Posts tagged ‘content knowledge’

March 26, 2015

‘Background information’ is a key reading skill

by Grace

In an interview with Deseret News, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham elaborates on the importance of background information in the development of reading comprehension skills.

DN: You talk a lot about “background information” as a key reading skill. This seems to be an enormously important concept that is not often discussed?

Willingham: I strongly agree. Once you spell it out it is sort of obvious to people that in all communication — speaking as well as writing — that we don’t make explicit every detail needed to comprehend. If you did, communication would take forever. You assume that your reader has certain knowledge.

We have to connect ideas, sometimes within a sentence or across sentences, and very frequently information is omitted. If you don’t have the right information in a voice conversation, it’s not that big a problem. You can ask them to clarify, or dumb it down. But when you’re reading you don’t have that option. And what will happen is you will just stop reading because you don’t comprehend.

Nonfiction reading is important in building background information.

DN: You write that we are shortchanging our reading by focusing so heavily on language arts. What do you mean by that?

Willingham: That’s absolutely true in the early grades. There is very little time devoted to science or civics or history or drama or art. English language arts focuses very narrowly on narrative fiction, and a lot of the time they’re not even reading. They are doing writing and spelling. It’s not that these things are not important, but we have to recognize that later on, in middle school and high school, the lack of background knowledge is going to come back and bite our kids.

Schools have an even greater obligation to teach background information to low-income and minority students.

DN: This seems to have important implications for closing the achievement gap suffered by low-income and minority kids?

Willingham: Absolutely. The kids coming from wealthier homes have much richer resources to acquire that broad background knowledge. They’re much more likely to be immersed in it at home, and their parents have more money, which they can use to provide experiences that are rich in information.

Willingham’s latest book is “Raising Kids Who Read”.  Among other recommendations, he advises that parents avoid using baby talk with their children.

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Eric Schulzke, “What parents can do at home to prepare their children to read”, Deseret News, March 22, 2015.

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December 12, 2014

‘it’s mostly facts that end up separating rich kids from poor kids’

by Grace

By teaching them “facts”, schools can make a difference in helping bring kids out of poverty.

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Facts, background knowledge, and content knowledge are all education-related terms that can be used interchangeably, and can be defined this way:

… the facts, concepts, theories, and principles that are taught and learned, rather than to related skills—such as reading, writing, or researching—that students also learn in academic courses.

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When it comes down to it, E.D. Hirsch would argue that it’s mostly facts that end up separating rich kids from poor kids.

He says its facts like the meaning of “common denominator” or understanding what an “ombudsman” does or knowing who Geronimo was that offer many middle- and upper-class students—who learned the terms at home and in their community—a clear advantage in life, while their poorer peers often miss out on absorbing this basic cultural knowledge.

“Facts are what you need to read properly, and to learn more, and to communicate,” says Hirsch, author, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia.

In 1987, Hirsch wrote the book on teaching facts:  Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.  It was hailed as innovative, but also criticized as being “elitist, Eurocentric and focused too heavily on rote memorization”.

Now, at 86, he’s seeing the teaching philosophies he’s championed for nearly 30 years becoming a basis for curriculum changes in schools across America.

Common Core Standards

The standards don’t dictate specifically what facts kids learn, but they do guide what students should generally be able to do in math and language arts, such as “establish a base of knowledge across a wide range of subject matter by engaging with works of quality and substance.”

Reading comprehension is dependent on background knowledge.

“There’s an enormous amount of data showing that background knowledge is absolutely vital to reading comprehension,” says Dan Willingham, a U.Va. psychology professor who says Hirsch’s concepts fall in line with current research on how the human brain learns. “Your understanding of text is dependent on what you already know about it.”

The new standards are promising, but success depends on proper implementation.

As for how Common Core standards might change what students learn in schools, Hirsch says he’ll reserve any enthusiasm for when he sees how the standards are put into place.

