I want to thank “Izzy” again for his comments to the last post in this series. I recommend to those of you who are following this series that you read that comment thread between Izzy and me to help understand in more depth some of what I will be discussing throughout the remainder of this series [http://www.bigjollypolitics.com/2012/08/27/texas-education-iv-a-case-study-in-the-failure-of-a-method-based-curriculum/]. In fact, if you haven’t been following these posts about education, you can catch up with us here:
- Texas Education: Revisiting our Foundation
- Texas Education II: Knowledge needed to be “an effective American Citizen in a global economy”
- Texas Education III: National Policy is not the Answer to the Problem in our Classrooms
- Texas Education IV: A Case Study in the Failure of a Method-Based Curriculum
Now, let’s dig into the foundation of the curriculum issue by discussing what I mean by a “knowledge-based” curriculum, and by discussing it in terms of the new mission I have proposed for “diffusing knowledge” in accordance with the Texas Constitution.
In this post, I am going to cite again to E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s recent book, The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools. I am not citing to him so extensively because I think he is the only source, or even the best source for information related to “knowledge-based” education. However, he has summarized so much of the research in cognitive science (“the study of how the mind processes information to obtain and use knowledge”) applied to effective education, and he has written more on this subject over such a long period of time, that his analysis is extremely helpful for our discussion.
What a generation of research since A Nation of Risk first appeared shows is that “high-order” skills (what many call “critical thinking” skills) can not be taught independently—that is, you can’t just teach students “how to think.” For students to learn how to think, research in cognitive science tells us they have to be taught “content and vocabulary knowledge” through “a coherent, rational and sequential approach.” This approach builds and expands a student’s “working memory” of knowledge over years, and that working memory allows students to develop, and adults to use, such knowledge quickly to critically analyze and solve increasingly complex problems related to such knowledge (e.g., the more knowledge you effectively obtain about history, the broader and deeper your working memory will become of such knowledge, and that working memory will facilitate faster and more effective critical thinking using the historical, cause-and-effect method of analysis).
The broader the knowledge base developed across academic disciplines, the more likely it is that students will be able to critically think and problem solve within more than one academic discipline. In essence, Hirsch, and others in his field, tell us that “Content is Skill, Skill Content.”
In Appendix 2 to The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, Hirsch presents five basic propositions derived from cognitive-science research that underlie “knowledge-based” education:
- The character of an academic skill is constrained by the narrow limitations of working memory.
- Academic skills have two components: procedures and contents.
- Procedural skills, such as turning letters into sounds, must initially be learned as content along with other content necessary to high-order skills.
- An advance in skill, whether in procedure or content, entails advance speed processing.
- A higher-order academic skill such as reading comprehension requires prior knowledge of domain-specific content; the higher-order for that domain does not readily transfer to other content domains.
In the remainder of this post, I want to focus primarily on three central concepts that Hirsch presents in these propositions—“working memory,” the components of procedure and content, and “advance speed processing”—and the most critical body of foundational knowledge upon which all further knowledge-based education relies: language.
In fact, we can restate my original re-formulation of the mission of Texas public schools this way:
Any knowledge-based curriculum designed to provide all students with “the incremental foundation of truths, facts, and principles they will need as adults to function as effective American citizens in a global economy, together with the experiences and tools to use such knowledge effectively and wisely;” must be built on a strong foundation of language skills designed to expand working memory and create advance speed processing.
The term “working memory” describes that short-term memory we use to analyze situations and solve problems. Apparently, this form of memory that allows us to manipulate data and make calculations and decision is very fleeting—normally just a few seconds. Overcoming this limitation requires practice and repetition, followed by the gradual introduction of new data and then practice and repetition with the new data—and so on; so that over time we create a large and expansive working memory that allows us to react to new data and new situations quickly.
