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Ep. 105: Natalie Wexler – The Knowledge Gap Kids

April 01, 2020 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 105
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 105: Natalie Wexler – The Knowledge Gap Kids
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Full PreFrontal
Ep. 105: Natalie Wexler – The Knowledge Gap Kids
Apr 01, 2020 Season 1 Episode 105
Sucheta Kamath

What do extinct dinosaurs, shrinking planet Mercury, pygmies from Africa, Mesopotamian pottery, Roman bath houses, and the COVID-19 virus have in common? These are topics that once children know about, can build their knowledge of the world and expand their world view. Considering that in modern America, education is the best hope in minimizing the effects of inequity, we are better off exposing children to expansive topics, stories, ideas, and concepts that can frame successfully their innate curiosity and build early childhood learning readiness.

On this episode, Natalie Wexler, journalist and author of the book, The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How to Fix It, shares why a comprehension problem in reality is a knowledge problem. Even though it’s well intended, she believes that the universal approach of focusing on comprehension to improve reading skills may fail to form essential knowledge. Her research emphasizes that the surprise benefit of a content rich curriculum is such that it provides an opportunity to all learners to discover something they didn’t know they were even interested in and shape them into engaged and self-driven students.

About Natalie Wexler
Natalie Wexler is the author of The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How to Fix It, and the co-author, with Judith C. Hochman, of The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and other publications, and she is a senior contributor on education to Forbes.com.

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Books:

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Show Notes Transcript

What do extinct dinosaurs, shrinking planet Mercury, pygmies from Africa, Mesopotamian pottery, Roman bath houses, and the COVID-19 virus have in common? These are topics that once children know about, can build their knowledge of the world and expand their world view. Considering that in modern America, education is the best hope in minimizing the effects of inequity, we are better off exposing children to expansive topics, stories, ideas, and concepts that can frame successfully their innate curiosity and build early childhood learning readiness.

On this episode, Natalie Wexler, journalist and author of the book, The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How to Fix It, shares why a comprehension problem in reality is a knowledge problem. Even though it’s well intended, she believes that the universal approach of focusing on comprehension to improve reading skills may fail to form essential knowledge. Her research emphasizes that the surprise benefit of a content rich curriculum is such that it provides an opportunity to all learners to discover something they didn’t know they were even interested in and shape them into engaged and self-driven students.

About Natalie Wexler
Natalie Wexler is the author of The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How to Fix It, and the co-author, with Judith C. Hochman, of The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and other publications, and she is a senior contributor on education to Forbes.com.

Websites:

Books:

Helpful Articles:

Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Producer: And welcome back to Full PreFrontal where we are exposing the mysteries of executive function. I am here with our host, Sucheta Kamath. Good morning, my friend, good to be with you. As always, very much looking forward to your conversation today.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, thank you, it’s always such a joy to be with you. You and I banter and it gets me very excited to share all these wonderful ideas, so thank you for being with me, Todd.

I’m going to start off with this wonderful paper that I read. In 2013, the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences produced a report called The Heart of the Matter in which they begin with the question, “Who will lead America into a bright future?” and their follow-up the answer was, the citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage in the world, an adaptable and creative workforce, experts in national security equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign services and militaries, and so on and so on. They go on with this answer. This particular paper was a – I don’t want to say a rebuttal but it was a response to the effort that a commission on sciences, the STEM, had put together that advised education in sciences is really, really important and they did not want people to misunderstand that the humanities contribute equally to the innermost throes of a person as a thinker and a reflector, so to speak, and in that report, they identified three overarching goals. They said one is to educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in 21st-century democracy. Second is to foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong, and third is to equip the nation for leadership in the interconnected world.

And the reason I’m making a reference to this is our guest is going to really, really kind of shed the light in if we don’t take this business of preparing and educating the Americans so that they can do all these or serve these functions fully prepared, we are really going to create some weaknesses in our democracy.

So, it’s such a joy and pleasure, and honored to have journalist and a prolific writer, Natalie Wexler who is the author of The Knowledge Gap: the Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System and How to Fix It, so very optimistic message there. She also has co-authored with Judith Hockman a book called The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking through Writing in All Subjects and Grades. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, the Washington Post and the other publications. She’s also a senior contributor on education to Forbes.com, and she certainly has written so much that it took me a while to catch up. I will not claim that I have done a lot of catching up, but phenomenal writing. And as a freelance writer, a journalist, and an essayist, Natalie has tackled very complex issues, but her interest – and thank God she took interest in this – in education which impresses me the most, and on this podcast, we tackle often topic of executive function which means discovering best ways one can prepare the learners to become independent and self-driven agents who will lead the country to become even better than it is now, and we cannot do that, we cannot have the conversation of executive function without what education is doing to these children’s minds and brains as they go through their own evolution.

