The Knowledge Gap

Greg Ashman:

Let me lead you through a portal created in the basement of some secretive and sinister government laboratory and into the Educational Upside Down.

The Educational Upside Down is a parallel dimension where elementary school children are captivated by street signs and bored rigid by myths and tales of heroes. It is a dimension where early readers work out the relationships between the sounds of English and the letters that represent these sounds largely by being immersed in anodyne, specially written story books. Yet, weirdly, it is also a dimension where children have to be explicitly taught ‘comprehension strategies’ to understand what they read, such as activating their prior knowledge or deciding which sentence is the most important, and then must practice these strategies for the greater part of the school day. This is a dimension where knowledge of the world—that same prior knowledge that needs activating—is the last thing that it would occur to anyone to actually teach children in schools.

The Educational Upside Down is frightening and surreal, not merely because it denies all common sense, but because it embraces the precise opposite of what the available scientific evidence shows to be effective teaching. Although some fortunate children will pick up letter-sound relationships through immersion, most do need to be explicitly taught. In contrast, comprehension is chiefly a natural process. Once the squiggles on the page have been decoded, the most important factor in understanding them is the vocabulary and background knowledge a child possesses. Comprehension strategies can provide a limited boost, but they will never make up for a lack of knowledge and they do not need endless, repetitive, monotonous, soul-destroying practice.

I would like to be able to claim this dimension is a mirror image of the world we live in, but according to Natalie Wexler it is the world we live in. Or at least it is the reality of American classrooms today; a reality that, through America’s vast soft power, leaches out into every corner of the globe. Wexler’s new book, The Knowledge Gap: The hidden causes of America’s broken education system—and how to fix it, charts its strange landscape, animating it with stories from classrooms that Wexler visited while trying to diagnose the cause of this topsy-turvy state of affairs.

Wexler gathers together the usual suspects—standardised tests, politicians, hubristic billionaires and education faculties—and demonstrates that they all shoulder some of the responsibility.