A short manifesto for schools: time to focus on knowledge

Ever since I was an elementary school student myself, I have been chronically disappointed with the American education establishment. Don’t get me wrong–I get along fine with most of the educators I encounter, who are good people and full of all sorts of good ideas and real competence. But I also believe a sickness pervades the entire American system of education, the sickness of anti-intellectualism.

I read plenty of blogs, tweets, and articles on education and ed tech, as well as the occasional book, from all sorts of cutting-edge teachers, administrators, and education theorists. They are all abuzz about the latest online educational resources, which I love and use (and develop) too. But whenever the subject of learning facts or substantially increasing levels of subject knowledge, and–especially–tests of such things comes up, I seem to hear nothing but boos and hisses. This might be surprising, because, after all, what are those educational resources for if not to increase levels of subject knowledge? It seems an exception is made for technology.

But to focus attention on ignorance among students, poor test results, etc., apparently means caring too much about “direct instruction” and a lot of other betes noire of the education establishment. If I talk much about raising standards or returning the focus to knowledge, I threaten to reject “student-centered” education, the project method, “useful” (read: vocational) knowledge, and authentic assessments, and replace such allegedly good things with “drill and kill,” learning “trivia,” boring textbooks, and in general a return to soul-killing, dusty old methods discarded long ago and rightly so. What I rarely encounter from the education establishment–though critical outsiders like myself talk endlessly about it–is evidence of an earnest concern about, quite simply, how much students learn.

Enter this Atlantic article about a recent study of the factors correlated with test success, by Harvard researchers Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer–not education professors, but economists who know a thing or two about research methods. Dobbie and Fryer discovered, unsurprisingly, that higher student scores are correlated with a “relentless focus on academic goals.” Such a focus entails “frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations.” The factors not correlated with school effectiveness, by contrast, included “class size, per pupil expenditure, the fraction of teachers with no certification, and the fraction of teachers with an advanced degree.” My hat is off to these researchers for reminding us, and giving new supporting data, for what those of us outside of the education establishment already knew: a culture of commitment to academic success is the main thing that matters to academic success. But we may confidently predict that the education establishment will dismiss this study, as it has done so many others that came to similar conclusions.

Reading about the study inspired a few thoughts. First, it is indeed the culture of a school that determines whether its students are successful. This claim makes sense. If the goal of schools were to inculcate knowledge in students–success at which is might be measured by the study’s “credible estimates of each school’s effectiveness”–then it is simple rationality, and requires no special studies, to conclude that the school’s staff should have a “relentless focus on academic goals.”

If you want to make schools better, it’s important that they be absolutely focused on academic goals, which is to say, on knowledge. Excess resources won’t buy such a focus (and the study indicates that this might be inversely correlated with success). Class size doesn’t matter. Focus on “self-esteem” doesn’t help. What is needed more than anything is a pervasive, institutional commitment to knowledge as a goal.

Sadly, increasing student knowledge is not the overriding goal of American schools.

I wish I had time to write a book for a popular audience of parents, teachers, and older students, defending knowledge (not “critical thinking,” which requires knowledge; not self-esteem; not social training; not high-tech training) as the most important goal of education. I’d also like to make the case that the education establishment has been really, truly, and in fact anti-intellectual and “anti-knowledge.” I’m merely asserting this perhaps startling claim in this post–this isn’t the place to make the case. But those who are familiar with intellectualist critiques of American public schools will understand.

If you really want to know why so many kids in the United States do poorly on exams and are basically know-nothings who turn into know-nothing adults, I’ll tell you. It’s because many parents, many teachers, the broader education establishment, and especially the popular culture of “cool” which guides children’s development after a certain age are simply anti-intellectual. Europeans and especially Asians do not have such an albatross around their necks. They actually admire people who are knowledgeable, instead of calling them nerds, and (later in life) dismissing their knowledge as “useless” and dismissing them because of their less-finely-tuned social skills, and (after they gain some real-world status) envying them and labeling them “elitist.”

