Why Background Knowledge Trumps Skills


As a parent and consultant I hear a lot about teaching children 'strategies' for 'attacking a text' or solving math problems. Merriam-Webster defines strategy as "a careful plan or method." Educators certainly have a responsibility for to provide children with strategies for the variety of challenges they will face as they go through school. But strategy alone is insufficient to meet their needs.

For our youngest students 'decoding' is the basic strategy by which they learn to associate letters with particular sounds, recognizing in print words like 'bat' and 'cat' that you taught them aurally long before they got to school. Within a few years of starting kindergarten children should transition from 'learning to read' to 'reading to learn.' For many of us, this is that happy day when our child comes home from school excited to share something they've discovered from reading a book.

Hirsch argued that having a body of common knowledge would allow children to function as citizens
Hirsch argued that having a body of common knowledge would allow children to function as citizens

In The Atlantic this week, UVa professor Don Hirsch looks back on 60 years of teaching - especially figuring out to teach better, and, says:

Decades of cognitive science research boil down to this: For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot. I consider this the single most important scientific insight for improving American schooling that has been put forward in the past half century. But unless one is familiar with the research, it's hard to overcome the cast of mind that regards reading and writing as a set of technical skills (emphasis added)

Like Professor Hirsch, at the International Charter School we believe that successful educational reform has to be an "effort to give all students the broad knowledge that will set them up for a good income and a lifetime of reading and learning. With luck," Hirsch observes, this "could end with higher achievement and much smaller achievement gaps -- but only if far more schools, parents, and concerned citizens become persuaded, as I did, that knowledge trumps skills."