So, welcome to the podcast, Natalie.

Natalie Wexler: Thank you, I am delighted to be here.

Sucheta:  So, this podcast, as I mentioned, is about executive function which is adaptive flexibility, goal setting, intentional focus, goal-directed behaviors, and kind of how to take charge of the CEO of the brain which governs the rest of the brain. So, before I dive deep into your expertise, I want to take you back a little bit to your own education when you were a young learner and a student. Can you tell us a little bit about when did you become fully aware of your capacity as a learner and a thinker, and what kind of learning influences had the biggest impact on you or educational efforts had most biggest impact?

Natalie:  Well, it’s hard to say because it’s hard to tease out the different influences. I did have the advantage of I was an only child and my parents treated me like an adult from a young age, and so I was exposed to a lot of sophisticated concepts and vocabulary, and engaged in discussions, and I’m sure that was really important. I also got a very good education where I was exposed to a lot of complex rich content, especially in history which really caught my imagination, and I did a lot of writing which I feel is really the key to developing a lot of the abilities that we want to see and try to develop sometimes in ways that don’t work, like the ability to think critically, the ability to connect different pieces of information. So, I was lucky that I went to schools where that kind of writing was expected and I have to say, I was also lucky that not every student sort of picks up writing. I kind of thing, but I don’t think we can assume that the majority of students are going to be lucky enough to be able to do that.

Sucheta:  Yeah, so it’s very interesting you say that the history contour imagination which is really a neat way to engage because history such a reflective content that teaches you patterns of human being and decisions and its ramifications over time were throughout the passage of time, but what’s striking to me, that you probably were a good student and your comprehension was solid, as well as your interest in writing which got fueled with incredible knowledge you brought. So, do you think that kind of shaped – you have some natural inclination and no barriers in learning that kind of fueled your effort in writing?

Natalie:  Yeah. I mean, I think it was a combination of those things. You cannot write about what you don’t know, you have to start out with some knowledge of whatever the topic is that you are writing about, but in the process of writing, if you are not overwhelmed by it which is easy – it’s easy for that to happen, but if you’re not overwhelmed by it – and we can talk later about how to prevent that from happening – I think the process of writing actually deepens your comprehension, deepens your understanding of connections between the things you are writing about and cements all of that in your long-term memory. So, I think that was an incredibly important part of my development as a student, as a thinker, etc.

Sucheta:  That’s lovely. Well, thank you for taking the time to talk about that because I think a lot of times, we forget that when experts present themselves as experts, they were also children once, and it’s a neat thing to have them, nudge them to look back on their childhood. So, what do you think about education in general? What is, to you, an ideal way to educate a child?

Natalie:  Well, that’s a broad question but I would say that it is important to nourish a child’s natural curiosity about the world, and I think a lot of that, with more educated parents, children who are lucky enough to be born into families with more highly educated parents, that just sort of happens naturally. Parents aren’t necessarily trying to educate their child but just, they may go on a trip to Europe or they all go to the museum, or just what they are talking about with each other that the child overhears and what they are actually talking about with the child will probably end up exposing that child to a lot of knowledge and vocabulary that will serve that child in very good stead when he or she goes to school.

Other children who don’t have such highly educated parents are going to be more reliant on school for that kind of acquisition of knowledge, but I do think it’s possible for schools, and I’m really focusing primarily on elementary schools because I think that’s where a lot of the problems in our education system lie, it is possible for schools to provide really stimulating, meaningful education for all of those children by exposing them to topics in history, in science, knowledge about the world that all children are going to be interested in. Some are going to be bringing maybe more existing background knowledge than others, some will be bringing better verbal ability, more highly developed verbal abilities, but I think it is really important for those children to all be given access to the same content largely through read-alouds, listening to the teacher read aloud stories from history, things like that, and then give them an opportunity to discuss it with each other, and all of that, I think enables kids at any level of ability to really blossom.

Sucheta:  So, Natalie, what I really love about you describing this, and this sounds maybe to some, a redundant question, that why should we talk about best ways to educate children or what does educating a child really mean? But to me, it’s such a profound question because it really sets the tone for what should the intention be when we step in front of a child or in front of the classroom, and what speaks to me about the point that you are helping people think about is it’s stimulating and meaningful. It’s so powerful and I think a lot of times, people are trying to meet some – I don’t want to call them arbitrary but they are trying to meet certain standards and neither the content is stimulating or meaningful, but it’s not really making the larger connection to the larger knowledge of the world, so I love that setting the stage.

So with that in mind, tell us, in your book as you rightfully titled it, what is the knowledge gap that you are referring to?

