Don’t Stay in School?

Don’t Stay in School,” which has “gone viral,” attacks schooling for teaching useless knowledge, such as the fate of Henry VIII’s six wives, rather than how to find a job, do taxes, manage finances, vote or understand one’s rights. The lyrics include my favorite science factoid: “Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell.”

Here’s some parents’ reaction to the rap by musician/producer Dave Brown — with his reaction to the reaction.

The video misses the point, writes Michael T. Hamilton, a former English teacher and a homeschooling parent, on PJ Media. Reading Shakespeare and dissecting a frog doesn’t preclude learning real-world knowledge.

“Brown’s allegedly useless knowledge enabled him to create this viral video,” writes Hamilton.

. . . my wife has newly plastered our walls with Classical Conversations historical timeline cards, with which she is successfully teaching our 5-year-old “useless” facts about ancient Sumeria and Mesopotamia, the creation of the alphabet, the Pax Romana, and the division of the Roman Empire.

. . . my son will know the laws, how to represent himself to job interviewers, and how to vote. But my son need not (and will not) learn these to the exclusion of Shakespeare, abstract math (which the ancients deemed one with philosophy–also useless in Brown’s book, I presume), or the frog thing.

Learning about history is a good basis for learning about human rights.

What does it mean to be an educated person? asks Marc Tucker. Few colleges and universities have “given serious thought” to the question and fashioned “a serious integrated, coherent curriculum in response to that analysis.”

Distribution requirements — a little of this and a little of that — don’t do the job.

U.S. students specialize earlier, instead of taking general education classes in high school and the first two years of college, he writes. “With every passing year, our college and university programs are more vocational in nature.”

How videos build better readers

Games, videos and other digital media can improve children’s reading argues Tap, Click, Read, a new book by Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine. Their work is funded by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

“An alarming number of children in the United States never become good readers,” Guernsey tells NPR. More than two-thirds of fourth graders — 80 percent of children in low-income families — are not “proficient” readers.

Reading isn’t just about decoding skills, says Guernsey.  Children “need to be able to understand the words they read and have a base of knowledge (in art, science, social studies and beyond) to help them make inferences and connect the dots.”

Children can “build background knowledge at the tap of a screen,” says Levine. A child who’s reading about penguins in Antarctica, can watch a video to make sense of the words she’s decoding.

In Beyond “Turn It Off,” the American Academy of Pediatrics revises its advice to parents on media use.

Kids love knowing stuff

At Edward Brooke Charter schools in Massachusetts, knowledge is valued.

Kids love knowing facts, writes Karin Chenoweth, writer-in-residence at The Education Trust. “It puts them on the same plane as adults when they can talk confidently about what they know — like the habitats of iguanas or the differences between igneous and sedimentary rock.”

Certainly facts in isolation can be boring, but when kids see how they’re connected and understand their import—they love knowing them.

Chenoweth visited Edward Brooke Charter School, a Massachusetts school that outperforms state averages, despite its nearly all-minority, mostly low-income students. For example, 91 percent of Brooke third-graders met or exceeded state English language arts standards in 2014, compared to 57 percent statewide, and 100 percent met or exceeded math standards, compared to 68 percent statewide.

She met with two third-graders, two fourth-graders and two fifth-graders.

A little chatterbox third-grader who had gone to a different school for kindergarten said, when I asked her to compare the two schools, “I never had the experience of learning in kindergarten.” The whole day, she said, had been devoted to blocks, play, and recess. When she arrived at Brooke, she said, she was startled by how much she was expected to learn.

Another third grader said he’d played most of the time at a previous school.

“Here at Brooke, we learn most of the time, and that’s how we get a vast knowledge,” said a fifth-grade girl.

Her classmate “added that he was learning about pi and he was able to help his seventh- and eighth-grade cousins who were in different schools with their math homework,” writes Chenoweth.

Both fifth-graders were quiet and dignified about their learning, but anyone could tell that they were proud that they knew stuff — stuff that helped them understand their world better and gave them the power that only knowledge confers.

I’m going to bet that those kids are going to be pretty amazing critical thinkers and problem solvers — not in spite of having had a rich, comprehensive curriculum that includes a lot of facts that help them gain a “vast knowledge”—but because of it.

Many educators believe that knowledge doesn’t matter, because kids can just look up whatever they need to know. Cognitive science doesn’t agree, writes Chenoweth, citing Dan Willingham’s How Knowledge Helps.

Why it helps to know things

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.”