A[nother] case for teaching knowledge: a book review

By Dr Nina Hood

When I mention to people outside of education that the role of knowledge in education is something of a controversial topic, they don’t quite seem to believe me. Knowledge has been a subject of considerable interest for The Education Hub; we released a report on the topic last year, have written Insight posts (herehere, and here), and have a series of guides on the science of learning, which identify the central importance of knowledge in how we learn.

It is not surprising then, that I had a natural affinity for the central premise of Natalie Wexler’s book The knowledge gap; The hidden cause of America’s broken education system – and how to fix it; that schools currently do not put enough emphasis on teaching students content knowledge, and the result is growing inequity across the education system. While aspects of the book are US-specific, there are key messages that are pertinent to current debates and discussions occurring in New Zealand.

Since the Ministry of Education’s request for proposals for a revised set of Ready to Read books for school new entrants, and an acknowledgement that New Zealand has “one of the largest gaps in literacy learning outcomes among developed countries”, and that the gap actually widens after children start school, the role of phonics instruction in New Zealand has received increased attention (here and here). Wexler’s book cites the wealth of research going back many decades demonstrating the power of a phonics approach for supporting early reading, particularly for those children who have less exposure to books at home.

Of particular interest to me was Wexler’s discussion of the importance of knowledge for reading comprehension. Wexler clearly makes the case for why someone’s ability to comprehend what they are reading will not be developed through the teaching of generic comprehension strategies but rather is directly connected to whether they have the necessary relevant vocabulary or background knowledge. Much of Wexler’s discussion in this section of the book is a reaction against the rising prevalence in the US of a focus on teaching discrete and context-free reading comprehension strategies (ostensibly in the service of preparing students for high stakes standardized tests). While it’s not clear to me that New Zealand has quite the same issue, the implications for how reading should be positioned within instructional practice are highly relevant to New Zealand.

Rather than only positioning reading as a discrete subject (and skill), reading instead also should be embedded across the curriculum, and positioned as a means for building students’ content knowledge. The result is that when engaging in reading (either at a whole-class, small group or individual level) teachers should be thinking about how they can leverage the content of the reading material. This means including more non-fiction books in class or using fiction books as a catalyst for discussing the topics and ideas within them. Teachers further should move beyond asking only comprehension questions, to using reading as a starting point for asking high-level questions and encouraging deep thinking on a particular topic.

Wexler further develops her argument as to the importance of knowledge in her discussion of writing. For Wexler, writing is a powerful instructional approach for ascertaining what students have learned about a particular topic. The ability to clearly and logically write about a topic is connected to how much one knows about it. That is, if you do not fully understand a topic, it is very hard to write well about it. Wexler, however, further suggests that to be effective writers, children need to not only have vocabulary and background knowledge stored but also knowledge of writing conventions and the craft of writing, for example how to construct a sentence, utilise punctuation, or begin a paragraph. For this to happen, teachers need to break down the writing process into manageable chunks and guide students through the practice of them. In essence, writing should be treated as a process, not a product, with opportunities for students to plan, write, and revise their writing, receiving feedback at every stage.

While I certainly buy the premise of Wexler’s argument around the importance of knowledge in and for learning and education, two big questions remain for me. What knowledge? And who gets to decide? The importance and implications of these two questions currently are being played out in two situations in New Zealand education. The first is the Ministry of Education’s focus on local curriculum and the second is the petition by the New Zealand History Teachers’ Association to make the teaching of New Zealand history compulsory in New Zealand schools.

Both suggest that knowledge (in some form) is on the minds of at least some in New Zealand education. However, I would argue that we are yet to fully grapple with the role of knowledge in education in New Zealand or the implications of knowledge for improving opportunities and outcomes for all students.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.