Education Opinion

Thinking Critically about the Need for Knowledge

By Anthony Cody — September 17, 2009 5 min read
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Diane Ravitch shows us one reason innovation in education has proved to be so elusive over the past century. In her op-ed this week, she takes the advocates of 21st Century Skills to task for their focus on critical thinking as opposed to the bedrock knowledge she suggests is a prerequisite foundation for our students.

Ravitch echoes the point made in my post earlier this week, that project-based approaches have been around for a century. However she does not consider that a good thing. According to her: “None of these initiatives survived. They did have impact, however: They inserted into American education a deeply ingrained suspicion of academic studies and subject matter.” Here she turns reality on its head, blaming these alternative approaches for the very alienation they sought to address.

I taught in inner city Oakland for 18 years. My students often arrived lacking the knowledge Ravitch would like to emphasize. I had many 6th graders who did not know their times tables, and could not add or multiply fractions. This knowledge is taught in the second to fourth grade. Many of my students did not know the first thing about science, and could not tell you that matter is made of atoms, or how seeds grow into plants.

They had likely been taught these things, but they had not learned them. This is the fundamental challenge classroom educators meet, especially in the tough schools where many students have decided they are “not good at math,” or are uninterested in science. In order to engage our students we need to ignite the passion for learning that comes from a fresh challenge. So we see teachers like Karen Dolan in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with her curriculum focused on the renovation of a 153 year-old mill, which has recently been attacked for lacking rigor.

In my classroom, I found that students were far more excited about experiments when, rather than simply following steps in a book, they cooked up their own recipes, with firm guidance from me to make sure they were carefully collecting real data, and conducting real investigations.

The thing I find a bit depressing about Ravitch’s view is her clear statement that we must choose between these two approaches. She writes: “Inevitably, putting a priority on skills pushes other subjects, including history, literature, and the arts, to the margins. But skill-centered, knowledge-free education has never worked.” According to her, if we teach critical thinking, we necessarily must shortchange the students in their basic knowledge. This kind of thinking has led to the incremental expansion of mandated knowledge contained in state content standards – and soon to be joined, I fear, by similarly prescriptive national standards. Taken this way, education is a zero sum game. And of course for those of us working with populations on the wrong side of the achievement gap, this is an indictment that carries real weight.

Ravitch believes that “Thinking critically involves comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. And a great deal of knowledge is necessary before one can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.” So our students must wait to think critically, until they have amassed this prerequisite store of knowledge.

The populations that most need creative, relevant approaches, are not coincidentally, those that tend to perform lower on standardized tests. Many of these students do not identify with the knowledge acquisition goals of the school system, and it is precisely for that reason that teachers have continually sought to enliven their curriculum by building real challenges for the students, incorporating aspects of their lives and community neglected by a traditional approach.

But we do not need to accept the dichotomy Ravitch poses.
Our classrooms do not offer us a zero sum choice between critical thinking and basic knowledge. Over the past several years I had the chance to work with a pair of talented teachers at Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland. Fay Pisciotta and Gabe Jenkins felt their students were not being sufficiently challenged by the one size fits all approach they had been using, so they implemented a strategy called Layered Curriculum, originally developed by Dr. Kathie Nunley. They developed three tiers of assignments, and allowed students to choose within an array of assignments targeting their learning objectives, which were tied to state science standards. These assignments included challenging projects and independent lab activities. In order to progress from one level to the next, students needed to pass an oral formative assessment given by the teacher, making sure they mastered the essential knowledge. At the end of the year, the number of students who were proficient and advanced in science at this school went from 30% in 2007 to 72% in 2008. Those that were scoring at the Basic and Far Below Basic levels dropped from 42% to 14%. Furthermore, the biggest gains were made by students who were disadvantaged – who actually out-scored the non-disadvantaged students!

Clever educators like Pisciotta and Jenkins have built basic knowledge into the foundation of creative projects. It is possible to waste a day baking bread with children, as Ravitch points out. But it is equally possible to use that shared experience as the linchpin for a month’s lessons on proportions, and gain a great deal of engagement and motivation as a result.

As Herb Kohl pointed out in this space a couple of weeks ago, there are times when it is appropriate to learn things by rote, and other times when an open-ended project unleashes great energy. If we insist that our students must master the canon before they begin to think for themselves, I believe we will continue to lose a great many of them, especially those most at risk. We need the balance demonstrated by Jenkins and Pisciotta, who show us that critical thinking and knowledge can grow side by side, without sacrificing either.

What do you think? Do we need to build basic knowledge before asking our students to think critically and analyze? What has been your experience with your students?

photo of Gabe Jenkins’ classroom by Anthony Cody

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.