Why Knowledge Matters: How an Over-Emphasis on Skills is Corrupting the Classroom and What Can Be Done About It

Modern education theory emphasizes skills and downplays content. But is there really such a thing as “reading skills,” “critical thinking skills,” or “problem- solving skills” apart from speci c content knowledge? What does research say about whether skills can be learned outside of content domains? Can abstract skills be tested and what do these tests really measure? Can technology replace memory and content knowledge? How does classical education better do the things that skills training and technology purport to do?

Martin Cothran

Martin Cothran is Director of the Classical Latin School Association and Editor of the Classical Teacher magazine, a quarterly periodical for parents and professional educators published by Memoria Press. He is the author of several educational textbooks, including Traditional Logic I, Traditional Logic II, Material Logic: A Course on How to Think, Classical Rhetoric: A Study of Aristotle’s Principles of Persuasion and Lingua Biblica: Old Testament Stories in Latin. His articles on education and other issues have appeared in numerous publications around the country, and he has also appeared on ABC Radio News, American Family Radio, Family News in Focus, NBC Nightly News and the PBS News Hour. He previously taught Latin, logic and rhetoric at Highlands Latin School in Louisville, Kentucky. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and economics from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and a master’s degree in Christian apologetics from the Simon Greenleaf School of Law, now Trinity International University.

Poetic Knowledge: Horse Sense in Our Classrooms

How do we prevent our students from simply learning facts about our subjects? We must foster “poetic knowledge,” the pre-rational and experiential knowledge that equips students to connect information and concepts to the world. Poetic knowledge is necessary for full understanding, appreciation and love for a topic. Application will be aimed at Lower and Middle School grades.

Robyn Burlew

Robyn Burlew has served as Academic Dean and Upper School Principal at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia, for four years. Prior to moving to Richmond, she served for 15 years as an administrator and taught biology and math at Covenant Christian Academy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Robyn earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Houghton College and a master’s degree in integrated curriculum and instruction from Covenant College.

The Plena of Participation: How an Algebra Lesson with My Daughter Revealed the Fullness of Knowledge

Doing mathematics should always mean finding patterns and crafting beautiful and meaningful explanations.”

– Paul Lockhart

One recent morning, a few winter rays of sun beamed through the kitchen window and lit up the top of my black coffee. In that moment, I felt a little more of my being. I experienced, however faintly and briefly, a certain calm and joy. I reflected upon the coffee and the sunbeam; I could see them both in new and different ways. In this moment of contemplation, I gained a slightly deeper insight. Let’s face it, we were all in this together: the sun, the coffee, the kitchen, the window; my visual observation, my thought and reflection.

I mention this rather trite experience merely as a setup for a second, more profound, personal story. You see, the kitchen experience contains some key elements in the art of knowing, but it lacks others—so I offer it merely as a forerunner. I propose the following story as an epistemological model, a study in the fullness of knowledge and meaning.

As I was getting ready to write this article, I insisted that my 13-year-old daughter, Charlotte, sit down with me at the kitchen table to catch up on her prealgebra lessons. With my wife and other children out for the day, the house was unusually quiet. I sensed a good opportunity for us to spend some time together by working on our own materials next to each other. Because I work outside the home, my wife teaches the lessons to the kids; opportunities to study with my children are sparse. Shortly into my canon of inventio, Charlotte began to ask a multitude of questions about chapter 3 in College of the Redwoods Prealgebra Textbook, “The Fundamentals of Algebra.” Her questions revealed her frustrations and insecurity in this new terrain: Why do these equations vary? How do I work with these negative numbers. Should I multiply or divide? Which part of the equation should I attack first?
Now it had been several years since I had solved such equations—and I confess, my memory had grown a little fuzzy with algebra. And I really wanted to work on my article. So when she asked her initial questions about the function and operation of the coefficient, variable parts, like and unlike terms, the communicative, associative, and distributive properties, and ultimately, how to solve equations involving integers with variables on both sides, I declared that it would be best for her to simply read closely the four pages of detailed explanations and examples—and surely she would come to understand the fundamentals of basic algebra and be able to solve the 68 equations. In my body language and tone, I probably conveyed that I had work to do, and that algebra is a subject that you “just have to get through at your age.”

Yet, this clinical suggestion that she simply “read the objective facts of the chapter and acquire the factual knowledge for the equations” was not working very well. She was far from gaining true knowledge, and even further from the meaning of algebra in its essential nature. My selfish fortitude did not last long, for she and I both knew the advice was cheap. Besides, her questions had piqued my curiosity and wonder. I was soon sitting next to her, determined to answer her questions by reading the chapter along with her. Now we both wanted to know what to do at each step. For me, it was an exercise in memory; I had learned these long ago in school, and some years later for the GRE exam. For Charlotte, it was all new.

