On Knowledge and Curriculum


Forget the presidential debates, this is more important.

I attended a PD today that featured cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. It’s pretty rare that my employer, the NYCDOE, offers professional learning that has someone presenting from the academic research realm, so when I saw this was happening, I jumped on it.

I’ve been following Willingham’s articles in American Educator and have read Why Kids Don’t Like School, and I’ve been convinced of the importance of a strong curriculum and building knowledge for a while now, but it was nice to get a direct and clear reminder of what really matters in literacy, especially when that message is so very rare.

There were a lot of great ideas and takeaways on motivating children to read at home and on reading comprehension in general, but there were two main points that especially struck me during his presentation (the summary and phrasing is my own):

  1. Knowledge needs to be “in the mind” in order for reading comprehension to be effortless, rather than a problem-solving struggle to determine meaning.
  2. We can only build the broad, world knowledge required for literacy through a carefully sequenced and structured curriculum.

If you take these points to be accurate, then the implications are quite revolutionary in comparison to the regular practices of most schools and districts.

Let’s break down why this runs so counter to the norm.

Here’s what would need to happen:

  • If knowledge must be “in the mind” (rather than on Google) than that means the knowledge considered worth studying must be reinforced and revisited, tested, interleaved, sequenced, and spaced throughout a school’s curriculum.
  • That means across classrooms and across grades.
  • Therefore, a school needs to have come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain.
  • That means that each teacher (or at the very least, a department head or team) will have to have invested a substantial amount of time, both individually and collaboratively, into studying those texts and topics themselves in order to know how to design a learning environment, projects, activities, field trips, and interim assessments that will provide the access to and reinforce that knowledge for all students.
  • This would of course be accompanied by adjusting the curriculum periodically based on an analysis and reflection on interim assessment data and student work.

Sound pretty straightforward? No. Here’s the norm in most schools:

  • What most prioritizes a school’s focus are external assessments, such as state tests. ELA tests in this vein consist of random passages of text that are meant to focus on isolated reading skills devoid of knowledge. Therefore, what is taught and focused upon are the practice of skills devoid of knowledge.
  • That’s what constitutes an ELA curriculum for many schools.
  • A teacher is either not provided a curriculum, or is provided a curriculum but no support, or is provided a curriculum and support but the curriculum is not oriented around sequentially building knowledge.
  • Even when a curriculum might be provided and might be relatively well-crafted (this is a rarity, and if you know of such a curriculum, tell me. I can name two. Maybe three), I have yet to have seen any curriculum that still does not require a teacher to revise and adjust it substantially based on the needs of their students, the circumstances of their school or classroom, or their own particular style and knowledge.
  • Thus, in those rare schools where there is even a coherent curriculum “in place,” the point made above about investment of time still holds. A substantial amount of time needs to be spent in designing and continually molding the school around and in support of that knowledge embedded within the curriculum.
  • Most of what is taught in different classrooms in a school has little coherency across a school.
  • What is a taught in any given classroom is rarely reinforced via low stakes quizzing across an entire school year.

See the problem? From what I’ve seen in much of the professional development sessions and focus of schools and districts is a focus on individual teacher strategies and practices. But let’s get real. If a school does not come together to determine and design it’s mission around the knowledge and skills it will teach sequentially and systematically, then there will be little impact.

Bureaucracy has it’s place

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

“The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

“. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.”

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

“I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.”

Economies as Ecosystems

“Both political camps accept a version of the elegant premise of economic equilibrium, which inclines them to a deterministic, linear way of thinking. But why not look at the economy in terms of the messy complexity of natural systems, such as the fractal growth of living organisms or the frantic jive of atoms? These frameworks are bigger than the sum of their parts, in that you can’t predict the behaviour of the whole by studying the step-by-step movement of each individual bit.”

—George Zarkadakis, “The economy is more a messy, fractal living thing than a machine

Teaching children to have BS detectors

“‘We are trying to teach children that stories are usually an unreliable basis for assessing the effect of treatments,’ Nsangi explained, adding that stories amount to anecdotal evidence. The kids are also learning to watch out for the perverting effects of conflicts of interest, and to recognize that all treatments carry both harms and benefits and that large, dramatic effects from a treatment are really, really rare.”

—Julia Belluz, “Our world is awash in bullshit health claims. These scientists want to train kids to spot them.” on Vox

Smorgasbord: Acclaim for Michaela, Cognitive Science, and a Movement for School Integration


I’ve been moving apartments this week, so I haven’t been as closely attuned to all things ED, but here’s a few links worth reviewing when you take a break from admiring the swiftly changing color of the leaves on this lovely autumnal weekend.

