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Minding the Knowledge Gap The Importance of Content in Student Learning By Daisy Christodoulou In 2007, I trained as a teacher and started teaching English in a secondary school in Southeast London that
Minding the Knowledge Gap The Importance of Content in Student Learning By Daisy Christodoulou In 2007, I trained as a teacher and started teaching English in a secondary school in Southeast London that enrolls students between the ages of 11 and 18. One of the first things that struck me when I was teaching was that my pupils seemed to know so little. Even the bright and hard-working pupils seemed to me to have big gaps in their knowledge. Before I became a teacher, I d read newspaper articles about pupils lacking knowledge, but I had always assumed these reports had been exaggerated by the media. I wondered if my experiences were unusual, but the experiences of colleagues at other schools seemed similar to mine. Pupils who didn t know where milk came from, who didn t know the name of the British prime minister, who could barely name any foreign countries, and who had no idea of when important world-changing technologies had been invented. I started researching the issue, and I found that my experiences weren t atypical. I also found that many American teachers had the same experiences. For example, there s a study showing that two-thirds of Americans can t name the three branches of the United States government. 1 In the United Kingdom, there s a study showing that a third of pupils think the House of Lords is elected. 2 Daisy Christodoulou is the research and development manager at ARK (Absolute Return for Kids) Schools in the United Kingdom. Previously, she taught English to secondary school students in London. This article is adapted with permission from her book Seven Myths about Education (London: Routledge, 2014). It isn t I know this tends to surprise a lot of Americans and others from more democratic countries, but it shouldn t really come as a shock to U.K. citizens! In a lot of the training material I read, these knowledge gaps were given very little attention. Generally, the word knowledge was used in a very pejorative way. The idea was that you were supposed to focus on skills like analysis, evaluation, synthesis, and so forth. Knowledge was the poor relation of these skills. Of course, I wanted my pupils to be able to analyze and evaluate, but it seemed to me that a pupil needed to know something to be able to analyze it. If a pupil doesn t know that the House of Lords isn t elected, how can you get him to have a debate or write an essay analyzing proposals for its reform? Likewise, if a pupil doesn t know what the three branches of government are in the United States, how can she understand debates in the papers about the Supreme Court striking down one of Congress s laws? I was also influenced here by my own background. I was born in East London to a working-class family. My father s parents were immigrants from Italy and Cyprus. My father said that when he was in school as a child in England, he very often felt as though he was on the outside of a conversation. He didn t know what the conversations were about, and he couldn t go home and ask his parents because they didn t know either. He was very determined that I wouldn t have that experience, and I didn t want my pupils to have that experience. Middle-class children pick up a lot of knowledge from home, from books, from programs on the radio, and so forth. Working-class children and the children of immi- ILLUSTRATIONS BY PAUL ZWOLAK AMERICAN EDUCATOR SPRING grants don t always get those advantages. A lot of the pupils I taught were just as bright and hard-working as the pupils at private schools, but they lacked crucial knowledge, and this deficit held them back in their studies. As I researched these issues, I stumbled across this publication, American Educator, the quarterly journal of the American Federation of Teachers. Two articles in particular resonated with me at this point one by Gilbert Sewall and one by Vincent Ruggiero.* Sewall s article detailed lots of examples of lessons that focused on trivial activities. I had seen lessons exactly like these in English classes, and in fact I d taught some like that myself, with predictably underwhelming results. Ruggiero s article was more about whole range of people from different classes and cultures, and if they belong to anyone, they belong to humanity. Teaching these insights to children isn t elitist not teaching them is! From my research, I think the U.K. and U.S. systems have a number of things in common. Pupils in both countries lack knowledge of important fundamentals. Both education establishments downplay the importance of knowledge. There is general academic underachievement despite a multiplicity of reform efforts and relatively generous funding. Attention is paid to school structures over classroom practice. And the highstakes, test-based accountability systems in both countries have, by and large, failed. Let me be clear about this final point, The aim of fact learning is to learn several hundred facts, which taken together form a schema for understanding the world. discipline, but it was also making what I felt was a very important point about the transmission of knowledge. It was thanks to American Educator that I heard of E. D. Hirsch Jr. and Daniel T. Willingham. I would never have heard of them otherwise. I studied some American education scholars in my training course, so it wasn t that my training course was parochial. But certain ideas and people were just not taught. It was a great relief to read Hirsch and Willingham and to realize that the intuitions I d had about the importance of knowledge were backed up by solid evidence. But it was also extremely frustrating, because I just couldn t believe that all this vitally important evidence about how pupils learn hadn t been taught to me when I was training to be a teacher. Unfortunately, there is an unhelpful ideological component to these debates in the United Kingdom. Too often, people think that teaching knowledge is somehow right wing and elitist. But this isn t the case. The kind of powerful knowledge that s in the Core Knowledge curriculum in the United States doesn t belong to any class or culture. The great