According to a recent survey, fifty-five percent of Americans believe that the Common Core standards address “sex education, evolution, global warming and the American Revolution.” Pro or con, left-leaning or right-leaning, misperceptions were widespread. Sadly, the problem isn’t merely lack of information—it’s misinformation: there were more mistaken beliefs about what’s in the Common Core among those who say they are informed about the standards than those who say they are not.

I’m tempted to dismiss these results as yet another sad-but-funny commentary on American politics. We’ve got more passion than reason, but perhaps that’s the human condition.

And yet, I can’t dismiss them. I think they are a symptom of a systemic problem in education: We talk past each other. Pretty much nothing in education is well defined. Take “standards” and “curriculum.” Some people use them as synonyms; others (like me) see a huge gulf between the two (e.g., ELA standards rarely specify what to teach). We’ve got lots of jargon, but very little to help us understand each other. Coleridge captured our predicament: “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a few opportunities to push past that jargon in long, detailed conversations with educators. Educators are so busy that such conversations are rare; I feel fortunate to have spent hours speaking with educators in California, Texas, and Georgia. Speaking with them essentially back to back, one thing became clear: each one had a different concept of what teaching is. They all used the same jargon, but fundamentally, what they meant by “teaching” was very different—and had very different implications for their students.

For one teacher, to “teach” a topic or skill just meant to cover it. She hadn’t considered the impact on the students. (I think this notion of teaching is pretty unusual these days—it has been many years since I last encountered it.)

Another teacher focused on students’ comprehension. He had “taught” only if his students understood all the essential concepts in the lesson. My best guess is that this notion of teaching is fairly widespread. If students don’t even grasp the lesson, most teachers will rethink their approach and try again. That sounds pretty good, but is it enough? Is comprehension the same thing as learning? Unfortunately, no.

Only one teacher conceived of “teaching” as a variety of activities that are intentionally designed for students to get something new into their long-term memories. This, to me, should be the definition of teaching. Likewise, the definition of learning should be adding something to your long-term memory.


Is it really useful to have many different ideas of what teaching is? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)
Is it really useful to have many different ideas of what teaching is? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Even though plenty of teachers will say long-term retention is a goal, much of the instruction I’ve seen seems designed mainly for comprehension, not retention. Wanting to be sure students understand a text, for example, a teacher will lead a really interesting, well-planned, text-based discussion. So far, so good. But then, seeing that the students got it, the teacher moves on. New text, new topic, new concept to comprehend.

The teacher I spoke with who focuses on long-term memory argued that most teachers move on way too soon (usually because they feel like they have to). Comprehension is important, but not sufficient to support future learning. She had realized this after many years in the classroom, but there’s actually a body of research on it. Psychology professor Daniel Willingham has written about the difference between familiarity and recollection; it seems to me that familiarity is what you get is you teach for comprehension but move on before ensuring retention. Here’s Willingham in American Educator:

Psychologists distinguish between familiarity and recollection. Familiarity is the knowledge of having seen or otherwise experienced some stimulus before, but having little information associated with it in your memory. Recollection, on the other hand, is characterized by richer associations. For example, a young student might be familiar with George Washington (he knows he was a President and maybe that there’s a holiday named after him), whereas an older student could probably recollect a substantial narrative about him….

Although familiarity and recollection are different, an insidious effect of familiarity is that it can give you the feeling that you know something when you really don’t.

This “insidious effect” is something all teachers and students should know about. I’ll take a closer look at teaching for retention in my next post.

While I deeply appreciate the time all of these teachers gave me, my only regret is that we could not all speak at once. I’d love to hear how the “coverage” and “comprehension” teachers would react to the “retention” teacher. Perhaps, if teachers were given time to collaborate within and across schools (just as other professionals have time to engage each other), then eventually the education field would have common understandings and a shared path to improvement.

13 comments on “Nothing in Common”

  1. 1
    Susan Toth on February 25, 2015

    When teaching every day I ran into the “familiarity/recollection” situation. When reminded of a point students said: “I knew that!” My error was that I expected the kids to actually review and study what we had done in class. (In fact, that was the point when I assigned homework: to go over the material to reinforce and to bring up what had not been adequately understood.) I had taught for ten years in situations where the students knew they were responsible before returning to public school teaching.

  2. 2
    Will Fitzhugh on February 25, 2015

    Also used to be called recognition and recall. I know that actress when I see her, but I couldn’t come up with the name if someone asked me for it. (I am 78)…

    Will Fitzhugh
    [email protected]

  3. 3
    Jim on February 25, 2015

    Dan, your post is a perfect explication of why we need to dismantle the cartel of public education. What we need is a system that is organized exactly the opposite from how it presently is.

    Like-minded educators should be free to start and/or work for schools that reflect their philosophy of education. In my community we have a number of Waldorf Schools, Montessori schools, and Progressive schools. Anyone wanting anything even resembling a traditional education has to try to get into the private Catholic schools, which rarely have openings.

    What people really need is choice. Our culture is too diverse to put everyone under the same education umbrella. Our local ELEMENTARY schools teach everything through the race/class/gender prism. Of course middle and high school are even more “progressive.”

    Common Core and the entire failed Education Industry is just moving deck chairs around on the Titanic. Nothing short of breaking up the present system and letting innovation lead by example will fix the system.

    It is disappointing, but I think most people know this. They, however, are making a good living with the status quo and even supposed reformers are really just tinkering with miniscule reform at the margins.