Natalie:  I have sort of alluded to it in what I’ve said about children from more educated and less educated families, but it’s a play on the phrase “the achievement gap” which is really used to describe a gap in test scores between children of really [inaudible] children of more highly educated families and the children of less educated families, but we don’t measure level of parental education that frequently, and it does, in our society, correlate quite tightly with level of income, to some extent with race and ethnicity, but essentially, and we really haven’t talked about what does go on in most elementary school classrooms, and essentially, what we are doing in elementary school classrooms is perpetuating and even exacerbating the inequalities that children enter with because we are not focusing on providing all children with access to the kind of knowledge and vocabulary that they will need to succeed in school and in life later on. What we are focusing on are, well, reading is really what we spend a lot of time on, and I think it’s important to note at the outset that there are two basic aspects to reading which are quite different. One is decoding, just word recognition, learning how to sound out words, and there are very serious problems in many places with the way we approach that because scientists have really pretty much determined that the best way to approach decoding is to teach it systematically to use phonics systematically, and teach it very explicitly as a set of skills, and because of deficiencies in teachers’ training, that’s not happening in a lot of schools, so that is one problem. You do need to be a good decoder in order to be a good reader, but what I really focus on is the other large aspect of reading which is reading comprehension, and that has been treated, ironically really, as though it were a set of skills when in fact, cognitive scientists have discovered that it’s really not. It cannot be taught as a skill of finding the main idea, the skill of making inferences, and that is how the vast majority of teachers have been trained to approach it, so there’s content, of course, kids are reading something, but what’s put in the foreground is we’re going to learn how to determine the author’s purpose or we’re going to learn how to compare and contrast, and whatever – the teacher might read to demonstrate that skill and then students might scatter to practice that skill on books on a variety of random topics, but that kind of randomness when it comes to content and the lack of focus on content is not going to build their knowledge, and what cognitive scientists have found about reading comprehension or comprehension in general is that the more you know about the topic you are trying to read about, the more background knowledge and vocabulary you have relating to that topic, the better able you will be to understand it and also to acquire and retain new information from what you’re reading. So, the way to really boost kids’ reading comprehension is to immerse them in as much knowledge as possible to systematically build their knowledge. In fact, that’s the opposite of what we have been doing because in a largely futile effort to boost reading test scores, reading and math test scores, we have eliminated or marginalized the subjects that actually could build kids’ knowledge like social studies, like science, like the arts, and that’s especially true in high poverty schools were the test scores tend to be low, and that’s where the kids are who need those kinds of subjects the most because that’s kind of knowledge they are not getting outside school.

Sucheta:  Am I fair to say, if I say that you are extrapolating like we are so focused on achievement gap but we should really be thinking about the knowledge gap? And the knowledge can stem from two or can be evident in two places: one is the teacher’s own knowledge gap – how [inaudible] do the best practices or deploy best practices, and then which leads to students having the knowledge gap which influences their comprehension. In my field, we refer to it as a fund of knowledge, growing the knowledge so that that can become your reference point as you gather new information, you’re connecting to past ideas and understanding that you have about topics or information. Is that what you are talking about, right? Like understanding –

Natalie:  Yes.

Sucheta:  Okay.

Natalie:  Although initially, when I suggested the title, I wasn’t thinking about the teachers knowledge gap but you’re absolutely right that there is a gap there as well, and you are right that having a fund of knowledge enables you to acquire more knowledge. There is somebody – not me, I didn’t invent this – but somebody has made the analogy that knowledge is like Velcro: it sticks best to other related knowledge.

Sucheta:  Yes, and I’ll give you a little anecdote. I grew up in India and then I have raised my children in this country, and one of the stark things that I saw that I grew up with outside the classrooms, we grew up with lots and lots of stories and these were fables and folklores, or whatever you want to call them that were part of different aspects of cultural activities, but one of the things that happened in that, that what you learn in history down the road, like war, we had already learned that when we were five years old,when you talked about Mahabharat, for example, which is not something you learn officially which is like the epic poem, but every child knows a little piece of it and everything eventually gets built on it, and so there’s a common cultural language that talks about these characters that flowed throughout your life, but the relationships and the ways wars are fought or when you win territories, what exile means, so whether you – I mean, like think about in the modern world, we don’t see exile exile, right? But if you have learned that, and then when you come to ninth grade and start talking about first world war, second world war, you have some context, and I feel there is that missing element or we learned Aesop’s fables, for example, that’s part of homegrown storytelling that I feel a lot of kids are missing here. There’s no ritual in the house where storytelling – oral traditions are practiced very much. Do you see that?

Natalie:  Well, I mean, I think it depends on the family and it’s hard to generalize, but yes, I think there’s this idea that really predates all of the testing and everything that in American education and in some other countries as well, that young children, that it is developmentally inappropriate to try to teach history to young children because it is too abstract, too remote from their experience, they won’t be able to grasp it intellectually and they won’t be interested in it because it’s too remote from their own experience, but in fact, history can be presented as a series of stories and kids love stories. You don’t have to present history and all of its sophistication and nuance to a six-year-old, but if they don’t get any taste of history, they don’t get any taste of these stories from the past – they could be fables or whatever, then it’s much harder later on for them to understand what history is all about or to absorb all sorts of concepts because they don’t have the mental Velcro for it to stick to.

