Although it is true that no two students know exactly the same things, they often have a great deal of knowledge in common. In society, this common knowledge or collective memory, allows people to communicate, work together, and live together. It follows, then, that in schools, one of our most significant objectives is to enhance and enrich this common knowledge.
Do the topics and focus of our work with students matter? Does the content and style of our literature and our speech matter? Does the substance matter or are we only concerned with the development of skills and not ideas or ways of thinking? Consider learning to read. There are many schools and educators who labour under the false belief that “what a child reads” is not nearly as important as learning “how to read”. As a result, there exist collections of literature ranging from the truly mundane to the borderline tawdry. From captains with under garments to the banal plotlines of “junk food” books, the battle for our children’s minds begins early in the world of literature.
If words and ideas are the wholesome food of the developing mind, then our children must be nourished with content rich in the “cultural vitamins” of history, science, art, music, literature, civics, geography, and more. And that means a commitment to core knowledge.
So, while an “innovative” approach is desirable to engage and inspire students, blind adherence to “skills-oriented” and “relevant” curriculum cannot take the place of cultural literacy for children. At Matthews Hall, we want our students to be fed “solid food” – that is, exposed to rich traditional content, which is balanced carefully with new understandings about teaching and learning.
When it comes to reading, success depends not only on broad knowledge , but also on shared knowledge. If you ask many teachers today, they will tell you that increasing numbers of children arrive at school with weak general knowledge about the world around them. They may be able to click their way through a labyrinth of online games or navigate a tablet, but they may not be able to differentiate between varieties of local birds in their own backyards, understand age-appropriate allusions, or recite a traditional nursery rhyme.
Since successful learning derived from reading depends on the effectiveness of a common communication, both learning and reading are powerfully affected by the degree to which background knowledge is shared between writer, student, and teacher. To learn well, a student needs to know a lot – but they also need to know some of the specific things that enable them to read between the lines.
And that’s where a commitment to core knowledge and cultural literacy play an important role. When we agree that certain common core knowledge is important (…even for children entering school!), we are preparing children to get something critically important out of literacy instruction: the ability to read, write, listen, speak – and understand the world around them.
Hats off to Jack and Jill, the Grand Old Duke of York, Hercules, Atlas, King James, C.S. Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Aesop, Isaac Newton, and Mr. Audubon – a few of the culturally literate heroes of yesterday, today and tomorrow. May our kids continue to make their acquaintance!
Ric Anderson, Head of School