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Carrie Madren, “The Facts of the Matter”, University of Virginia Magazine, Winter 2014.

October 24, 2014

Trying to teach the enigmatic and increasingly popular skill of critical thinking

by Grace

The mysterious skill of “critical thinking” — schools try to teach it and employers seek workers who have it.  But the definition is  hard to pin down.

Here are some definitions of critical thinking:

  • “The ability to cross-examine evidence and logical argument. To sift through all the noise.”
    -Richard Arum, New York University sociology professor
  • “Thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, in order to improve your thinking.”
    -Linda Elder, educational psychologist; president, Foundation for Critical Thinking
  • “Do they make use of information that’s available in their journey to arrive at a conclusion or decision? How do they make use of that?”
    -Michael Desmarais, global head of recruiting, Goldman Sachs Group

I like the first definition the best, but of course employers define it any way that makes sense for their workplace.

In any case, it has become an increasingly sought-after skill.

Mentions of critical thinking in job postings have doubled since 2009, according to an analysis by career-search site Indeed.com. The site, which combs job ads from several sources, found last week that more than 21,000 health-care and 6,700 management postings contained some reference to the skill.

A concrete example of what critical thinking means in the workplace comes from NYU music business graduate Brittany Holloway.

Ms. Holloway, who now works as a content-review and fraud specialist at Brooklyn-based digital-music distributor TuneCore, defines the skill as “forming your own opinion from a variety of different sources.”

Ms. Holloway, 21 years old, says her current job requires her to think critically when screening music releases before they’re sent to digital stores like Apple Inc.’s iTunes.

Critical thinking and problem solving skills are related, and employers report they are having difficulty finding college graduates that measure up in those areas.  Colleges, having “institutionally supported and encouraged [a] retreat from academic standards and rigor”, are regularly chastised for failing to teach those skills.

A broad base of knowledge is needed before we can become critical thinkers.

… Dan Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is a leading expert on how students learn. “Data from the last thirty years leads to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not only because you need something to think about,” Willingham has written. “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).”

Will Common Core Standards help develop critical thinking skills?

Part of the problem is a decline in content-based instruction that affects students from kindergarten to college.  Common Core Standards, with their emphasis on non-fiction reading and evidence-based writing, may remedy that.  But that is still to be determined, partly due to the ongoing implementation problems of CCS.

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Melissa Korn, “Bosses Seek ‘Critical Thinking,’ but What Is That?”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21, 2014.

April 24, 2014

‘Reading ability is very topic dependent’

by Grace

E.D. Hirsch explains why “reading scores on standardized tests flatten out in 12th grade”.

… “Reading ability is very topic dependent.”  Given two passages of equal difficulty in syntax and vocabulary, the same reader will comprehend one better than the other if the reader knows something about the subject matter of the one and little about that of the other.  The idea of a general reading ability that functions independently of what is read is “a misleading abstraction,” Hirsch says.  If a reading test has ten passages with 8-10 questions on each, the same student will perform variably from one to the next depending on background knowledge.  It’s an arbitrary system.  If, by chance, you did volunteer clean-up work one summer and one of the passages concerns how cities and towns dispose of their trash, you will fly through it.  A passage on a sport you never played, though, will slow you down, even though passage difficulty is the same.

Here is the explanation for divergent trends among 4th– and 12th-graders.  Passages for older students are more knowledge-intensive than those for younger students.

Schools changed from a “knowledge intensive” curriculum to a “test-prep” curriculum.

… A cumulative, knowledge-oriented curriculum will, over time, produce higher verbal abilities than a test-prep curriculum.  Over 13 years of knowledge-intensive schooling, students, including disadvantaged ones, can learn quite a lot about a lot of topics, greatly increasing their ability to make high scores on a reading test, and making them ready for college or a career.

Will Common Core Standards make a difference?