Sucheta:  So now, let’s talk about this, before we get into the actual meat of what does comprehension mean, and traditionally, people talk about developing learning skills mainly through reading and through writing, or comprehension, building comprehension, but what do you think is the origin of this current dysfunctional approach to educational instruction, but specifically, the reading instruction? What kind of myths and belief systems that are harbored in the mindsets of teachers or even just as the general population?

Natalie:  This was something that I –  this is really one reason I wrote the book, was I wanted to figure out where all of this came from because as an outsider to the education world, as a journalist, I would see teachers – once I realized what was actually going on in elementary school classrooms which is not totally obvious to the casual observer, but you sure read a book about whales or something, instead of talking about whales or whatever, horses, the teacher might say, “Okay, so now, we’re going to talk about the author’s purpose,” or “Now, we’re going to talk about visualizing,” rather than the actual content of the above, so I want to know where that came from and I think one deep root of it in this country and some other English-speaking countries is a tradition that goes back 100 years that is very deeply entrenched schools of education and teacher training programs which has been called the progressive education philosophy or sometimes, more recently, constructivist pedagogy, but one of the central tenets is that it is better for children to construct or discover knowledge for themselves than to have information sort of poured into the passive receptacles of their brains. The theory is that they won’t really understand it, they would retain it if they just have information on them, and so teachers, when they are teaching these skills, like finding the main idea, they can feel that they are providing kids with the tools that they will use later on to construct or discover knowledge themselves from their own reading rather than just lecturing them or whatever, but the problem with that approach, that theory, it is certainly true that we all do need to participate in constructing knowledge for ourselves, that there is some effort required on the part of a learner, but what teachers are essentially asking kids to do is to discover information for themselves about topics like history and science, it’s more or less educate themselves, and that, especially if you’re starting out with very little information is a very difficult thing to do, so those are the deep roots, and I just briefly would say that in the last 20, 30 years, this approach of trying to teach comprehension as a set of skills has really taken hold much more strongly, and a lot of that has to do with our system of high-stakes testing in reading and math, but it does seem as though the test which have become so important are asking kids, asking students to do exactly this kind of thing. We show them some passage they don’t necessarily know anything about then you ask them to find the main idea or you ask them to make an inference, and so teachers have thought the way to prepare kids for the past is to instruct them in that way, to do that same kind of thing in the classroom, and if they get the wrong answer, that they just need more practice in finding the main idea or whatever when in fact, they may have gotten the wrong answer because they lack the background knowledge and vocabulary to understand the reading passage in the first place.

Sucheta:  You know, as I was reading this part of your book, it reminded me, we continue to discover what should be the best practices. This takes me back to the example, since I studied neuroscience and disorders of the brain, there was a point when we actually believed that we don’t need both the lobes, so we used to perform  – people who used to have seizures, we used to perform lobectomies, you know?  And only to later discover, wait a minute, we have created new problems. So, it’s very interesting to me that we are under the umbrella that we want child to engage in self-discovery process, we have thrown the baby with the bathwater.

Natalie:  Yes, I mean – and there’s a lot of that sort of – it’s like a game of telephone, sometimes, in addition to having findings that turn out not to actually be accurate later on, there is sometimes findings get misinterpreted when they trickle down to the classroom teacher, and some of this approach to reading as a set of skills, there are also reading comprehension strategies which most teachers, they treat reading comprehension skills and strategies interchangeably, but reading experts do see a difference and the strategies are basically sort of metacognitive approaches to monitoring your own comprehension as you go along, and that seems to have been endorsed by scientists, and so it seemed to give the imprimatur of science to teaching these things, like asking yourself questions: how do I connect this to what other thing I know? They discovered that this is what expert readers who do unconsciously naturally as they read, but what has been overlooked is that if you don’t have enough background knowledge to understand the text in the first place, it won’t help you to ask yourself questions as you go along because you won’t be able to answer them, so it really, they only help people who can at least understand the text at a superficial level and maybe get them to understand it more deeply, but it doesn’t mean that asking yourself those questions about the text that’s  impenetrable to you is really going to make any difference.

Sucheta:  Yeah, and this idea that you just touched upon, that when teachers are checking if the learnings loop gets completed, the only best way I know you got it is when I asked the questions, so they are designing or there’s so much emphasis on creating question that really literally tap into the comprehension of the product that’s in front of them that a lot of questions are not half about extrapolative nature or abstractions, and if you don’t ask the abstraction questions because they will get it wrong if they don’t connect it to be on the text, right?