    It is all about choice. Give people a chance to send their kids to schools that reflect their idea of what a good education is. If people want to not immunize their kids and send them to a Waldorf School they can do that with public tax dollars in Eugene, OR. Parents who want their kids to have something resembling a traditional education have no options. Many are turning to homeschooling.

    I wish everyone like yourself who has good ideas would start putting more effort into breaking the stranglehold public education has on our communities. Self-serving teachers unions are bankrupting our communities and leaving kids with starved minds.

    All of this talk of Common Core is just the latest wind to blow through…yawn….

  4. 4
    Ewaldoh on February 25, 2015

    A couple things stuck with me at the end of your post: “Only one teacher” and “to me, should be the definition”. So, few of us find ourselves in the mainstream.
    It has never mattered how standards and curriculum are understood. Standards are written one place while curriculum is inserted all over. Standards have never and will never be observed across the varied classrooms. To think otherwise is immature. All the topics you mentioned earlier will be taught somewhere.

  5. 5
    Susan Toth on February 25, 2015

    Jim recommends “breaking up the present system and letting innovation lead by example.” That is what was done about a hundred years ago, and we have spent those hundred years experimenting with “innovation,” that is, using the children in the schools as guinea pigs while the establishment seeks ways to educate. Dissatisfaction with results remains, has been with us from the beginning.
    He also recommends letting educators and parents choose their “idea of what a good education is.” It is certainly true that each child is an individual; it is just as true that all these individuals live in society. As a society, we cannot afford to bypass a common understanding of what living with others means.
    We cannot even dream of “fixing the system” until we are willing to discuss what education can do, and should do. That is what democracy means.

  6. 6
    John Didrichsen on February 25, 2015

    Attempting to make the distinction between the terms “familiarity” and “recollection” is a straw man argument. Mr. Willingham, who I’ve followed, is simply assigning definitions to words in order to make his point. But the difference between the words is semantic, and it cheapens the argument. Stay with the idea that sustained focus on a subject of inquiry leads to deeper understanding. Thanks.

  7. 7
    Jim on February 26, 2015

    I didn’t mean that we should keep experimenting with education theories Susan. The reason I come to this blog is that I believe in the Core Knowledge curriculum. My pessimism is certainly the product of living in an ultra progressive community. My local school district would never approve a Core Knowledge school, nor would many parents want that type of curriculum for their kids. It would be successful, however, so that was what I meant by “innovation” by example. Once people were cleared of the fog of deconstruction and Romantic notions of education it is my hope that they would wake up to the value of a content-rich curriculum. But the problem is that people all want different outcomes. Most people in my community see American history as little more than white male exploitation. You couldn’t convince them that there was any value in learning or teaching it (other than through the race/class/gender prism). Middle school language arts classes are titled “Legacy of Power” and “Hear Our Voices.” They want their kids aware of race, class, gender and environmental issues when they graduate. That is what education is supposed to do in their eyes.

    You are right in stating that as a country we need to have some shared culture in common if we are to thrive or even survive as a culture. But I think it is hopelessly naive to think that that is possible in 2015.

    That is why I favor breaking up the system. I want the freedom to be able to have a Core Knowledge education for my kids. With the teacher’s union and the stranglehold that the progressives have on education in my neck of the woods that will never be possible. The tenured radicals are the norm and they will never come around to agreeing with me (or possibly you) what that shared culture should be.

  8. 8
    Susan Toth on February 26, 2015

    Jim, you have well described the existing situation (true in other areas of national life). Everyone has made up his or her mind and there is no discussion possible—even the thought of debate is unacceptable.
    And I am certainly naive to think that an effort should be made to discuss. Nevertheless, discussion is what democracy demands.

  9. 9
    Ponderosa on February 27, 2015

    Teaching knowledge is like painting: there’s a primer coat, first coat, second coat, etc. Let’s not disparage teaching that just gives a primer coat: it serves as a foundation for a more solid coat later on. Might be better to do a widespread primer coat than a finished coat on a small area.

  10. 10
    Lisa Hansel on February 28, 2015

    Hi Ponderosa,

    I’ve been thinking about your coats of paint. I’m wondering, if a couple of weeks after the lesson students don’t recall even the basic concepts, is the primer coat there? I think if you’ve got the primer coat done, then the students did add some essential knowledge to their long-term memories.

    I certainly agree that knowledge must build in a spiral; almost every topic taught in the early grades needs to be reexamined in a more sophisticated way in later grades.

    But when fleeting comprehension and familiarity are mistaken for learning, I don’t think students get a good foundation for those later grades.


  11. 11
    Susan Toth on February 28, 2015

    Because I have lived the difference between familiarity and recollection, as a student, as a teacher, and even in my everyday life, I quite disagree with John who claims that there is no real difference. In my K-12 education (and it has been a while since then) there was very little time spent in activities that would have put the content into long-term memory, and nothing that showed us how to study with that end in mind. I have since learned that these lacks were the result of deliberate decisions concerning what education is.

  12. 12
    Teaching for Retention « The Core Knowledge Blog | The Echo Chamber on March 3, 2015

    […] my last post, I described conversations with three teachers that revealed their different views about what […]

  13. 13
    John Didrichsen on March 5, 2015

    For Susan:
    Recollection (noun)- something recalled to the mind
    Familiarity (noun)- personal knowledge or information about something
    To me, there’s no bold line difference between these words and their meanings.
    Knowledge (noun)- the psychological result of perception and learning and reasoning
    Now there’s the word we should be using to mark the difference between casual learning and what you refer to as content being committed to long-term memory.
    I can recollect or be familiar with someone without having true knowledge about them. Does this make sense to anyone or am I just splitting hairs?

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