To recap, the first study discussed above established that children from disadvantaged backgrounds know less about a topic (i.e., birds) than their middle-class peers. Next, in study two, the researchers showed that differences in domain knowledge influenced children’s ability to understand words out of context, and to comprehend a story. Moreover, poor kids — who also had more limited knowledge — perform worse on these tasks than did their middle class peers. But could additional knowledge be used to level the playing field for children from less affluent backgrounds?

In study three, the researchers held the children’s prior knowledge constant by introducing a fictitious topic — i.e., a topic that was sure to be unknown to both groups. When the two groups of children were assessed on word learning and comprehension related to this new domain, the researchers found no significant differences in how poor and middle-class children learned words, comprehended a story or made inferences.

One of the “old” divides in education, from before the current crop of “edreform”, is whether or not content matters. Broadly, there are two camps, let’s call them the “Facts” and “Skills”, with the “Skills” camp clearly ahead in terms of mind share.

“Skills” is based on a fundamentally intuitive insight– students need to know how to do things not about the things themselves. In many ways it is built on our common experience of forgetting facts over time. We need 21st century skills, not an accumulation of specific, privileged knowledge that fades over time. Whatever the latest technology, from encyclopedias to calculators through to Google, each generation decides that the tools that adults use end the necessity of knowing about things rather than knowing how to find things.

This is very attractive. It seems to match our adult experiences accumulating knowledge and using it in our work. It seems to address students’ boredom with learning irrelevant information. It leaves space for groups to advocate for teaching whatever content they want since everyone can argue that content is fundamentally limited in value.

In classic turns out sense, however, the evidence keeps mounting that one must teach from the “Facts” approach to achieve the goals of the “Skills” position.

Turns out: skills and knowledge do not transfer well across domains. There is little evidence that learning how to read literary fiction translates to reading technical manuals with comprehension. In other words, critical thinking is not really an independent ability free of domain context 1. In fact, experts are able to learn more quickly, but only in their domain and only when they have prior knowledge to use as scaffolding 2.

Turns out: reading comprehension is strongly connected to whether or not students have prior knowledge (“Facts”) about the topic of the passage 3. Reading techniques only provide modest assistance for comprehension.

Turns out: privileging skills over content may have a serious differential impact on disadvantaged children. A well-intentioned goal of achieving equity through equality has led many to advocate that we do a disservice to children of color and children in poverty because their schools have not as completely embraced a “Skills” world and are too focused on “Facts”. The problem is that deep disparities we see when these students enter schooling point to having less prior knowledge than their peers 4.

What is remarkable, and tragic, is that the “Skills” camp has maintained its dominance through the demonization of “Facts”, with dramatic misinterpretations like:

  1. The “Facts” folks are just White colonialists seeking to maintain existing power structures through teaching the information of privilege.
  2. The “Facts” folks privilege memorization, rote learning, and recall-based assessment over other pedagogy that is more engaging and authentic.
  3. The “Facts” folks can only ever teach what was important yesterday; “Skills” camp can teach what matters to become a lifelong learner for tomorrow’s world.

None of these are true.

This post is largely brought to you by: E.D. Hirsch, Dan T. Willingham, and Malcolm Gladwell via Merlin Mann.

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  4. This has pretty much been the thrust behind E.D. Hirsch’s work, who has been accused of being on the far right in education, despite his consistent belief that education equity is one of the most important goals to achieve. His firm belief, and I am mostly convinced, is that explicit factual content is the key tool for how teaching can dramatically improve educational equity. ↩︎