It takes knowledge to make knowledge

March 12, 1997|By Linda Seebach

PLEASANTON, Calif. -- A friend of mine who frequents used bookstores came home not long ago with a charming volume from an earlier day. ''Sea-side and Way-side, No. 4'' by Julia McNair Wright is a child's nature reader, a collection of scientific tales about the wonders of the natural world ornamented with uplifting verses and personal reminiscences.

The copyright date is 1892, and a lot of the science Mrs. Wright describes with such contagious joy has been superseded. There's nothing about quantum mechanics or nuclear physics, plate tectonics or DNA, and the solar system has eight known planets.

But her little book, overflowing with rich and detailed information, marks the author as a partisan in an educational controversy that remains very much alive a century later.

''Two methods of study are ardently advocated by those who instruct in natural science,'' she writes, in somewhat quaint prose. ''The one demands practical personal investigation, nothing but investigation, deprecates the use of text-books, and insists upon the object only. Another, perhaps a lazier fashion, is to ignore the object and relegate the pupil only to the text-books.''

She prefers a middle course. ''The child should indeed observe, and, if it can, discover; but let us by no means deprive it of the inheritance of the ages.

''Why should we set the fortunate child of the 19th century in the condition of the child of the first or 14th centuries? Let us give the pupil the benefit of the best that has been discovered and detailed.''

Deprecating "mere facts"

It's almost the 21st century, yet the ardent advocates of discovery are still deprecating books and ''mere facts'' while preening themselves on being modern and progressive. The results have been so generally unimpressive that the older tradition of knowledge- intensive teaching Mrs. Wright's tradition is beginning to look pretty good in comparison.

Some parents call it ''back to basics.'' E.D. Hirsch Jr. calls it ''Core Knowledge,'' and he's leading a movement to create schools that teach it (the Web page is Three Oaks Elementary in Ft. Myers, Florida, was the first school to adopt the core-knowledge curriculum, in 1990; there are now about 350 schools in 40 states that teach it.

The magazine American Educator, published by the American Federation of Teachers, devoted most of its winter 1996-97 issue to profiling three of these schools and examining their philosophy.

You may remember Mr. Hirsch for his 1987 book ''Cultural Literacy,'' but the parlor-game aspect of that book distracted many readers from his real message, which is that it takes knowledge to make knowledge. His most recent book, ''The Schools We Need: And Why We Don't Have Them'' examines the history of anti-intellectualism in American education and a content-based curriculum that can overcome it.

Structured and sequential

The essential feature of the curriculum is that it is specific, structured and sequential. Children can learn more in each grade because they have all studied the same material in earlier grades. In a core-knowledge school, children don't get rain-forest ecology three different years and miss out on the Civil War.

That is particularly important for at-risk children, who tend to be more transient. In fact, Mr. Hirsch's motivation is quite fashionably egalitarian. A curriculum based on ''the early and specific transfer of knowledge'' is the best way of reducing the ''fairness gap,'' said Constance Jones, principal of Three Oaks when it implemented core knowledge, and now director of the schools program of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

''The early inequity of intellectual capital is the single most important cause of avoidable inequality,'' she said recently at an education conference at the Hoover Institution.

The results comparing Three Oaks with a demographically similar school in the same district support her. At the start, Three Oaks students scored noticeably lower on standard tests. After three years with the new curriculum, they had caught up with the other school, and, more important, the spread of scores had narrowed.

Increasing fairness

''When a school both improves its average scores and narrows the gap between the lowest and highest scores, it is a sign of increasing fairness, indicating that low achievers have been lifted toward the mean,'' Dr. Jones' research report says.

When ''Cultural Literacy'' came out, it was criticized for excessive emphasis on the accomplishments of white males. ''That first list was descriptive of what bankers and lawyers knew and of what poor people didn't know,'' Mr. Hirsch told an interviewer at American Educator.

''The accusation made was that we should be more inclusive. Well, I said 'OK,' because I had no political agenda. I had a social-justice agenda, so I was perfectly willing to make the list more multicultural,'' Mr. Hirsch said.

The careful sequencing of information allows children not only to absorb a lot of information but also to understand how it's all connected. In the fourth grade life-sciences curriculum, children study the history of the earth; the fossil record and development of plants and animals through major eras of geological time.

That's what Julia McNair Wright wrote about in ''Way-Side and Sea-Side No. 4.'' Core-knowledge students could read it easily, and discuss what scientists have learned since 1892. I wonder how many other fourth-graders could read it at all.

Linda Seebach is the editorial-page editor of the Valley Times and San Ramon Valley Times.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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