The solution is simple, yet far-reaching.  We need the reading curriculum to be more knowledge-aimed and less skill-based.  Hirsch: “A cumulative knowledge-oriented curriculum will, over time, produce higher verbal abilities than a test-prep curriculum.”  That means more set content and common readings in English, history, and civics, a sharper determination of “cultural literacy” (to use the title that made Hirsch famous), a narrower and more coherent curriculum.

Botched implementation?

The biggest question seems to be how well CCS will be implemented.  Among the many problematic issues surrounding CCS so far, there seems to be general agreement of a “botched” implementation.

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Mark Bauerlein, “The Test Score Solution”, Minding the Campus, October 15, 2013.

November 18, 2013

College students think they’re ready for the workplace, but employers disagree

by Grace

College students consider themselves well prepared for the workplace, but hiring managers disagree.

Nearly 80% of current college students say they’re “very” or “completely” prepared to put their organization skills to work, just 54% of hiring managers who’ve interviewed recent grads would agree, according to a survey of 2,001 U.S. college students and 1,000 hiring managers, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of education company Chegg. …

Some of the biggest disagreements are about the students’ ability to prioritize, write well, collaborate, persuade, manage projects, and communicate.

… The biggest mismatch came in students’ ability to communicate with bosses and clients—70% of students thought they were primed for the challenge; only 44% of recruiters agreed.

Schools don’t seem to be doing a good job of teaching critical thinking.

“The notion that college graduates exit universities and lack the ability to clearly organize and communicate information suggests institutions are failing to meet their mandate of forming critical thinkers,” according to the report’s author….

Ruth Brothers, consultant and former human-resources executive, believes students need “more hands-on, applied learning” and coaching on interview skills.

How about if schools focus more on teaching “factual knowledge”, which is “intimately intertwined” with critical thinking skills, as a way to close this job skills gap.

… Dan Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is a leading expert on how students learn. “Data from the last thirty years leads to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not only because you need something to think about,” Willingham has written. “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).”

Interviewing skills may be the least of these students’ problems.

Related:  Five skills that will help you find and keep a job after college (Cost of College)

March 16, 2012

Core Knowledge nonfiction curriculum proves better than ‘balanced literacy’

by Grace

Children in New York City who learned to read using an experimental curriculum that emphasized nonfiction texts outperformed those at other schools that used methods that have been encouraged since the Bloomberg administration’s early days, according to a new study to be released Monday….

The less-effective curriculum, used in most public schools today, is called “balanced literacy”.  The approach that proved more effective in this study is part of the Core Knowledge program, designed by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

Under the balanced literacy approach, which was used by seven of the comparison schools and remains the most popular method of teaching reading in the city’s schools, children are encouraged to develop a love of reading by choosing books that are of interest to them. Teachers spend less time directing instruction, and more time overseeing students as they work together.

Reading nonfiction writing is the key component of the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is based on the theory that children raised reading storybooks will lack the necessary background and vocabulary to understand history and science texts. While the curriculum allows children to read fiction, it also calls on them to knowledgeably discuss weather patterns, the solar system, and how ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia compare.

This principal still prefers balanced literacy for higher income students, believing Core Knowledge is only better for poor children.

“I like balanced literacy, I do; I think that it works well, especially for children who are coming into school having been read to every single day,” said Katie Grady, principal … “For my children, who are economically disadvantaged, they needed something more, and the Core Knowledge pilot had it,” Ms. Grady said….

A friend from a nearby school district pointed out that many middle- and upper-class parents would also prefer Core Knowledge for their own children.  She understands, as a college instructor married to a college professor, that even well-educated parents want their public schools to maintain high standards. Core Knowledge’s emphasis on nonfiction, historical fiction and classic literature is in contrast to balanced literacy’s focus on contemporary literature that is considered more “relevant” to students.  The young adult (YA) sections of libraries are well stocked with this genre, typified by stories of teen anguish and social injustice.