breakthroughs of civilization were made by a *For more about these articles by Gilbert Sewall and Vincent Ruggiero, see American Educator s Summer 2000 issue at For more on E. D. Hirsch Jr. s and Daniel T. Willingham s work, see American Educator s authors index at For more on Core Knowledge, see Informative, Not Scripted: Core Knowledge Shows How Clear, Specific Content Supports Good Instruction in the Spring 2008 issue of American Educator, available at spring2008/coreknowledge.pdf, and More Than Words: An Early Grades Reading Program Builds Skills and Knowledge in the Fall 2012 issue of American Educator, available at because when I advocate teaching knowledge, people assume I m advocating high-stakes tests. That isn t at all the case. In fact, I d argue that a lot of the damaging test preparation we see in both systems is the result of the misconception that skills can be developed in the abstract. I read a lot of books when I was training to be a teacher that seemed to me to be fairly abstruse. I was never quite sure how their theoretical insights were meant to transfer to classroom practice. Likewise, I would read a lot of theoretical articles that would say things like, Of course this isn t to say that we shouldn t teach knowledge. But then you would finally work out what they were recommending in practice and see that, in fact, it did involve not teaching knowledge. So in my work, I always try to relate everything back to practice in the hope that this will make my argument clearer. I also hope that this will make my observations relevant to classroom teachers from any country, even if they end up disagreeing with the argument. Last September, after teaching English in two different secondary schools, I started working at ARK (Absolute Return for Kids) Schools, which runs a network of high-performing schools in disadvantaged areas. I work on curriculum and assessment research. I left the classroom because I really wanted to focus on creating curricula and assessments that would help pupils learn, and ARK was the best place for me to do this. There isn t anything like Core Knowledge in the United Kingdom, and we are only just beginning to realize the importance of knowledge and to design curricula that take this into account. ARK Schools is pioneering a really innovative and thoughtful approach to curriculum 28 AMERICAN EDUCATOR SPRING 2014 design, and it is also backing it up with excellent teacher training and professional development. ARK is very much focused on improving classroom practice, using data and assessments intelligently, and learning from the best school systems from around the world. The ARK network has a lot of people who have taught in challenging schools working on these projects, so the lessons are designed with real pupils and teachers in mind. It has already created an excellent mathematics curriculum, called Mathematics Mastery, which is based on Singapore Math and is being taught by lots of schools outside the ARK network. I am working on a new English curriculum for ARK Schools, as well as a new assessment system. I do plan to return to teaching so I can use these curricula and assessments myself. In the meantime, I ve written a book, from which this article is drawn, about all that I ve learned from my research. In my book, I focus on what I identify as seven myths, or widely held beliefs, that dominate our educational practice. I start with the myth that teaching facts prevents understanding, because this (along with my second myth, that teacher-led instruction is passive) is the foundation of all the other myths I discuss. These myths have a long pedigree and provide the theoretical justification for so much of what goes on in schools. Taken together, all seven myths actually damage the education of our pupils. But here, let s focus on facts and the role knowledge has in our understanding. Myth: Facts Prevent Understanding Perhaps the earliest expression of the idea that learning facts will not bring true understanding came from the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. In Émile, or On Education, he advises that you should give your scholar no verbal lessons; he should be taught by experience alone. 3 The reason for this, he wrote, is that learning facts is ineffective: What is the use of inscribing on their brains a list of symbols which mean nothing to them? 4 Pupils might be able to repeat exactly what you have told them, Rousseau said, but they will not be able to use the facts they have been told or understand how those facts can be deployed in different ways: 5 You tell me they acquire some rudiments of geometry, and you think you prove your case; not so, it is mine you prove; you show that far from being able to reason themselves, children are unable to retain the reasoning of others; for if you follow the method of these little geometricians you will see they only retain the exact impression of the figure and the terms of the demonstration. They cannot meet the slightest new objection; if the figure is reversed they can do nothing. Rousseau thought that such fact learning was not only ineffective but also immoral. In rendering pupils passive, he wrote, it not only ensures they are not learning, it ensures they are having all the joy and excitement of childhood knocked out of them: 6 No, if nature has given the child this plasticity of brain which fits him to receive every kind of impression, it was not that you should imprint on it the names and dates of kings, the jargon of heraldry, the globe and geography, all those words without present meaning or future use for the child, which flood of words overwhelms his sad and barren childhood. In the late 19th century, John Dewey also emphasized the importance of learning through experience. Rousseau thought the child should be taught by experience alone ; the phrase most commonly associated with Dewey is learning by doing. For Dewey, the problem with many of the schools in his time was that the pupils were not active: 7 The child is thrown into a passive, receptive or absorbing attitude. The conditions are such that he is not permitted to follow the law of his nature; the result is friction and waste. We see it again: teaching facts makes pupils passive; making pupils passive means they must ignore their natural inclinations; ignoring their natural inclinations makes them unhappy and does not help them learn. And again, the problem is with teaching facts to pupils: 8 We present the child with arbitrary symbols. Symbols are a necessity in mental development, but they have their place as tools for economising effort; presented by themselves they are a mass of meaningless and arbitrary ideas imposed from without. Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator whose most famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was written in Like Dewey, his theories have enjoyed great influence: Pedagogy of the Oppressed has sold more than one million copies worldwide. 9 It was undoubtedly more popular in its 1970s heyday, but a measure of its continuing influence is revealed by the fact that it came in 10th in a 2007 survey to find the most inspirational education Teaching facts and subject content are part of the true aim of education, not in opposition to it. books. 10 In his book, Freire criticizes how facts prevent pupils from truly understanding the reality around them: 11 The teacher expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. His task is to fill the students with the contents of his narration contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance. He developed his famous banking concept of education, illustrating how facts prevent understanding: 12 Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, AMERICAN EDUCATOR SPRING memorise, and repeat. This is the banking concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. All these metaphors should remind us of another famous writer on education, Charles Dickens. Although Dickens was a novelist, not an education expert, his works and characters are so famous and influential that they merit mention here. His depiction of Thomas Gradgrind s school at the start of Hard Times is a literary masterpiece: 13 Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir! The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim. a teacher or anyone involved in education to Gradgrind is an insult, suggesting that the teacher is both emotionally stunted and doing great emotional damage to his or her pupils. One common trope is seen in all of these writers. They all set up polar opposites between facts, which are generally seen as bad, and something else, which is generally seen as good. Facts are opposed with meaning, understanding, reasoning, significance, and, in Dickens s case, fancy, or what we might today call imagination or creativity. If you want pupils to understand the true meaning of something, to be able to reason, and to be creative and imaginative, then facts are not the way to achieve such an aim. Why Is It a Myth? My aim here is not to criticize true conceptual understanding, genuine appreciation of significance, or higher-order skill development. All of these things are indeed the true aim of education. My argument is that facts and subject content are not opposed to such aims; instead, they are part of it. Rousseau, Dewey, and Freire were wrong to see facts as the enemy of understanding. All the scientific research of the last half-century proves them wrong. The modern bureaucrats and education experts who base policy and practice on their thinking are wrong too, and with less excuse, as they have been alive when evidence that refutes these ideas has been discovered. Rousseau was writing in the 18th century; Dewey at the turn of the 20th; Freire in the 1970s. Research from the second half of the 20th century tells us that their analyses of Factual knowledge is closely integrated with creativity, problem solving, and analysis. It allows these skills to happen. As we can see, the metaphor at the end has very much in common with those metaphors used by Rousseau, Freire, and Dewey. Dickens criticizes those people who would view children as passive receptacles to be filled with facts. The rest of the novel makes it clear what happens to children subjected to Gradgrind s methods. They turn into emotionally stunted and broken adults, like his daughter Louisa, or into emotionless, heartless snitches like Bitzer. Hard Times, incidentally, ranked seventh in the poll previously mentioned on inspirational education books. It is also striking to note how often the name Gradgrind is mentioned in serious discussions on education. The United Kingdom s current affairs program Newsnight recently used a lengthy clip of a TV version of Hard Times to illustrate a feature on exam reform. 14 Comparing factual learning are based on fundamentally faulty premises. Much of the modern research into human intelligence was inspired and informed by research into artificial intelligence. To construct a machine that could think, scientists needed a better understanding of how humans actually thought. 15 One of the pioneers in this field, Herbert Simon, gained much of his insight into how humans think through his attempts to construct a thinking machine. 16 In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers agreed on a basic mental model of cognition that has been refined and honed since then. 17 What this model shows is that the facts we have in long-term memory are vitally important for cognition. By understanding how the brain works, we can understand why this is so. When we encounter a problem we want to solve, 30 AMERICAN EDUCATOR SPRING 2014 we can use working memory and long-term memory to solve it. Working memory can be equated with consciousness. Humans are conscious of and can monitor only the contents of working memory. All other cognitive functioning is hidden from view unless and until it can be brought into working memory. 18 So when we want to solve a problem, we hold all the information relating to the problem in working memory. Unfortunately, working memory is highly limited. There is some debate in the literature about exactly how limited working memory is, but some of the most recent research suggests that it may be limited to as few as three or four items. 19 That is, we can hold only three or four new items in working 16 digits for five seconds and then ask you to try to reproduce them, you will probably fail: But if I show you the following 16 letters for five seconds, you will probably be able to reproduce them all exactly: 20 The cat is on the mat. This is because you have been able t
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