A traditional school curriculum is comprised primarily of topics that teach cognitive skills. Topics like reading comprehension, vocabulary, algebra and biology. These topics are comprised of "blocks" of knowledge such as: "2 + 2", "what is a nucleus", "what caused the US great depression", "what is a verb".
These knowledge blocks can be stacked into a 9 month curriculum with the same standardized answer being taught to all students. Knowledge of each block can be categorized as "pass" or "fail". Students can be ranked by the amount of pass knowledge blocks they've obtained. Obtain enough, move on to the next grade.
A teacher can teach such curriculum with minimum creativity and improvisation. Teach the block, assess knowledge of it, move on to the next. It's a system that allows thousands of teachers to teach millions of students across 50 states. An assembly line model that scales and "works".
A growing movement is to determine how to make noncognitive skills (aka soft/life/character skills) more prevalent in school curriculums. Technological trends and research indicate that a developed set of noncognitive skills will better equip students for 21st century jobs. For it's likely that the jobs that exist in 10 years do not exist today (e.g. the job "podcast booking agent" did not exist 10 years ago). Technology innovation will continue to disrupt industries and shift the landscape of jobs. Likely at an even faster pace than today. Students need to be ready to adapt.
Skills such as grit, empathy and gratitude can have a profound impact on a student entering the job market. I believe a student that displays grit and gratitude can figure out how to succeed in the job market, even in a role that may not be directly aligned to the cognitive skills they learned in school.
As an example, I graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Finance in 2009. One of the worst majors to have after the great financial collapse in 2008. My first job was as Operations Director for a startup online retailer. I was responsible for managing the warehouse and all aspects of logistics. I had no experience in logistics. I did not study it in school. And yet the noncognitive skills I developed throughout school (grit, empathy, confidence) empowered me to obtain and succeed in this role. I knew how to learn, and I had confidence that I could figure it out.
Today few curriculum allocate time for students to acquire knowledge blocks of noncognitive skills. How does a teacher teach topics such as "leadership", "grit" and "curiosity". What is the "2+2" equivalent knowledge block within grit? Often these topics are viewed as byproducts of a traditional curriculum or the responsibility of parents. A student that takes AP Calculus will develop grit as a byproduct of working hard and passing the AP exam. A parent will or should instill gratitude in their child.
And yet unlike all students learning "2+2" in school, not all students will have the opportunity to foster skills like grit and gratitude. A big challenge is establishing a baseline. What does it mean to pass or fail the topic of grit? What is the baseline? How much do we standardize what about grit is taught, versus giving teachers the flexibility to improvise? Is it a problem if what about grit is taught at one school is vastly different from another? Or is the biggest value just to make students aware that these are innate skills they can channel and develop? Just exposing them to these skills may spark their own interest in developing them?
Currently we leave it to chance that students will develop noncognitive skills while at school. Luck is the driving factor that places one student in a classroom with a passionate teacher focused on teaching these skills, versus a classroom where they are never mentioned. In order for all students to be able to develop noncognitive skills we must standardize a set of skills that all students should develop, establish a baseline for measuring them, and make them part of all school curriculums.
In May 2000 Christina Sommers published a long-form piece on The Atlantic titled "The War Against Boys". Sommers argued that the "crisis" of schools and society favoring boys and harming (or holding back) girls was built on misleading and erroneous research. And that reality was the opposite was true, girls are thriving and boys are falling behind.
How did we reach the conclusion that American girls are in crisis? Sommers writes:
The answer has much to do with one of the American academy's most celebrated women—Carol Gilligan, Harvard University's first professor of gender studies.
In 1990 Gilligan announced that America's adolescent girls were in crisis.
Gilligan offered little in the way of conventional evidence to support this alarming finding. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what sort of empirical research could establish such a large claim. But she quickly attracted powerful allies.
Popular writers, electrified by Gilligan's discovery, began to see evidence of the crisis everywhere.
To support her point of research misrepresenting the "crisis", Sommer discusses several self-esteem studies commissioned by the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
In 1991 the association announced the disturbing results, in a report titled Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America: "Girls aged eight and nine are confident, assertive, and feel authoritative about themselves. Yet most emerge from adolescence with a poor self-image, constrained views of their future and their place in society, and much less confidence about themselves and their abilities."
