Drawing clowns

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

Elementary education has gone terribly wrong, Natalie Wexler argues — especially for poor kids:

At first glance, the classroom I was visiting at a high-poverty school in Washington, D.C., seemed like a model of industriousness. The teacher sat at a desk in the corner, going over student work, while the first graders quietly filled out a worksheet intended to develop their reading skills.

As I looked around, I noticed a small girl drawing on a piece of paper. Ten minutes later, she had sketched a string of human figures, and was busy coloring them yellow. I knelt next to her and asked, “What are you drawing?”

“Clowns,” she answered confidently.

“Why are you drawing clowns?”

“Because it says right here, Draw clowns,” she explained.

Running down the left side of the worksheet was a list of reading-comprehension skills: finding the main idea, making inferences, making predictions. The girl was pointing to the phrase draw conclusions. She was supposed to be making inferences and drawing conclusions about a dense article describing Brazil, which was lying facedown on her desk. But she was unaware that the text was there until I turned it over. More to the point, she had never heard of Brazil and was unable to read the word.

I was looking forward to a kids say the darndest things-style misunderstanding, but that was…too much.

Wexler argues that poor children under-perform in reading because of a knowledge gap:

In the late 1980s, two researchers in Wisconsin, Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie, designed an ingenious experiment to try to determine the extent to which a child’s reading comprehension depends on her prior knowledge of a topic. To this end, they constructed a miniature baseball field and peopled it with wooden baseball players. Then they brought in 64 seventh and eighth graders who had been tested both for their reading ability and their knowledge of baseball.

Recht and Leslie chose baseball because they figured lots of kids who weren’t great readers nevertheless knew a fair amount about the game. Each student was asked to first read a description of a fictional baseball inning and then move the wooden figures to reenact it. (For example: “Churniak swings and hits a slow bouncing ball toward the shortstop. Haley comes in, fields it, and throws to first, but too late. Churniak is on first with a single, Johnson stayed on third. The next batter is Whitcomb, the Cougars’ left-fielder.”)

It turned out that prior knowledge of baseball made a huge difference in students’ ability to understand the text — more so than their supposed reading level. The kids who knew little about baseball, including the “good” readers, all did poorly. And all those who knew a lot about baseball, whether they were “good” or “bad” readers, did well. In fact, the “bad” readers who knew a lot about baseball outperformed the “good” readers who didn’t.

About 25 years later, a variation on the baseball study shed further light on the relationship between knowledge and comprehension. This team of researchers focused on preschoolers from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. First they read them a book about birds, a subject they had determined the higher-income children knew more about than the lower-income ones. When they tested comprehension, the researchers found that the wealthier kids did significantly better. But then they read a story involving a subject neither group knew anything about: made-up animals called “wugs.” When the kids’ prior knowledge was equal, their comprehension was essentially the same. In other words, the gap in comprehension wasn’t a gap in skills. It was a gap in knowledge.

I don’t think it’s too terribly surprising that reading comprehension suffers when the reading material is full of specialized jargon on an esoteric subject, like the rules of a game you don’t know how to play.

For a number of reasons, children from better-educated families — which also tend to have higher incomes — arrive at school with more knowledge and vocabulary. In the early grades, teachers have told me, children from less educated families may not know basic words like behind; I watched one first grader struggle with a simple math problem because he didn’t know the meaning of before. As the years go by, children of educated parents continue to acquire more knowledge and vocabulary outside school, making it easier for them to gain even more knowledge — because, like Velcro, knowledge sticks best to other, related knowledge.

I can think of a more parsimonious explanation for why children from better-educated families arrive with more knowledge and then acquire more knowledge, too, and it doesn’t involve special tutoring on prepositions.

Still, teaching kids the facts they should know, rather than trying to teach them skills without facts, seems like a reasonable strategy:

As E. D. Hirsch Jr. explains in his book Why Knowledge Matters, until 1989, all French schools were required to adhere to a detailed, content-focused national curriculum. If a child from a low-income family started public preschool at age 2, by age 10, she would have almost caught up to a highly advantaged child who had started at age 4. Then a new law encouraged elementary schools to adopt the American approach, foregrounding skills such as “critical thinking” and “learning to learn.” The results were dramatic. Over the next 20 years, achievement levels decreased sharply for all students — and the drop was greatest among the neediest.


  1. Felix says:

    1st graders reading instructions that say, “Draw conclusions” about a “dense article describing Brazil”?

    What happened to “See Spot run. Run Spot run.”?

    And, WTF would a 1st grader care about Brazil? Or, are they planning some kind of trip there during the summer, when they are out of school and their parents are at work?

    Something is missing here.

    Or, is this yet another Atlantic article published without benefit of an editor?

  2. Harry Jones says:

    It’s all about prerequisites.