It’s been widely believed and often admitted for a long time that the United States has a long, nasty streak of anti-intellectualism. Democrats love to bash Republicans on this point. (And recently I bashed geek anti-intellectualism as well.) But anti-intellectualism in schools? This is apt to make many Democrats, and the more establishment sort of Republican, pretty uncomfortable. Still, it’s true. This broad societal illness has kept our schools underperforming not just recently, but for generations.

The common complaints about standardized testing are misplaced. If schools were filling their charges’ minds adequately with academic knowledge and skills, they would welcome standardized tests and would not have to spend any extra time on preparing students for them. The focus on the project method is misplaced, too. Projects and experiments are important as far as they go, but it is simply inefficient–if the goal is to develop student knowledge–to make projects the centerpiece of pedagogy.

Finally, the generations-long the flight from books, especially well-written books, is a travesty. Books are where the knowledge is. If you want students to know a lot, have them read a lot of non-fiction books. They will inevitably become very knowledgeable. If you make sure that the books are well-written–not boring library fodder like so many geography books, for example–and hand-picked by students, they will more likely enjoy their reading. Having read probably a few thousand children’s books to my son in the last five years, I can assure you that there is no shortage of excellent children’s books on most subjects. We’re in a sort of golden age of children’s books–never before has there been such a tremendous variety of offerings so readily available.

Principals and teachers need to lead the way. They need to convey to their students and their students’ parents that their schools are all about getting knowledge. “When you leave our school, you will know a lot,” educators should be able to tell their students–honestly. “But we will expect you to pay attention and read a lot of books. We will expect a lot of you. Learning at this school won’t be easy, but the effort will definitely be worth it. It will open up your eyes to a world that is far larger and deeper than you knew. The knowledge you will gain will make you, in a way, a bigger person, more connected to everything all around you, and better prepared to make the world a better place.”

Finally, if schools don’t throw off this anti-intellectualism, which has become positively stodgy and stale, and which is so contrary to their mission, they can expect to encounter more and more competition in the form of charter schools, school vouchers, homeschooling, and now virtual schools. If parents who really care about learning run toward new educational systems that have a better chance of actually educating their children, who can blame them?






Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

8 responses to “A short manifesto for schools: time to focus on knowledge”

  1. Speaking as a parent, the sincere issue I have here is that the test that everyone now is forced to teach to (that is, of course, if you want a job and a raise), the test by which we measure “student achievement” assesses knowledge and skills in a vacuum. And worse, it doesn’t show anything about my kids’ ability to learn. (Read Sarason’s “And What do You Mean by Learning?” to this point.) I think that is the biggest problem we have; we equate learning with doing well on the test. But have I really learned something if five years or two years or even six months later I can’t answer the same questions I was asked on that standardized exam. (See this post as an example. Not sure I would have done any better.) It’s memorization, and it will continue to be memorization as long as we keep asking questions that I can answer by using my phone to go the site you helped create to find the answer.

    Do my children have to “know” certain things? Absolutely. But frankly, I care less about how much my kids know as compared to their passion, patience, grit, and agility as learners. Unfortunately, neither the test nor the systems that are preparing them for the test are helping much them in those areas.

    1. Will, thanks for the comment!

      Are teachers required by statute or policy to teach to the test? Or do they do so because they sincerely believe that that is the only way their students could possibly eke out an average grade that will keep them (the teachers) employed? And here I thought it was very hard to fire a teacher for poor performance.

      Anyway, I’m hardly going to go to bat for the typical sorts of standardized tests. I don’t think that making a goal of knowledge requires standardized testing at all, actually–other aspects of the system require that. Besides, if I were in charge of writing big standardized tests and such tests were still required by statute, I would make the tests very different–more broad-ranging, and much more difficult to “teach to.” They would cover a huge range of subjects, which might or might not have been taught. They would, for this reason, more resemble IQ tests in being gauges of where students are in terms of the development of their knowledge base. If the tests were constructed this way (my impression is that the NAEP isn’t), then there would be no way to “teach to” them. Instead, teachers would simply be encouraged to maximize educational outcomes, which they should be doing anyway.