The AAUW quickly commissioned a second study, How Schools Shortchange Girls.This one, conducted by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women and released in 1992, focused on the alleged effects of sexism on girls' school performance
The studies received national coverage:
With great fanfare How Schools Shortchange Girls was released to the remarkably uncritical media. A 1992 article for The New York Times by Susan Chira was typical of coverage throughout the country. The headline read "Bias Against Girls is Found Rife in Schools, With Lasting Damage." The piece was later reproduced by the AAUW and sent out as part of a fundraising package. Chira had not interviewed a single critic of the study.
Sommers connected with Susan Chira and asked her why alternative opinions were not sought:
She explained that she (Chira) had been traveling when the AAUW study came out, and was on a short deadline. Yes, perhaps she had relied too much on the AAUW's report. She had tried to reach Diane Ravitch, who had then been the former U.S. assistant secretary of education and was a known critic of women's-advocacy findings, but without success.
Six years later the Times ran another piece on the study:
Six years after the release of How Schools Shortchange Girls, The New York Times ran a story that raised questions about its validity. This time the reporter, Tamar Lewin, did reach Diane Ravitch, who told her, "That  AAUW report was just completely wrong. What was so bizarre is that it came out right at the time that girls had just overtaken boys in almost every area. It might have been the right story twenty years earlier, but coming out when it did, it was like calling a wedding a funeral.... There were all these special programs put in place for girls, and no one paid any attention to boys."
But it was too late, the misleading crisis had become mainstream and drove policy decisions:
Categorizing girls as an "under-served population" on a par with other discriminated-against minorities, Congress passed the Gender Equity in Education Act in 1994. Millions of dollars in grants were awarded to study the plight of girls and to learn how to counter bias against them.
This chain of events is one example of the danger of unquestioningly accepting headlines and studies. Particularly when it comes to sensitive issues such as gender disparities. We should strive to question the studies, question who benefits, validate the journalist did their research prior to accepting the conclusions as irrevocably true.
Yet isn't that the fundamental responsibility of the media? To share facts, to pull in alternative perspectives, to present an unbiased and comprehensive story? Citizens can't be expected to fact check every published news article. Who has time for that?
And yet reality is journalists are people. People on deadline, people with ulterior motives. People who don't hear back from potential sources. Based on the news outlets we choose to read, we trust the judgment of the journalist and editor. We trust that they are presenting the story in the best (unbiased) way they can knowing what they know. But that trust should come with some skepticism.
The media's primary job is summed up succinctly in one sentence by political commentator Ben Shapiro:
The job of the media is to defend the public from untruth.
Unless you have complete trust in your media sources, continue to question. Dig deeper. There can be much more to the story than the headline's conclusions.
Several months ago I wrote about Futurist Amy Webb. She is the founder of the Future Today Institute, which in 2017 published a comprehensive Tech Trends Annual Report. The report identified over 100 trends (such as "Bots" and "Deep Learning") that will have an impact on the future of society. The report breaks down each trend into several components. Utilizing their template (with a few modifications) I've put together my own analysis on the trend Farm to School.
Today about 30% of all school districts in the US have a Farm to School program. As obesity and malnutrition remain prevalent among children, schools will establish partnerships with farmers to supply fresh and locally grown food to school cafeterias.
In 2010 the Obama administration introduced updated nutrition standards to school lunch and breakfast programs via the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Today over 90% of schools in the US adhere to the standards. The standards require minimum fruit and vegetable servings, and restrict certain macronutrients. Companies such as Revolution Foods and Gourmet Gorilla have seen tremendous success by introducing fresh and real food for schools. The Chef Ann Foundation are providing tools such as The Lunch Box with resources and grants to help districts establish Farm to School programs. As seen with Brigaid, professional chefs are leaving the corporate restaurant world and bringing fresh cooking principals to school cafeterias. School based farms such as the Encinitas Unified School District Farm Lab and products such as the Charlie Cart are connecting nutritional education with locally grown foods. States such as Colorado and school districts such as San Diego unified are presenting a template and proving that a Farm to School program can be successfully implemented at a large scale.
There is a lot of variety across school districts as far as the level of implementation and challenges within a Farm to School program. Some districts feel they cannot implement a program due to a shortage of staff, equipment, or cost. Others have a robust program and continue to actively add farmers to their supply network. The biggest challenges for districts are transportation of product from the farm to schools, packaging and storage, food safety, transparency regarding inventory (how much product can farmer deliver), and food prep requirements. For example a district may need corn supplied without husks, because they don't have the staff or tools to do this. Other challenges include establishing relationships with new farmers, working through logistics (invoicing, delivery schedule), kitchen staff shortage, ill-equipped kitchens, and food costs. Establishing a network that seamlessly connects a Farmer to a District will ensure the programs success. The network will provide transparency regarding a Farmer's supply and cost, manage invoicing that adheres to USDA guidelines, and coordinate delivery and storage requirements.