    Critical thinking and learning to learn are prerequisites to a lot of advanced learning. But they themselves have prerequisites.

    Before you can think critically about a thing, you first need to have a basic understanding of the thing. Somehow we lost sight of this in the postmodernism fad.

    Before you can learn to learn, you must first learn to learn to learn. Or just face the fact that students are not all equal in learning ability, and some will have to be left behind for the sake of the others.

    Most people can get though their entire lives without needing to have certain skills or to know anything about certain topics. The education system has never accepted the concept of life relevance. Countless students ask “when are we ever going to use this stuff?” They ask in vain.

    The public school system is broken by design. It is the result of political processes that do not have the childrens’ best interests at heart.

  3. Graham says:

    I had similar thoughts to Felix at one point — maybe the first grade tasks here are a bit demanding.

    I can’t remember much about my first grade class in Toronto in the mid 1970s, but I doubt very much the tasks we were assigned were described anything like those ones. If they were so described to the teachers, at least we the pupils were not obliged to understand what it meant to identify the main idea, make inferences or draw conclusions. Or to read or know about Brazil. The teacher would also, quelle surprise, explain what we were supposed to do in terms a first grader could understand.

    I remember being a precocious weirdo with a globe at home and tormenting my younger cousin by pointing at and naming countries for the sheer sake of it, as though he gave a damn, but even at that I was older than first grade. Pretty sure I didn’t have to read articles about Brazil and interpret them in first grade. Or third. More like sixth, probably.

    Which causes me concern. Often enough I find myself agreeing with arguments that some elements of secondary education are not demanding enough. I suspect this does not include math. But history, English, and general skills like research, analysis and personal time planning seem increasingly deficient when one is always confronted by university students so reportedly unprepared they need remedial classes and hand holding to do their work on time.

    On the other hand, when I see first grade described like this I wonder if the educrat approach to schooling is too demanding at the point of entry and not demanding enough in the final years.

    Which rings true if only because it would be typical of the kind of balls up the last 40 years of methodologies have brought to all sorts of things.

  4. Graham says:

    Harry Jones makes a point of timeless relevance. I actually wish I had retained more high school math [or been better at math in general], but on the whole it hasn’t come up much. Every so often I wish I remembered some algebraic procedure or set of equations. But just for fun and intellectual games.

    And that’s math. Plenty of kids suck at and/or are bored by other subjects dearer to my heart, and they too find they need little of it.

    I’m torn, though. I’m not sure I want the schools to be entirely workforce factories, or life skills classes, any more than I want them to be education centres for Citizens, either the kind I want or the kind the left wants. I want a bit of all three.

    The answer to why they teach so many things is:

    1. Give everyone a taste of what there is so they can have a chance to find their interests/talents. And not just one shot at each.

    2. Give everyone an idea how much knowledge there is and a chance to absorb what they can of it and remember how much they don’t know through their lives.

    3. Give even the high flyers in a few subjects an ongoing exposure to other fields and a pervasive sense of the scope of knowledge.

    I’d almost say the schools are education centres mixed with humility and discipline factories. Not everyone is a self-starter- I’m a natural bookworm from almost day one but I would have needed the push to study things I didn’t love or to develop good work habits. There’s need for that. I had a touch of autodidacticism and I read far and wide the things that interested me, but relatively few people have interests broad enough for that to be enough. Though they have existed.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    The elephant in the room: kids are not all the same and one size does not fit all.

    The best child education system would expose each student to a set of skills that is the intersection of two sets:

    1. What is useful in everyday real life
    2. What that particular student is capable of learning readily

    Add to this: basic awareness of the many career options that exist. Not every child needs to know chemistry, but every child needs to know what chemistry is.

    For advanced education, replace requirement one above with:

    1. What is useful in that particular student’s ideal vocation.

    What of the humanities? Humanities are great, but schools are not great at humanities. Give me Project Gutenberg instead.

    (Creative arts are a job skill first and foremost, and a part of the Humanities only secondarily.)

  6. Lu An Li says:

    I have never been to the South Pole or the North Pole, but I know it is cold there.

  7. Kirk says:

    One of the funnier moments in my military career came when I was a young corporal placed in charge of a detail to create new mapbooks for the battalion’s war plan. That sounds super-trivial, but… When you’re talking about a healthy chunk of Bundesrepublik Deutschland at 1:50 000 scale, that’s a lot of damn maps. Multiplied out over the many, many copies that had to be created, for every major staff officer, staff section, and company command team… Oh, holy crap… You’re talking several weeks of continuous and highly finicky work. It was me, and about five other guys who were all “trusted individuals”, I suppose–Too low on the totem pole to really worry about tasking with this seemingly trivial task, but high enough and responsible enough to be entrusted with it. You had to carefully highlight all the no-go terrain, cut out the maps, mount them, and line everything up so that the mapbooks could be effectively used. Critical stuff, if we’d ever gone to war…

    About day three of our suffering, the scene of the crime being one of the conference rooms that had no doubt once hosted Nazi functions (old, old barracks we lived in… Went back to the pre-WWII German buildup, post-Versailles…), I’m sitting there trimming the edges on yet another mapsheet with a razor blade and a straightedge, and one of the other guys suddenly loses his shit, laughing his ass off. He’s literally rolling on the floor, hysterical.

