Last week I was pleased to attend a webinar sponsored by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence featuring Robert Pondiscio and Lisa Hansel of Knowledge Matters for a discussion of why a well-rounded curriculum is still vitally important, especially in the early grades, and especially for building literacy skills. I've been following Pondiscio's work with close interest the last few years, and was pleased the Prichard Committee recognizes this important issue and wants to bring it to the attention of their fellow Kentuckians.
Folks outside the education establishment may not realize how much curriculum content has suffered in recent years, despite the media attention to the Common Core State Standards. In practice, elementary schools have been actively squeezing out social studies, science, and other subjects to make more time for reading and math, in part because test scores in these subjects carry heavy weight in the school accountability system. But beyond the pressures of testing, many educators have adopted the philosophy that in our digitally-driven, information-soaked world, content is far less important than it used to be; students should not be taught specific content but rather how to access content and to think critically and solve real world problems.
I encountered a vivid example recently when Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development for the Gallup organization, was a keynote speaker at the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative Summer Leadership Conference. Busteed shared a wealth of Gallup's recent data, arguing that policymakers should be interested in tracking and measuring a much broader array of student skills and dispositions than just their test scores, including their social and emotional development, engagement, and sense of purpose in learning and life. Not only do these new metrics carry implications for what students learn, but also how we teach them. Relationships between teachers and students are more important than ever, Busteed argued. "You've heard it said in the past that 'content is king,' but that's bull," he said. "Caring is king."
The audience at GRREC applauded enthusiastically.
I agree with most of what Mr. Busteed was expressing in his talk. The argument that learning has surely changed in a world where virtually the entire compendium of human knowledge lies within our smartphones has a lot of face validity. And I definitely agree that without a caring learning environment, kids aren't going to master much content. But I've become convinced that knowledge does, in fact, matter. As I've argued before, kids can't learn to think critically without something to think about. And what they learn to think about matters a lot, especially if we want to build students who are not just critical thinkers, but also wise and virtuous. As Robert Pondiscio argued recently, the very security and stability of our nation may depend on the content we use to shape our kids' civic understanding.
Caring and content aren't mutually exclusive. Critical thinking depends on strong background knowledge. If caring is king, then content is surely still queen, and they rule together with much more power and grace than either does alone.
Mr. Pondiscio's presentation to the Prichard Committee is full of vivid examples of why this is so, and I encourage readers to watch the webinar and review the PowerPoint slides he shared. He and Ms. Hansel make a great case for why reading is not a skill and how content builds comprehension and actually strengthens reading test scores. They recommend reviewing state-level school accountability systems for ways to promote more balanced instruction, incentivizing teacher collaboration across grades and subject areas, and developing a statewide sequence of topics for K-5 reading tests. They also emphasized the importance of strong literacy instruction skills for all elementary teachers. And they stressed how content knowledge in the early grades can help make up for major deficiencies students of poverty bring with them to kindergarten.
Watch and read it all, and visit Knowledge Matters to find out more. And find out what's happening in your own neighborhood elementary schools. How much exposure are kids getting to social studies, science, and the arts in early grades? Why? Engage educators and parents in conversation about the need to remedy that situation.
- Reclaiming a place for the arts in Kentucky education
- A classical education reading list
- Yes, kids need to know about the American Revolution
- Classical education, Montessori, and the tension between the "what" and "how" of learning
Usual disclaimer: All opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the positions of Western Kentucky University or the Kentucky Board of Education.
Image: Knowledge Matters logo