skills? Are universities mostly boot camps for adulthood, where young people learn how to drink moderately, fornicate meaningfully and hand things in on time?”

Universities teach technical and practical knowledge, he decides.

Technical knowledge — how to do things — can be transmitted just as well online as in a standard lecture class, he writes. The online courses are going to get better in the next few years, putting lecturers out of business. Universities will have to concentrate on practical knowledge, “not what you do but how you do it.”

It is the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg describes how to succeed in the workplace.

. . . the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.

Students can learn practical skills at a university, “through student activities, through the living examples of their professors and also in seminars,” Brooks believes.

Is this really the university’s strong suit? I learned these skills at the family dinner table and on the job, especially in my years on a newspaper editorial board.

 

Preschool for all — or for the poor?

President Obama wants to spend $75 billion over 10 years on Preschool for All, partnering with states to provide “high-quality” preschool to 4-year-olds from families under 200 percent of the poverty level.

“The path to college begins in preschool,” writes Lisa Hansel on the Core Knowledge Blog. Closing achievement gaps in elementary or middle school is very, very difficult, she writes, citing Chrys Dougherty in ACT’s College and Career Readiness: The Importance of Early Learning.

“Large numbers of disadvantaged students enter kindergarten behind in early reading and mathematics skills, oral language development, vocabulary, and general knowledge,” writes Dougherty.

One study found that kindergarteners’ general knowledge of the world was a better predictor of those students’ eighth-grade reading ability than were early reading skills. This is consistent with research showing that reading comprehension, particularly in the upper grades, depends heavily on students’ vocabulary and background knowledge….

What makes a program high quality? It’s not cheap. Successful preschool programs in Boston and New Jersey hire well-educated teachers and pay them well, reports the Christian Science Monitor.  In addition:

They are full-day programs open to all students of a certain age group, regardless of family income.
They offer curricula linked to system-wide educational standards.
School districts monitor preschool teacher and student improvement on an ongoing basis.

In Boston, preschoolers made significantly greater gains in vocabulary, math and “executive function,” which includes working memory and paying attention to a task. The gains could be seen in third-grade test scores.

New Jersey offers high-quality pre-K in 31 low-income districts. The gains “are still visible in language, math, and science scores in fourth and fifth grades,” reports the Monitor.

“Everyone should applaud programs that are generating big gains for children who desperately need to be ready for school,” said Grover Whitehurst, director of Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy. However, we don’t know what factors lead to success, he says. The federal government should not require preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, for example.

High-quality preschool costs $8,000 a year per child, estimates the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers. The group suppors universal preschool rather than targeting help to disadvantaged students.  

In essence, taxpayers would fund pre-K through 12th grade for all students. (And the most effective programs work better if kids have two years of preschool.) Children who aren’t learning vocabulary, general knowledge or self-control at home can benefit from preschool. Most kids don’t need it.

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.

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.

Thinking without knowing

Teaching thinking skills independently of the factual content of a topic is a  waste of time, writes Tom Bennett on The Behavior Guru. He includes some wonderful art.

Black Belt in Bloom’s. Can’t spell ‘Taxonomy’.

“Say you want a child to become more discerning in understanding the veracity of historical sources. You start them off by teaching them…well, some history, just to be controversial. Then you offer them a variety of sources. The next bit’s guaranteed to blow a few gaskets: then you tell them which source is better, and why. You heard me. Teach them. Don’t fanny about getting them to thought shower it in discovery clusters; tell them. Then work through more examples at the same time as you teach them the most accurate stories you can impart. Start asking them which sources are most attractive, and get them to justify their answers.”

Students need “facts about what happened, facts about which sources support the narrative; facts about which source is virtuous, and which vicious,” Bennett argues. “Knowledge is best learned in context.”

Via Stuart Buck.

Vocabulary is destiny

Words are the new black,” writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. “With Common Core State Standards emphasizing the importance of academic vocabulary and the release of new NAEP results raising awareness that vocabulary mirrors reading comprehension levels (no surprise to readers of this blog) vocabulary is hot.”

“Students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens,” writes Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch in a   Wall Street Journal op-ed. Content provides the context that drives vocabulary growth, writes Hirsch.

“If a child reads that ‘annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,’ he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words “annual” and “fertile” if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.”

Children don’t build vocabulary by memorizing word lists, writes Pondiscio. They need to be “exposed to increasingly complex words in context.” It takes time.

This is the reason we want kids to read or be read to a lot.  It exposes them to rich language; it’s not about practicing the “skill” of reading, which is not a skill at all. Even the simplest texts tend to have more rare and unique words than even the richest spoken language (the language of children’s books is more linguistically rich and complex than the conversation of even college graduates).  And this is why we want kids to learn a lot across a wide range of range of subjects:  the broader your knowledge base, the more likely you are to be able to contextualize and understand new words, as in Hirsch’s Egypt example above.  Knowledge acts as a mental dragnet.  The wider and stronger your net, the more vocabulary gets scooped up.  More content equals more context equals more fertile ground for vocabulary growth to occur.

A student’s vocabulary size in grade 12 correlates strongly with “the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income,”  Hirsch writes in an upcoming City Journal article. Vocabulary is destiny.

Common Core State Standards cannot mandate but strongly recommend “a coherent, content-rich curriculum, writes Pondiscio. Content knowledge gives students a context for what they read, which enables them to learn new vocabulary.

Here’s a letter from a former inner-city high school teacher, who says his students “could not read anything, because nearly every sentence had at least one word they had never seen before.” And they didn’t have the background knowledge to figure out what unfamiliar words meant.

 

Huck Finn and the bias biddies

While new Common Core State Standards call for students to read classic literature, tests will avoid “emotionally charged language,” race, sex, religion or anything that anyone might find offensive, writes Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory, in How to Keep All of Huck Finn in the Classroom.

The standards say students should to read “classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare.”

To measure them, tests will have to include passages from “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” Henry Thoreau’s “Walden,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and Emily Dickinson’s verse.

However, test aligned to the new standards must heed “bias and sensitivity guidelines” that rule out “race and sex imbalances, stereotypes and pretty much anything that might upset or disserve any particular group of students.”

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, for instance, is writing questions “free of offensive, demeaning or emotionally-charged language” and “reflective of a balance of authors by gender, race, and ethnicity,” Bauerlein writes. There will be no “religious references” either.

But in trying to make the experience of every test-taker free of conflict, in removing virtually all racial, sexual or religious elements from the readings, test developers can’t properly assess Common Core’s literary-historical mandates. A full sample of the classics would upset the balance demanded of bias review — too many white men — and many canonical works display scenes charged with racism and sexism.

Think of all the central episodes that wouldn’t survive — Shylock’s speech, Hester Prynne emerging from her cell brandishing a sparkling golden “A,” Douglass fighting back against the sadistic slave-breaker Mr. Covey, and hundreds more. If reading tests genuinely addressed the classics, bias and sensitivity reviewers would denounce them outright.

In addition to a sanitized, bias- and content-free test of reading skills, developers should add “a test on literary-historical knowledge, including open questions that make students draw on Twain, Shakespeare, ancient myths, Edith Wharton and so on.”

The literary-history exam would be an essay test, raising a theme, style, genre or other topic and asking students to draw copiously from literary history, for instance, asking students to address the theme of individualism in six foundational works of American literature.

The essay test would see “how much knowledge students have of the best works of American civilization, a special duty of public schooling necessary to the formation of responsible, independent and informed citizens,” Bauerlein concludes.

But there’s already push back against too much time spent taking tests. Why not dump the silly sensitivity guidelines?