As we read the explanation pages together, each part of the various operations became intelligible. After each example, we would turn to the assigned equations and begin solving them. Step by step we proceeded. After a few rounds of this, I returned to my seat to resume my studies. After all, our own agendas die hard. But as the problems became more advanced, she asked more questions. And yet again, I found myself sitting next to her, learning with her, sharing in the act of discovery. As she gained confidence, we gained joy. I was teaching and learning. We were learning together. After an hour or two, Charlotte reached an epiphanal moment, exclaiming with pure joy, “I get it! I can solve this equation on my own without a mistake!”

So my article was off, but life was on.

After reflecting on this experience, I was struck by how rife it was with the fullness of knowledge—so much so that it seemed the perfect model to serve as a central example. Indeed, our lesson embodied knowledge and meaning, for we employed and adhered to no less than twenty-five different tools and principles in the process of attaining knowledge. (We shall define knowledge as justified true beliefs.) I will list them here, with each one followed by a brief explanation of its use in our lesson.

My purpose for offering these twenty-five tools and principles is to provide a brief exposure to all that is involved in the art of knowing, to reveal just how much is at stake. After these, we will look at three fundamental concepts in greater detail.

1. Experiential and Intellectual Input – Input acquired through the five senses, along with our conceptual ideas, provided the necessary data for us to solve the equations. For example, through the use of our sight we were able to read the information on the page, and then process the ideas derived from that sensory and intellectual information.

2. Memory and Imitation – Because I learned algebra in the past, I used my memory to recall many of the details; as well, Charlotte used her memory to recall a variety of arithmetic facts. Additionally, the ancient Greeks suggested that all learning happens by imitation, the creative impulse to reflect what is already there. We imitated the steps portrayed in the examples.

3. Reason and Logic (dialectic and hypotheses construction; formal and informal) – The equations involved the use
of reason, the means by which we move from one idea
to another, by means of logical inference. We combined

like terms by dividing. We negated terms in the sum.
We divided both sides of equations. We multiplied and simplified. These were logical and reasonable moves that we knew would help us solve the problem. We also used dialectic, the “question and answer” dialogue in our joint discussion to solve the problems.
4. Verbal and Mathematical Language – We used a fairly complex verbal language to communicate with each other and to describe and explain the mathematical language.
5. Pattern Discernment and Recognition – Because our

minds are able to recognize visual patterns, cause-and-effect patterns, and other structural patterns, we noticed that a pattern exists in each equation, a pattern similar to other equations.

6. Adherence to Order – Each step in the equation needed to be solved in the proper order otherwise we would not have arrived at the truth (right solution).
7. Practice and Repetition – To arrive at the truth (right solution) consistently on our own, we needed to practice and repeat the steps several times.
8. Association – By associating one idea with another, and one experience with another, we were able to understand increasingly complex ideas by reasoning from one concept to the next.
9. Belief in Objective Truth – the mathematical numbers, laws, and principles in these algebraic equations are objective, eternal, and immutable. There is one right solution; anything other than the right solution is wrong.
10. Effort and Discipline – In order to arrive at the truth (right solution), we needed to put forth effort and to be disciplined. Though challenging, we believed that truth can be discovered, and that finding the truth is worth the effort. 11. Invention – Invention involves creativity; it is the activity of inventing ideas and arguments. This includes hypotheses, explanations, and interpretations. We interpreted the explanations of the algebraic equations.
12. Experimentation – On a few occasions we were inspired to think in different ways to solve the equations. If we generated hypotheses that produced different results from the method taught, we used dialectical reasoning to compare hypotheses and to determine which ones were correct.
13. Form, Structure, and Parts – It was important that we honored and adhered to the proper form, structure, and parts of the equations.
14. Evidence and Proof – Charlotte’s answers would have meant little or nothing if she did not show her work: how she arrived at the solution. Similarly, most assertions (theses) are meaningless without supporting proof.
15. Penmanship – Beautiful penmanship is a sign of elevated and ordered thoughts. I insisted that Charlotte use neat penmanship to reflect the quality and facility of her thinking and problem solving abilities.
16. Intuition – This can carry a variety of meanings,
but it usually stands for thoughts that are immediately, necessarily, or self-evidently true. Though we didn’t rely much on intuition, some of the mathematical concepts seemed “intuitively” right.
17. Relationship – Forming a relationship with Charlotte propelled her into true knowledge. If I would have insisted that she learn it on her own because I was busy, she would have struggled longer with the task, and she would not have known it as well. The relationship manifested in our activity has implications that are transcendent and eternal. 18. Participation – If I had insisted on looking at the algebra lesson from the outside, from a distant, objective vantage point, and made assertions from my outside perspective without participating as a subject in the activity, I would

