Given my political leanings, I am usually not a fan of the New York Times. Sometimes the very mention of its name would give me bloodshot eyes and a thirst to torch a coffeehouse.
Yet today is an exception. E.D. Hirsch, former teacher and now professor emeritus of education at the University of Virginia, wrote an article in today’s New York Times advocating that the much-maligned standardized tests for reading comprehension be revised to include content necessary for a well-rounded education for the grade. While I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Hirsch in the need for integrating content into literacy studies, there may be problems with children as they grow older, especially with new experiences.
Dr. Hirsch has been a pioneer in education since the 1970’s, when he introduced the concept of cultural literacy. Unlike many conventional theories about reading, which stress sets of skills and strategies irrespective of the reading material, Hirsch believed that true comprehension can only be achieved through a combination of reading skills and, at least, a cursory background knowledge of the subject being read. His Core Knowledge Foundation was founded to establish basic baskets of factual knowledge necessary for each grade level. His work has been controversial in that he has often attacked more modern, ethereal educational methods that promote “critical thinking” in favor of a more rote, conservative teaching style.
In the Times article, Hirsch states that “The problem is that the reading passages used in these tests are random. They are not aligned with explicit grade-by-grade content standards. Children are asked to read and then answer multiple-choice questions about such topics as taking a hike in the Appalachians even though they’ve never left the sidewalks of New York, nor studied the Appalachians in school.” Not only does this hinder growth in reading, according to Hirsch, but will also affect their achievement in content areas later in their schooling.
To that end, Hirsch posits a simple strategy: “If the reading passages on each test were culled from each grade’s specific curricular content in literature, science, history, geography and the arts, the tests would exhibit what researchers call ‘consequential validity’ — meaning that the tests would actually help improve education. Test preparation would focus on the content of the tests, rather than continue the fruitless attempt to teach test taking.” Thus, an integrated curriculum would require standardized testing to be similarly integrated.
Hirsch is not alone in this thinking. In T.J. Willingham’s recent book Why Don’t Kids Like School?, he notes that critical thinking and problem solving cannot take place without factual knowledge. According to Willingham, “Most people believe that thinking processes are akin to those of a calculator. A calculator has a set of procedures available that can manipulate numbers, and those procedures can be applied to any set of numbers…The human mind does not work that way…the critical thinking processes are tied to the background knowledge.”
Hirsch does make an excellent point about testing: we are often wasting time with fruitless strategies when the test material is so random that true effective data is hard to retrieve from year to year. It is important, therefore, that students have a base of knowledge that can be used as a springboard for understanding. I see this in my own students. I have had teachers and adminsitrators comment that my social studies instruction is often too slow and methodical–not necessarily aligned with Teachers College’s precious “Workshop Model”, a study in wasting time that is exalted to the point of orthodoxy. My response is that you cannot often have group work when it comes to memorizing or understanding events and names and dates–I have to do the boring stuff before I can even begin to have students think critically.
It is frustrating when I see teachers ask children to give opinions on subjects when they haven’t the slightest clue what is going on. It isn’t the kid’s fault–he/she was not prepared to think. You have to give the brain something to think about before it can start working its magic.
However, I differ with Hirsch in his view of each grade having a basket of knowledge that is necessary for a well-rounded education. Establishment of such a standard can either be too specific or too broad. If, for example, a student acquires a very local body of knowledge, it will limit him/her in their future opportunities if that student chooses to see the wider world outside of the home community. If that basket of knowledge is too wide, then he/she may miss out on detailed, focused content in areas that interest the student. Thus, the establishment of content standards leads to inevitable questions of who sets curricula, who decides the standards, and whether or not these standards are useful to all children or just in that locality.
Finally, I see critical thinking as a vital component that must be used with content knowledge. It is important to have children gain a well-rounded base of knowledge, as Hirsch explains, but it is equally important for children to have ownership of that knowledge. That ownership comes right after comprehension, as students begin to dissect and question the knowledge they have learned. If we are to create a class of independent thinkers and actors in our society, it is vital that we hone their thinking in tandem with expanding their content knowledge.
The Founding Fathers did not help to create this nation simply by knowing about Locke, Hume, Aristotle and other philosophers. They used that knowledge to frame new arguments for concepts like liberty, democracy and government. I agree that our children have a weak body of knowledge. However, using a weak vessel for learning–the standardized test–as a way to enhance that knowledge does not create a nation of thinkers. It creates a nation of test taking trivia buffs.
America needs more than just a nation of professional test takers.