On Knowledge and Curriculum

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Forget the presidential debates, this is more important.

I attended a PD today that featured cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. It’s pretty rare that my employer, the NYCDOE, offers professional learning that has someone presenting from the academic research realm, so when I saw this was happening, I jumped on it.

I’ve been following Willingham’s articles in American Educator and have read Why Kids Don’t Like School, and I’ve been convinced of the importance of a strong curriculum and building knowledge for a while now, but it was nice to get a direct and clear reminder of what really matters in literacy, especially when that message is so very rare.

There were a lot of great ideas and takeaways on motivating children to read at home and on reading comprehension in general, but there were two main points that especially struck me during his presentation (the summary and phrasing is my own):

  1. Knowledge needs to be “in the mind” in order for reading comprehension to be effortless, rather than a problem-solving struggle to determine meaning.
  2. We can only build the broad, world knowledge required for literacy through a carefully sequenced and structured curriculum.

If you take these points to be accurate, then the implications are quite revolutionary in comparison to the regular practices of most schools and districts.

Let’s break down why this runs so counter to the norm.

Here’s what would need to happen:

  • If knowledge must be “in the mind” (rather than on Google) than that means the knowledge considered worth studying must be reinforced and revisited, tested, interleaved, sequenced, and spaced throughout a school’s curriculum.
  • That means across classrooms and across grades.
  • Therefore, a school needs to have come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain.
  • That means that each teacher (or at the very least, a department head or team) will have to have invested a substantial amount of time, both individually and collaboratively, into studying those texts and topics themselves in order to know how to design a learning environment, projects, activities, field trips, and interim assessments that will provide the access to and reinforce that knowledge for all students.
  • This would of course be accompanied by adjusting the curriculum periodically based on an analysis and reflection on interim assessment data and student work.

Sound pretty straightforward? No. Here’s the norm in most schools:

  • What most prioritizes a school’s focus are external assessments, such as state tests. ELA tests in this vein consist of random passages of text that are meant to focus on isolated reading skills devoid of knowledge. Therefore, what is taught and focused upon are the practice of skills devoid of knowledge.
  • That’s what constitutes an ELA curriculum for many schools.
  • A teacher is either not provided a curriculum, or is provided a curriculum but no support, or is provided a curriculum and support but the curriculum is not oriented around sequentially building knowledge.
  • Even when a curriculum might be provided and might be relatively well-crafted (this is a rarity, and if you know of such a curriculum, tell me. I can name two. Maybe three), I have yet to have seen any curriculum that still does not require a teacher to revise and adjust it substantially based on the needs of their students, the circumstances of their school or classroom, or their own particular style and knowledge.
  • Thus, in those rare schools where there is even a coherent curriculum “in place,” the point made above about investment of time still holds. A substantial amount of time needs to be spent in designing and continually molding the school around and in support of that knowledge embedded within the curriculum.
  • Most of what is taught in different classrooms in a school has little coherency across a school.
  • What is a taught in any given classroom is rarely reinforced via low stakes quizzing across an entire school year.

See the problem? From what I’ve seen in much of the professional development sessions and focus of schools and districts is a focus on individual teacher strategies and practices. But let’s get real. If a school does not come together to determine and design it’s mission around the knowledge and skills it will teach sequentially and systematically, then there will be little impact.

For ideas on how a school might begin to do this work, check out my next post on this topic: On Threshold Concepts & Experiences

Sunday Smorgasbord

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By bigmick (flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, NYC students returned to school. I wish the best of luck to a fresh new start to the school year to students and teachers! While you recharge and steel yourselves for the week ahead (or celebrate Eid), here’s our weekly roundup of delectable Ed and other delights from across the Net.

Students are not hard-wired to learn in different ways – we need to stop using unproven, harmful methods

I can’t tell you the number of debates I’ve had with otherwise very intelligent and well-informed educators about the inefficacy of “learning styles.” While I agree that much of the onus is on teachers to be “critical consumers,” I also bring some measure of blame to our ed schools and district leaders. I had a professor who oriented her entire syllabus around videos from Mel Levine’s All Kinds of Minds’ “Schools Attuned” program, as if it were the gospel. Speaking of which, did you know that the NYC Department of Education once spent quite a bit of money on a 5 year contract with Schools Attuned? It’s frankly embarrassing.