not have been able to arrive at a complete and accurate understanding. I would have given answers based solely on my memory, which is fallible and prone to error. I needed to step inside the activity of learning to read the information myself and attempt to solve the problems.
19. Commitment to Universals – We affirmed not only the universal axioms of mathematics, but eternal realities such as truth, goodness, love, and the soul.
20. Deference for Tradition – Mathematics is an old study; we honored its function and role in the universe and in the history of man. We endeavored to participate in the Great Conversation (about mathematics) with the past.
21. Humility – Humility was absolutely essential before we could learn anything. We had to acknowledge how much we did not know. I needed to admit that I had forgotten some of the strategies in solving the equations. Charlotte needed to admit that these new concepts were a challenge and that she needed help.
22. Imagination – Here we emphasize the importance of
the imagination for a fuller, more complete knowledge of ourselves and the world. We affirm the vital relationship between reason and imagination in the activity of knowing. 23. Wisdom – Though my work on the article was set behind, it was wiser for me to invest in the lesson with my daughter because it was the right thing to do. All knowledge has an ethical and spiritual dimension (all Truth is God’s truth). So all knowledge, in some way, relates to wisdom. Time spent with her was the wiser choice for many reasons, but to name two—we are a little closer now, and she is growing in her knowledge of math.
24. Faith – We needed faith in God, and in His eternal mathematical laws. By studying them, we believed that we might come to know reality a little more fully, and through that reality, know something more of Him and ourselves. 25. Love – Because I love Charlotte, and care enough for her to learn algebra, she now understands it. If I had insisted on her reading the pages on her own, as mere facts separated from reality, existence, and relationship, she would not have come to a full knowledge of it.

We shall now consider three salient concepts from above that are vitally important in the activity of knowing: Universals and Truth, Participation, and Language and Imagination. We will begin with universals and truth because they influence and inform the other concepts.

The first slip into modernism might well be located in the figure of William of Occam in the early 14th century. Occam established the doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals and/or abstract objects have any existence or reality. The doctrine suggests that only particular, concrete things are real, and that universal terms and concepts have no existence (other than as mere names for classes of particular things). As Richard Weaver suggests, the issue at stake is whether a source of truth exists that is higher than, and independent of, man. The consequence of nominalism is that it banished reality perceived by the intellect and the spirit, and reduced reality to only what is perceived by the senses. And with this change in the assumption of what
is real, the entire orientation of culture took a turn toward modern empiricism.1

The effect of nominalism is the diminishment, if not the devastation, of our ability to know reality in a more comprehensive way. The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending sensory experience, and with this, the denial of truth. Astutely, Weaver recalls the story of the witches from Shakepeare’s Macbeth, who tempt Macbeth with the idea that man can realize himself more fully if he will only abandon belief in the existence of transcendentals.2 By denying transcendent reality
and objective truth, the witches spoke delusively and presciently—instead of man realizing himself more fully, he is actually sundered from knowledge and reality. For it is the transcendent entities that complete the fullness of reality and knowledge, giving life and being to all things.

James S. Taylor aptly states that the fullness of knowledge is a kind of natural, everyman’s metaphysics of common experience. It is a way of restoring the definition of reality to mean knowledge of the seen and unseen. Its restoration is essential for reawakening the intuitive nature of human beings who are able to know reality in a profound and intimate way that is prior to, and in a certain sense, superior to reductionistic, empirical knowledge.3

Let us now turn to the vital role of participation in knowledge. In “Meditation in a Toolshed,” C. S. Lewis relays an enlightening experience of standing in a dark toolshed. He says that the sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door, a sunbeam pierced through. Everything else in the shed was pitch black. Particles of dust were floating in the beam. The beam appeared striking and beautiful. Importantly, he was looking at the beam, not seeing things because of the beam.

Then, Lewis moved into the beam so that the beam fell on his eyes. Instantly, he says, “the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, the sun. Looking along
 the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.” The modern method of acquiring knowledge is akin to looking at the beam; but to partake in the fullness of knowledge implies standing in the beam and looking along the beam. Here are two different ways of knowing. Both are valid, yet the second way implies participation inside; it facilitates passage into the glorious realm of universals, the transcendent realities that comprise the fullness of our knowledge, being, and purpose. From mere matter to intellect, spirit, and truth.

Let us conclude with language and imagination. Remember the opening anecdote where I was sitting in the kitchen with the morning sun and my coffee? By the active use of language and imagination, I imbued the experience with meaning. With modern reductionism, it is usually assumed that there is little connection between the physical causes of things and their meaning. But, as Owen Barfield illuminates, the meaning of a process is the inner being which the process expresses.5 And it is language and imagination, through symbol and metaphor, that connect the inner beings of things to their processes and to man.

So then, a thing functions as a symbol when it not only announces, but represents something other than itself.6 We owe the existence of language to this process: memory and imagination convert the forms of the physical world into mental images, images which function not only as signs and reminders of themselves, but as symbols for concepts.
If this were not so, they could never have given rise to words, which make abstract thought possible. If we really think about this, it implies that this symbolic significance is inherent in the forms of the outer world themselves.7

Thus, Barfield reveals, if language is meaningful, then nature is also meaningful. He quotes Emerson, “It is not only words that are emblematic; it is things which are emblematic… Man is placed in the center of beings and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him. And neither can man be understood without these objects, nor these objects without man. It is precisely in this ‘ray of relation’… that the secret of meaning resides.”8

Perhaps it is just this ray of relation dispersing through each other and the world, our experience and our soul—the interaction of coffee, sunlight, algebra, and spirit—the joy of participation and the fullness of knowledge—which grants meaning to all that we hold dear: that which we write, that which we hope to know, and those whom we love.

How Shall We Then Think? Recent Books on Education and the Ends of Knowledge

Educators must necessarily spend a lot of time assembling and mastering the content of their lessons. In addition to what is being taught, teachers must also attend to matters of educational method. The best teachers go a step further and reflect on how their teaching—in the structure of form and the patterns of content—convey deep assumptions about the nature of knowledge, reason, and the life of human “knowers”. Since educational institutions and most available modern scholarship have been significantly affected by the grand assumptions of the Enlightenment, Christian educators would do well to spend some time reflecting on how the prejudices of modern Western thought frequently crowd out Christian concerns related to our creaturely vocation of knowing and being in the world.

Several recent books may be helpful both for teachers who are thinking through such questions for the first time and for those who are looking to think more deeply about them. The Passionate Intellect (BakerAcademic, 2006), by Norman Klassen and Jens Zimmermann, explores ways in which the Christian belief in redemption achieved by an incarnate and resurrected Savior—one who is fully Man and fully God—affects our understanding of the nature and purposes of reason, and hence of education. The book’s subtitle—Incarnational Humanism and the Future of University Education— may give the impression that it has little to offer teachers in primary and secondary school settings. But while writing especially for professors and students in higher education settings, Klassen and Zimmermann have a great deal to offer teachers of pre-college students and to non-educators interested in how and why so much modern thought distanced itself from a Christian view of the place of reason in life.

The authors insist that the firmest foundation for any intellectual life is belief in the redemption of Christ of men and women in the fullness of their humanity. “Christians are supposed to be the paradigm for a new humanity founded by Christ and inaugurated by his resurrection from the dead, a decisive event signaling the reconciliation of humanity to God and anticipating the full redemption of God’s creation.” On the basis of this historical reality, Christians are properly committed to growth in understanding about God’s creation and about the possibilities for the flourishing of human gifts and capacities therein. Only an “incarnational humanism” can rescue the contemporary academy—and contemporary thought more generally—from the nihilistic dead- end toward which modernity has led us.

Following an introduction surveying the chaotic state of contemporary higher education, Klassen and Zimmermann, both English professors from Canadian universities, begin their book with a chapter (“Can Christians Think?”) repudiating the charge that to be a Christian is ipso facto to be a committed enemy of reason. They are not responding to the observation that many Christians don’t care about the life of the mind; after all, neither do many non-Christians. They are addressing the deeper claim that because Christians believe in certain fundamental truths (the existence of God, their own identity as creatures, the reality of good and evil), they cannot fulfill the high calling of true intellectual work, of mature, heroic, autonomous reason. The authors challenge the assumption that what we call “reason” must proceed in accordance with the prejudices of the Enlightenment.

The bulk of the book is a historical survey of the developments of higher education (and parallel developments in philosophy) from early roots in a holistic understanding of God, Man, and cosmos in the Middle Ages to the fragmentation that characterizes secularized modernity and postmodernity. It is a story that moves from Christian humanism to post-Christian anti-humanism. Advocates of classical education will be particularly interested in the place in this narrative of the rupture between logic and rhetoric, a schism occasioned by the rise of one of the many dualisms this book documents. In this case, it was a dualism that separated reason from metaphysical assumptions, history, language, and revelation.

The book concludes with three chapters discussing how “incarnational thinking” looks in practice. The chapter “Incarnational Humanism and Common Grace” will be of particular interest to those struggling with a framework to integrate deliberately Christian scholarship with the work of non-Christian thinkers.

The question of the nature of human knowing and knowers is also addressed in Steve Talbo ’s Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines (O’Reilly Media, 2007). Like Klassen and Zimmermann, Talbo is concerned with the dehumanizing tendencies of contemporary culture and how they affect education. But where The Passionate Intellect concentrates on ideas, Talbo ’s book (twenty-one essays in five major groupings) is concerned more with the way techniques and technologies distort our understanding of who we are; Talbo is alerting us to the antecedents rather than the consequences of bad ideas.

The five essays in the middle section of the book (“From Information to Education”) will be of most interest to teachers, but the rest of the book provides a necessary handle to grasp the framework in which Talbo criticizes common uses of technologies in the classroom. He challenges the modern assumption that the main purpose of knowledge is to acquire power to do things. “Something in our culture works powerfully against a sensitive, participative understanding of the world, often obliterating that understanding wherever it does arise.” While not explicitly so, there are strong incarnational themes in Talbo ’s book as well, as he repudiates the common assumption that we know the world only as minds that happen to be in bodies.

Instead, he argues, we know the world best in a fully engaged way, attentive to its details, its interconnectedness, its specificities. Talbo is obviously critical of various fashionable technologies and their uses, but only because we assume that we can be mere “users” of technology, and not symbiotically shaped by it.

Of course, the computer itself is one of the things we need to find a living connection to. We can take justifiable pride in the fact that we conceived and developed the idea of this nearly miraculous machine. But we should not forget that, in order to do this, we had in some sense to reduce ourselves to the machine’s level—to imagine it and mime it within ourselves—until we achieved such a clear, internal expression of it that we could build it in the world. In particular, we had to enter into our own potentials for programmed, automatic thought and action before we could build automatons of silicon, plastic, and metal.

