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Author Alfie Kohn explains, and even makes the case that the 3 decade old K-W-L chart should be viewed “as radical in today’s learning environment.”


“The iconic K-W-L chart [was] first described by literacy expert Donna Ogle in an article published almost 30 years ago in “The Reading Teacher.” Students are asked to brainstorm what they already know (K) about the subject matter of the text they’re going to read and also to anticipate the kinds of information it’s likely to contain. Then they discuss what they hope to learn (W). Finally, after reading, they consider what they actually did learn (L).

It’s status as one of those nifty practical ideas that teachers can pick up quickly and start using the following morning probably explains why it became so popular.

Although first developed as a tool for reading, it has many uses. I have used this KWL a number of ways, as have many teachers over the past 30 years. Imagine students (either individually or in groups) using it as a framework for both preparing and assessing a project or research? Imagine teachers using it to plan their own lessons? What do my kids know? What do they want and need to know? How well have they learned?

Why does Kohn say, “K-W-L, used properly, is actually radical? To begin with, it’s collaborative. Kids aren’t asked just to come up with questions and conclusions individually but to engage in a conversation with their peers that has the potential to deepen each child’s initial ideas.”

Some “radical” notions are funny. They aren’t so radical if they have been used by many for years and to the teachers who use them they are a “best practice” to share with others. It is however radical in how it is “a striking contrast with the nothing-matters-but-the-text-itself ideology that informs the ELA Common Core standards.”

K-W-L charts aren’t merely a clever way of organizing kids’ ideas. They “drive the lesson — as opposed to a list of prefabricated outcomes produced by the teacher, district administrators, state legislature, or Pearson employees. The learning is owned by the learners; they actively select and use texts to find out what they want to know.”

“This approach constitutes not just an alternative to the top-down standards-and-testing movement that has come to define “school reform”; it’s a rebellion against traditional teacher-centered classrooms that remain the norm in most public and private schools — classrooms where virtually the entire curriculum (with learning goals, expectations, and assessments) is devised without any input from the students themselves and without attention to the needs and interests of these particular students.

Unfortunately smart devices like this “tend to be jettisoned when there’s pressure to plow through a large quantity of material. The obstacle here is threefold: a view of teaching as covering rather than discovering; a simplistic emphasis on rigor; and a top-down model of education in which policy makers far away from classrooms impose their to-do lists on those actually engaged in the learning.”

Quoted excerpts of Kohn’s work are from: