Empty buckets seldom burst into flames. –Robert Pondiscio, Literacy is Knowledge.
People who push curriculum as a solution are generally pushing content knowledge, and they’re pushing content knowledge as a means of improving reading comprehension. Most of these people are in some way associated with Core Knowledge, the primary organization pushing this approach. They aren’t pushing it for money. This is a cause.
Pondiscio’s piece goes to the same well as E. D. Hirsch, who founded the Core Knowledge Foundation to promote the cause of content knowledge in curriculum, Lisa Hansel, the CK Foundation’s current Pondiscio, and Daniel Willingham, who sits on the board of Core Knowledge.
Pondiscio even borrows the same baseball analogy that Hirsh has used for a decade or so, to illustrate the degree to which content knowledge affects reading comprehension. Many Americans are unfazed by “A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game”, but might be confused by “I’ll see how the wicket is behaving and then decide who are the bowlers I’ll use in the last few overs.”
We can understand content if we have the background knowledge, Hirsh et. al. assure us, but will “struggle to make sense” of reading if we’re unfamiliar because, as Pondiscio asserts, “Prior knowledge is indispensable”.
Let’s take a look at what some people do when they read without requisite content knowledge. (you can see other examples from my early childhood here).
Let’s pick another sporting event—say, the Kentucky Derby, since I don’t pay much attention to it. I googled, saw a headline at Forbes: “Final Kentucky Derby Futures Wagering Pool Opens Today”.
I don’t watch horseracing, I don’t bet, I know about futures because they were a plot point in “Trading Places”, but until that google I had no idea that people could bet on who won the Derby now, in advance. And now I do.
I was not confused. I didn’t struggle, despite my lack of prior knowledge. I constructed knowledge.
But Pondiscio says that any text on horse-racing is a collapsing tower of wooden blocks, “with each block a vocabulary word or a piece of background knowledge”, to anyone unfamiliar with horseracing. I have too few blocks of knowledge.
Robert Pondiscio would no doubt point out that sure, I could figure out what that Kentucky Derby headline meant, because I knew what the Kentucky Derby was. True. I’ve known what the Kentucky Derby was ever since I was 9 or so. I didn’t get the information from my parents, or my privileged life (I grew up decidedly without privilege). I read through all the Highlight articles at the doctor’s office and picked up a Sports Illustrated out of desperation (the internet is a glorious place; I just found the article) and then did exactly what Pondiscio suggests is impossible—read, understood, and learned when before I knew nothing.
I first knew “derby” as a hat, probably from an Enid Blyton story. But I had recently learned from “The Love Bug” that a derby was also a race. What did racing have to do with hats? But now I learned that horse races could be derbies. Since horses were way older than cars, the car races must have gotten the “derby” idea from horses. Maybe jockies got hats when they won horse races. (I learned many years later, but before today, that I was wrong.) I not only built on my existing knowledge base, I learned that the Kentucky Derby was a yearly horse race almost a century old and the results this year were upsetting. No one expected this horse to win, which probably was why people were upset, because just like the bad guy had a bet with the Chinese guy in “The Love Bug”, people made bets on who won. The article also gave me the impression that horses from Venezuela don’t always win, and that lots of horse races had names.
Pondiscio gives another example of a passage requiring background knowledge: the Dutch in New Amsterdam. Oddly enough, I distinctly remember reading just that sort of passage many years ago back in the fifth or sixth grade, about New Amsterdam first being owned by the Dutch, then control going to the English. I knew about Holland from Hans Brinker, which I’d found in someone’s bookshelf, somewhere, when I was six or seven. So New York was first founded by the Dutch–maybe that’s why they called the dad Mynheer in Legend of Sleepy Hollow just like they did in Hans Brinker, because according to the cartoon I’d seen on Wonderful World of Disney, Sleepy Hollow took place in New York .And then the English took it over, so hey, York must be a place in England. So when done, I knew not only that the Dutch had once been in the New World, but that other countries traded colonies, and that while we all spoke English now, New York had once been Dutch.
I didn’t carefully build content knowledge. I just got used to making sense of chaos, grabbing onto whatever familiar roadmarks I saw, learning by a combination of inference and knowledge acquisition, through haphazard self-direction grabbing what limited information I could get from potboiler fiction, magazines, and limited libraries, after gobbling up all the information I could find in schoolbooks and “age-appropriate” reading material. And I learned everything without prior knowledge other than what I’d acquired through previous reading, TV and movies as came my way. I certainly didn’t ask my parents; by age six I acknowledged their expertise in a limited number of topics: cooking, sports, music, and airplanes. In most important topics, I considered them far less reliable than books, but did deem their opinions on current events useful. Yes. I was obnoxious.
My experiences are not unique. Not today, and certainly not in the past. For much of history, people couldn’t rely on information-rich environments and supportive parents to acquire information, so they turned to books. Using vocabulary and decoding. Adding to their existing knowledge base. Determinedly making sense of alien information, or filing it away under “to be confirmed later”.
But of course, say the content knowledge people pushing curriculum. And here comes the backpedal.
E. D. Hirsch on acquiring knowledge:
Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading.
