What should we teach young students?

Recently, Paul Tough released a new book about non-cognitive skills (link to a highly-recommended This American Life episode where Tough discusses the book).  Tough emphasizes the importance of things like grit, the ability to deal with setbacks, the ability to postpone gratification (whose importance can be seen in the remarkable Stanford Marshmallow Experiment), curiosity, self-confidence, and so forth.  The book is meant to present a new view of education: that, like KIPP schools, we must focus on teaching kids these essential skills for success.  It also emphasizes that kids generally have to learn these skills quite early.

There was also recently a New York Times story about admissions for the specialized high schools, emphasizing the word gap: that kids with higher socioeconomic status just plain hear a lot more words growing up.  Like any social science experiment, it’s hard to formally establish a causal link, but it’s intuitively clear that a word gap would impact their vocabulary, comprehension, and communication skills from kindergarten on up.

In E.D. Hirsch’s review of Tough’s Book in Education Next, Hirsch emphasizes that Tough has only part of the story.  He says that vocabulary—and also basic information (such as if a student can locate Africa on the map)—is the major determinant of a student’s outcomes.

Everyone agrees that good early education is essential.  Many kids do start kindergarten well behind their peers.  They’re behind in reading and math.  Even in early childhood, there’s an illusory IQ gap (I say “illusory” because it becomes smaller when adopted students from low-income backgrounds are raised in more affluent homes).  Underserved students do worse in school and often act out more.  In the end, they have just an 8% graduation rate from college.  (Compared to the population at large, an also-depressing 33%.)

So what should we teach kids?  Should we teach them non-cognitive skills, or should we focus on building their vocabulary?  Is the bigger challenge that underserved students have few non-cognitive skills, or less basic knowledge?  What are the raw materials that allow students to learn better later?

Tough’s answer is to focus on non-cognitive skills.  The New York Times editorial seems to suggest just the opposite: focus on building vocabulary.  Hirsch would add that we must focus on cultural literacy, which enables communication and further learning.

A better answer, though, is obvious: the “all of the above” strategy.  There’s evidence that all of these kinds of early learning are important, and so we should design early experiences that develop all of them, either through direct work with students or through parent education, like what Geoffrey Canada does with the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Baby College (another great This American Life episode).

I claim, further, that this whole argument is a red herring.  The best way to teach both non-cognitive skills and basic knowledge is to do both at once.  In fact, I’ve never seen a content-less effort to build skills succeed.  You learn to study hard by studying something hard.  You learn to solve hard problems by tackling a real problem—but real problems require serious background knowledge.  In other words, these different skills are not in conflict at all.  They are best taught together, with conscious awareness of all the elements that are being incorporated into a curriculum or program.  You still need a rich environment to impart simple facts that do not come from traditional studying: the location of Africa or a large vocabulary.  But beyond that, deep material learning should be paired with skills building, and any other way is a major failure of education.

A real education requires learning facts and learning skills to learn more facts.  While it is possible to design a class that teaches facts without teaching skills to learn more facts, it’s dumb and it doesn’t work in the long term except for a select few students who pick up the necessary skills.  Cognitive and non-cognitive skills must come together, and by putting them together in a conscious way we will develop the strongest educational experiences for students.

Author: danzaharopol

I am a math geek. I love doing math, learning math, and teaching math. Nothing excites me more than working with young people who are discovering new and amazing things. Professionally, I founded Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a program that makes it possible for low-income and underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. That's where I spend most of my time geeking out about math these days. Prior to BEAM, I was a math graduate student (studying algebraic topology) and taught math in places all around the country. I also co-founded and served as the founding CEO of Learning Unlimited, an organization that mentors college students to create enrichment programs for local middle and high school students. In my non-existent free time, I love board games, great plays, frisbee, and reading.

3 thoughts on “What should we teach young students?”

  1. Great post! I agree that both non-cognitive skills and basic knowledge are important; however, there is a lot of experimentation going on in schools, mostly via mandate (Common Core Standards come to mind….but I kind of like most of them). Every new research study causes an uproar. Research is fine….but working with real teachers and real students is better. As an aside, rote memorization is often criticized, but it does help build a student’s self-confidence. When kids are confident, they tend to want to pursue learning. I also don’t think that everyone needs to end up in college: we also need mechanics, hair stylists, and butchers. Is it wrong to not have a college degree? We need to promote learning, not just getting a piece of paper.

    1. Right on — rote memorization can definitely inspire confidence, and provide bedrock knowledge for the future. Like anything, it has to be done in moderation: you need to make sure that students still understand how and why things work, and see their rote knowledge put into practice usefully. I think I would use rote memorization rarely, but there are places where you want it.

      I also agree that we should enable students to pursue vocational training, but we need to be careful here too. We don’t want to see students losing mobility because there isn’t enough push to aim higher. I also really want to make sure that kids get critical thinking skills, and high school doesn’t do that now. Then again, college might not either.

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