Teachers need to be critical consumers of research – as with medicine, lives are also at stake – yet with the best will in the world and without the knowledge and time to do so, decisions may be made to adopt new approaches that are not only ineffectual, but can actually do harm. A case in point is learning styles. 

Failure to Replicate Values Affirmation as an Countermeasure to Stereotype Threat

Daniel T. Willingham casts some shade on the “stealthy intervention” of value affirmation, suggesting that it’s simply too good to be true.

Value affirmation is a short intervention intended to counter the “stereotype threat.” It is a simple exercise that I have used multiple times with students, generally right before state testing, since I first read about the research: you give students a piece of paper and ask them to think of something important to them, and then write for 10-15 minutes about those values.

Another intervention along those lines I’ve also used is where you just ask students to “write it out” for 10 minutes. I use both of these interventions in the hope that at the very least, it can alleviate the anxiety they feel when state testing rolls around.

The good news is that unlike learning styles, a values affirmation exercise is not going to harm children, and it only takes 15 minutes max. So I say keep on truckin’ on this one. If it can alleviate some of our children’s anxiety, then it’s done something good.

The door is not closed on the values affirmation intervention, but much work is to be done if it is to prove useful in schools.

A Worrying Trend for Psychology’s “Simple Little Tricks”

Science writer Ed Yong (excited to read his new book about the ecosystems of the body) also reports on the research above, as well as other studies that question so-called “wise interventions” that have claimed to have a significant long-term academic impact.

I’ve written about these sort of “stealthy interventions” before, and made a concerted effort at my last school to promote these practices, so it’s certainly disappointing to hear this news. But it certainly fits in with the one of the few things I can say with certainty about the messy world of education: improving schools requires lots and lots of hard work. There are no short cuts.

It seems, then, that wise interventions are like sensitive and delicate flowers, only able to bloom if the conditions are just right. Walton, Cohen, and their peers have always argued as much. But that’s in itself a problem. If it is so hard for teams of experienced and competent social scientists to get these techniques to work, what hope is there for them to be used more broadly?

Books: How Repeated Evictions Impact Students’ Lives

Alexander Russo reviews Matthew Desmond’s EvictedSounds like a fit companion to Edbuild’s recent report on segregated school districts.

Evicted shows that it’s not just slumlords who are culpable for the deplorable, exploitative situation. The legal system, law enforcement, and even social support agencies all play a role in creating and perpetuating things — and tolerating what’s clearly intolerable.

Putting Student-Produced OER at the Heart of the Institution

Mike Caulfield with trenchant insight into the critical function that institutions can serve—especially in regards to public services and goods.

People make things possible. Institutions make them last.

I had worked my heart out for this thing, evangelized widely, written up the prototypes and the stubs, explained it to the college. But I hadn’t institutionalized it. And so it was bound to die the minute I left.

. . . while we like to scoff at all the mucky-muck bureaucracy around training, budgets, policy and messaging, it’s precisely that stuff that prevents your dream initiative of today morphing into rotting infrastructure of tomorrow. It’s all too easy in this business to end up the new interactive whiteboard — bought one year as the must-have accessory and abandoned the next.

Noise: How to Overcome the High, Hidden Cost of Inconsistent Decision Making

Daniel Kahneman and others provide advice on overcoming human bias and inconsistency when making professional judgments.

This is certainly relevant to education, where educators make constant evaluative decisions about children. Grading papers, for example, can be highly subjective and subject to the “noise” described in this article. I, for one, welcome the day when algorithms will grade student writing, leaving teachers to focus on the much more critical task of providing ongoing opportunities for feedback and practice.

Where there is judgment, there is noise—and usually more of it than you think. As a rule, we believe that neither professionals nor their managers can make a good guess about the reliability of their judgments.

. . . Algorithms are sometimes used as an intermediate source of information for professionals, who make the final decisions. One example is the Public Safety Assessment, a formula that was developed to help U.S. judges decide whether a defendant can be safely released pending trial. In its first six months of use in Kentucky, crime among defendants on pretrial release fell by about 15%, while the percentage of people released pretrial increased. It’s obvious in this case that human judges must retain the final authority for the decisions: The public would be shocked to see justice meted out by a formula.

Uncomfortable as people may be with the idea, studies have shown that while humans can provide useful input to formulas, algorithms do better in the role of final decision maker.