Carol Corbett Burris posted a critique of the Relay Graduate School of Education here. Robert Pondiscio questioned Burris’ metaphor about “lighting a fire” rather than “filling a pail,” on the assumption that she does not care about the content of the curriculum.

My view: Curriculum matters; resources matter; poverty matters; and teachers should be free to use the teaching style that works best for them. And I still doubt the validity of a “graduate school of education” that has no scholars on its faculty and no curriculum other than data analysis and classroom management.

Burris responds here to Pondiscio, followed by Pondiscio’s response to Burris:

If Robert is a believer in enriched and challenging curriculum, he will find a great friend in me. This year every 11th grader in my school with the exception of the severely disabled who need life skills training, took IB English….our special Ed students, Black students, Latino students and White students (we are 22% minority). The 16% who receive free and reduced price lunch with the majority who do not, sat side by side, without tracking, to study the rigorous curriculum of the IB. At the end of the year they tool the Regents. All but one (an ELL special education student) passed. 77% reached mastery.
In our IB English classes, No fingers wiggled, no responses were cut off. The conversation focused on analytical questions and challenging literature. I watched many videos on the Relay site and others on Doug Lemovs site. If a teacher used that regimented drill style in my school, they would be asked to leave. If they did a demo lesson like the one on the site, they would not get a job. The idea that the ‘urban’ (which is a polite code for Black and poor) child cannot thrive with respectful instruction that includes thank yous, think time and open ended questions horrifies me. Every prospective teacher deserves an enriched teacher preparation program that exposes them to a variety of teaching styles.


This is from Robert Pondiscio:

Good morning, Diane. Thank you so very much for your warm words and the civil tone of disagreement on your post. It is deeply appreciated. Diana Senechal’s series of responses in this thread cover much of what I would have liked to say, particularly her observation, “Carol Burris conflates two issues, and that’s the problem with her piece. She equates the RGSE pedagogical style with the principle of filling a student’s head with knowledge.”My object was principally to dismiss the false dichotomy between knowledge and skills (the fire/pail homily that I abhor). I thought I was quite clear in noting that “dichotomies don’t get more false than between knowledge and thinking.”Thus my purpose was less a defense of RELAY, that a defending knowledge against those who see it as arbitrary, insignificant, or otherwise fail to grasp its fundamental role in reading comprehension, critical thinking, communication and all the outcomes we prize so highly. That said, I do see value in many of the techniques championed by RELAY, especially for new teachers who struggle first and foremost with classroom management. But make no mistake, there is a lot of daylight between “I see value in this” and “I want everyone to do this and nothing else.” I have often quipped about what I call Pondiscio’s First Law of Education, which holds “there is no good idea in education that doesn’t become a bad idea the moment in hardens into orthodoxy.” This is to say I don’t believe in a single correct approach. I believe good teachers vary their approaches based on the kids, the subject, and lots of other factors.

For Carol Burris, I am indeed, as Diane knows, a believer in enriched and challenging curriculum, and I’m earnestly delighted that I will find a great friend in you. I’m a Long Island native and live probably 30 minutes from your school. May I come for a visit this fall? There are lots of paths to good outcomes. I look forward to learning about yours. Email me at

Lastly, I’m sorry (but, alas, not surprised) to read the standard litany of complaints about Don Hirsch and Core Knowledge. Not long ago, Dan Willingham, the brilliant cognitive scientist out of UVA, described Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy as “the most misunderstood education book of the last half century.” I share that view. I would strongly recommend viewing Dan’s YouTube video, “Teaching Content is Teaching Reading (, which isn’t about Hirsch or Core Knowledge, but the cognitive principles underlying why knowledge and vocabulary are essential to comprehension. Seen through this lens, it should be clear that Hirsch’s work is not now and never has been an attempt to impose a canon. It’s an attempt to *report on* a canon–or more accurately, the background knowledge that speakers and writers take for granted their listeners and readers know.

As an educator that, in the end, is the alpha and omega of my agenda: to make sure that kids like my former South Bronx 5th graders have access to the knowledge and vocabulary that their more privileged peers have, and which is the engine of language proficiency. I may have some ideas about the best way to achieve that and you may have yours, and that’s fine. Those are honorable differences. What I can’t abide (and this is why the lighting of the pail vs. kindling of a fire metaphor so badly irritates me) is any suggestion that we must choose between knowledge and skills, or that knowledge is somehow the enemy of engagement.

Knowledge is the kindling that feeds the fire.