But these potentials are not the only potentials human beings have—and certainly not the highest or most delightful. And so Talbo is concerned that we not re-imagine our own identity after the image and likeness of this miracle working machine—a habit common to idolators of every age.

A different angle of vision considering education is offered in The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue (BrazosPress, 2008). The partners in this dialogue are two brilliant historians, Mark Noll and James Turner, Evangelical and Catholic respectively, both now at Notre Dame, and both keen analysts
of American cultural and religious history. Noll’s essay has a very un-Evangelical title: “Reconsidering Christendom?” He argues that Christian education has been most creative and fruitful when it has been an expression of a vision for the comprehensive consequences of Christian knowledge and practice. Christian movements or communities that promote a merely personal faith are unlikely to commit themselves to serious Christian learning.

Near the end of his essay, Noll suggests that if Christian learning in the United States is to flourish, it will be led by two kinds of individuals. The first are Catholics or older confessional Protestants (who are in many ways more like Catholics than Evangelicals) “who have been touched spiritually by the charismatic movement, by intense personal engagement with the scriptures, or by reconnection to one of Catholicism’s own traditions of intense personal devotion,” but who have not lost “the assumptions of comprehension, community, proprietorship, and universality of Catholic Christendom at its best.”

The other kind of individual likely to succeed in promoting robust Christian education is one from Evangelical or Pentecostal roots who has “come to recognize the docetic, gnostic, and Manichaen tendencies of their evangelical and fundamentalist traditions,” and who has embraced that “Christendom” vision with its comprehensive and public ramifications without losing the inner, personal fire kept alive in the communities in which they grew up.

Where Noll focused on how much Catholic and Evangelical educators need the respective strengths of each others’ traditions, James Turner focuses on the differences between them, especially how different theological emphases have led to differences in practice and mentality. There is a brief but provocative discussion of the tragedy of the specialization of academic disciplines, a loss -among Catholics, Evangelicals, and secularists—of an abiding confidence in the unity of knowledge. This is a subject Turner has addressed elsewhere with great insight (see his collection Language, Religion, Knowledge: Past and Present [Notre Dame, 2003] as well as The Sacred and the Secular University, co-written with Jon H. Roberts [Princeton, 2000]).

Finally, a recent book that does not deal explicitly with education may be the most helpful
of this lot, and also the most challenging. James R. Peters’s The Logic of the Heart: Augustine, Pascal, and the Rationality of Faith (BakerAcademic, 2009) might be assumed—because of its subtitle—to be a work of apologetics, simply defending the claim that we have good reasons to believe. It is that, but it is more fundamentally an examination of the matter of what would constitute “good reasons.” Rather than simply defend Christian belief as rational, Peters insists (following in the footsteps of Augustine, Pascal, and others) that Christian belief properly defines rationality. Peters summarizes the argument of his book in Chapter One: Ultimately, in the Augustinian tradition, the proper function of reason is not merely to make true judgments concerning a world of neutral, nonmoral facts, but to enable the rational individual to make proper contact with reality, a state of being that requires not only ‘true belief,’ but the transformation of the will and a ections needed to put us in touch with—to align up fully with—reality. Assisted by divine charity, the proper function of reason is thus both cognitive and unitive. The perfection of reason requires our being transformed into the kind of persons we are designed to be—persons who are able not only to describe but also to a rm and become united with the God of love.

Peters insists that this Augustinian understanding of knowledge is vastly superior to and more humanizing than its allegedly enlightened alternative. The consequences for educators are significant. As an epigram to Chapter One, Peters cites a 1984 essay by Wendell Berry, who describes the pedagogical effects of the modern view of knowledge, according to which “real” knowledge requires that the knower has to be entirely disengaged from that which is known. As a result, Berry writes, “Objectivity, in practice, means that one studies or teaches one’s subject as such, without concern for its relation to other subjects or to the world—that is, without concern for its truth. If one [by contrast] is concerned, if one cares, about the truth or falsity of anything, one cannot be objective: one is glad if it is true and sorry if it is false; one believes it if it is judged to be true and disbelieves it if it is judged to be false.”

Where Klassen and Zimmermann called for a passionate intellect, Peters similarly champions a “passionate reason.” Reason has its proper ends in the love of God because this is the created telos of humanity. Human reason is not a detachable capacity, a “piece of heartless technology,” properly functioning when detached from ultimate human purposes. It is instead one of the ways in which our humanity fulfills (or denies) itself.

This is not the understanding of reason that prevails in the modern West. But the dispassionate reason championed by Descartes, Locke, Kant, and others has led us not to enlightenment but darkness. Christian educators have the wonderful opportunity to confer to their students an alternative attitude toward the meaning of knowing. Books such as these are instructive reminders of what is at stake.

