Curriculum - US Common Core steps are 'rushed'

Prominent cognitive scientist fears vital reforms will 'peter out'

One of America's most prominent advocates of knowledge in the curriculum believes a controversial attempt to ensure that all US schools teach the same "critical content" will fail.

Daniel Willingham (pictured, opposite) told TES he fears that his country's first step towards a national curriculum will "peter out in four or five years because it's happening too fast".

"What is going to be the support for teachers?" Professor Willingham said of the American Common Core State Standards. "That is absolutely crucial. You can't just set standards.

"It seems to be such a hurry-up mentality. It is like we are going to reorient the whole American education system. How long are you going to take to do that? Ten years sounds like it should be a reasonable time frame but we are not taking 10 years."

The cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia spoke to TES during a visit to London hosted by his confessed admirer, England's education secretary Michael Gove. But, ironically, the concerns he raised about the Common Core are almost exactly the same as those raised about the breakneck speed of curriculum and exam reforms being introduced by Mr Gove, who cites Professor Willingham and his "scrupulously researched findings" as a major influence.

The difference though, as Professor Willingham emphasised, is that the US education system remains very decentralised, making the introduction of the Common Core particularly "tough".

He is a supporter of the motivation behind the reform - so far adopted by 45 states - of "trying to get a knowledge-plus-skills curriculum" but is "anxious" about its implementation.

Professor Willingham began his career as a neuroscientist in 1990. He got involved in the education debate from 2001 through his links with another of Mr Gove's heroes - E.D. Hirsch, a like-minded American academic who argues that students must be taught "cultural literacy" and a body of "core knowledge" to thrive in society.

Scientists should only enter the education debate where they have actual evidence on what could work, according to Professor Willingham. But he quickly found his academic work offered plenty of insight for the classroom.

"In talking to teachers, I was surprised by the frequency with which things that a cognitive psychologist had known about how children learn, teachers were not aware of," he said. "I have been teaching this stuff to undergraduates for 20 years. I was astonished."

As an example, he mentioned the fact that "memory is the residue of thought" - we do not remember things because we want to but because we have thought deeply about them.

He acknowledged that many teachers instinctively know this anyway. But they have told him that his writing has given them a "richer understanding" of how the process works.

Another of Professor Willingham's key points is that skills such as thinking critically should not be taught independently of knowledge - a practice he said has become the "orthodoxy" for "many, many teachers" in the US.

He added that there is also an emphasis on teaching reading comprehension skills in isolation. But the danger is that students become "frustrated and give up" without enough core knowledge to make sense of the text.

"It is like me reading about cricket," he said. "I know the individual words but all the reading comprehension strategies in the world are not going to help me understand."

This may seem reminiscent of the argument that children who are taught to read exclusively through synthetic phonics - the decoding of words - can lose their motivation for reading.

But phonics is an exception for Professor Willingham. Unlike comprehension, it is essential to teach it as a skill on its own, he said. Mixing it up with other methods such as "look and say" would mean "the kids who are most at risk... are going to lose out".

And while he may argue that critical thinking should not be taught in isolation, he seems to have different views about another of the so-called "21st-century skills". Professor Willingham believes that if educators want students to acquire teamworking abilities, they must be taught them explicitly.

Mr Gove quickly learned the dangers of summarising his guru's position last November. The minister made a speech praising Professor Willingham, only for his hero to publicly correct him, pointing out that he believes that knowledge, rather than "memorisation", is necessary for understanding.

More importantly, he disagrees with Mr Gove's idea that exams in themselves motivate students and went on to warn that testing could lead teachers to "emphasise facts at the expense of all else".

It seems no harm was done. Professor Willingham visited the Department for Education last month and gave two private seminars to Mr Gove and his ministers and to civil servants on the ideas in a new book he is writing about reading.

"The premise is there are three things you need to be a good reader," he said. "You need to be a good, a fluent decoder; you need to have wide-ranging background knowledge; and we need to pay attention to motivation to read."

Teachers should be concentrating on all three "throughout the child's life" but tend to focus on different aspects of reading at different ages.

He also warned ministers of the "fourth grade slump" where the results of students from poorer backgrounds suddenly drop off as they reach the age of 10. The emphasis in tests changes from decoding to comprehension and students' lack of general knowledge holds them back.

Professor Willingham described the prominence being given to his views by Mr Gove as "wonderful". But the academic remains wary of how they are portrayed. "The criticism of the skills and knowledge curriculum is that all you care about is facts. You just want facts, facts, facts," he said.

"And second - that this is all politically motivated, you are a conservative and you are harking back to the good old days when everyone memorised the works of dead white authors. That is just not what it's about at all."

Daniel Willingham

- Gained a PhD in cognitive psychology from Harvard University in 1990.

- Professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992.

- His research originally focused solely on brain-based learning and memory but now concerns the application of cognitive psychology to school education.

- He has argued that there is no scientific evidence for the theory that students have different learning styles.

- His 2009 book Why Don't Students Like School? was described by England's education secretary Michael Gove as "quite brilliant".

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