Newly introduced legislation: the Farm to School Act of 2017. If passed it would increase mandatory annual funding of the USDA Farm to School grant program from $5 million to $15 million. Any new legislation around the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Sam Kass and Acre Venture Partners. Chef Ann Foundation. National Farm to School Network. Incumbent food service management companies such as Aramark, Sodexo, Maschio's Food Services. Chefs Move to Schools initiative. FoodCorps. Revolution Foods, Gourmet Gorilla, Charlie Cart and Brigaid. USDA's Farm to School Census.
Good to know
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally subsidized program where districts receive cash subsidies from the USDA for every meal they serve (if that meal meets the USDA meal requirements). Therefore a school may only have $1 - $1.50 to spend per meal that offers quality ingredients at an affordable price for students. A standardized definition of a "local" product is non-existent. To some districts it can mean within a 50 mile radius of a school, to others it's within the state.
Cognition is the knowledge we obtain when our brain processes our environment. Cognitive skills are defined as the brain-based skills we need to function in the world. Skills like language and reading. And the ability to think, focus, remember, and make decisions. Grade school's specialty is to develop student's cognitive skills. But should more time be spent developing non-cognitive skills?
Non-cognitive skills are difficult to identify because they are difficult to measure and quantify. They are believed to underpin our success at school, work, or life in general. The meaning of success is objective (for example financial vs. emotional success). However you measure success, research is showing that non-cognitive skills will get you on the road to success. Examples of non-cognitive skills includes: creativity, critical thinking, motivation, perseverance, self-control, work ethic, resilience, and coping.
In sports, non-cognitive skills are often referred to as the "intangibles" (aka intangible skills). So in basketball, your cognitive skills are your ability to dribble the ball, shoot, and make passes. The intangibles are how well you perform under pressure, how you react to taunting from opposing players, and your motivation to improve. Often times it's the intangibles that separate a good player, from a great player.
- Product vision
Notice that all of these skills are non-cognitive. If non-cognitive skills are the keys to success in school/sports/life, why do K-12 schools focus on cognitive skills?
One reason is that cognitive skills are measurable. Schools need to measure students in order to evaluate student and teacher performance. We can standardize measuring how well Sally can read. But standardizing how relentless or creative she is is much more difficult.
This leads to some big questions. Should K-12 curriculums be 50% cognitive and 50% non-cognitive skills based? How do schools measure the effectiveness of teaching non-cognitive skills? Is school the right environment for teaching non-cognitive skills? Can these skills be taught? How do you teach a child resilience?
Non-cognitive skills cannot be taught the same way cognitive skills are taught. I can give you a workbook that will teach you how to add and subtract fractions. I can't give you a workbook to teach you resilience. Non-cognitive skills need to be instilled. And that requires a different approach to lecture/workbook based instruction.
High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego California, approaches the challenge through the statement: "it's your decision". Empowering kids to think for themselves and make decisions is a way for them to develop non-cognitive skills at school. Kids need an environment where they can dream, build, question, fail, and explore. It gives the dual benefit of making school more interesting, and conducive to honing non-cognitive skills.
Standardizing a non-cognitive skill based curriculum would be a big blocker to getting mass adoption. Knowing which skills to teach would also be a challenge. We develop non-cognitive skills in different ways and from various sources. Whether from hobbies, mentors, parents, friends, values, school, or other sources, we amass our skills as a byproduct of our environment.
These skills are valued highly across the world. The jobs of the future will depend on workers that have these skills. And therefore we may be moving toward a future where learning non-cognitive skills becomes a large component of a child's environment.
Schools in the US are failing to develop passionate readers. Common teaching methods are doing more harm than good. Schools have a dichotomy. Teach a dry "worksheet" method that ensures state tests are passed and a love for reading destroyed. Or try something unorthodox, and see if students can pass state tests AND develop a love for reading.
I recently finished reading "Readicide" by Kelly Gallagher. Gallagher, a high school teacher, identifies ways schools prevent kids from developing a love for reading. He calls it readicide:
the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.
Because of readicide (and other factors), the US is adding adding more aliterates (people who can read but largely do not) every year.
Gallagher makes many "a-ha" points throughout the book, and I'd like to highlight some in this post. I'll begin with problems.
