Knowledge and Education

Reposted from 2006

“Root ideas are much more important in practical affairs than we usually realize, especially when they are so much taken for granted that they are hidden from our view.

In American education, the ideas that influence us, though often hidden from view, come to us from the intellectual movement known as Romanticism, which held great sway during our country’s formative years. It is thanks to the Romantics (also known as transcendentalists, pragmatists, and, in education, progressives) that the word “natural” has been a term of honor in our country and that the ideas of “nature” and “natural” were elevated to a status that previously had been occupied only by divine law. We can hear these romantic beliefs in John Dewey’s writings, which continually use the terms “development” and “growth”—terms that came as naturally to him as they do to us.

…. unnoticed metaphors like “growth” and “development” unconsciously govern our thought—and continue to do so….

These ideas become unspoken assumptions, accepted without even realizing we’re accepting anything, just as we take in air without consciously thinking about breathing. This particular idea, says the author, is directly responsible for a number of ‘deleterious romantic ideas’ influencing our schools and particularly the growth of ‘whole language’ and its replacement of phonics in schools of education.

The most harmful idea is that children do not need a knowledge-rich curriculum to become proficient readers. The word reading, of course, has two senses. The first means the process of turning printed marks into sounds and these sounds into words. But the second sense means the very different process of understanding those words. Learning how to read in the first sense, as vital as it is, does not guarantee learning how to read in the second sense, comprehending the meaning of what is read. To become a good comprehender, a child needs a great deal of knowledge. A romantically inspired long delay in beginning to teach that knowledge is socially and economically harmful to our students—especially our most disadvantaged students. (emphasis added)

This ‘disparagement of factual knowledge, as found in books,’ is a ‘strong current in American thought.’ We make movies romanticizing the ignorant (Forest Gump), and we here have seen teachers and others dismiss a high goal of literacy as elitist.

Instead of a respect for the importance of knowledge, Romanticism gave us faith in the half-truth that the most important thing for students to learn is “how to learn.” It bequeathed to us a tendency to dismiss the acquisition of broad knowledge as “rote learning” of “mere facts,” to subtly disparage “merely verbal” presentations in books and by teachers, and to criticize school knowledge unless it is connected to “real life” in a “hands-on” way. These ideas are now so commonplace that we don’t think twice about them; we don’t scientifically scrutinize them. Yet, these ideas underlie what we as a nation think about reading comprehension.

This particular assumption has become so internalized that I have even heard homeschoolers talk wisely about ‘it doesn’t matter what they learn, so long as they learn how to learn.’ Usually everybody in the room will nod sagely, as though something profound was just said. I’ve done it myself. We seldom think about the meaning behind such a statement. Of course it ought to matter immensely what the children learn, especially since we all know, if we would only think about it, that healthy children already know how to learn. They do come hard-wired with a desire to know. It’s the stuff of learning that they don’t have. As early as the 1900’s Charlotte Mason was addressing this faulty assumption. In fact, though she usually is gentle to a fault when speaking of ideas with which she disagrees, she goes so far as to call this one a farce:

We must give up the farce of teaching young people how to learn, which is just as felicitous a labour and just as necessary as to teach a child the motions of eating without offering him food… The multitudinous things that every person wants to know must be made accessible in the schoolroom, not by diagrams, digests, and abstract principles; but boys and girls, like ‘Kit’s little brother,’ must learn ‘what oysters is’ by supping on oysters. There is absolutely no avenue to knowledge but knowledge itself, and the schools must begin, not by qualifying the mind to deal with knowledge, but by affording all the best books…. We have to face two difficulties. We do not believe in children as intellectual persons nor in knowledge as requisite and necessary for intellectual life.

Charlotte Mason was a British educator, and I hope that her fellow educators in her native land paid her words some heed. Here in the US, we continue to be rather dismissive towards knowledge. We hear it in classrooms, see it in our textbooks, and portray this attitude in our movies and cultural icons.

Pick up a typical basal reader and the clear implication is that comprehension skill depends on formal “comprehension strategies,” such as predicting, summarizing, questioning, and clarifying.2 Look in them fruitlessly to find evidence that the publishers believe reading depends on imbibing a body of knowledge. I call this romantic idea, “formalism”—a belief that reading comprehension can best be improved by acquiring formal comprehension strategies, not by building children’s knowledge base.

The more we know, the more we are able to know, because knowledge is related to other knowledge in marvelous ways. There are myriad connections between one thing and another. Relations formed with one group of knowledge (say, the names of common wildflowers) give us tools and keys to understanding and knowing something else (allusions and similes in literature). This is what I think Miss Mason means when she observes that education is the science of relations. E.D. Hirsch, Jr. puts it this way:

knowledge of content and of the vocabulary acquired through learning about content are fundamental to successful reading comprehension; without broad knowledge, children’s reading comprehension will not improve and their scores on reading comprehension tests will not budge upwards either. Yet, content is not adequately addressed in American schools, especially in the early grades. None of our current methods attempt to steadily build up children’s knowledge; not the empty state and district language arts standards, which rarely mention a specific text or piece of information; not the reading textbooks, which jump from one trivial piece to another; and not the comprehension drills conducted in schools in the long periods of 90-120 minutes devoted to language arts. These all promote the view that comprehension depends on having formal skills rather than broad knowledge.

This may sound like an academic point. It is, in fact, an important argument about the science that underlies learning. I believe inadequate attention to building students’ knowledge is the main reason why the reading scores of 13- and 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have not budged in years. I believe this neglect of knowledge is a major source of inequity, at the heart of the achievement gap between America’s poor and non-poor. I also believe that if this idea about what is limiting students’ comprehension isn’t understood and aggressively addressed, reading scores won’t move up, no matter how hard teachers try. And the public debate will wrongly continue to pillory teachers and public schools for stagnant achievement scores….

….Formal comprehension skills can only take students so far; knowledge is what enables their comprehension to keep increasing.

Unfortunately, our typical response is not to increase knowledge, but to decrease complexity, to dumb down. Think about this the next time somebody says something like, “That’s too hard. Kids these days can’t understand those words. We need something easier….” This is to condemn children to a spiraling down of their ability to understand, and the less we respect their abilities and the importance of a body of knowledge, the less they will be able to cope with new information.
This is truly disturbing:

Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich have shown that under current conditions of American schooling, vocabulary in second grade is a reliable predictor of academic performance in 11th grade.11 They have also shown that the biggest contribution to the size of any person’s vocabulary must come from the printed page (whether it is heard or read), because print uses a greater number of different words than everyday oral speech does.

The entire article is rather long, but those who are interested can find it here.

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