Saturday, August 3, 2013

Knowing things

E.D. Hirsch has long been one of the most sensible critics of our public educational system. He sees some reason to be optimistic in aspects of the Common Core but there can be no quick fix. Nevertheless, if the most disadvantaged students are to have a chance, change must happen. Vocabulary and content are key. Hirsch's "A Wealth of Words" explains:
...[V]ocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

Early in the twentieth century, a well-meant but inadequate conception of education became dominant in the United States. It included optimism about children’s natural development, a belief in the unimportance of factual knowledge and book learning, and a corresponding belief in the importance of training the mind through hands-on practical experience. ....

Why should vocabulary size be related to achieved intelligence and real-world competence? Though the intricate details of cognitive abilities are under constant study and refinement, it’s possible to give a rough answer. The space where we solve our problems is called “working memory.” For everyone, even geniuses, it’s a small space that can hold only a few items in suspension for only a few seconds. If one doesn’t make the right connections within that space, one has to start over again. ....

.... Suppose you put a single item into your working memory—say, “Pasteur.” So long as you hold in your long-term memory a lot of associations with that name, you don’t need to dredge them up and try to cram them into your working memory. The name serves as a brief proxy for whatever aspects will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem. The more readily available such proxies are for you, the better you will be at dealing with various problems. Extend this example to whole spheres of knowledge and experience, and you’ll realize that a large vocabulary is a powerful coping device that enhances one’s general cognitive ability. ....

To make the necessary school changes in the United States, an intellectual revolution needs to occur to undo the vast anti-intellectual revolution that took place in the 1930s. We can’t afford to victimize ourselves further by continued loyalty to outworn and mistaken ideas. Of these, the idea that most requires overturning is how-to-ism—the notion that schooling should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge. These tools typically include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknowable future.

.... In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.” These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary. The increasingly desperate pursuit of this empty, formalistic misconception of reading explains why our schools’ intense focus on reading skills has produced students who, by grade 12, can’t read well enough to flourish at college or take a good job.

Another mistaken idea that must be scrapped is that curricula don’t need to build knowledge coherently and cumulatively. ....

It isn’t overstating the case to say that the most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class is to focus on the question: Is this policy likely to expand the vocabularies of 12th-graders? .... Educators and policymakers should inform themselves about the critical importance of factual knowledge and about the need for a specific and coherent yearly curriculum to impart that knowledge and language effectively. That won’t just improve students’ vocabularies; it will help restore the Jeffersonian ideal of equality of opportunity. [the full argument, including some of the research]