One easy example that Hirsch discusses is that we are not born knowing what “World War II” means. It takes time to learn not just the word “world,” but also the content of that word as used in many contexts. And the same goes for the word “war,” and the Roman Numeral “II”. Moreover, it takes practice and repetition to understand that when used together, these words convey a concept that is specific and important, and that at once conveys temporal, historical, political, and cultural meanings that are critical for understanding so much that has been and is still being written every day about our society in newspapers and in books—all of which most of us immediately recognize. But we didn’t recognize that term, let alone process its significance, the first time we read those words together.
The practice and repetition needed to build working memory comes from multiple sources. The three words “world,” “war,” and “two,” may be introduced in an early vocabulary lesson; Roman Numerals may be introduced in a math or English class; the term “World War II” may be introduced in a history lesson, and then re-enforced in sentences studied for grammar and punctuation during an English class in which different contexts for the use and understanding of the term are introduced. All of these interconnected sources during formal school instruction are needed to build “working memory.”
But so are sources from outside of school. For instance, think what it might be like if you never grew up in a home where you heard the term “World War II” from a family member who served during the war, from a book discussing the war, from one of those old movies or documentaries on TV, or from just listening to general conversation among the adults in your life—you would not have been exposed to all the different contexts in which that term is used and, therefore, would not have as complete an understanding of the meaning of that term as other students in your class. These life experiences build working memory, too, and if they are missing from a child’s experience, it can be difficult for them to make up the cumulative loss during a school day or year.
It is the lack of cross-disciplinary immersion in the vocabulary needed to build working memory, coupled with the lack of out-of-school exposure to such vocabulary, that impedes the ability of so many of the diverse students in our public schools from learning and understanding enough of the content of their education to develop “critical thinking” skills.
Compounding this problem is the failure in too many of our classrooms to recognize that the development of academic skill requires learning both procedure and content. This especially is true of the language skills needed to build working memory. As Peggy Tyre recently reported in The Writing Revolution published in the October, 2012 issue of The Atlantic, so many students are failing to reach their potential across so many disciplines because they have not been given the basic tools with which to convey complex thoughts. Those innovative schools, like the New Dorp High School on Staten Island and The Winward School in White Plains, New York, which are daring to “go back to the future” by teaching grammar, conjunctions, and composition to their students throughout the curriculum, are seeing test scores exploding in every discipline, from science to history to language arts.
And the whole reason we build this working memory is to develop “advance speed processing.” The term “advance speed processing” as Hirsch uses it, describes the necessary skill that a person needs to use working memory to analyze increasingly complex situations, and solve increasingly complex problems. Returning to our earlier example, as you learn and practice with the concept of “World War II” through years of repetition, you can understand a myriad of related concepts and contexts, such as the adjective “post-war” that is so critical to understanding so much of what is written and said about modern economics, politics, diplomacy, art and literature. It is this speed of processing our working memory that allows us to think critically in any given field, or across disciplines.
The Texas classrooms of the 21st Century must be the incubators of working memory by diffusing procedural and content knowledge incrementally, and then through practice across every class and discipline. And they must start this work by returning to the basics of teaching an ever-increasing vocabulary in the context of every discipline from the story problems in math, to the sentence diagrams in English, to the essays in history, because language is not just another academic discipline to learn—it is the fundamental body of knowledge to learn for all other knowledge to be processed and used effectively.
This all may sound easy, but in today’s public schools none of this will be easy, because too many of the children who walk into those schools lack exposure to the out-of-school experiences that support and foster the development of vocabulary and working memory. In turn, that lack of exposure puts a tremendous burden on the teachers to instill and re-enforce this knowledge during the few hours each day that they have with these children. And, then, too many of our teachers have not been trained, or been given the proper curriculum with which to provide these skills to their students. So, any meaningful change will not happen overnight, but it must start now.
Luckily, there are several sources of ideas for new curricula that focus on teaching the knowledge needed to build working memory and “advance speed processing” among our children, which they will need in order to grow-up to be effective citizens. In my next post, we’ll canvass some of these proposed curricula before we move on to discuss the changes needed in our classrooms and school facilities.