Acclaiming Michaela

There’s a school entitled Michaela that has apparently been getting some guff in the UK reminiscent of the strong debate that Success Academy engenders here in NYC.

Tom Bennett, the founder of ResearchED (coming to a D.C. near you in a couple of weekends), writes a defense of the school, noting that while it’s intense structure and discipline are not for everyone, critics need to get off their high horses.

Doug Lemov has also taken a gander, and he challenges educators to learn from innovations that are worth emulating, rather than merely criticize from afar. In that spirit, he is exploring some of the practices he finds worthy of stealing in a series of blogs, beginning with this one on Michaela’s “maximum impact, minimum effort” grading policy. Schools renowned for sucking the pith out of young teachers (like, ahem, Success Academy) would do well to consider it. Teaching is a demanding profession, and the more we can reduce paperwork that bears little impact, the better.

I haven’t been much aware of any controversy around Michaela, but I have been very aware of it’s innovative and research-based approach to instruction and curriculum design, thanks to the consistently trenchant writing of Joe Kirby. This summer I switched to an out-of-classroom role designing professional development, and I’ve found myself continually revisiting some of his posts, as well as blogs of other UK educators such as Daisy Christodoulou, Alex Quigley, David Didau, David Fawcett, and many others. I don’t know what’s in the water over there, but UK educators seem to spend a lot more time blogging about practice and research, rather than politics, and it’s refreshing.

Speaking of Research

Deans for Impact founder Benjamin Riley penned a piece for Kappan presenting the case for educator practice to be informed by principles from cognitive science research. And if you haven’t read Deans for Impact’s The Science of Learning, you should probably make that priority number one. Another resource I’ve found myself continually revisiting when designing professional learning.

The Movement for Increasing School Diversity is Growing

I’ve written about the need for increasing school and neighborhood diversity before, and you’ll be hearing much more from me on this; it’s the focus I’ve selected for my NY policy fellowship with America Achieves this year. I’ve been really excited to see an increasing amount of media coverage, advocacy, and ground work taking place on this issue.

This week, NYC Councilmember Helen Rosenthal pushed back against the privileged Upper West Side parents who have been vocal opponents of school rezoning efforts.

The Hechinger Report took a deep dive in an analysis of the desegregation and resegregation of Greenville, Mississippi. Many insights and lessons to heed here.

The Century Foundation released a report on the increasing efforts at school integration, while highlighting the dinosaur progress occurring in NYC.

And Nautil.us magazine highlights research from MIT that “has shown that in both the U.S. and European Union, wealth is predicted by the diversity of face-to-face communication and that both poverty and crime levels are predicted by the isolation of a community.” This confirms my premise for increasing school and neighborhood diversity: we can only really fight discrimination and bias, and improve long-term outcomes, when we interact daily, face-to-face, with others who are different than us.

Smörgåsbord: A Smattering of Politics and Science for Your Columbus Day Weekend


Ed Politics and Policy

The UFT establishes a hypocritical stance towards NY State’s proposed revisions of the Common Core standards. Mulgrew says the revisions don’t go far enough. But the UFT supported the original version of the standards, then later criticized the state’s implementation of them. So what’s the problem, Mulgrew? The standards themselves, or the implementation? Or maybe it’s politics that’s the real problem here, eh.

Speaking of politics, the plot thickens in the Bronx, where an assistant principal has accused DOE officials and a state assemblyman of collaborating to prevent low income children from attending an overcrowded Riverdale public school. First, the superintendent rapidly resigned, then the school’s principal got demoted. Now, a finger is pointed at a top NYCDOE official.

In moving forward, one way the NYCDOE could show a stronger commitment to equity and school diversity is by supporting Manhattan’s District 1 in its efforts to implement a “controlled choice” model.

Speaking of lawsuits, a Detroit lawsuit challenges local control in public education by claiming that to be able to read and write is a constitutional right.

And the Supreme Court will examine just how much educational benefit a student with a disability should be expected to derive from access to a “free and appropriate education.” (That’s FAPE, for my fellow SPED heads out there.) Currently, it’s a pretty low bar.


Some rough news for those of us who do professional development with teachers, as well as for those of us who are proponents of strong content knowledge: in a study of math teachers that were provided training,”teacher participation in the 93 hours of PD did not have a positive impact on student achievement,” even though the teacher’s knowledge of the math content improved.

We avoid people who give us critical feedback, to the detriment of our performance.

A useful primer and cheat sheet on cognitive biases.

“If all the kids in the world were to line up for a race, the average American child would finish at the foot of the field” (47 out of 50, to be exact).

So maybe we need to give all of our kids standing desks.

