Core Knowledge vs. Abstract Critical Thinking Skills

Michael Shaughnessy (Ednews.org) interviews E.D. Hirsch on school choice and the Core Knowledge Curriculum, and they discussed an article by Sol Stern and reactions to that article by E.D. Hirsch and others such as Jay P. Greene, Diane Ravitch, Neal McCluskey, Matthew Ladner, Thomas W. Carroll, Andrew J. Coulson and Robert Enlow. Here are two excerpts from the interview:

Critical thinking skills cannot be learned in the abstract.They always pertain to concrete knowledge of subject matter.I review the scientific literature on this in The Schools We Need.Writing skills are obverse of reading skills.They both depend more on knowledge of the unspoken within the language community than on knowledge of the spoken.The main, somewhat revolutionary point I have been making is that teaching content is teaching skills, where as teaching formal processes is, in the end, teaching neither content nor skills.This is not only clear in the scientific literature, it is also clear from comparative results.Students who have had been taught coherent knowledge are more highly skilled than those who have been taught "skills."See the (unfortunately repressed) book by the late Jeanne Chall: The Academic Achievement Challenge

The state standards in language arts (where students spend most of their time in early grades) are empty of content.It's all process.They are not standards at all in a meaningful sense.And they cause reading tests to be hugely unfair, because the topics in passages on reading tests always assume content knowledge that has not been taught in the schools.

This makes sense to me. Just try reading a treatise on quantum mechanics. Without a strong background in physics, any previous critical thinking skills you've acquired will be useless in interpreting this text.

This is one of the problems in many first-year composition programs: They teach the process of writing with limited content knowledge. Usually, students will choose one issue for, say, a definition paper, then another topic for an evaluative argument, and so on. Moving from content area to content area shortchanges students' ability to master process skills, as they must learn two areas: content knowledge and skills.

A better approach is to have students stay with one issue of their own interest the entire semester. In that way, they'll build their content knowledge, so that as the semester continues, they can begin to pay more attention to the critical thinking and writing skills associated with that domain. I noticed the Department of Rhetoric & Composition at UT Austin seems to be doing that now in First-Year Writing.

Of course, there's still the question of whether the writing skills they've learned will transfer to other courses not pertaining to those issues. My guess is they will have some chance of transferring, because the knowledge required in introductory courses is "introductory", unlike the knowledge in the example on quantum mechanics, meaning also that the skills acquired should be more general in nature. Testing that guess would make a good research project.