      No offense, but I think the argument that students forget the answers on exams soon, and that therefore exams are pointless, is a very poor one, despite its popularity. (I remember this sophomoric argument being made by my fellow students in high school–and I thought it was fishy then, too.) First, regardless of whether we do test, we will soon forget most of the information that we encounter. That, for better or worse, is the nature of the human mind. Well then, if we shouldn’t test students because they will forget, it also follows that we shouldn’t teach them anything either. That’s a reductio of the “exams are pointless” argument. They might be pointless for other reasons, but not because students forget the information they’re tested on. Besides, even when we lose declarative/episodic memory, as we usually do, we still have implicit memory, which makes it easier to remember stuff and understand our reading on the subject later. We retain essential background knowledge even after we lose knowledge that we can articulate.

      Natural forgetfulness is why we should be teaching subjects in much more depth than we do. In our home school, we’re reading books about each of the countries of South America. It’s taking some time, but the repetition of information about the Andes and the Amazon, Indian groups, the shared history of certain countries, etc., is really making the information sink in. Similarly, this year we concurrently read four different books about ancient history (Story of the World, Little History of the World, Usborne Encyclopedia of History, and Kingfisher Atlas of Ancient History). We have also read lots of other books about myths and other ancient history-related topics. It took us about a year to get through (about 15 minutes a day), and no doubt he has still forgotten most of the information he encountered, but in the end he has learned a lot more than he would have if we had read just one or two books. Are we teaching “mere facts”? Anyone who would say that, I believe, is plainly an anti-intellectual. The more accurate description is that we are gaining substantial and quite interesting knowledge of South America, not of “mere facts,” and in enough depth that I am confident that quite a lot of it will stay with him (and me!).

      Obviously, the point of examinations in institutional settings is to give students a reason to study. If you don’t threaten them with an exam and a bad grade–and you’re following a one-size-fits-all curriculum that doesn’t appeal to the serious interests of the student–then most students won’t study. A similar point seems to apply to teachers when they are being judged based on how their students do. If they review for the exams in a tiresome way, is it possible that that’s their fault and not a fault of the exam? What, really, is the animus against the exam? Is it that students actually have to learn a lot, and the teachers actually have to teach it? Surely not! Surely teachers are not opposed to that! Or is it that students have to learn very particular facts that require a lock-step adherence to a curriculum? (But then why is there such widespread support of the Common Core?) Or something else?

      Finally, “learning how to learn” is a natural consequence of actually learning, of gaining knowledge according to the methods of the liberal arts. There is no way to “learn how to learn,” or to gain the other academic virtues you list, apart from actually learning. Also, the way you’ve stated it, I believe you’ve put the cart before the horse. It’s very true that motivating students to continue to learn throughout their academic careers and their lives is important. (This is why they shouldn’t be subjected to a one-size-fits-all curriculum.) But the purpose of the school years is, first and foremost, to gain knowledge, not to get the ability and inclination to gain knowledge. If students don’t gain a lot of knowledge in the early years, they’ll find it harder and harder to do so later–a fact we’re now suffering from.

      Finally, as E.D. Hirsch, Jr. explained so ably in his book, Cultural Literacy, there is no difference between being able and motivated to learn and having a lot of background knowledge and specific subject interests. What I object to is precisely the contrast between the two, as when educators–the very people responsible for imparting this knowledge–say that there is too much emphasis on “mere facts” and not enough on “learning to learn” or “critical thinking” or whatever. And even this is not necessarily objectionable to me, depending on what people mean by “mere facts.” The bottom line, for me, is that children really need to be led to learn a lot more than they do. The issue is the commitment of our educational system to the great big world of knowledge, most of which is gained most efficiently by critically reading books–instead by marching in the endless parade of academic fads (often the same fads under different names) which do not really teach very much, like the project method, groupwork, and software that doesn’t teach much.

  2. David

    I’m not a parent or a student, but I think that I agree with most everything you wrote. (Actually, though, I don’t totally get how “Democrats” and “Republicans” really come into play and, to the extent that I do see anti-intellectualism in these (media-contrived) halves of society, I think it’s at least as present in presumed Republicans. But I think it’s best to disregard pop politics entirely since it’s basically a non sequitur no matter what.)

