The Educational Goal Posts Are Moving

November 15, 2014 by Geoff Nixon

Is your child moving with them?

It used to be that all educational goals related to acquiring knowledge.  Scientia potestas est, knowledge is power.  There is even a charter school network called KIPP, Knowledge is Power Program, that draws on this famous Roman saying.

In many parts of the world, that is  no longer the case, and the US is moving in that direction also.

There are actually three types of educational goals, as described by Biggs and Collis (1982),  and re-stated by John Hattie and others:

  1. “Surface knowledge” — the acquisition of facts, content.
  2. “Deep understanding and critical thinking.”  The ability to put knowledge in context and connect to prior knowledge, etc.
  3. “Self-regulated learning and metacognition.”  University and beyond requires the ability to self-monitor and adjust while learning. It means having a student recognize he is his own best teacher.

Things have changed since “Scientia Potestas Est” in Roman times.  For one, we now have Google.  Surface knowledge is freely available everywhere.  We don’t need to memorize Civil War dates anymore.  We can Google them.   We don’t need to know causes, reasons, outcomes.  We can Google those also.  Even professions that used to rely heavily on rote learning, such as medicine, are requiring more critical thinking.

This is why most OECD countries have moved beyond surface knowledge as an end goal for their education system.

However, US education is proving to be a hard ship to turn — it is still primarily a surface knowledge based system.  Many parents insist on schools teaching facts as they themselves were taught, and tests are still largely multiple choice and fact-based, and with teaching to the test still rife in US schools, these tests drive lesson content.

This is the where the Common Core State Standards have the potential to be a game changer.  While there a lot not to like in the Common Core, it is at the very least an attempt to propel US educational goals and students into the #2 category of learning by emphasizing these reading comprehension and thinking skills at a very early age, 1st grade.

Higher Educational Goals Lie Ahead

However,  before US students can engage in critical thinking (#2) and self-regulated learning (#3) they need improved literacy skills. Being able to read with fluency and with literal comprehension falls short of the minimum requirements for deep understanding.  To put facts in context, compare to other domain knowledge and to draw implications from these connections and comparisons students require advanced reading skills, inferential reading comprehension.

It seems inevitable that the US will transition to this higher learning plane.  And this means the literacy and numeracy requirements will be raised.

How To Help Your Child Become A Self-Regulating Learner

Most importantly, make sure your child is thinking while reading from the outset.  This does not necessarily mean starting your child reading at an earlier age — the best readers in the world, the Finnish kids, start reading at 7  —  but it does mean activating your child so that he is always thinking, questioning, while listening and of course while reading.  It’s not about reading speed anymore.  If you are reading with him, try to ask questions that require some thinking, connection to prior knowledge or another part of the book.

Bear in mind though that thinking while reading is not easy.  It requires automatic decoding for starters, a skill that eludes up to 40% of 4th graders. Quite often, automatic decoding just requires practice and in this regard it is important to make sure your child is reading books in his appropriate reading range.

If your child is reluctant to read, most likely because it is too hard, then you need to be proactive and seek outside reading help.  Deep understanding and critical thinking are learned skills, and that learning cannot even start until your child has mastered thinking while reading.