Photo Credit: Jewish Press

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo Da Vinci



Bestselling author Mike Schmoker makes the case for simplicity in his book Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning. He says it is quite simple to get exactly what we want and what students need. We just need to go back to the essentials.

If we choose to take just a few well-known, straightforward actions, in every subject area, we can make swift, dramatic improvements in schools. Some believe we could virtually eliminate the achievement gap within a few years.

But the price for such swift improvement is steep: Most schools would have to stop doing almost everything they now do in the name of school improvement. Instead, they would have to focus only on implementing “what is essential.” Hardest of all, they would have to “ignore the rest”… the fads, programs, and innovations that now prevent us from ensuring that every student in every school receives a quality education.

Schmoker identifies three simple things that are essential:

* Reasonably coherent curriculum (what we teach)

* Sound lessons (how we teach)

* More purposeful reading and writing in every discipline, or authentic literacy (integral to both what and how we teach).

While these three categories of educational reform are arguably simple, it is also important that everyone understands exactly what they mean in order to begin the improvement process together.


What we Teach. There are many curricula with a focus on different skills and content. Schmoker explains that what we teach needs to be tied to authentic literacy. In other words, we need to have students reading, writing, and talking about the essential information in each subject. He relates that too many students leave school without the skills they will need for the twenty-first century. They need to be able to “read, write, cipher… think and solve problems… draw upon a rich vocabulary based on a deep understanding of language and the human condition.” This means that students should engage in the material in sufficient intellectual depth, and not be excessively tied to the “standards.” In fact, Schmoker claims that the standards detract from real learning. Working with curricula that truly allows students to read, write, and talk about the essential content will prepare them for college, careers, and productive citizenship.


How we Teach

In 2007, a study reported that teachers are the most important school factor in how much children learn. Effectively teaching is not a mysterious process. In fact, it consists of just a few teaching practices that are not at all new. Those teaching practices are:

Clear objectives (or goals). These goals are established by the teacher and stated to the students

Teaching, modeling, and demonstrating. Students can get a sense of how to do the skills through the teachers’ words and actions.

Guided practice. Students have an opportunity to try their own hand at the activity.

Checks for understanding. Before moving onto the next skills, teachers ensure that all students understand the lesson at hand.


Authentic Literacy

When Schmoker talks about “authentic literacy,” he is not talking about “reading skills.” Instead, he is describing purposeful (and usually argumentative) reading, writing, and talking about a subject. That means that in math, students will read, write, and talk about square roots. The same for science and history. Often, English is the only subject that deals with “reading comprehension;” however, Schmoker points out that this is the single most important skill in the twenty-first century. And, unfortunately, it is under-taught and under-valued. Reading, writing, and talking about the subject can help with content and with thinking skills.


A Caveat

Schmoker continues his argument and says, “The status quo has to change. We insult and frustrate our teachers and leaders when we keep asking them to adopt complex, confusing new initiatives and programs that can’t possibly succeed in the absence of decent curriculum, lessons, and literacy activities….”

In essence, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning outlines the three “simple” things that need to change in education to ensure that all children get educations that prepare them for their future and careers. Schmoker’s claims are supported by research and anecdotes, and are reasonable and understandable. That said, these three things (what we teach, how we teach, and authentic literacy) are not so simple. Yes, he might be right in that we have to get rid of all of the extraneous initiatives that complicate education. We need to focus on what we teach, how we teach, and on authentic literacy. If we do work to follow these guidelines and we diligently “ignore the rest” of the educational initiatives that might not be improving our students’ educations, I am confident we can prepare our students for successful, productive lives.


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An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at