    But since you seem very knowledgeable and thoughtful about the processes of education, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about just eschewing the public schools altogether and opting instead for home schools and the other alternative school systems you mentioned at the end. I’m always amazed to hear people arguing SO viciously about education….and yet since alternatives are relatively easy to create, why participate in something they disagree with? It makes no sense to me.

    I write this because at Thanksgiving my sister was talking passionately about her daughter’s school and the problems she and other parents are having and I was like, “I don’t get it: just teach them yourself. What’s stopping you?” I understand that by high school you might need the public schools because you really want to make sure kids get exposed to a broader group of people at those ages and, of course, the parents might not be smart enough to teach them calculus and chemistry and all that, but for the early years, what’s wrong with home schooling?

    Anyway, that’s a bit of a digression, I know. And I do absolutely agree with your thesis that any philosophy that favors totally unquantifiable “scheme learning” or whatever over knowledge is majorly screwed up. Like you said, the end point of all of it is knowledge, anyway, so the first principle should be that teaching knowledge is effective.

  3. […] a parody of both kinds of anti-intellectualism I’ve mentioned recently–among geeks and among educationists–I couldn’t have invented anything better. Wheeler hits many of the highlights, […]

  4. Craig


    I appreciate your views very much. You know what I’d like to see? A school atmosphere where we say, “Knowledge is absolutely critical. It forms the basis for everything you want to do. It’s not the end game though, it’s the tool you use to do what you want to do. The acquisition of knowledge should be a given.”

    I look at it like the preparation of an excellent meal. The correct ingredients are vital, but they don’t guarantee a fabulous meal. The focus on the preparation is what you do with the ingredients, not simply the acquisition of those ingredients.

    The important distinction to me is that the chef isn’t ignoring or demeaning the importance of understanding ingredients, researching ingredients, or remembering ingredients. He or she is just focused beyond that, because it’s viewed as the starting point, not the finish line.

    I guess I’m trying to say, in fairly clumsy fashion, that I’d love to see a school environment where kids accept the acquisition of knowledge as the starting point of all the wonderful things they want to do.

    I know you’re not saying that acquiring knowledge is the end of learning. I just happen to believe that our students are already up to their eyeballs in a system that says, “If you’ll just master the content you’ll be fine.”

    Thanks for the opportunity to weigh in.

    1. This is an interesting comment that I’m sorry I never responded to. So I’m going to take a few minutes, over six years later, to do so!

      I know what you mean when you say our current system seems too focused on content or knowledge. Where’d recess go? Why is there so much homework? Why is there so much testing? But I disagree. None of that is necessary, or even helpful, to the end of developing a student’s knowledge base efficiently.

      An educational system with a genuine focus on knowledge would demonstrate efficiency, meaning that using methods that have the greatest “bang for the buck” in terms of how much and deeply a student learns. Most textbook systems (I think of language arts and history/social studies texts) are incredibly inefficient. They teach topics regardless of how well students already understand them; they explain too much, rather than letting students figure things out for themselves; and they involve the use of workbooks that involve (extremely inefficient) regurgitation of information, rather than writing original papers that make use of the information.

      For example, a language arts text will take a single brief poem and analyze it to death, introducing lots of definitions, and giving students comprehension questions. Now, there’s a place for all that, to be sure. But if that’s the extent of a week’s (or a month’s) exposure to poetry, it would be much more efficient to spend that same amount of time reading many poems and discussing one or two of them in class (say) or analyzing one on paper.

      Similarly, history texts are almost always incredibly boring. Why? Because they are all about explaining and giving background rather than telling the fascinating stories that make up history and make it memorable. If you want a kind to remember and get really interested in history, give him a bunch of readable history books. Reading them, and occasionally writing a bit about them, will make him much better prepared in history than his age peers.

  5. […] is a key element of the mission of education—involves no small amount of memory work. No, it doesn’t matter that research […]

  6. […] that the growing trend of anti-intellectualism has less to do with edtech and more to do with misplaced hopes for the education system. It isn’t the method that teachers are using but the goals they set in place. According to this […]

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