News, Knowledge, and Literacy

October 20, 2017 Les Lynn Argument and Literacy, The Debatifier

I was recently in a 10th grade U.S. History class and the students were working on and then reviewing a set of questions on the U.S. Constitution.  One question asked whether it is possible for a Senator to be expelled from the Senate and, if it is, what is the procedure for expulsion.  Article I, section 5 of the U.S. Constitution says that

Each House [of Congress] may determine the Rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.

I saw an opportunity to remind students that, while the Constitution is a 230 year old document, it is also very current and relevant to issues and questions that are important today.  So I chimed in to ask the class of 20 or so students who could summarize the current political case in which expulsion from the Senate — or, more accurately, the possibility of future expulsion — is being discussed.  Not a single student could answer.  No one had any idea what is going on with Judge Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican running for U.S. Senate who is being accused by a half-dozen women or more of either pursuing a romantic relationship with them, or touching them, when they were minors.  No one had ever heard of Roy Moore, they said.  This is despite the fact that for a week — and especially for the past several days — Moore has been the dominant story in the mainstream news media.  The only conclusion to be drawn is that a very low percentage of these students follow the news in even a very cursory way.  Based on years now of discussions with secondary social science and English teachers, this story is far more typical than it is unusual.

This adds up over time to a severe deficiency in background and informational knowledge in the social sciences and in gaps in a student’s understanding of how controversies and societal or political disputes are treated, discussed by the college-educated public, and reported and written about.   Neuroscience is shedding a lot of light on the profound impact that these deficiencies have on students’ reading and writing abilities and performance.  University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham has written with great lucidity and power on this topic.

Once kids are fluent decoders, much of the difference among readers is not due to whether you’re a “good reader” or “bad reader” (meaning you have good or bad reading skills). Much of the difference among readers is due to how wide a range of knowledge they have. If you hand me a reading test and the text is on a subject I happen to know a bit about, I’ll do better than if it happens to be on a subject I know nothing about.

Two predictions fall out of this hypothesis. First, if take some “bad readers” and give them a text on a subject they know something about, they should suddenly read well, or at least, much better. Several studies show that that is the case.

Here’s a second prediction. There should be a correlation between world knowledge and reading comprehension. The more stuff you know about the world, the more likely it is that you’ll know at least a bit about whatever passage you happen to hit.

Willingham goes on to site — in Why Don’t Kids Like School and other works — extensive cognitive science that strongly substantiates both predictions.

It would be fallacious and wrong to blame the students for this condition.  Blaming children, minors, for their level of understanding and knowledge of what is going in the world wouldn’t be ethical, and it is unprofessional when done by educators, in my view.  I also of course don’t blame the U.S. history teacher, in the above scenario.  She was teaching important curriculum on the U.S. Constitution and in the first quarter she focused on the early American colonial period, essential subjects of study in the course, to be sure.

Rather, I want to ask, what can their school, their teachers, do to begin to rectify the problem of a lack of connectedness to current issues, particularly outside of our classes.  One immediate thing is to encourage them to join their debate team.  Competitive debate is immersed in social science, current events, politics, and economics, so debaters will get a large dose of knowledge there.

Another is for social science and English teachers to encourage, require, or incentivize students to consume an online free (open) news site (e.g.,, Talking Points Memo, Politico, NPR) on a daily basis, or to watch the nightly broadcast or cable news, or listen to NPR, for 20 minutes daily.  You can give a weekly set of five extra credit questions on Friday that only someone who implemented this practice — OUTSIDE of class — would be successful in answering.

A third idea is to implement the Article of the Week routine, credited to secondary education writer and teacher Kelly Gallagher.  The AOW routine is summarized on this video by education author, blogger, teacher, and close friend of ACE Dave Stuart —

Gallagher’s list of articles he’s using this year is here —

AOW basically assigns all students an article every Monday, requires that they annotate it during the week and turn in their annotated version on Thursday, and then on Friday a discussion or debate on the article is conducted on Friday, followed by an optional one-page in-class written response to the article.

Argumentalizing the Articles of the Week routine is not difficult to do.  You will need to  include a debatable issue with each article that you assign.  Ask students to annotate the article in three different color pens or highlighters: one on one side of the issue, one on the other, and one for neutral but important information.  Students should write out possible argumentative claims and reasoning they would add to textual evidence in the margins.  On Friday, the discussion or debate should be organized by the debatable issue, asking students to offer arguments, counter-arguments against arguments made, and refutation of those counter-arguments.  You should track argumentation on the board or screen.  And you can (optionally) ask students to produce a piece of argument writing that takes a position on the debatable issue.

I don’t think we want to accept high school (and even middle school) students coming out of our classes by the middle and certainly by the end of the year knowing as little about the issues of the day, and paying as little attention to the news and media literacy, as far too many of them currently do.  And I have more than a sneaking suspicion that often when students do know something about current issues — Trump’s position on immigration, for example — that knowledge is largely coming from social media and not from credible, truth-seeking journalism (and yes it still exists, current partisan and damaging hysteria about fake news and media credibility notwithstanding). Becoming intentional and assiduous about having our students read and listen to credible news sources on a daily basis, and then keeping them accountable for this routine, can go a long way to addressing this current (and current events) problem.