Natalie:  Actually, from what I’ve seen and from talking to teachers, they often over the stage of just ensuring that kids actually understand whatever it is they’re trying to teach and they want to go straight to what they consider to be higher order questions about analysis. Something –

Sucheta:  Yeah, so can you just tape one step back and can you tell us a little bit – and you write a lot about this – but why comprehension skills are so illusory? What is it about the nature of comprehension that’s misleading for educators?

Natalie:  Well, I think what they are trained to believe is that you can directly teach these skills and this doesn’t just extend to comprehension skills, it also includes things like critical thinking that you can teach them directly and in the abstract, so if you get really good at finding the main idea on a tax that is on a “second-grade level,” then you will eventually be really good at finding the main idea of a contact that at a college level are the text on a standardized test at the end of the year which may be much more complex than your reading level, your individual “reading level” so they have treated these as generally applicable skills when in fact, they are going to vary a lot depending on what you’re being asked to read and understand, so for me, if I’m given something on education to read and specifically the topics I have learned a lot about, it’s going to be very easy for me to understand and absorb that text, but if you give me a paragraph, like an abstract of a scholarly article on molecular biology, it’s going to be very tough going for me because, and this been explained very well by a cognitive psychologist named Daniel Willingham at UVA –

Sucheta:  Oh, I love him, yes.

Natalie:  Yes, so any writer is going to leave out a lot of information. You’re going to assume the reader is going to understand a lot of things because it would be really boring to explain every term you are using, right? So, if you’re missing the information that the author assumes you’ve got, you’re going to have to break off your train of thought repeatedly, maybe look things up, maybe get the wrong definition –

Sucheta:  So fragmented, yeah.

Natalie:  Yes, and your working memory is going to get overloaded. You are not going to be able to follow whatever the train of thought is in what you’re trying to read. So, that’s the basic problem with just approaching comprehension as though it were these free-floating skills. Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t ask kids to perhaps use some of what we call skills when you’re trying to help them understand some difficult text. Those things, like asking kids to summarize, for example. Summarizing is taught as a skill, the skill of the weak is summarizing and we’re going to just read stuff and summarize it, that doesn’t really help very much, but if you are teaching kids about the Civil War or whatever and they read a chapter, and then you ask them to summarize it may be in writing, that can be a very powerful way of ensuring that they understand it, and actually alerting you to problems if they don’t understand it, and also helping them to get the essence of that information and retain it, the idea of summarizing, for example, or even finding the main idea. It’s not that those things are bad in and of themselves, it’s a question of what are you putting in the foreground? And what we need to put in the foreground is the substance, the content, not the skill.

Sucheta:  Exactly, and you alluded to this earlier that if you bring this belief system to your teaching, that my kids really need to get good at identifying main ideas, they need to get really good at summation, then you focus on that and you have completely dismissed the value of true knowledge which comes building on these smaller units into expansive larger units of information that will allow you to make interconnectivity between old learning and new learning.

So, where are we getting it wrong? Is our educational system preparing the teachers in a poor way in this particular aspect or are they still reliant on pedagogical principles that are outdated? And of course, what you have repeatedly said here is the neuroscience is knowing and just telling us things that are not really getting translated into classroom behaviors.

Natalie:  Yes. To a large extent, their root of the problem lies in the way we trained teachers, and it’s not to blame anyone. I think this is a systemic problem. Schools of education developed a lot of very different path from the rest of academia, and there’s very little communication between the school of education even on the same campus and say, the department of psychology on that campus, and so schools of education are – they may have a developmental psychology course but they are teaching ideas, say the work of Jean Piaget, for example, will be taught as gospel, whereas in the psychology department, that might be taught as sort of interesting intellectual history, but it will be explained that those ideas have been substantially modified by more recent research, and the recent research about comprehension and the importance of background knowledge to comprehension is not really making it into teacher training programs. So, teachers are really, all of this stuff that I’m discussing is not anything that they would learn during their training.

Sucheta:  That is worrisome, Natalie.

Natalie:  Yes, it is, but I think that ultimately, I hope that our teacher training institutions will connect better with the science of learning, the science of reading, and I think it’s beginning to happen, but the good news is that it is still possible for teachers to learn a lot of this on the job after they have started teaching, and a lot of teachers are being introduced to this and some of them are frustrated they didn’t learn it before, but never too late. The other thing is that a good curriculum, and we really haven’t talked that much about the role of curriculum.

Sucheta:  Oh, yes.

Natalie:  So, one of the things I did for the book was I followed a couple of elementary school classrooms, first grade classrooms and second grade classrooms that were using two very different kinds of curricula. The first grade classroom – it turned out to be two different first-grade classrooms but they were both using the same curriculum, the same textbook which was very much focused on comprehension skills as are most of them. The other –

Sucheta:  I love the stories you give there, yeah, those are really fascinating. Yeah, tell our listeners about that, that was so good.

