Thursday, March 26, 2009

Knowledge is the Key

People may logically assume that learning leads to the acquisition of knowledge. However, the converse may, in fact, be true. It appears that knowledge is the key to learning. I've have been intrigued in the past week by all the talk of "knowledge" as the fundamental component of learning. From op-eds in the New York Times to the education blogs, there has been an exciting degree of discussion about the importance of knowing information. This is intriguing, as I've often noted the importance of background knowledge as the key to accessing new material. It first impacted me after reading I Read It, But I Don't Get It by a Denver-area teacher and researcher Cris Tovani. The insights I gained from Tovani's book were revolutionary in my teaching career, as the epiphany about knowledge impacted the way I taught reading, writing, and critical thinking.

That discussion of background knowledge in reading was accented by E.D. Hirsch this week in his New York Times piece "Reading Test Dummies." Hirsch argues very effectively about the importance of background knowledge in students interpreting passages on standardized reading tests. The disconnect between the focus of knowledge in the classroom and the obscure passages in reading tests negatively impacts the validity of the tests. Hirsch notes some impressive research from 1988 about the performance of weak and strong readers based on previous knowledge, where weaker readers performed better on tests than skilled readers if the weaker ones had an interest in and knowledge about the subject. I've often noted to people the significant differences in academic performance between kids of lower and higher socioeconomic status, simply based on background cultural knowledge, especially vocabulary. Poorer kids who arrive in kindergarten with roughly one-third the vocabulary of middle-class kids face a disadvantage in learning from which most will never recover. Until this gap is acknowledged and closed, there will be no fundamental change in reading scores, literacy rates, or achievement gaps.

Hirsch's arguments are even more intriguing as I ran across Joanne Jacob's entries on both Hirsch and Dan Willingham of the Core Knowledge Blog. Willingham, a psyche professor at Virginia, added to the knowledge discussion by explaining how important "knowing facts" is, and how integral it is to learning and understanding. The "very processes that teachers care about most-critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving-are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment)". Learning "new ideas" is fundamentally linked to having the correct understanding of the relevant "old ideas." There is no more clear explanation of the problems in literacy rates, reading scores, college readiness, and the achievement gap. It's all about a knowledge gap. According to Willingham, "understanding is remembering in disguise."

Willingham's book Why Don't Students Like School is my next purchase, and I expect it will have a similar effect on my teaching that Tovani's book did. His discussion of "cognitive science" is integral to understanding how we can more effectively educate. The discussion reminds me of my questions about why students lose the ability to "wonder." However, it's clear they actually don't. Kids do like learning; they love acquiring new information; they become quite engaged in many activities, including some very philosophical discussions. They don't have an inability to focus - they have an inability to focus on much of what they encounter in the classroom. It reminds me of the "flow experience" described by authors Michael Smith and Jeff Wilhelm in their book Going With the Flow which was a follow-up to Reading Don't Fix No Chevies. I encountered this book and concept in a great staff development class on adolescent male literacy, and it inspired me to seek more ways to engage all my students with knowledge and learning.

Clearly, the concept of factual knowledge as a key to learning is an important component of the education game, and any serious discussion of reform must take into account the ideas put forth by all these authors and researchers.


Anonymous said...

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mmazenko said...

Noah (Kaylee), thanks for discovering and reading my blog. I appreciate your taking the time to check in and comment.

kay said...

E.D. Hirsch's op ed in in the NY Times identifies a key point. What we ask students to do on state standardized tests to identify their competence trivializes what it means to be an educated citizen. In my recent book documenting successful charter schools in Massachusetts (Inside Urban Charter Schools- Harvard Ed Press),we found that low level cognitive demand was the norm in theses high scoring schools. Teachers were not asking children to think--to evaluate, assess, experiment, or hypothesize--but rather to memorize procedures in preference to concepts. One can't really blame the charters because this is the metric upon which they are judged and to which they must achieve. But the standardized test bar is so exceedingly low (perhaps because of the limitations of testing), these tests place an unnecessary limit on what children are asked to do.
Indeed as Hirsch suggests, it is time to change the tests to reflect the ability of children to think.

Peter Fogarty said...

Children in Year 3 love my silly fact of the day! Every day I try to give them an idea which will make them think - over a year it seems to develop a life of its own and they do seem to incorporate these facts into their own learning.

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