Monday, May 3, 2010

Assuming Too Much or Too Little?

Oftentimes, I hear my colleagues talk about how little students seem to know. They complain about how little students are able to retain. The bottom line: They are complaining about how little content knowledge students have and retain. Is content knowledge important? Does it have anything to do with making students college- and career-ready?

The answer to both questions is yes. According to E.D. Hirsch, Jr., content knowledge is essential to understanding a text. Since the 1980s, Hirsch has been advocating the necessity of having content knowledge. In Cultural Literacy, Hirsch and his colleagues provide a very detailed list of basic cultural knowledge students must possess to be proficient readers of Literature, etc. More recently, in The Knowledge Deficit, Hirsch outlines the loss that students suffer from not gaining content knowledge. According to an international study of productivity in schools, US schools are one of the least productive in the world; our students decline 38 normalized points in reading achievement (Hirsch, 2006, p. 82).

By comparison, Hirsch's schools-Core Knowledge Schools-offer an alternative curriculum to the traditional American public schools. In Core Knowledge Schools, teachers follow a set K-8 cultural literacy curriculum. Despite the many critics (more on this in a second), these schools show a remarkable, steady rate of achievement from Grade 4 to Grade 6; meanwhile, the traditional schools show a higher starting point, but a stagnant trend over time. Perhaps teachers aren't too far off when they feel that students seem to have the same knowledge gaps year-to-year. Core Knowledge Schools seem to know how to be efficient; students start at around a 640 on the Stanford 9 in the sixth grade and they end somewhere around a 710 (Hirsch, 2006, p. 90).

So, who would oppose such success? Educators who identify themselves as "naturalists" or "formalists" or just those who think learning "just facts" is a waste of time. Naturalists believe that learning is a natural process. This theory is just not true. People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers (Willingham, 2010). Cognitive scientists have shown that engaging interest is easy, but promoting thought is hard. Formalists believe that once students know the forms of learning, they can learn anything if presented in the preferred form. What will students learn? Without the purpose and direction of a learning goal in mind, thinking critically can be very difficult. (Some writers, like the late David Foster Wallace, could literally critically think about anything. I don't think everyone is quite so talented.)

We need information because our brains are built of schema. These schema are built of information. The more schema, the more quickly we can read and assimilate a new text (Hirsch, 1988). Teaching students information is not useless; teaching students information is an efficient and constructive use of time.

This idea leads me to the next consideration in preparing a college- and career-ready students. How can teachers present a series of regimented information pieces without giving up their autonomy in the classroom? My home county has been trying to develop a new evaluation protocol intended to bring administrators into the classroom. Instead, we've been getting a narrow interpretation of The Skillful Teacher masquerading as an evaluation system. I believe that we are being placed in the position of teaching with the "pedagogy of direct command and absolute control" (Kozol, 2005, p. 64). In Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol recounts the efforts of a program called "Success for All." This system seeks to create "the establishment of 'faultless communication' between the 'the teacher, who is the stimulus,' and 'the students, who respond'" (Hirsch, 2005, p. 64).

This monotonous give-and-take is what all good teachers fear will be implemented in their classrooms at any moment. Regimentation and a lack of flexibility do nothing to help students gain the knowledge and understanding they need for college; however, learning is not something that can be held up as though it were some type of new Apple gadget you must have in order to be tragically hip and cool-you Justin Long.

What needs to be done is for us to remember that content knowledge is not just mere facts. Teachers should have deep content knowledge of their subject area in order to be the most effective. They cannot be in charge of the dynamic energy of a classroom if they must grasp for straws whenever they are asked an insightful question.

Teachers also need to be given the flexibility to achieve results on all levels. Massie Risch, Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach at the US DOE, said it best on Advocacy Day: "We are looking to tighten up on the goals and increase flexibility in how you get there." Students need the hard and fast learning goals that show them and us that they are learning; however, the strict order described in Kozol's book only helps to deaden a student's approach to the content. The monotony of teacher give, student take only makes education look like mechanical schooling. If teachers are no more than purveyors of information that students are to assimilate, then teachers need not be in the classroom and TVs and computers can take their places. But, if students are more than empty vessels, they need living, knowledgeable, and dynamic people who can and will challenge them to be the best people they can be, regardless of how they reach that goal.


Tara said...

I completely agree with your post. I would also like to share a link to an article in the USA Today titled "Many Americans can read, but can't comprehend" by E.D. Hirsch which echos many of your statements:

Anonymous said...

I second Tara's opinion. having been in numerous countries -including the realm of the Workers' Paradise- my take is teaching with love and fun. However, we must also comprehend that children have only one childhood. Here, we can look at Japan. In their society kids are a product of, as many know, the six day week. This is absurd. As a result of parents being part of corporatocracy progeny lose much of their childhood. Sad, to say te least.

Keep up the good work. bronek