They Don't Need No Education

Elementary schools deliberately fail to teach knowledge, hurting their most vulnerable students.

Take two first-grade classrooms, both full of bright-eyed, eager children from low-income families. In one, the lesson focuses on how a caption differs from a title or a subtitle, in that it’s a “label for a picture.” The children clamor to know more about the pictures themselves: What’s the shark eating? What planet is that? But the teacher deflects their questions, trying to get the six-year-olds to focus on locating the captions.

In the other classroom, children listen in fascination as their teacher reads a book about mummies. In passing, the teacher points out a caption on a photo of a sarcophagus. But the focus is on mummies: how they were preserved, how scientists can tell that they had used hair gel or eaten vegetable soup when they were alive. At the end, the kids are full of questions, which the teacher answers until it’s time to stop. 

The first class reflects the now standard approach of focusing on “comprehension skills” like finding the main idea, making inferences or identifying text features like captions. The theory is that kids who master these skills will, later on, be able to use them to acquire knowledge from their own reading—and to do well on high-stakes standardized reading tests.

As a result, the subjects that could build kids’ knowledge—social studies, science, the arts—have, over the last twenty years, been edged out to make more time for comprehension skill practice. But as cognitive scientists have discovered, the key factor in comprehension isn’t skill; it’s subject-specific knowledge and vocabulary. And so, for all its good intentions, the approach that now dominates public schools across America only ends up further penalizing disadvantaged students. (Comprehension, of course, is only one aspect of reading. Children also need to learn how to sound out words—and there are huge problems with the way many schools teach that, also with a disproportionately negative impact on disadvantaged students.)

Children from wealthier and better educated families are likely to pick up the background knowledge they need to understand a wide variety of texts at home. Their parents are better able to provide enriching experiences and engage them in conversations that involve sophisticated concepts and vocabulary. Such kids start school better equipped to understand more complex books. And because knowledge tends to build on related knowledge, they’re able to acquire more knowledge through their reading, allowing them to read even more complex books. 

Meanwhile, their less advantaged peers fall farther behind every year. By high school, the gap between these two groups is huge—as is the gap between what teenagers are assumed to know and what many actually do. At high schools serving low-income populations, students may arrive unaware of the difference between a city and a state or a country and a continent, or confuse the Civil War with the Civil Rights movement. That’s because they have not been taught these things early enough.

Testing may have exacerbated the focus on skills over content. But the roots of the obsession with skills go deeper. They rest on suspicion of the very idea that knowledge should be transmitted.

For decades, prospective teachers have been inculcated with the belief that it’s better for students to discover knowledge for themselves than to have someone explain things to them. Storing information in your head, they are told, is unnecessary since students can always look up what they need; besides, kids find facts boring. Far better, the theory goes, to focus on skills like comprehension and critical thinking. And many educators are skeptical of any prescribed curriculum on the grounds that teachers should be guided by the interests of their particular students.

Learners do need to participate in constructing their knowledge, and students who are merely lectured at can become disengaged. But we can’t assume that all elementary students will acquire the information they need for themselves. For children starting out with limited knowledge of the world, this approach is often a dead end.

When students are new to a topic, direct instruction works best. Factual knowledge is also a prerequisite for critical thinking: the more knowledge you have relating to a topic, the better equipped you are to think about it critically. And despite the current pedagogical consensus, kids are excited about discovering things and learning facts. As for following students’ interests, kids rarely express interest in subjects they don’t know anything about—and they often become intensely interested in new topics if they’re explained in an engaging way.

Another objection to foregrounding content is that it may reflect political or cultural bias. That objection isn’t new. An effort to craft voluntary national history standards in the 1990s foundered when right-wingers denounced them as being anti-American and focusing too squarely on marginalized groups. Conversely, leftists have, since at least the 1980s, expressed concerns that students of color will not feel represented if the knowledge covered in schools is too “Eurocentric,” or if all the books they study are written by dead white males.

Now, the old battles over historical and cultural content are being reignited. In some quarters, attributes like rational, linear thinking and an emphasis on the written word are being characterized as part of white culture. Donald Trump is making “left-wing indoctrination” in the nation’s schools a campaign issue, citing, among other things, the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which has inspired a curriculum focused on the history and legacy of slavery. To avoid battles over “whose” knowledge to teach, even some who acknowledge the defects of a skills-focused curriculum may feel the need to stick with it. 

But if we don’t provide all children with access to the knowledge that children of the elite routinely acquire, we will continue to preserve, not lessen, social inequities. One group of students—and adults—will understand references to key cultural touchstones while others will feel mystified and excluded. 

Over the past few years, some new curricula for elementary schools have put the emphasis on building knowledge rather than skills. But some on the left have resisted these initiatives on the ground that they don’t sufficiently center the experience of black and brown students.

If these critics aim to help disadvantaged students gain the kind of education that will enable them to escape poverty and fulfill their responsibilities as citizens, it’s incumbent on them to create curricula that answer these objections and build knowledge. The worst thing we can do to children who rely on schools for their education is to deny them access to knowledge until it’s too late.

Natalie Wexler is the author of The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of American's Broken Education System—And How to Fix It.