Consider the following:
Talk to any kindergarten teacher. Ask her about students’ attitudes in her classroom during reading time, and it is likely she will tell you about her students’ enthusiasm. Then, ask a fifth-grade teacher the same question. You’ll likely receive a mixed response.
What happens between kindergarten and 5th grade?
As teachers consider the decline of reading, most point to the usual suspects—poverty, lack of parental education, print-poor environments at home, second-language issues, the era of the hurried child, and other (and easier) entertainment options that lure students away from reading.
Gallagher believes that school is the perfect environment for students to develop a love for reading:
School is where I have the opportunity to discuss books with my students. At school, students are given both time and a place to read interesting books.
Kids do spend the majority of their childhood in school, so it does make sense that this environment has the best chance at developing passionate readers. But it also has the best chance at developing aliterates. In many public schools kids spend a lot of time preparing and taking multiple-choice tests. Reading becomes a mundane task of cramming information in order to pass the test. Gallagher believes tests are not the problem:
Multiple-choice exams are not the problem; the out-of-control, overemphasized, all-consuming teaching to these standardized tests has become the problem.
Many teachers have become so buried by the pressures of teaching to the test and by the overburdening number of standards that they have lost sight of the value of students reading newspapers, magazines, Internet articles, blogs, and other valuable sources of information.
Teaching to the test is a catalyst for readicide. And yet so many schools feel it's the only way to get the majority of kids equipped to pass state tests. Gallagher sites multiple studies that proved teaching to the test is not the only way:
Langer’s study, and the many others cited in this chapter, leads to an inescapable conclusion: if students are taught to read and write well, they will do fine on mandated reading tests. But if they are only taught to be test-takers, they will never learn to read and write well. A terrible price is paid when schools value the development of test-takers more than they value the development of readers.
More recently, in To Read or Not to Read, a study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts (2007), researchers reached the same conclusion. Students who read the most for fun scored the highest on standardized reading tests
Is the short-term gain of getting a student to pass a test worth the price of readicide?
When teachers and students spend their energies preparing for shallow high-stakes assessments, deeper learning—the kind of thinking valued in colleges and the workforce—suffers. In this massive attempt to prepare all kids for college and the workforce, a readicide curriculum actually sets them back.
What is worse, teaching to the test involve overwhelming worksheets that squash any chance of developing a love for reading:
Strictly adhering to a 122-page curriculum guide will not make our students wiser about the world they are soon to inherit. Instead, it will achieve two things: It will (1) prepare them for the battery of state-mandated multiple-choice exams that loom in the spring and (2) ensure this classic novel is beaten to death. Worse, it will teach our students to hate reading, even when it comes to a great book like To Kill a Mockingbird.
As adult readers, we would not do any of these things. We would never buy a book at Barnes and Noble if it came with mandated chapter-by-chapter exams. We would never read a book so that we could tackle worksheets afterward. We would never begin a new read with the expressed goal of earning points.
Could it be that our students are turning off to great books because teachers are chopping the books up so much that achieving reading flow is impossible?
The worksheets are long because the list of standards seems never-ending. Gallagher has a term for this:
All Things in All Books Syndrome—the attempt to use one novel to pound dozens of different standards into the heads of our students.
Supplementing reading with worksheets turns the activity into an arduous task. Reading becomes a burden instead of an activity that can be enjoyed.
Ignoring the recreational side of reading is a recipe for readicide.
The first step in broadening our students’ reading windows comes when we recognize the three factors that serve as major contributors to readicide: 1. There is a dearth of interesting reading materials in our schools. 2. Many schools have removed novels and other longer challenging works to provide teachers and students with more test preparation time. 3. Students are not doing enough reading in school.
Outside of school, many of our students are not partaking in those critical activities that stretch and deepen their brains. Instead, they often gravitate to those behaviors that offer instant gratification.
Lack of a diverse set of texts also contributes to readicide:
However, when academic reading is the only kind of reading put on our students’ plates, readicide occurs. As much as I love Dickens and Shakespeare, I would turn off to reading if I didn’t have a balanced reading diet that included Scott Turow or Michael Connelly.
And what about the student's who are struggling with low test scores even though they are being taught to the test? They end up even worse off.
We give struggling students a treatment that does not work, and worse, a treatment that turns them off to reading. When they perform poorly on mandated exams, we respond by giving them an intensified dose of the ineffective treatment.
