Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Myth of “Knowledge Gaps”

Third in a series about poverty and education

This post is a bit of a side-note in my series on education and poverty and Ruby Payne's work, but I found I couldn’t continue until I had explored this issue. There are ways in which the current education system is particularly oppressive to children who come from the lower classes. I want to present these ideas before going into that further.

People who oppose education “reform” efforts such as the new Common Core standards and excessive state standardized testing, often cite some combination of the following as their reasons:

  • The high-stakes testing culture narrows the curriculum to that which is tested.
  • Transfer of information is the prioritized pedagogy.   

  • Learning material that can be measured takes priority over other skills.

  • Exploratory or interest-driven learning is marginalized.
  • Teachers have been vilified or driven out of out of the profession.
  • Test-driven teaching and learning has a disproportionately negative impact in     low-income districts.

All of the above are true. There is, however, something happening under the surface of the Great Education Debate that is insidious and difficult to decipher.

After nearly two decades of reform, adults still appear to be gripped by fear and anxiety for the future.  There is a terrible fear that we have a system that allows kids to pass through with critical gaps in their knowledge and abilities. Their answer is to put the hammer down.

The hammer is being held by the education power cabal. This group includes the past two presidential administrations, large reform-minded foundations like Walton, Broad and Gates, such vocal leaders as Michelle Rhee and Jeb Bush and many more. They have looked at education, and identified the right problem: student underachievement. But the reforms put into place over the past fifteen to twenty years provide a solution to a very different problem, having more to do with profit than pedagogy.

Their solution is backed by the kind of money that assures success and also manipulates the national narrative on education. To most people it appears to be reasonable and right. Their solution is based on a principle that is so simple and so familiar that most adults in this country don’t see anything wrong or even different about it. Teachers have always defined for students what is to be learned, and the students’ job was to endeavor to learn it.

With education reform, this practice has been converted to a pedagogy on steroids. We've been living with it so long that many educators don't even remember a time when there was anything other than a ticking clock on skill-building. Pushing an impossible quantity of education standards that are enforced by excessive punitive testing are moves that seem almost impossible to effectively demonize. The ground has been prepared with enough fear to keep it going.

I don’t want to present a history of the issue here -- but I would like to deconstruct that fear.

I conducted an unscientific study including a dozen or so friends, mostly homeschooling parents. I wanted to determine what exactly hangs in the balance when standardization of learning wins out over learning that is determined and directed by students? Is there a “before-it’s-too-late” risk?

I asked this question:

Is there really a developmental window of opportunity when learning needs to happen, and if it doesn’t happen at that time, can never effectively happen?

The discussion revolved around the window for foreign language learning, which many of us know vaguely to be around three or four years old, and is mostly effective in an immersion-type program. Some say musical learning should start early; others say no.

How about reading? Opinions vary wildly but most of the folks I talk to, who are involved in literacy, homeschooling or alternative education, point to the success of simply following a child’s interest in reading, and watch while the child turns into a reader. Micro-managing the age a student learns to read does not translate to a higher rate of success; for some the opposite is true.

My own conclusions are more uncertain when it comes to math. I never learned arithmetic well enough to stop using my fingers to add, or reach for a calculator when multiplying single digits. The thing is, I worked just as hard at it as my friends, and as my math genius brother and sister. So maybe my math wiring is screwed up. The point is, I’m not comfortable with arithmetic, but I function, more or less normally, as an adult.

For the most part, the parents and others I spoke with provided ample anecdotal evidence that there isn’t a real reason to worry about a window of opportunity for learning closing forever. Fear of knowledge gaps only fuels a system of learning that is producing more and more unprepared students. Maybe that’s why the fear is giving rise to panic. More tests! More standards!

Adults fear the loss of opportunities open to our kids if we allow them to graduate from our systems ignorant of what we feel is important. We fear our kids won’t be able to go to college, get good jobs, support themselves, have families, be happy and secure. Many parents and others observing these trends in education still believe that it these reforms are appropriate reactions to the failure of the system.

But what people are afraid of doesn’t exist! It’s a chimera! A mirage you can only see because you are too frightened to see that it isn’t there!

We must liberate our minds from the idea that our children are in danger if they do not learn a huge quantity of information, knowledge, skills predetermined by distant entities. In fact, all we really need to teach children is that they can learn anything they want to learn, whenever they need to learn it. And it turns out, that’s not even something that can be taught. All we need to do is give kids all the support, resources, help and guidance they need.

Putting kids truly in the driver’s seat of their learning means that perhaps every child won’t have learned everything that all adults combined feel they desperately need. But what they have learned, they learned well...far better than under this fear-driven system.

Yes, it sounds radical, but when you realize that the conventional wisdom is absolutely wrong, then the radical becomes reasonable and normal.

I recently read that Ruby Payne’s Framework for Understanding Poverty has been part of professional development in 70% of our nation's districts. Her approach is also known as “deficit thinking”; it “answers” the problem of poverty by pointing at the weaknesses of poor and minority children, painting them as lacking the ability to function as well as middle-class and wealthy white children. Since her diagnosis is that these kids are broken, her solution is to fix them.

However, children from disadvantaged families are not the only ones who need a change. Every single child suffers from the campaign of fear in schools, and stands to gain a better education if it is based on building on their strengths, allowing them to follow their interests, to play, and explore, and create. Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators, says that play develops into passion, and passion turns to purpose. That is what is needed.

The current education system is engaged in reforms that have nurtured, fed, and encouraged fear. We’re in an endless cycle; the more afraid we are, the more we grasp for solutions that don’t work.

You might have come to the end of this post thinking that I don't believe there is anything to be afraid of. But I do. There are things our kids desperately want and need, and some of those things are respect, trust, appropriate guidance and support, the freedom to think for themselves and plenty of practice making choices and decisions. There are things the world needs from them: ideas, innovation, solutions to intractable problems.

If kids aren’t graduating with the ability to learn whatever they are going to need to learn, then we are failing -- failing them and failing ourselves -- and that is what scares me.



Please add yours if you don't see it here! In future posts, I will try to articulate or point to what I think might be some answers.

Do you think that because homeschoolers don’t encounter these gaps in knowledge, that whole school systems can operate that way as well?

Are you saying that children don’t need to learn things if they don’t want to? What about reading and math?

How can we make sure schools are doing their jobs if we don’t hold them accountable?

These ideas sound a bit fluffy. What’s your proof that kids will learn without being pushed?

Isn’t learning to overcome dislike of the subject matter important? Kids won’t always be able to choose what to know or be able to do all their lives!

You make vague reference to the role of the teacher in your new Utopian education system, Can you elaborate on it?

You make things sound so simple. Isn't more complicated than that?

Do you really think simply following kids' interest in reading will work with kids from families who don't read to them?


  1. Replies
    1. I couldn't possibly answer that on behalf of children! Remember, play, passion, purpose.

  2. There is not a narrow gap for learning -- it can happen at any time -- but if as a society, we focused on Success by 3rd Grade (TM) we could change the world. As the founder of the Florida Advocacy Coalition for Learning Differences and a Director of 3D Learner, that is exactly where we focus

    1. I'm not sure I believe in a single idea as savior of anything, but I'll check it out.

  3. What could be some unintended consequences (both positive and negative) of those changes?

    1. I'd be interested in your thoughts. We're overwhelmed with the negative effects of the current system.