Natalie:  Well, the opening scene of the book is one of these first-grade teachers who was a smart hard-working dedicated teacher, but she was hamstrung by this curriculum that she was trying to teach, and that the school had told her, her supervisors had told her, you need to teach this, and this one lesson  that I started the book with, she had given a test that revealed that the kids couldn’t tell the difference between a caption and a subtitle.

Sucheta:  Oh, my gosh, so heartbreaking.

Natalie:  And this is considered to be – this is a more recent development that these sort of “nonfiction” text features are considered to be important, so this is a new – now the kids are being asked to read more nonfiction in the elementary grades which is to supposedly help expand our knowledge but what’s happened is, teachers have continued to use this skills focused approach and they’ve come up with new nonfiction reading skills like identifying text features like captions or subtitles, so the teacher is really struggling to teach these first-graders what the abstract nature of a caption is, and how it differs from a subtitle or a title, and –

Sucheta:  Just such a useless skill. I mean, I couldn’t believe it, like why would it matter to a first grader?

Natalie:  No, yeah, teacher felt this would help them read nonfiction texts because you have captions in nonfiction, you don’t really have the storybooks, so she was showing the books with pictures and captions in different places, and trying to get them to identify the caption,  but all they really wanted to know was what’s going on in that picture? Oh, what is that shark eating? Oh, is that planet the moon or is this Mars ? And she was deflecting all of those questions because that wasn’t what she was trying to teach, so that was really quite painful. I felt for her, I felt for the kids, and it’s not that unusual to see a lesson like that. The other classroom that I was following which was a second grade classroom – and both of these schools served low income communities, the students were all students of color, but the difference between these classrooms was quite amazing, and the other classroom was using one of these more recently developed elementary literacy curricula that actually to focus on building kids’ knowledge and delve into topics in history and science and all sorts of things, spending at least a couple of weeks on each topic, and in that content focused classroom, the kids were able capable of extraordinary things.

Sucheta:  I love that example, yeah. My husband is a physician and so we talk about this all the time, that two physicians practice very differently, so we understand that if you walk into two different classrooms in two different parts of the country, or two different socioeconomic backgrounds, if we are talking about common core, we’re talking about bringing everybody up to par, and we are giving freedom to teachers to deploy the message the way they see fit, but we are tested in a particular way then preparing yourself to be tested well can become an agenda without you even knowing it, and that can have great consequences. Nobody wants that but I don’t think they themselves realize that or they find a way out. I like the way you outlined that there are three barriers cognitive neuroscience doesn’t necessarily reach classrooms. You described that as intellectual barriers, emotional barriers, and behavioral barriers, and you have talked about them in bits and pieces but can we now talk about solutions if we use the framework of these intellectual barriers, emotional barriers, and behavioral barriers, what are you recommending? And your message is very positive so I really appreciate that, so I do want you to get a chance to share that with the audience.

Natalie:  Sure, yeah, and actually, I think one reason I brought up curriculum was that I was going to make the point that teachers, even if they haven’t learned about the importance of building knowledge during their training and even if they have not acquired the content knowledge themselves, the knowledge about history and science that kids need to be taught, that they can actually learn a lot about those things from the curriculum itself, so this curriculum that the second grade class was using, for example, the kids were learning about the war of 1812 which a lot of adult Americans really don’t know anything about, and so a teacher might feel like how can I possibly teach kids about something I don’t know? And certainly, the first year you do that, it’s going to be maybe a little bit nerve-racking, but you as a teacher, you will learn about the war of 1812 in the next year and the year after that, it will be easier and you can make it more your own, but to get back to your question about these obstacles and how to overcome them, I think – so the intellectual obstacles, the simplest one is that teachers just don’t know about the cognitive science about the importance of building knowledge, and there are now ways that they are finding out about it – I mean, Twitter has actually been a big part of a lot of teachers education in this. There’s also an organization called Research Ed that is based in the UK, but brings teachers together with scientists and experts who can discuss the science of learning. A lot of teachers will embrace this once they are informed about it and they’ll be very enthusiastic. I do think that some of the teachers, understandably, because it conflicts with everything they’ve been told, with what all of their colleagues are doing and believe, and what their materials are telling them to do, they may be intellectually resistant, at least at first and some perhaps permanently, but I think that we have to work with what we’ve got, and a lot of teachers really will – this will make sense to them right off the bat. I talked to a lot of teachers say that, but beyond that, then there are these emotional obstacles, and one of those really probably maybe the biggest one is just guilt because it is, if you’ve devoted 15, 20 years of your life to helping children, you sincerely believe that what you’ve been doing is helping them, and somebody comes along and tells you actually, no.

Sucheta:  I know, that’s so awful.