That describes almost exactly what I did for much of my childhood. But this is the same Hirsch who says “Reading ability is very topic dependent. How well students perform on a reading test is highly dependent on their knowledge of the topics of the test passages.” Nonsense. I scored at the 99th percentile of every reading test available, and I often didn’t know anything about the topic of the test passage until I read it—and then I’d usually gleaned quite a bit.
Pondiscio slips in a backpedal in the same piece that he’s pushing content.
Reading more helps, yes, but not because we are “practicing” reading or improving our comprehension skills; rather, reading more is simply the most reliable means to acquire new knowledge and vocabulary.
This is the same Pondiscio who said a couple years ago:
What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.
Well, which is it? Do they think we learn by reading, or that we only learn by reading if we were fortunate enough to have parents who provided a knowledge-rich environment?
Take a look at the Core Knowledge promotional literature, and it’s all bold talk: not that more content knowledge aids comprehension, but that content knowledge is essential to comprehension.
I’ve likewise tweeted about this with Dan Willingham:
Me: Of course, taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean that reading doesn’t enable knowledge acquisition.
Willingham: if you have *most* of the requisite knowledge you can and will fill in the rest. reading gets harder and harder. . . ..as your knowledge drops, and the likelihood that you’ll quit goes up.
Me: The higher the cog ability, the higher ability to infer, fill in blanks.
Willingham: sooo. . . hi i.q. might be better at inference. everyone infers, everyone is better w/ knowledge than w/out it. yes?
So Willingham acknowledges that IQ matters, but that as knowledge and IQ level drops, engagement is harder to maintain because inference is harder to achieve. No argument there, but contrast that with his bold talk here in this video, Teaching content is teaching reading, with the blanket statements “Comprehension requires prior knowledge”, and attempts to prove that “If you can read, you can learn anything” are truisms that ignore content knowledge. No equivocation, no caveats about IQ and inference.
So the pattern: Big claims, pooh-poohing of reading as a skill that in and of itself transfers knowledge. If challenged, they backpedal, admitting that reading enables content acquisition and pointing to statements of their own acknowledging the role reading plays in acquiring knowledge.
And then they go back to declaring content knowledge essential—not useful, not a means of aiding engagement, not important for the lower half of the ability spectrum. No. Essential. Can’t teach reading without it. All kids “deserve” the same content-rich curriculum that “children of privilege” get not from schools, but from their parents and that knowledge-drenched environment.
And of course, they aren’t wrong about the value of content knowledge. I acknowledge and agree with the surface logic of their argument: kids will probably read more readily, with more comprehension, if they have more background knowledge about the text. But as Daniel Willingham concedes, engagement is essential as well—arguably more so than content knowledge. And if you notice, the “reader’s workshop” that Pondiscio argues is “insufficient” for reading success focuses heavily on engagement:
A lesson might be “good readers stay involved in a story by predicting” or “good readers make a picture in their mind while they read.” ..Then the children are sent off to practice the skill independently or in small groups, choosing from various “high-interest” books at their individual, “just-right” reading level. [Schools often have posters saying] “Good readers visualize the story in their minds.” “Good readers ask questions.” “Good readers predict what will happen next.”
But Pondiscio doesn’t credit these attempts to create engagement, or even mention engagement’s link to reading comprehension. Yet surely, these teachers are simply trying to teach kids the value of engagement. I’m not convinced Pondiscio should be declaring content knowledge the more important.
Because while Core Knowledge and the content folks have lots of enthusiasm, they don’t really have lots of research on their product, as Core Knowledge representatives (q6) acknowledge. And what research I’ve found never offers any data on how black or Hispanic kids do.
Dan Willingham sure seemed to be citing research lately, in an article asking if we are underestimating our youngest learners, citing a recent study says that we can teach young children knowledge-rich topics like natural selection. He asks “whether we do students a disservice if we are too quick to dismiss content as ‘developmentally inappropriate,’” because look at what amazing things kids can learn with a good curriculum and confidence in their abilities!
Of course, a brief perusal of the study reveals that the student populations were over 70% white, with blacks and Hispanics less than 10% total. Raise your hand if you’re stunned that Willingham doesn’t mention this tiny little factoid. I wasn’t.
Notice in that study that a good number of kids didn’t learn what they were taught in the first place, and then a number of them forgot it quickly. Which raises a question I ask frequently on this blog: what if kids don’t remember what they’re taught? What if the information doesn’t make it to semantic memory (bottom third of essay). What evidence do the curriculum folks have that the kids will remember “content” if they are taught it in a particular sequence? (Note: this essay was too long to bring up Grant Wiggins’s takedown of E. D. Hirsch, but I strongly recommend it and hope to return to it again.)
Like reformers, curriculum folk are free to push the bold talk, because few people want to raise the obvious point: if content knowledge is essential, instead of helpful, to reading comprehension, then no one could ever have learned anything.
But contra Pondiscio, empty buckets do burst into flames. People do learn without “essential” content knowledge. Even people from less than privileged backgrounds.
Here’s the hard part, the part too many flinch from: Smart people can learn this way. All anyone has ever needed to acquire knowledge is the desire and the intellect. For much of history educated people had to be smart and interested.
In recent years, we’ve done a great job at extending the reach of education into the less smart and less interested. But the Great Unspoken Truth of all education policy and reform, be it progressive, critical pedagogy, “reform” or curricular, is that we don’t know how to educate the not-smart and not-interested.