    Rest of us look over at him, thinking “Oh, great… Wright has lost his mind… Someone better go get the medics… I hope they still have the tranquilizers they gave Bennett last month…”.

    Wright finally brought himself under control, and we’re all like “OK, WTF? What’s so damn funny…?”.

    He starts to tell us, and he breaks down again. Took about twenty minutes to get it out of him, and by the time we’re done, we’re all laughing our asses off right along with him.

    See, what had happened to him, as he trimmed the edges on about his nine-hundredth map that week, was that he suddenly remembered a conversation he had had with his kindergarten teacher, as a kid: Seems our PFC Wright was not a child who was a natural “colorer between lines”, and his teachers had expressed frustration with him and his scissor/crayon/craft skills. His response had been “When the hell will it really matter in my life…?”, and the teachers had, of course, insisted that it someday would, and that he’d better get with the program. Given that he was a Catholic schoolchild whose parents were paying tuition for his ass, and that he didn’t feel like never ever seeing the light of day again, he complied and became very enthusiastic for coloring between the lines and cutting out along said lines. But, he was ever after resentful of those Catholic nuns…

    Right up until he remembered the incident as an adult male soldier, in a front-lines combat unit during the Cold War. Then, the irony of it all just blew him away–The only thing he was actually using, of all those hard-won academic skills he’d spent so much time acquiring, like debate, logic, higher math (Wright was a very high-octane intellect–Dude later went on to West Point…), was the skills he’d learned in kindergarten and first grade from Sister Immanuela, those lessons of the coloring crayon and the scissors…

    Wrights line that got the rest of us laughing was something like “…thirty-thousand dollars my parents spent, putting me through parochial school, and the only thing I’m actually using from all that… Is coloring inside the lines, and cutting crap out neatly…”.

    Maybe you had to be there, but that was hysterically funny, in the moment. Funniest moment of it, though? Wright swearing up and down he was going to go look up Sister Imaneula when he was next home on leave, and apologize to her… She’d really been right, all those years ago…

  8. Albion says:

    If you know nothing about a subject, it is hard to draw conclusions if only because you have not the faintest idea what the article or talk or demonstration is about. There is simply no frame of reference, let alone understanding the meaning of words you have never encountered before.

    I would find the same with higher mathematics and quantum physics: I have no idea what the terms mean and why they are important (though I do have a sort of knowledge that many things are beyond my comprehension, though as a conclusion saying ‘It’s big and I have no clue what’s going on’ would sound, er, absolutely lame)

    I do recall my old mother-in-law being anxious to go out and hurrying me and my wife along. I said I needed to charge my iPad before leaving and she stared at me blankly. The idea of an iPad was, at her age, a word and concept she had no concept of, and quite why I should–bull-like–put my head down and run at this thing was beyond her.

  9. Paul from Canada says:

    This is the problem I have with the current educational idea of “they can look it up if they need it”, to justify why we don’t teach memorization, or anything facts based anymore.

    You have to know that’

    a. It exists
    b. It is important and relevant in some way

    in order to “look it up”.

  10. Graham says:

    Going over that excerpt again, I am still struck by the apparent complexity of the scenario these kids were given.

    What am I missing in reading comprehension or personal memory here?

    Did I know the word “conclusions” in first grade and what it meant to “draw” or, for the sake of less confusing verb choices, “make” conclusions? Are these kids really expected to perform the task described?

    I am genuinely starting to think I have fundamentally misunderstood something about Wexler’s point here.

    Or maybe we did understand that word at that age and perform such tasks. If we did not, then maybe this is one of those Flynn effect scenarios, in which the first graders are now expected to be textual analysts and the kids who cannot are genuinely considered to have fallen behind.

    At some point I must see if I can find any trace of the Ontario curriculum of [IIRC] September 1976. I would have been five, one of the late year birthday kids who even today get thrown in slightly younger than most of the class.

  11. Wang Wei Lin says:

    True learning has happened when the student can synthesize facts, concepts and ideas into realistic answers that fit the real world. This can be done at many levels. We’ve all met the extremely gifted who are generally clueless idiots or the country boy who thrives by his natural intelligence. Give me the country boy for he has ‘learned’ more than the gifted. As for the poor souls taught nothing by teachers and parents who know nothing they are victims in the educational charade. That is truly sad.

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