Natalie:  It’s a very, very hard pill to swallow, and so this can sort of overlap with the intellectual obstacles to some extent because one of the defenses against that guilt can be what psychologists call confirmation bias which you are more likely to accept evidence that aligns with your beliefs but you are also more likely to reject evidence that contradicts your beliefs, so a lot of teachers are going to feel like no, I don’t think that evidence makes sense, and they will reject it, and then thirdly, the behavioral obstacle really has to do with how complex an activity teaching is, so even if you have accepted this new approach on an intellectual level, on an emotional level, you are juggling so many things while you are teaching –

Sucheta:  It’s exhausting. Yeah.

Natalie:  That it’s very easy to just revert to what you are used to doing, to your habits, and so that’s not impossible to overcome. It takes time, it takes support, and maybe some coaching, but I do think one thing that is very powerful in overcoming any kind of understandable resistance to a new idea, a new approach, and I should add that teachers get hit with new initiatives very frequently, and on average, I think three times a year in an urban school setting, there are some new initiatives –

Sucheta:  That’s insane, when I read that, I just couldn’t believe it, yeah.

Natalie:  So, they developed a kind of skepticism, shall we say, and a lot of these new initiatives claim to be research-based for evidence-based, and a lot of them actually are not. So, teachers have also developed a kind of resistance to even that label which surprises a lot of scientists who think that if something is based on research, that means it’s good. Teachers don’t always have the same reaction, but if you can show teachers, if there’s a school that has adopted this new approach and has been doing it for two or three years and doing a good job, and if teachers can go and see what that looks like and see that teachers like it, students love it, the parents love it, I have talked to teachers who have had that experience and I think that is the most powerful argument because it’s not really an argument, it’s showing and not telling, and I think that’s the best way to get teachers to get on board.

Sucheta:  And so, do you have an example where people actually have turned around? So, I saw some best practices and again, it’s so interesting to me after reading – that’s why when I spoke to you earlier too, I so appreciate, as a journalist, you have not only done a deep dive but you have this perspective, you’re standing on a mountaintop and you have a wonderful aerial perspective on this field of education. Sometimes, people like me who are in the trenches don’t have that or don’t bother to come back to the mountaintop, you know? And what fascinated me is my own factors that I resist, like because I work with people with learning disabilities and people who have reading comprehension difficulties, abstraction difficulties, difficulties with putting the pieces together and to formulate the big picture, I teach reading strategies and sometimes, because I’m so focused on teaching strategies, my complaint is, is that teachers are not teaching enough reading strategies, so one of the things my own – the shock to my system was when you said, oh, my God, they are teaching in fact these strategies in isolation and not emphasizing knowledge, it took me a while to digest that myself.

Natalie:  Well, it may be that you are approaching the strategies differently or you’re not focusing on –  the curriculum says that this week’s skill is visualizing.

Sucheta:  Oh, yeah, no, no, not doing that, right.

Natalie:  So, you’re identifying what does this individual student need to understand this particular thing which is the way reading strategies have been studied and that’s where the evidence comes from, that teaching them works, but the vast majority of what goes on in classrooms is very different from what was in those studies because teachers are putting the skill first rather than putting the content first in bringing whatever strategy might help a student understand it, so I think that’s a key distinction.

Sucheta:  So, obviously, the overall, there’s also the message that there’s no magic bullet, we can’t really eradicate all problems at once and we shouldn’t even try it that way, but you allude to this particular idea in your investigation that an American school – you have to see an American school that consistently combines of focus on content with an instruction method is fully exploits the potential of  writing to build knowledge and critical thinking abilities in every child. That is such a powerful sentence. Can you tell us a little bit about that, are you saying that with grave concern or you are nudging people to take this seriously, or both, or all of it?

Natalie:  Well, I do want to sort of put that sentence into context. I have seen wonderful things happening in a number of schools with content-rich curriculum and a focus on building knowledge. What I was really talking about there was combining that with an approach to writing instruction. We haven’t really talked that much about that, that as I say in the book, fully exploits the power of that curriculum, so there are great things happening now and there could be even greater things if we figure out how to combine the content-rich curriculum with an approach to writing instruction that really brings its power into full fruition. So, I’m also, as you mentioned, the author of a book called The Writing Revolution, and that book explains a method of teaching writing and teaching content at the same time that was developed by my co-author on that book, Judy Hockman, but the basic idea, as I mentioned before, you do need some knowledge to write about a topic, but in the process of writing, you can deepen and expand that knowledge because writing forces you to do a couple of very powerful things. One is to retrieve information that you have slightly forgotten, and the other is to put that into your own words, and those phenomena have been studied by cognitive scientists and they have been shown in other contexts other than writing to have very powerful effects on comprehension and retention of information, but the problem is writing is the most difficult thing we ask kids to do in school. It’s much more difficult than reading and our approach to writing has been – the two hallmarks of it have been we have asked kids to write about their own experiences, especially in elementary school, and we’ve asked them to write at length from the beginning to sort of develop their voice, and writing about your own experiences can be fulfilling but it doesn’t necessarily equip you to write about what you’re going to be learning in schools, the kinds of writing you’re going to be expected to do later on.

