Most teachers t think that students today have a problem paying attention. They seem impatient, easily bored. I’ve argued
that I think it’s unlikely that they are incapable
of paying attention, but rather that they are quick to deem things not worth the effort.
We might wonder if patience would not come easier to a student who had had the experience of sustaining attention in the face of boredom, and then later finding that patience was rewarded. Arguably, digital immigrants were more likely to have learned this lesson. There were fewer sources of distraction and entertainment, and so we were a bit more likely to hang in there with something a little dull.
I remember on several occasions when I was perhaps ten, being sick at home, watching movies on television that seemed too serious for me—but I watched them because there were only three other TV channels. And I often discovered that these movies (which I would have rejected in favor of game shows) were actually quite interesting.
Students today have so many options that being mildly bored can be successfully avoided most of the time.
If this analysis has any truth to it, how can digital natives learn that patience sometimes brings a reward? Jennifer Roberts,
a professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, has a suggestion.
She gave a fantastic talk on the subject at a conference hosted by the Harvard Initiative on Learning and Teaching (more here
Roberts asks her students to select a painting from a Boston museum, on which they are to write an in-depth research paper.
Then the student must go the museum and study the painting. For three hours.
The duration, “meant to seem excessive” in Roberts’ words, is, of course, part of the point. The goal is that the student think “Okay, I’ve seen about all I’m going to see in this painting.” But because they must continue looking, they see more. And more. And more. Patience is rewarded.
Roberts gave an example from her own experience. As part of a book she was writing on 18th century American painter John Singleton Copley, she studied at length the painting A Boy With a Flying Squirrel
. Although she is, obviously, an extremely experienced observer of art, Roberts noted that it was many minutes before she noticed that the shape of the white ruff on the squirrel matches the shape of the boy’s ear, and is echoed again in the fold of the curtain over his left shoulder.
If we are concerned that students today are too quick to allow their attention to be yanked to the brightest object (or to willfully redirect it once their very low threshold of boredom is surpassed), we need to consider ways that we can bring home to them the potential reward of sustained attention.
They need to feel the pleasure of discovering that something you thought you had figured out actually has layers that you had not appreciated.That may not be the 21st century skill of greatest importance, but it may be the one in shortest supply.
Michael Gove, Secretary of Education in Great Britain, certainly has a flair for oratory. In his most recent speech, he accused his political opponents of favoring "Downton Abbey-style" education (meaning one that perpetuates class differences), he evoked a 13 year old servant girl reading Keats, and he
cited as an inspiration the late British reality TV star Jade Goody
(best known for being ignorant), and Marxist writer and political theorist Antonio Gramsci
. Predictably, press coverage in Britain has focused on these details
. (So, of course, have the Tweets
.) The Financial Times
and the Telegraph
pointed to Gove's political challenge to Labour. The Guardian
led with the Goody & Gramsci angle. But these
points of color distract from the real aim. The fulcrum of the speech is the argument that a knowledge-based curriculum is essential to bring greater educational opportunity to disadvantaged children. (The BBC
got half the story right.)The logic is simple: 1) Knowledge is crucial to support cognitive processes.
(e.g., Carnine & Carnine, 2004; Hasselbring, 1988; Willingham, 2006). 2) Children who grow up in disadvantaged circumstances have fewer opportunities to learn important background knowledge at home (Walker et al, 1994) and they come to school with less knowledge, which has an impact on their ability to learn new information at school (Grissmer et al 2010) and likely leads to a negative feedback cycle whereby they fall farther and farther behind (
Stanovich, 1986). Gove is right. And he's right to argue for a knowledge-based curriculum.
The curriculum is most likely to meliorate achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students because a good fraction of that difference is fueled by differences in cultural capital in the home--differences that schools must try to make up. (Indeed, a knowledge-based curriculum is a critical component of KIPP and other "no excuses" schools in the US.
