The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler

I’m almost finished with this book and anxious to discuss it with others. I’m wondering if anyone has read this? As much as any education book I’ve ever read, this one really challenges some of my own philosophy around teaching and sort of makes me look at education from an entirely different lens than I am used to.

I became interested in this book after reading and listening to Emily Hanford’s reporting over the last year, which has detailed the ways that Balanced Literacy instruction in elementary schools has largely failed. (In case you missed it: “At A Loss For Words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers.”) Essentially, we’ve misunderstood reading comprehension to be ‘set of skills’ when in fact cognitive science has repeatedly demonstrated that reading comprehension is entirely about background knowledge. In other words, when one reads a passage, their understanding of that passage is dependent on their knowledge of the topic at hand, not their ability to ‘find the main idea’ or ‘make inferences.’

The Knowledge Gap identifies ‘content-agnostic’ teaching that emphasizes skills and strategies over historical knowledge as the central problem in our education system. It points to the need for districts & states to adopt knowledge-rich curriculum and for teacher training and coaching to be primarily organized around content, not ‘skills and strategies.’ This has really been something to digest, for me, but the case made in the book is extremely compelling. I’d love some discussion if anyone else has read this!

I have not read it (I don’t actually like reading) but my first thought when a lot of our discussions are looking through a racial-equity lens, is who gets to decide what knowledge is important? Is there a way to change the approach to reading to be more knowledge focused but still move to being more culturally responsive?

My second thought is how does the information age and cell phones change what reading means for functional adults? Are the leaders deciding about education going to be good at picking what kinds of knowledge and reading skills serve people in the 20-50 years to come?

This question is on the money. She discusses it in the book. Questions of “whose knowledge” or “what knowledge” is most important, these are reasons that even the most ardent proponents of a knowledge-rich model understand that we’ll never have a national curriculum in the U.S. It’s politically impossible. There just isn’t broad consensus. Wexler writes that individual districts and states, though, can and should make those decisions, and that curriculum can always be up for review or revision. In my own thinking about this, I feel like a common curriculum could really open the door for a teacher to bring in counter narratives, absent narratives, etc. For example, I can understand the stark cognitive dissonance of our nation’s founders (slave owners who advocated for individual liberty) because I know a lot about those figures (Washington, Jefferson, etc.). Anyway, there’s a lot more conversation that we could have around this, but it’s addressed in the book.

As an add-on to this conversation, there’s been a sort of point-counterpoint discussion in the edu-Twitter community over the past couple weeks on whether or not there is alignment between those who advocate strongly for racial equity in education, and those who focus on evidence-based practice and student outcomes. Are these camps working together or against one another?

Point - “The Equity Backlash is Real. Resist it.” by Tom Rademacher.

Counterpoint, “Stop Arguing About Equity and Focus on Student Outcomes,” by Jasmine Lane.

To bring it back to The Knowledge Gap, Wexler’s writing is much more in line with Ms. Lane’s perspective.

Interesting, offhand my natural inclination would be to disagree with the premise of her argument but I’m largely coming from a position of not understanding it.

I might have to pick up the book!

Mike - this is precisely where I was, too. I’m still sort of in a state of disequilibrium after reading the book because it’s so contrary to my pre-existing paradigms around teaching and learning. If you get a chance to read it, I’d love to discuss!

A little nugget from the book that might provoke more interest — Wexler talks about how for teachers, having to work out both ‘what to teach’ and ‘how to teach it’ is such a massive and difficult undertaking. For new teachers, Wexler says this is “oppressive”! I can certainly relate from my own experience, it’s been so much more manageable to plan and prepare instruction when I know I have content that I trust and believe in. If I have to navigate the content side of things on my own, I’m in a continuous cycle of scrambling to prepare the next unit, the next lesson, etc. I see this happening with other teachers, too. How many of us have spent hours and hours Googling for lesson materials? More than we’d probably like to admit, I’d bet.

Right, yes. I guess I’ve always felt that this is a necessary part of developing into a teacher. Figuring out what’s next and how to teach it. But that may just have been my path because with Japanese we had little to no structure or content. We just had to figure it out on our own. It was most definitely challenging, especially when you fell behind and were designing lessons while driving to the next school.*

*I mean, a friend mentioned that he had to do this. Not me, nope. I’d never do that.

You’re making me more curious, Mr. Ben.

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You made me curious Ben. Do we have copies of this book in our district, or is this something I should order?

Paul, I don’t know of any copies in the District. It’s a newer title. If you end up reading it, please let us know what you think!

I’ll check on the book!