The Next Reading War

The First Reading War

Early in our nation’s history, most children learned to read phonically. They first learned the alphabet and a common corresponding sound for each letter. Then, they practiced reading simple two-letter combinations such as ma, me, mi, mo, and mu. Next, children learned to decode actual words by contiguously sequencing the sounds associated with the letters. Reading sentences of increasingly greater length and complexity would then follow. This general pattern was the basic outline for such notable American reading instruction books as the New-England Primer ( first published in 1690), Noah Webster’s Blue Back Speller (1783), and William McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers (1836).

The move away from phonics-based reading instruction began in the mid-1800s when educators began to take note of learning processes rather than the content to be learned. These reformers began attacking the traditional forms of teaching and learning. This was true of reading instruction. Even Horace Mann, the father of the U.S. public school system, was an early critic of phonics-based reading. He argued that learning the letters of the alphabet and their corresponding sounds was heartless drudgery.

Influenced by the educational reformers of the day, Mann championed the more modern approach to reading instruction that encouraged beginning- reading students to focus on comprehension by teaching them to recognize whole words, rather than connecting specific sounds to letters. While many grammar school teachers of this era rejected the whole-word method, this progressive approach to reading instruction spread like wild fire in the newly minted teacher-training schools. By the 1920s, the whole-word method was fully entrenched in America’s teacher preparation programs. In most of the colleges and departments of education of that time, teaching students to read by attaching sounds to particular letters was regarded as absurd as teaching that the world was at.

The new whole-word orthodoxy received its first significant blow in 1955 when Rudolf Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read. In scathing tones, Flesch ripped apart the whole-word method of reading instruction, insulted those who promulgated this process approach, and called for a return to phonics-based instruction. While most educationalists rejected Flesch’s critique, he received considerable attention from the public and the book became a best-seller.

In 1967, Jeanne Chall published a more scholarly review of early reading instruction. It supported Flesch’s overall conclusion: most children, especially those who traditionally struggle in school, learn to read much more quickly when they receive explicit, systematic phonics instruction. Chall’s superior scholarship had a greater impact on changing hearts and minds within the field of education than Flesch’s work.

One reason for Chall’s success may have been her ability to avoid over-generalizations. Chall, the godmother of phonics-based instruction, warned that taking any method of reading (even phonics- based instruction) too far was dangerous. She argued that in addition to the explicit instruction in the sound-spelling relationship, teachers need
to expose students to quality children’s literature as soon as possible. In the early stages of learning to read, teachers should read these stories aloud to students. Once students learn to read on their own, they can practice their reading on these same types of stories.

Even with Chall’s landmark study, the first reading war was far from over. Rather, it was just heading into its most volatile stage. Since the 1960s, the war has raged, with each side winning minor conflicts and temporarily gaining influence in the schools. The conflict has been ugly at times, with each side demonizing the other with unfair characterizations: phonics as boring “drill-and- kill” instruction and whole-word instruction as therapeutic “fuzzy reading.” Both characterizations are false, but the heated exchanges provided for incredible drama. Sadly, a generation or two of students suffered in the cross fire.

In 2000, phonics-based reading instruction received a significant boost with the publication of the National Reading Panel’s report, a rigorous review of research on reading and reading instruction. This report, commissioned by the U.S. Congress, supported Chall’s conclusion from more than 30 years before: most children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds and with learning difficulties, learn to read much more quickly when they receive explicit, systematic instruction in phonics. The National Reading Panel report later provided the framework for George W. Bush’s Reading First program, a significant part of the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002.

Even with the National Reading Panel’s clear advocacy for explicit, systematic phonics instruction, the first reading war raged on. Whole language and so-called “balanced” reading instruction advocates tried to discredit the Reading First program and phonics-based instruction in general, not by attacking the results of this rigorous research report, but by digging into the personal and professional conduct of those who administered the program. Scared of being tainted by accusations of scandal, many of Reading First’s most strident supporters abandoned the program and pulled back their support for phonics-based reading instruction.

This is not to suggest that these one-time supporters of phonics have lost faith in its effectiveness. Instead, they have concluded that Reading First is politically toxic and have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from it. Sol Stern recently documented these attacks on the Reading First program and their impact on reading instruction in a report titled “Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First.” Stern’s depressing description of Reading First’s rise and fall provides a glimpse of how politically charged early reading instruction can be. His sad tale shows us that the first reading war rages on with little end in sight. As a result, many teachers and administrators, who had once been empowered by federal and state governments to teach early reading through phonic- based instruction, now feel as though they have been abandoned.

The Next Reading War

As the first reading war continues, a different conflict has arisen. This battle has the potential to be equally as vicious. Interestingly, this war makes allies of enemies from the first conflict. Reading educators who disagree vehemently about how children learn to read find themselves agreeing on how to teach reading comprehension.

Before exploring the conflict further, it seems necessary to define the word “reading.” Educators use this term in at least two broad ways. First, reading can refer to the process of decoding text, or deciphering the string of letters on a page. Teachers in early elementary grades spend a great deal of time teaching their students this decoding process.

