Why Background Knowledge Matters (A Comic Strip Essay)

I recently finished reading Natalie Wexler’s article “The Radical Case for Teaching Kids Stuff” in The Atlantic Monthly. She makes the case that we need to stop neglecting elementary school science and history education in the name of spending more time on reading strategies. Teachers have been encouraged to limit science and history (as well as the arts, I would add) in order to raise reading scores, a priority for every school in the country ever since No Child Left Behind reared its ugly head in 2001.

I enjoyed the article, and I wish Ms. Wexler well in her battle to change the entrenched structures that focus on strategies and neglect background knowledge. But I didn’t find her case that radical. I’ve been making it for at least nine years. I drew the following strips in March of 2010, and they make the same exact case. But I don’t think anyone was listening. No one listens to teachers. So here is my version of the same argument – but in comic strips.

I do have some reservations about an over-emphasis on the idea that school is merely for the “downloading” of information. Students do need strategies. But without background knowledge, no strategies can help you read something and understand it. Thus the David Coleman Common Core lesson which asked students (and many teachers, including this one, forced to participate in the lesson at workshops) to analyze The Gettysburg Address without using any historical knowledge or context was really an exercise in absurdism, not reading.

To strip away subjects like science and history because we want to teach reading strategies so students can pass tests is educational malpractice. But it has practically been the law of the land for 20 years now. Except where rebellious teachers insist on teaching them anyway. My own children’s teachers rebelled and taught those subjects anyway. And as a parent, I couldn’t have been happier.