More education results in better outcomes. But “differences between educated and less educated people may be partially due to residual genetic and socioeconomic confounding.”

The more a mother’s voice imprints in a child’s brain, the better at communication that child will become.

Reading literature may not improve theory of mind.

Teaching cursive should go the way of the dodo. Writing in manuscript is just fine.

Groups in which all members talk about the same amount perform better.

People can be tricked into arguing for positions that are not their own.


Therapeutic Learning Environments

At school, even a small reprimand from a teacher or perceived insult from a fellow student can trigger explosions of rage, expletives, and other inappropriate behavior.

. . . At Lincoln, the teachers and staff follow a few deceptively simple rules: Don’t take anything the student says personally and don’t mirror their behavior with an outburst of your own. The teachers give students time to calm down, often in the principal’s office or a special “quiet room.” Later, they inquire about what might be bothering them and ask if they want to talk about it.

. . . As the Lincoln staff discovered, helping teachers de-escalate their reactions to student misbehavior is critical to building trusting relationships. “Things like language [and] tone of voice can really trigger or re-trigger some kids, especially kids who have known trauma.

–James Redford and Karen Pritzker, “Teaching Traumatized Kids” on The Atlantic

Noise and Ecosystems

Inwood Hill Park
Inwood Hill Park

Research suggests noise can rattle an ecosystem. Birds, for example, rely on their voices to woo mates, size up rivals, scrounge for dinner. Horn blasts and engine revs can scramble auditory cues. Birds try singing louder, singing at a higher frequency, singing at night. Some abandon their nests altogether. This can trigger an ecological cascade, one that extends even to vegetation; noise can scare away some birds that would normally scatter seeds.

—Ashley Powers, “Preserving the Quietest Places” in The California Sunday Magazine

More on sound and noise:


Smörgåsbord: American Stupidity, Fracturing Communities, and Integrating Minds

I’m no longer calling this the “Sunday” Smorgasbord. Because I’m releasing this one on Saturday. Just because.

American Stupidity

Sol Stern is concerned about how dumb America has become. He blames curricular incoherence.

The incoherence of economic and political policy isn’t helping, either. According to a Harvard Business School report:

“Divisive political rhetoric and an uninformed national debate have confused the average American about what the country needs to do to restore the economy. . . .

“There is almost a complete disconnect between the national discourse and the reality of what is causing our problems and what to do about them. This misunderstanding of facts and reality is dangerous, and the resulting divisions make an already challenging agenda for America even more daunting.”

Our organizational systems are also pretty stupid.

And physical context can have a big impact: students become more stupid when it’s too hot in their schools. Heat “erases nearly three quarters of the impact of a highly effective teacher.”

Yet we still argue about whether global warming is even a thing.

Meanwhile, young men who could be working (and thinking) are playing video games, and the happier for it, so long as they can stave off reality while living at their parent’s house.

Fracturing Communities

But what kind of jobs are out there for many? Trickle-down ain’t working, and the incentives are for the rich to take all the money they can and horde it from the have-nots.

And they will do all they can to ensure the children of the have-nots keep out of the schools where they have stake in property, as the residents of Lincoln Towers on the Upper West Side demonstrate.

NY Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal and state Senator Brad Hoylman, eager to show their support for affluent parents, claim that rezoning the school district would “fracture the community“—which is ironic, since the proposed rezoning would increase neighborhood integration across race and class. One would think that would actually be fostering greater community. . . but, you know.

Conor Williams warns that while millenial parents are less tied to geographic stakes, and thus interested in open enrollment systems, without policies that promote equity, such parents will find “ways to massage these systems into protecting their privilege.”

Integrating Minds

We can share, reinforce, and supplement our memories with our friends and build a “transactive memory system.”

And within our own brains, the more integrated the different parts of our brain are, the better we do on complex tasks.

Gardening is good for your health. So something to be said for all those school gardens.

And if you want kids to get creative, give them simple toys and let them be bored with them.

Just Imagine

“Demarcus Taylor, a seventeen-year-old junior at King, had had enough. He was tall and slender, with broad shoulders, and as he spoke, he shook his hands in exasperation:
I’m not here to put the blame on anybody. I’m here just to reflect. Just imagine being at a school where you sit down, get your education, you get back up, go home, next thing you know you brought bedbugs from school to your home. Now you have an infestation at your house. Just imagine being at a school where your teachers are all sick and tired, and they’re acting like they’re not able to teach because they’re not getting paid for what they do. Just imagine when your teachers say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me next year, I don’t know if I can afford my car loan. How can I afford to pay rent, how can I afford to even live with the wage I’m getting?””
—Alexandria Neason, “Held Back” in Harper’s Magazine