What’s the best way to ensure mastery of low-level content?

[cross-posted at the TechLearning blog]

State and federal accountability schemes require that students master low-level academic content. Our decisions regarding how we structure our instruction to facilitate student mastery of that content strike to the very heart of what we believe about teaching and learning. To facilitate conversations about this issue, I made a short video:

What do you believe is the best way to structure instruction to ensure student content mastery?

Music credit: Safe Passage, Freeplay Music

15 Responses to “What’s the best way to ensure mastery of low-level content?”

  1. Scott ,
    Nice video and good questions. We are struggling with those issues. I think most people would agree that like so many things it is a both/and situation not an either/or situation.

    But let me explain because I think the problem is that we do not execute plans that allow for us to do both. I also have to say up front that I do believe that the low level content is moved into long term memory by engaging students in the higher level activities.

    So back to the issue of what we actually do and my observations. All teaching and lesson planning involves making decisions about what is important etc. So to help my staff move into higher level activities and learning we adopted new planning techniques following Chris Lehman’s presentation on “Understanding by Design” at NECC this year.

    Chris spoke of tests and quizzes as a “dip stick” that help us assess the content knowledge. The knowledge we have identified as necessary to have students succeed with a performance task that will cap each unit. A unit design that includes a performance task seems to help get over the low level content hurdle because to accomplish the goal we have to keep focused on where we are going and not get caught up in the daily minutia of fact based learning.

    I am looking forward to hearing what others think.

  2. First, I would disagree that state assessments require that we master low level content. I just perused a couple released test questions from the California ELA standards and there are plenty that demand analysis and evaluation. You could also argue that the questions on writing strategies that are asking students to select the most powerful and effective ways to write sentences are at least somewhat creative. Strict memorization questions are quite rare. So, I think there’s a false assumption that these tests assess mainly low-level academic content.

    Basically, I think this questions raises a false dichotomy in some minds, which goes something like this: You are either teaching low-levels facts and simple understanding or deep thinking. The reality, I believe, is that these goals are not mutually exclusive.

    For example, kindergarten students can listen to a read aloud and discuss plot, setting, and character with clear modeling and guidance before they can sound out c-a-t. Basically, they can already do some higher-level comprehension tasks before they’ve even learned to decode. However, you better not skip all that phonics instruction just because they can tell you why the Big Bad Wolf seems to have it out for pigs.

  3. I was unable to access your video other than the first page which seems to ask the question: Should we address low level content by addressing high level content? The assumption being that the low level content is embedded and learned while learning the more advanced content. It is my strong feeling that low level content should be taught in the early years freeing students up to work with ideas and more conceptual understanding as they develop intellectually.

    The pyramid that you use here illustrates the need to put in a foundation that will be the bedrock of future understanding. The flaw in the modern system is that we want to skip the steps that create foundation and build the foundation while we erect the tower.


  4. Thanks for the video Scott. The music was depressing, as was the topic. 🙂

    My question: the statement “if a school is to be successful under NCLB” seems to limit the possibilities. I’m Canadian, as you may know, but I have not yet heard anything positive about NCLB. Not once. Will there ever be the critical mass to oust NCLB? It seems what is needed is a revolution, and no longer working within this box and trying to redefine how you can work within it. I understand it is easier said than done (i.e., NCLB determines funding, IS legislated), but with all of the dissenting voices, I am surprised there hasn’t been more change to the system itself.

    Hopefully things will change soon, perhaps after the election. All the best.

  5. @Audrey: Sorry you had trouble accessing the video. Here’s a direct link. Hope this works for you!

  6. We’re off to a good start on the discussion!

    @Daniel: While I agree with you that we are starting to see better assessment items, I’m willing to put money on the assertion that the vast majority of items on state and federal assessments (and, typically, local quizzes/tests) still are lower-level, factual- and procedural-type items.

    @Barbara: I made the video because I hear a lot of teachers say that they feel they have to stay down in the lower-level domains in order to teach lower-level content. In contrast, I believe (and I’m pretty sure that psychological and educational research shows) that teaching low-level content THROUGH higher-order thinking activities results in better mastery, longer retention, etc. In other words, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot when we only rely on lower-level instructional activities to ‘teach’ lower-level content. We’re making intentional choices that work against the very goals that we say we want to achieve.

    @Audrey: I think the problem is less that folks are trying to bypass laying the foundation and more that they never get above the foundation?

    @Alec: I went back and forth on that language. I decided to leave it in because most of the folks I work with are here in the States and because NCLB is used as a causal factor for educator behavior (‘If only we didn’t have NCLB, then we would…’). Like many others, I believe that much of the problem with NCLB has been our chosen responses to its directives. NCLB has many issues, don’t get me wrong, but much of the fault must lie with us and the deliberate choices that we have made regarding our instruction.

  7. 1 – I think there is a valid place for explicit instruction of basic skills. Especially for students with disabilities, it is essential that skills be taught explicitly, and not implicitly through the teaching of higher order thinking skills.