I'm not writing to defend all education policies undertaken by the current British government--I'm not knowledgeable enough about those policies to defend or attack them. But I find the response from Stephen Twigg (Labour's shadow education secretary) disquieting, because he seems to have missed Gove's point. "Instead of lecturing others, he should listen to business leaders, entrepreneurs, headteachers and parents who think his plans are backward looking and narrow. We need to get young people ready for a challenging and competitive world of work, not just dwell on the past."
(As quoted in the Financial Times.)It's easy to scoff at a knowledge-based curriculum as backward-looking. Memorization of math facts when we have calculators? Knowledge in the age of Google?
But if you mistake advocacy for a knowledge-based curriculum as wistful nostalgia for a better time, or as "old fashioned"
you just don't get it. Surprising though it may seem, you can't just Google everything. You actually need to have knowledge in your head to think well.
So a knowledge-based curriculum is the best way to get young people "ready for the world of work."
Mr. Gove is rare, if not unique, among high-level education policy makers in understanding the scientific point he made in yesterday's speech. You may agree or disagree with the policies Mr. Gove sees as the logical consequence of that scientific point, but education policies that clearly contradict
it are unlikely to help close the achievement gap between wealthy and poor. References
Carnine, L., & Carnine, D. (2004). The interaction of reading skills and science content knowledge when teaching struggling secondary students. Reading & Writing Quarterly
Grissmer, D., Grimm, K. J., Aiyer, S. M., Murrah, W. M., & Steele, J. S. (2010). Fine motor skills and early comprehension of the world: Two new school readiness indicators. Developmental psychology
Hasselbring, T. S. (1988). Developing Math Automaticity in Learning Handicapped Children: The Role of Computerized Drill and Practice. Focus on Exceptional Children
Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading research quarterly
Walker, D., Greenwood, C., Hart, B., & Carta, J. (1994). Prediction of school outcomes based on early language production and socioeconomic factors. Child development
Willingham, D. T. (2006). How knowledge helps. American Educator
The British Columbia education system would seem to be doing an excellent job. Although very recent data are not available, performance by BC 15 year-olds on the 2006 PISA showed them lagging just one country in science (Finland), two countries in reading (Finland and Korea), and five in math (Taipei, Finland, Hong Kong, Korea, and fellow Canadian Province Quebec). Meanwhile, in 2007, no one scored better than BC fourth graders on the PIRLS reading assessment. (
Eight countries or provinces scored about the same--36 scored lower. Test data summarized here
.)Despite this record of success, BC is not satisfied, and gearing up to change the curriculum.There's one sense in which this plan is clearly needed: there are too many
objectives. The document describing learning objectives
for the fourth grade runs 21 pages, and includes scores of items. No one can cover all that in a year, so the document ought to be tightened. Another stated objective in the document describing the proposed change is to offer teachers more flexibility
so that they can better tune education to individual students. Whether that's a good idea is, in my view, a judgment call. The BC Ministry of Education contends that the current curriculum is too proscriptive. It may be, but it's being taught (and learned) at very high levels of proficiency, at least as measured by international comparison tests that most observers think are pretty reasonable. Change the curriculum, and that level of performance will likely drop. But other benefits may accrue, such as better performance in academic areas not measured by students with strong interest in those areas, and greater student satisfaction.My real concern is that the plan doesn't make very clear what the expected benefit is, nor how we'll know it when we see it.At least in the overview document, the benefit is described as "increased opportunities to gain the essential learning and life skills necessary to live and work successfully in a complex, interconnected, and rapidly changing world. Students will focus on acquiring skills to help them use knowledge critically and creatively, to solve problems ethically and collaboratively, and to make the decisions necessary to succeed in our increasingly globalized world."Oddly enough, I thought that excellent preparation in Reading, Math, and Science was just the ticket to help you use knowledge critically and creatively. And then I saw this statement:"In today’s technology-enabled world, students have virtually instant access to a limitless amount of information. The greater value of education for every student is not in learning the information but in learning the skills they need to successfully find, consume, think about and apply it in their lives."