The word can also be used to describe the application of the acquired skill. Reading in this sense refers to the act of acquiring meaning from
a text. For example, last year I read Prince Caspian aloud to my six-year-old son. As I was about to start reading a new chapter, my son asked if he could read a little. Thrilled by his request, handed him the book and he began to read the text aloud with only a few minor errors. Halfway through the page, he handed the book back to me and asked me to start from the beginning. “But you already read that part,” I replied. “I know,” he said, “but this time I want to understand it.”

Now, I am confident that my son caught some of the story as he read, but he was expending so much mental energy decoding the text, that he was unable to focus on its intended meaning. At that time, he was still “learning to read” (definition #1), and was not quite “reading to learn” (definition #2). This is important because the first reading war rages over how to teach students to decode text, whereas the next reading war is being fought over how to develop students who can comprehend texts of greater and greater complexity.

In 1972, Mortimer J. Adler lamented the lack of attention on what he called “the higher levels of reading.” When he wrote How to Read a Book, both sides of the first reading war had spent a great deal of energy fighting over how to teach children to decode. Adler would most likely be pleased by all the attention that reading comprehension has received in the last decade. Indeed, studies on reading comprehension and reading- comprehension instruction have been the point of convergence for an increasing number of research projects in recent years. Many in the education establishment have put their hope in what are called literacy strategies.

Literacy strategies are formalized reading techniques that students can use to comprehend the various texts that they encounter in life. These strategies go by a variety of clever names (e.g., Sketch-to-Stretch, Open-Mind Portraits, Gallery Walks, Double-Entry Journal, and ReQuest) or acronyms (e.g., DR-TA, QtA, QAR, SQ3R, and SPAWN). Publishers of educational materials have capitalized on the literacy-strategy craze. On my bookshelf, I have a spiral bound book from a prominent publishing company that contains 50 literacy strategies targeted specifically at adolescent readers. Next to this, I have a similar volume with an equal number of strategies designed for upper elementary students. State departments of education have also jumped on the literacy strategies bandwagon. The State of Michigan, for example, requires all secondary-level teachers to complete a reading class prior to initial certification. No less than 33 state standards mandate the specific content for this single class. The words “strategies” and “techniques” are prominent throughout these standards.

The literacy-strategies movement received support from, of all places, the National Reading Panel. In the section of the report titled “text comprehension instruction,” the panel identified seven categories of literacy strategies that showed promise in helping students to comprehend texts. These categories include comprehension monitoring, cooperative learning, use of graphic and semantic organizers, question answering, question generation, story structure, and summarization. Reading educators, many of whom ignore the National Reading Panel’s pro- phonics results on early literacy, readily embrace its conclusions on reading comprehension.

But not everyone has been bi en by the literacy-strategy bug. Dan Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, has been a leading critic of the literacy-strategy movement. Willingham consistently points to the differences between learning-to-read and reading- to-learn. The first kind of reading (decoding) is a formalized skill that, once learned, can be applied to almost any text the reader encounters. The second kind of reading (comprehension), however, is not a formalized skill. Willingham claims that comprehension requires “domain knowledge.” In other words, the reader must already have some knowledge on the subject in order to comprehend what he is reading. Indeed, the author assumes that the reader’s prior knowledge will fill in gaps that are critical to the text’s meaning. The more knowledge of the text’s subject that the reader has, the greater the likelihood that the reader will comprehend the text.

E. D. Hirsch, the author of Cultural Literacy and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, has a great example for the importance of domain knowledge. Consider Hirsch’s classic example sentence: Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.

Almost any fluent reader of English would have little trouble using this string of letters to come up with an accurate pronunciation of the text. However, understanding the meaning of the sentence is quite different from being able to pronounce it accurately. A reader with extensive knowledge of baseball comprehends this sentence. In order to do this, the reader draws upon his knowledge from the domain of baseball to understand the meaning of the sentence. The more experiences that this reader can recall, the easier it is for him to think of examples where he has seen a similar or related event.

Alternately, a reader with little knowledge of baseball might grasp some aspects of the text, but the overall meaning might trip him up. However, for the reader who has virtually no knowledge of America’s pastime, the intended meaning of the text is lost entirely. Therefore, while all three readers may have no trouble decoding the sentence, they most certainly vary in their ability to comprehend the text.

Willingham argues that literacy strategies can be of some use to readers. His review of the research shows that fluent readers often experience an initial boost from newly acquired strategies. Willingham also maintains, however, that the power is not necessarily in the strategies themselves. He suggests that many of these strategies simply serve as a reminder to the reader that he needs to be more active in his reading. Willingham equates the usefulness of these strategies to checking one’s work in math class to see if the answer makes sense. Willingham further argues that once students are fluent at sounding-out words (typically around the 3rd or 4th grade), teachers should avoid spending too much precious class time teaching strategies. Instead, they should work on developing students’ knowledge in a variety of domains so that they will be able to draw upon this knowledge when they encounter texts on a variety of topics. As Willingham likes to say: Teaching science, history, math, literature, music, and art is teaching reading.

