Saturday, June 26, 2010

A solution to the culture wars?

One of the essentials that is largely missing in American education is a common, logical, comprehensive, and sequential curriculum. Our long history of local control and community standards in K–12 schooling has much to do with that. But I believe the primary reason every state, if not every community, “does its own thing” is that it is too difficult to reach consensus on exactly what should be taught.

The apotheosis of cultural infighting over textbook content occurs every few years in Texas, when the State Board of Education reviews and prescribes standards for another area of curriculum. In Texas, the board’s word is law regarding exactly what will and will not be taught. In the recent past, they have mandated phonics over “whole language” (when the correct prescription would have been “both”), explicit challenge of the theories of evolution and The Big Bang, and more emphasis on computational skills than theoretical knowledge in math. This year, in the opinion of many, they took up the rewriting of American history.

No wonder there is little agreement on what a common national curriculum should be. Every choice of inclusion or omission seems to elevate or denigrate knowledge that is important to someone. Is there any way around these culture wars?

Cognitive psychologist and University of Virginia professor Daniel Willingham thinks so. In his book Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, he rephrases the question: “What should students be taught? is equivalent not to What knowledge is important? but rather to What knowledge yields the greatest cognitive benefit?

How does content matter to learning? It depends upon the subject. In the area of reading, there is a phenomenon known as the “fourth-grade slump.” Children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to do as well as more privileged children in the early years of reading instruction, when the emphasis is on decoding skills. By fourth grade, however, the mechanics of reading have largely been mastered and the focus switches to comprehension. The problem with comprehension is that it is strongly tied to background knowledge; in that, children from richer environments have a definite edge, so a gap in reading test scores opens then and widens every year thereafter.

Background knowledge is important because no writer ever says everything she knows on a topic. We leave out what we assume our audience already knows — otherwise, writing would be both boring and too comprehensive. No one will take the time to plow through overly long expositions of what he already knows. So, if you don’t know what has been left unsaid, you can be in real trouble.

All of us have had experiences where an expert did not share knowledge we needed because it was so obvious to him that it did not occur to him that we would not know it. Decades ago, for example, I was infuriated by math problems in Scholastic Aptitude Tests that assumed I was familiar with certain sports jargon, when it might as well have been Greek to me. In the early 1990s, when my first university email account was accessed through a UNIX mail program, the “cheat sheet” directions were useless to me until I discovered that commands only worked at the beginning of a new line — a fact that had been way too obvious to programmers to be worth mentioning. The same frustration and poor performance dogs the child who knows nothing of the content of a reading selection, compared to her more well-read fellow student. She must work hard to decode new vocabulary and try to tease its meaning from context, and she will have large gaps in understanding where prior knowledge has been assumed.

What does this have to do with curriculum design? When it comes to reading, Willingham argues, we must concede that “much of what writers assume their readers know seems to be touchstones of the culture of dead white males.” Unless and until our culture changes and writers stop making those assumptions, he advocates teaching that material to our students so that all can read the “same breadth of material with the same depth of comprehension” as the more privileged kids. In other words, giving in to traditional cultural biases is better for our children cognitively—at least until the day we stop weaving metaphors and phrases from the Bible, Shakespeare, and Mother Goose into our everyday language. Children need the culture’s common background knowledge in order to become good readers. That notion could reduce our fights over the content of the books we call readers. (And, of course, children without books in their homes must be given plenty of them to read, so that they can catch up in general knowledge.)

But what about everything else? Willingham gives a different answer to “What should students know of science, of history, of mathematics? The question is different because the uses of knowledge in these subject areas are different from the uses of knowledge for general reading. Reading requires relatively shallow knowledge.” Just knowing the definition of words (such as “savannah,” “cheetah,” and “eland”) will facilitate reading about an African ecosystem. But deep understanding of the interdependence of species and fauna and weather calls for knowledge of ideas as well as vocabulary. “Cognitive science leads to the rather obvious conclusion that students must learn the concepts that come up again and again — the unifying ideas of each discipline. Some educational thinkers have suggested that a limited number of ideas should be taught in great depth…. From the cognitive perspective, that makes sense.”

This perspective adds another voice to argument that American K–12 education should retreat from the mention-everything approach that is widely derided as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” What good does it do to “cover” so much material if we remember none of it? I recall nothing about the Moguls of India, for example, except their name. The cognitive psychologist knows that, for something to make it to long-term memory and stay there, repetition is required. That’s why I may have forgotten the quadratic equation in the 40 years since I last used it, but someone who used it for 10 or 20 years never will forget it. Repetition helps us learn and reinforcement over time helps us retain. We won’t have time for either unless we cut something out of our curricula to make room for it.

So, in core subject matter courses, we can at least battle over fewer ideas. This won’t help much with biology, where evolution is the grand unifying idea, but it might be helpful everywhere else.


  1. This time, you pose not just a problem, but explain Willingham's proposed solution - albeit a bit generalized.
    You say we should give disadvantaged kids lots of books to read in order for them to get up to speed on the background cultural assumptions. It seems to me that the ability to read AND comprehend is the solution to all education problems.
    But the time and encouragement to read is something that should not be the responsibility of educational systems. Reading bedtime stories to kids at home would teach them the secret that you can learn anything you want if you read - even the cultural codes imparted by dead white men and Texas school boards.

  2. I really think something as simple as sending books to kids at home could make a huge difference for them. Dolly Parton created a terrific program to do just that. Her Imagination Library mails an age-appropriate book to children every month from birth to age five. Isn't that a great idea? We tried to do it here a few years ago but could not raise the funds from local foundations to pull it off. Eventually, we will.