Monday, April 13, 2015

It's all about that base, which is missing.

Letter K day in the A-Z blog challenge!  Today we're focusing on a "knowledge base." 

When educators talk about a students knowledge base, theyre referring to the students understanding prior to learning the newly taught concept.  Its the body of information that the student starts with. 

Here’s a definition from an education website: “Knowledge-based learning is learning that revolves around both the knowledge that the student already has, and the understanding that they are going to achieve by doing work. When learning is based on the knowledge that students already have, and knowledge they are going to be achieving, the learning is better connected to real life.”

Ideally, a class full of students should start a school year primed with all the concepts learned the year before.  You, the teacher, will add to this information and tap into the prior learning to weave a rich tapestry of knowledge that will be blinding in its brilliance while still having real-world application.

But most students prior knowledge base is much thinner and more insubstantial than you might think.  When I say thinner, I mean close to nonexistent.  It doesnt mean the students didnt learn anything previously.  It means they discarded the concepts as quickly as they gained them. Or worse, they never got the knowledge to begin with, which is all too common. 

When building a school, construction experts know that the foundation has to be solid in order for the building to go up properly.  As they found in Los Angeles building Belmont High School, you cant build a school on top of a landfill, or an old industrial site.  The ground is unstable and who knows what you might find under there toxic gasses, contaminated soil, or any number of cancer-causing agents. We know we cant build buildings this way, but why do we think we can build a solid educational foundation with incomplete or nonexistent information?

Let me give you an example.  Im a writing teacher.  Most of my students come to me with no idea of how to construct a coherent sentence, and I teach high school.  They have no idea what a run-on sentence or a fragment is because they dont know what a subject or predicate is. How did this happen?

Years ago, the education community decided to forgo teaching the basics of grammar and structure.  Im not sure what the thinking was behind this decision, but from what I can gather experts believed that teacher grammar "out of context" was ineffective. Instead, conventional wisdom at the time dictated that students would naturally absorb the rules and conventions of writing by becoming competent readers, which would then be reflected in their writing skills. Five paragraph essays were also dropped, labeled "inauthentic" and "formulaic." Instead, students were told to write narratives that showed their voice. 

Schools stopped laying the foundation for good writing and tried to build their instruction on assumptions.  As a result of these innovations in writing instruction, now kids can't write and trying to teach writing is impossible. Ive learned that telling students write in complete sentences means nothing, because they dont know what a complete sentence is.  They think the time we went to the store is a complete sentence.  Students are shocked to find the essay they turned in earned them a D, and they dont know why.  But miss, isnt this good?  Theyve been told that their thoughts, opinions and unique voice is whats most important in writing.  So they overlook basic mechanics like punctuation, spelling, and structure because they never learned that those things are important.  

There is no knowledge base.  Im trying to construct a framework over a series of potholes and cracks that keep getting wider.  The only thing I can do is tear it all down and try to start over.

The real world application is that if students cant write a complete sentence, their chances of succeeding in college or getting a job that doesnt involve asking if you want fries with that is slim.  The best, most authentic thing we can do is to make sure students know the basics before we move on, even if its boring or rote. 

When you lay a concrete slab, you have to mix and pour the concrete before letting it dry.  Yes, it may be boring and take a long time, but then the structure is more likely to remain stable.  We owe it to our students to stabilize their learning, in the same way, by doing the grunt work and taking the time needed.