    The problem usually arises when teachers stay there too long. It is ok if a student does not know 100% of a basic skill before going into higher order processes. In fact, synthesis and analysis can help further along the understanding of basic skills that have already begun to be acquired. But to do all at the same time would effectively increase cognitive load quickly and to the point that it would lead to confusion and frustration and eventually just giving up.

    2 – On another note, here is an example of the type of learning that is expected in Quebec schools as of the adoption of the Quebec Education Program (QEP) about 10 years ago.

    It is a learning evaluation situation (LES). The LESs have been used through the end of Secondary Cycle 2, year 1 (grade 9) and are being integrated into Cycle 2, year 2 (grade 10) this year, which means that this is how I will be teaching, assessing, and evaluating my math students this year. (luckily we received the first part of a collection of texts we can use to support this new curriculum yesterday…the rest is in translation and we may receive it before the end of the year, we may not. That’s a whole other story…)


  8. Testing on facts is a total waste of time. Note that Einstein didn’t know his phone number. It wasn’t necessary then and isn’t now. Understanding is necessary for success at all levels of the taxonomy. But why test just the understanding when one could test creations utilizing those understandings? More engaging and more knowledge is necessary to produce a creation.

  9. Enjoyed your post. I remind pre-k teachers that you have to know the alphabet as if you were driving a car before you can read fluently.

  10. Thanks for the video, Scott. It’s a good conversation starter.

    Here’s a quote from Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe) (grabbed from http://ozpk.tripod.com/0depth) that I believe is worth mentioning:

    Rather than increasing test scores, however, this focus on endless skill and drill can actually have the opposite effect: “Not surprisingly, students given instruction aimed at conceptual understanding do better on skills tests than students drilled on the skills directly (Carpenter, Fennema, Peterson, Chiang, & Loef, 1988)” (in Shepard, 1989, p. 6). Indeed, it can be harmful to postpone instruction in higher-order thinking skills (such as problem solving) until low-level skills (such as computation) have been mastered. Students learn by doing. After all, how many of us learned to write by endlessly practicing on vocabulary tests, grammar worksheets, and spelling lessons? We learned by writing and by correcting our own errors. Of course, students – particularly new learners – need some direct practice in skills, but low-achieving students suffer the most from this approach, because if their initial test scores are low, they often are given dull and repetitive skills instruction that does not enable them to grasp underlying concepts (Levin, 1987).

  11. Thanks for the explanation, Scott. Makes sense, and I think it is important to know that teachers can make wise choices in or in spite of regulatory systems.

  12. Scott, I think you are dead on when you commented, “…NCLB is used as a causal factor for educator behavior (‘If only we didn’t have NCLB, then we would…’). Like many others, I believe that much of the problem with NCLB has been our chosen responses to its directives. NCLB has many issues, don’t get me wrong, but much of the fault must lie with us and the deliberate choices that we have made regarding our instruction.”

    The focus on high stakes testing and other mandates in education cause us to focus more on arbitrary and unauthentic products to the detriment of the process. Our students and teachers lose their enthusiasm for learning and teaching (the process).

    Albert Einstein had a sign hanging in his office that read, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” That sign was used to remind one of the world’s greatest mathematicians that qualitative measures are just as important and sometimes more important than quantitative measures.

    I think the climate of accountability has brought about an imbalance in qualitative and quantitative measures. Qualitative measures, which are often the only way to measure the higher order thinking skills, are more expensive and less objective. So, quantitative measures have become the yardstick of choice for accountability. But, in education where the process (as in higher order thinking skills, critical literacy, 21st century skills, life long learners and all that) is our product, qualitative measures of the process are just as important if not more important than the quantitative measures of the product.

    We must stay focused on processes that cultivate our true visions of 21 century learners. If we do, I strongly suspect our student achievement scores will go up as a byproduct. And, when they do it will be in spite of the high stakes tests and accountability, not for or because of them.

    We must hold ourselves accountable to our children and the future, before we answer to federal mandates. Only then can we achieve excellence.

  13. @zabecedarian: Thanks for the comment. Here’s a favorite quote of mine (from Dr. Richard Elmore, Harvard):

    “[I]nternal accountability precedes external accountability. That is, school personnel must share a coherent, explicit set of norms and expectations about what a good school looks like before they can use signals from the outside to improve student learning. Giving test results to an incoherent, atomized, badly run school doesn’t automatically make it a better school. The ability of a school to make improvements has to do with the beliefs, norms, expectations, and practices that people in the organization share, not with the kind of information they receive about their performance. Low-performing schools aren’t coherent enough to respond to external demands for accountability.”

    We need better leaders…

  14. This discussion is all day, every day, at my school. I know what my heart is telling me and it has a lot to do with the pointy part of Bloom’s. Now if, as a leader, I can get people to follow my heart I’ll feel a lot better at the end of the day. Every day.


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