Scieszka warns of the reader’s death spiral, which goes like this: “It’s where kids aren’t reading and then are worse at reading because they aren’t reading, and then they read less because it is hard and they get worse, and then they see themselves as non-readers” (Strauss 2008, B2). Giving students “stupid” books and other high-interest reading material is the first line of defense against students’ falling into the reader’s death spiral.
Finally, to give context as to why this is an alarming and important problem:
Consider some of the findings found in To Read or Not to Read (National Public Radio 2007): The first generation of students raised in the midst of electronic media read less—and less well—than previous generations of students. Students who read less, read less well. Students who read less well, do less well in school. People who do less well in school do less well in the workplace and participate less in civic life. Internet reading produces shallower reading than book reading. When reading the Internet materials, there is more emphasis on reading headlines and blurbs. Deeper reading is less likely to occur. The reading proficiency of college graduates fell 23 percent in the past ten years. Less than one out of three college graduates reads at a “proficiency” level—what used to be considered a proficient high school level of reading. One of three high school students in the United States drops out. Fifty-five percent of people who read at a “below basic” level are unemployed. Half of the adults in this country do not read either to themselves or to their children.
Now that we recognize how schools create an environment that fosters readicide, what do we do about it? How do we create passionate readers?
Three ingredients are foundational to building young readers: 1. They must have interesting books to read. Rather than waiting for students to discover the joys of the library, we must bring the books to the students. Students need to be surrounded by interesting books daily, not just on those occasional days when the teacher takes them to the library. 2. They must have time to read the books inside of school. Because many of our students leave school and head straight for soccer practice or to after-school jobs, or because many of students make a beeline to their video game consoles, it is imperative that some time be carved out of each school day for reading. 3. They must have a place to read their books. School is the only place where we can control what occurs in our students’ lives. If we are serious about developing readers, we have to take advantage of our time together by making school a place where reading occurs.
Gallagher consistently mentions the idea of getting kids access to more books:
Do students at your school have access to a wide range of interesting reading materials? Is providing access to interesting text a priority among your administration and faculty?
If we are to have any chance of developing a reading habit in our students, they must be immersed in a K-12 “book flood”—a term coined by researcher Warwick Elley (1991). Students must have ready access to a wide range of interesting reading materials.
If they are to have any chance of becoming lifelong readers, they will need what all readers need when they read: access to great books and large doses of uninterrupted time to read them.
Gallagher, a high school teacher, recognizes his responsibility in the matter:
My job is twofold: (1) to introduce my students to books that are a shade too hard for them and (2) to use my expertise to help them navigate these texts in a way that brings value to their reading experience.
Students need to be reintroduced to the notion that we read for enjoyment. To help my students achieve this goal, I have adopted a 50/50 approach in my classroom. To mix up the reading diet of my students, I want half of their reading to be academic, and I want half of their reading to be recreational.
Summer break is also a great time to foster a love for reading:
One research study suggests that summer reading loss can be prevented if students read four to five books over the summer.
Though we certainly want to develop academic readers, summer is not the time to do so. Instead, summer is the time when educators should be focused on developing recreational reading habits in young students.
I believe that reading (and writing) are the most important foundational pillars in education. Although we constantly hear the importance of Math & Science, if students cannot read or write well, they will struggle through life.
One big takeaway I had from "Readicide" was the influence a teacher can have on a child's attitude toward reading. Teachers like Gallagher, who put in the extra effort by exposing kids to a wide range of content (including articles, magazines, blog posts), minimize the number of worksheets that accompany books, and recognize the existence of readicide - unfortunately not all kids have such teachers.
But we live in an environment where technology can expose more students to teaching strategies Gallagher has adopted in his classroom. I believe that a big problem that technology can help solve is matching kids with books they would be excited to read. A tool that would help kids find books that are at their reading level, match their interests, capture their imaginations, and foster a love for reading.
Extra: Prior knowledge
The following quotes from "Readicide" focus on the importance of prior knowledge for readers. I wasn't sure where to put them in the post so I have grouped them here.
Reading consists of two factors: (1) being able to decode words on the page and (2) being able to connect the words you are reading with the prior knowledge you bring to the page.
Reading tests don’t just measure a student’s understanding of the words on the page; they also largely measure what a student brings to the page.
Kids without prior knowledge are at a disadvantage, regardless of reading ability.
When schools remove books in favor of practice tests, when schools eliminate subjects such as science and history, when schools drown students in test preparation, they are ensuring students will not become excellent readers. Instead of enlarging the background knowledge, quite the opposite occurs.