Sucheta:  Exactly, yeah.

Natalie:  And writing at length, if you are an inexperienced writer, is cognitively overwhelming. You’re juggling all sorts of things like everything from spelling to word choice, to organization, plus the content you’re writing about, and so what can easily end up happening is you neither learn to write well nor do you get those knowledge building benefits from writing. So, the two hallmarks of the writing revolution approach, and this is what I think distinguishes it and makes it so valuable, is writing instruction is always embedded in the content of the curriculum, whatever kids are learning about, and that instruction begins at the sentence level if that’s what students need and we have many students in high school who still don’t know how to construct good sentences, and if you can’t write a good sentence, you’re never going to write a good paragraph or a good essay, but also, if you are asked to write a sentence that modulates that cognitive load so that you have the capacity to both analyze the information and to learn how to use conjunctions.

Sucheta:  This reminds me of one activity in my practice, when I do this is you take a – and this is, of course, [inaudible] exercise as you can see is like sending a telegraph versus – so telegraphic speech is like the most condensed message in the shortest, least number of words, and then you have a telegraph, a title, then you have one sentence, then three sentences, and five sentences. So, can you share that same information? So, you start with five sentences, then you go to three sentences, then you go to one sentence, then you go to a phrase, and then give a title. So, this kind of ability to really make such powerful selections regarding what word or what idea, or what phrasing captures the idea is such an important skill, but you are right, and you so skillfully point out that we are measuring a lot of these skills and abilities as a sign of solid education by expecting or giving activities that will provoke responses such as having a first grader tell me what happened over the weekend. It’s a great free writing exercise but without any teaching of it or without having any meaning to comprehension of a storytelling.

So, as we end, Natalie, is there anything that you yourself learned about America that has made you thinking deeply or most optimistically about where we can take our children as we guide them into the future?

Natalie:  Well, I do think – to end on an optimistic note – well, I’ll start with this sort of more [crosstalk] –

Sucheta:  What keeps you up at night.

Natalie:  Yes. I mean, I do feel a tremendous sense of urgency about this and one reason is that we are causing unknown numbers of kids to feel that it’s their fault that they are not progressing, that they are not reading well. We have told them, just do this, just practice your skills and you will become a better reader, you will become a better student, and when that doesn’t happen, they often feel they have no one to blame but themselves and it’s just because they are in the dumb group, you know? And one of the really wonderful things that I have come across are stories of kids and teachers who have realized how much they are really capable of and how much they’ve been underestimated. If I could just end with one anecdote, so when I was out in Reno, Nevada and doing research for the book and I heard about a teacher – this was a second grade teacher who was a little – she had adopted one – her class had adopted one of these content-rich curricula but she still felt like don’t her kids really need their skills and maybe this doesn’t really make sense? She was giving one of these periodic reading comprehension tests to whatever second-graders to determine his reading level and he was a really struggling reader, but she happened to notice that in the testing kit, they were passages, reading passages, at different levels of reading difficulty. She saw that there was a text to give to the kid that was on the topic of westward expansion which happened to be the topic the class had spent a couple of weeks on, but this text was at a fourth grade reading level and she thought, this is a struggling second-grader, but just out of curiosity, she gave that text to the kid and he read it with 100% comprehension and 98% accuracy, and she was convinced, and that kid must’ve felt pretty good.

Sucheta:  Oh, good, yeah. So, your optimism, as you summarized, would be why should I [inaudible] that future is promising?

Natalie:  I think because if we start giving kids access to the information they actually crave and will be good for them, we will see an explosion of potential that has remained hidden.

Sucheta:  Wow. Well, what a fantastic place to stop, Natalie. I cannot thank you enough for being a guest and really tackling this very complex topic. This is, by the way, is going to be my gift to five of my dear friends who are in the field of education this Christmas, so just letting you know that.

Natalie:  Alright, wonderful, thank you.

Sucheta:  And thank you again and we will attach – there are a few of my favorite articles that I’m going to attach – op eds that you have written about but if you have any, please share with us and I will end those with the show notes as well, so once again, thank you so much for being a guest.

Natalie:  Great. Well, thank you, Sucheta, this was really a pleasure.

Producer:  Alright, that’s all the time we have for today. If you know of someone who might benefit from listening to today’s conversation, I could think of many, we would be grateful if you would kindly forward it to them. So, on behalf of our host Sucheta Kamath, today’s guest, Natalie Wexler and all of us at Cerebral Matters, thanks for listening today and we look forward to seeing you again right here next week on Full PreFrontal.