One example of such YA literature is The Outsiders, a young adult novel with a 5.1 reading level that has become a standard assignment in many middle schools. It doesn’t hurt that showing the movie version in class is an ideal way for teachers to fulfill mandated multimedia “21st century” skills instruction.  It sounds like a good time for students, but I agree with my friend when she expresses what she would have preferred for her son who attended public school out here in the affluent suburbs.

If we’d had the Core Knowledge sequence, he could have read The Outsiders for fun here at home while reading Longfellow, Dickinson, and Langston Hughes with his teacher at school.

Rich or poor, highly educated or high school dropout, it seems parents must often do much of the heavy lifting in content instruction while the schools are doing the fun “relevant” projects in the classroom.

Related:  Schools will use tracking and more nonfiction reading to improve achievement

September 22, 2011

Hirsch explains cause of decline in SAT scores is content-light instruction

by Grace

Average SAT scores fell this year, with critical reading results declining to the lowest on record.  E.D. Hirsch writes that the main cause is a move away from content-rich instruction in the elementary grades.

The decline has led some commentators to embrace demographic determinism — the idea that the verbal scores of disadvantaged students will not significantly rise until we overcome poverty. But that explanation does not account for the huge drop in verbal scores across socioeconomic groups in the 1970s.

The most credible analyses have shown that the chief causes were not demographics or TV watching, but vast curricular changes, especially in the critical early grades. In the decades before the Great Verbal Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-centered approach.

Daniel Willingham on this subject:

More:

How Knowledge Helps – It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking

(Cross-posted at Kitchen Table Math)

July 29, 2011

Wikipedia co-founder says we need to memorize things, not just ‘Google it’

by Grace

Joanne Jacobs posted about a recent study that suggests “there is less need to remember” because people are outsourcing memory to the Internet.  This reminded me of the irony in Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger’s disagreement with this notion that “the instant availability of information online makes the memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary“.  In writing this, Sanger appears to be channeling Daniel Willingham, William Klemm and other scientists who support the idea that a rich base of knowledge is the foundation for critical thinking and creative problem solving.

I like the way Jacobs explained it.

The more you know, the easier it is to seek out new information, evaluate it and do something with it.  And remember it.

Here is Sanger’s take.

Whenever I encounter yet another instance of educationists’ arguments against “memorizing,” the following rather abstract yet simple thought springs to my philosopher’s mind: Surely the only way to know something is to have memorized it. How can I be said to know something that I do not remember? So being opposed to memorizing has always sounded to me like being opposed to knowledge. I realize this argument likely seems glib. The thing educationists object to, of course, is not the remembering or even the memorizing but rather the memorizing by rote — that is, by dull repetition and often without experience or understanding.

In a December 2008 interview, Don Tapscott, a popular writer on the subject of the Internet and society, argued that the Internet is now “the fountain of knowledge” and that students need not memorize particular facts such as historical dates. …This view is common enough among the Wikipedia users I have come across; they sometimes declare that since the free online encyclopedia is so huge and easy to use, they feel less pressure to commit “trivia” to memory….

But to claim that the Internet allows us to learn less, or that it makes memorizing less important, is to belie any profound grasp of the nature of knowledge. Finding out a fact about a topic with a search in Wolfram Alpha, for example, is very different indeed from knowing about and understanding the topic. Having a well-understood fact ready to recall is far different from merely getting an unfamiliar answer to a question. Reading a few sentences in Wikipedia about some theories on the causes of the Great Depression does not mean that one thereby knows or understands this topic. Being able to read (or view) anything quickly on a topic can provide one with information, but actually having a knowledge of or understanding about the topic will always require critical study. The Internet will never change that.

Moreover, if you read an answer to a question, you usually need fairly substantial background knowledge to interpret the answer….

To possess a substantial understanding of a field requires not just memorizing the facts and figures that are used by everyone in the field but also practicing, using, and internalizing those basics. To return to my “glib” argument, surely the only way to begin to know something is to have memorized it.

(This is an update of a previous post:  Wikipedia co-founder argues for the importance of ‘memorizing facts’)

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