Many in the education establishment reject this knowledge-based approach to reading instruction. They use the “if-you-give-a-man-a- fish” argument against knowledge-based reading instruction. They see knowledge-based instruction as limited because building knowledge in so many domains takes too much time. They conclude that there is insufficient time to provide the kind of knowledge that students will need to be good readers. Instead, they argue that if we teach the students the process or technique of reading comprehension, then they will be able to read “for a lifetime.”

It seems to be a case of the tortoise and the hare. Those who promote a literacy-strategies approach to reading comprehension instruction, see the opportunity for a quick boost in reading comprehension. Those who support a much more knowledge-based approach to reading instruction recognize that it takes time – perhaps, a lifetime – to develop good readers, and, in the end, those students who have a breadth of knowledge will ultimately become be er readers.

Knowledge is Controversial

The education establishment may be avoiding knowledge-based reading instruction for another reason entirely. In order for schools to provide knowledge-based instruction, those in charge of curriculum and instruction first have to identify what students should know. In designing the curriculum, school authorities would have to select literature pieces, historical events, scientific experiments, and mathematical proofs to be part of what all students would encounter in the school’s curriculum. Whether these school representatives would admit or even realize what they were doing, they would ultimately be making a claim about what constitutes knowledge in that school. As soon as the school made this decision, it would open itself up to criticism and controversy. Regardless of the headline-grabbing stories in newspapers (e.g., sex education classes or prayer at graduation), most schools make a concerted effort to avoid controversy at every turn. Controversy is risky and can be expensive. This is especially true when it comes to designing a curriculum.

In The Language Police, Diane Ravitch describes the great lengths to which many school boards, administrators, publishers, and others
in the educational establishment go to avoid controversy. Ravitch says that educational publishers strip the curriculum of solid content because someone connected to the school might be offended. In stripping away solid content and producing “value-neutral” literature, however, the publishers have robbed the curriculum of anything that might be interesting and inspiring to the students. Ravitch calls the end of this curriculum sanitation process “thin gruel.”

What does this have to do with literacy strategies? Well, remember that these strategies are reading techniques or skills. If knowledge is controversial and schools must avoid it to limit risk, a concentration on skills seems to be a logical alternative. After all, the curriculum must contain something. Unlike knowledge, skills are inherently uncontroversial. Skills show us how, not what. Skills do not put teachers, administrators, school districts, and state departments of education at risk. Skills are safe. Problem is, besides an initial boost, literacy strategies do not help students to become competent life-long readers. The analogy of the man looking for his keys under the streetlight comes to mind. Though the man lost his keys in a dark place down the street, he wants to look under the streetlight because it is easier to see. The same may be true for reading instruction. We will not create better readers by attending exclusively to skills, but it will be easier for schools to avoid controversy if they keep away from knowledge- based reading instruction and teach reading strategies and skills instead.

A Classical Response

A classical curriculum is a knowledge-based curriculum. Classical schools find their footing in the liberal arts. This tradition is dedicated to the idea that students should be liberally educated in a wide variety of interconnected subjects so that they will have a broad understanding of what it means to be free. Such an understanding develops as students pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful. Therefore, classical educators are rightfully skeptical of an over-emphasis in the classical school curriculum on techne, specialized skills that equip the individual for narrow lines of thought, inquiry, and work.

But are we not obligated to teach students the “tools of learning”? Can we ignore the skills that students will need to become life-long learners? Is not classical education different from the back- to-basics educational philosophies that load their students with large quantities of unconnected information to be memorized, only to regurgitate facts on Friday’s test?

These questions bring up one of the most important qualities of a classical education. Yes, classical educators must help students develop academic skills for later study. And, yes, the classical curriculum is grounded in the pursuit of truth. In other words, classical educators teach the skills of learning within a strong knowledge-based curriculum. What this means is that teachers use these truths as the substance on which students will learn, practice, and perform their skills.

How does this relate to reading comprehension instruction? Teachers need first to select quality content for their students to read. They then need to model the kinds of reading skills that students will need in order to understand these materials. Mortimer J. Adler demonstrates a classical approach to reading instruction in How to Read a Book. The book’s title gives away its practical perspective. However, if you know anything about Adler, you know that he believed very strongly in the pursuit of great ideas (knowledge) through the pages of great books.

How to Read a Book, has over 400 pages developing the good habits of “active reading.” Students can acquire these habits by following a set of basic rules or steps that ask the reader to do a number of things, including asking and answering questions; locating the text’s structure; identifying key words, sentences, paragraphs, and passages; and looking for problems with the argument presented in the text. True to these principles, of course, it illustrates the habits of active reading on some of the greatest works in Western Civilization. This book suggests that just as a skier will begin to forget the explicit rules of basic skiing once the habits of good skiing develop, so too will the rules of basic reading comprehension fade once the student becomes an active reader.

Classical educators should be explicit about the habits of active reading. They should model the reading skills necessary for a liberal education. But classical educators also need to commit themselves boldly to the fact that truth, beauty, and goodness exist, and, as God allows, we can know them. If we shy away from this bold proclamation, we will lose who we are as classical educators and doom our students to lives of servitude.