Knowledge tests in Disguise

This title is from everyone’s favourite cognitive psychologist, Daniel Willingham. He does for quotable edu-soundbites what Oscar Wilde did for epigrams and witticisms.

The quote in full is: “reading tests are knowledge tests in disguise” and I first came across this line in E D Hirsch’s book Why Knowledge Matters, presented as an argument against the existence of a ‘main-idea finding’ skill. The point is that to derive genuine meaning from reading, one needs a canon of specific background knowledge, able to be accessed in order to present oneself as a good reader. When it comes to reading tests, children appear better readers when the topic they are reading about is familiar.

Perhaps this is unsurprising, and imagine the frustration one would feel reading a book where you did not possess the knowledge the writer had assumed. All text contains some assumed knowledge – it wouldn’t help the flow of a novel if the author needed to break from narrative to explain that Moscow is a city in Russia, or that a frigate is a warship.

[One of my own pet-hates is when characters are required to ‘talk the plot’ in books or films just to bring the reader/viewer on board. A good example of this was in the Eddie Redmayne vehicle The Theory of Everything, where Stephen Hawking’s room mate proclaims “but Stephen, you’re the finest physicist at Cambridge University”, just in case you thought he was gunning for a 2.2 in Business Management.]

Back to my main idea. We have introduced ‘tutor group reading’ this year at my School, and the list of titles across years 7 to 10 are below: Reading Wall.jpg

It is interesting to note where success has occurred. Several of the books have boys captivated, with The Giver, Maggot Moon and A Monster Calls being standout favourites. The language is simple in The Giver, and there’s very little background knowledge required to give context to the story. The story is told from the point of view of children, and without giving too much away, one needs to have an appreciation of colour, memory, pain, basic societal structures etc. It is safe to say that most children by the age of 13 will be familiar with these concepts without having been taught them explicitly. The language in A Fortunate Life is even simpler, but without some knowledge of Australian geography, the pioneer life in the early Twentieth Century and Australian involvement in World War I, a certain richness of the book is lost.

In Year 9, The Fight has presented the greatest challenge. I think I knew this would be the case. For those unfamiliar, it tells the story of The Rumble in the Jungle – Ali vs Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974. The book delves into some Bantu philosophy too, and I’d be surprised if any boy had come across the central tenets here. Putting this to one side, and having re-read the book recently, I made a list of the characters one needs to know before being able to glean depth understanding of what made the fight so important:

  1. Muhammad Ali
  2. George Foreman
  3. Joe Frazier
  4. Don King
  5. Ernest Hemingway
  6. Hunter S Thompson
  7. Patrice Lumumba
  8. Mobutu Sese Seko
  9. Joseph Conrad
  10. King Leopold II of Belgium

Without some knowledge of these people – who they were, what they did and why this is relevant – one is only able to read the book as a story of a heavyweight boxing contest at best. The book is reduced to an exercise in waiting for the fight to begin, and then seeing who gets knocked out. No deeper meaning is possible; enjoyment is limited and replaced with frustration, akin to listening to a person telling a story about a film you haven’t seen. There may be snippets of sense to grasp, but most of the time you feel like the only person in the conversation who doesn’t get the joke.

You might (not unfairly) ask why this text was chosen, given the likely frustration that would develop. I suppose I was keen to see if we could instil a sense of curiosity amongst the boys – the exotic names of places such as Kinshasa or Nsele, the rhythmic and aggressive language of Ali, the names of former vanquished heavyweights. Even if one needs to halt the story every few pages, the opportunity to veer off down less-trodden paths (Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now being fairly obvious diversions) is one to be embraced. Knowledge begets knowledge, and every new character or situation can be a springboard from which to dive into a different world. Whether this happens will become apparent in time, but presenting something that all boys will relish suggests we are pandering to pre-developed interests. A more ambitious (if higher risk approach) will mean that some need to pedal quite hard to keep up, but the views will be all the more spectacular once the summit is reached.

3 thoughts on “Knowledge tests in Disguise

  1. Also not a fan of expository dialogue… one of the things I hated most about The Da Vinci Code (only got a quarter of the way through that one).
    You’ve got some quality reading in that selection. Kudos!

  2. Hi Ben,

    I am a Head of House at an independent school in Queensland and we are considering implementing something like this reading initiative. I was wondering if you could provide me with some more information about the logistics, such as: are the books read aloud by the Teacher a la Michaela School – I think; are there activities or some sort of culminating event?

    I would be most grateful for any guidance you can provide.

    Many thanks,

    Scott Kerr

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