Reframe Podcast: Episode 42

Are Students Prepared to Thrive in a Knowledge Economy?

It is a knowledge economy. Our job is to teach kids to be better readers, better writers, better thinkers, better collaborators.

Are Students Being Prepared to Thrive in a Knowledge Economy? In this episode, we explore the complex answer to this simple question, especially as it relates to the literacy skills students now need today.

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. 

Are Students Being Prepared to Thrive in a Knowledge Economy? In this episode, we explore the complex answer to this simple question, especially as it relates to the literacy skills students now need today.


Back when he was a high school English teacher, in a large urban district, Marc Nachowitz noticed some common practices that just weren’t working. 

On some days, he would walk down the hallways and see teacher after teacher, standing in front of the classroom, reading out loud from books like To Kill a Mocking Bird or The Great Gatsby. Here were classrooms full of students being told what the books were about and even what to think about them.

Marc Nah-cho-witz:

And the whole thing seemed utterly absurd to me. It made no sense. You are not really helping kids be better readers. You are not really helping kids learn how to think, in ways appropriate. And you are certainly not learning how to teach kids how to socially construct knowledge.

James Loy:

Today, Nachowitz is an assistant professor of teacher education at Miami University, where he often shares this story with college students who hope to become future English and K-12 teachers themselves. 

His point is to illustrate the pitfalls of an obsolete approach to teaching and learning that can breed apathy and disengagement among students, especially by maintaining a status quo that continues to view students as passive consumers of information. Rather than active creators of knowledge.

And this is a concern that’s prompting scholars like Nachowitz to question if educators are keeping up with the way students should now engage with school.

Are teachers presenting content in ways that are relevant to students’ lives? Are students doing more than simply regurgitating the material? Are they really building the kind of literacy and learning skills they’ll need to thrive in a 21st-century society? 

For Nachowitz, the answer to these questions, very often, is, no, they’re not.

Marc Nachowitz:

It is a knowledge economy. Our job is to teach kids to be better readers, better writers, better thinkers, better collaborators. And people who construct knowledge rather than consumer knowledge. It’s not that we just want kids of know novels, or we want kids to understand just the evolutionary process, or to just know about the War of 1812. It’s developing brains that ask questions, that know how to find answers to those questions through social interaction, who can deepen their understanding and feel comfortable challenging each other’s ideas and adding to and positing theories. We want kids who ask why. We want kids who are curious.

James Loy:

So the days of pure memorization or fill-in the blank-type methods are over, and Nachowitz believes it is time for an educational paradigm shift. He is much more interested in constructivist approaches to literacy and learning that are meaningfully connected to the way students perceive and interact with contemporary life.

This idea is part of a major line of research that centers around “knowledge transforming literacy,” which Nachowitz explores in a forthcoming book co-edited by himself and Kristen Wilcox, associate professor of educational theory at the University at Albany.

Tentatively titled, Bridging the Gap from High Literacy to Knowledge Transforming Literacy, the book brings together studies and scholars from across the fields of literacy and learning sciences, to map out how teachers and practitioners can engage students in a series of deep thinking and learning skills that are so now crucial.

Marc Nachowitz:

So what I am hoping the book will ultimately achieve is to create a new definition of knowledge transforming literacy, that this is where we’re headed. If we really want to break the paradigm of school. Let’s move away from consuming knowledge and delivering knowledge and saying, “Here’s some facts and figures.”

James Loy:

Instead, knowledge transforming literacy puts classroom dialogue at the center of the learning process. It’s about teaching students how to start productive discussions that explore different viewpoints, how to appreciate ambiguity, and how to help students internalize content by making it more relevant.

So, for example, in an English language arts classroom that’s reading The Grapes of Wrath, the content is not only useful as just a lesson on cultural literacy. Or, as a classic piece of literature just because somebody else once said so.

Instead, it becomes a lens, a focal point through which productive dialogues can allow students to begin socially constructing new knowledge for themselves.

Marc Nachowitz:

So from a knowledge transforming literacy standpoint, I’m providing kids a text of The Grapes of Wrath and I want them to ask, “What is this book good for? What does this book help me understand about myself? About the world around me? About history? About moving forward?” And I . . . my job as an English teacher is to teach them the literacy skills of deep reading, deep discussion, and deep writing around important content. Are we headed for another Great Depression? Are there signs here? So that kind of thinking we hope will overcome the disengaged, disinterested teenager that you normally see, which is often, “What does this have to do with me?” “What does this have to do with me?” And telling kids things like, “You’re going to need it in college. You’re going to need it in the future.” It never worked. And it still won’t work. 

James Loy:

Nachowitz’s new book, set to be published this fall, will feature studies that show how and why this form of dialogic engagement is critical to the teaching process. 

It will also detail what deep reading, deep writing, deep thinking, and deep discussion actually look like as measurable and observable cognitive behaviors, as well as how these concepts can produce significant gains in literacy skills. 

And these are the kinds of skills that matter. Perhaps now more than ever. 

We now live in a culture saturated with countless media outlets, a 24-hour news cycle,

and an endless online universe filled with facts and opinions. It’s not all accurate and it’s not all true. But it is instantaneously available and begging to be unsuspectingly devoured.

Marc Nachowitz:

I don’t know that it has ever been more important for students to not just take stuff/information in that’s being shouted at them though the media or through online stuffs and to step back and to say, “wait a second. Why do I need to know this?” Or, “What does this tell me about the world and my place within the world that I don’t already know?”

James Loy:

So to make any sense of it all, students will need to become better critical thinkers. They’ll need to learn how to ask the right kinds of questions and how to be skeptical. They will need to know how to create meaning for themselves. And they will certainly need to do more than simply consume information. 

To illustrate his point once again, Nachowitz shares another story. One that’s also probably pretty familiar to most parents and teachers, or to anyone who has worked with young learners today.

Marc Nachowitz:

I have a teenage son. And it’s soul crushing to see that he spent a month in his social studies class in 9th grade studying World War II. He was assigned to do a project on the Nuremberg Trials. And the other day I was watching him and trying to help him get his project together and rather than looking back at his notes, he just picked up his phone and said, “Hey Siri, what were the Nuremberg Trials?”

(Siri kicks in) 

And he writes that down. And we’ve got to overcome that because the knowledge economy is not automatic access to knowledge, or information. It’s not the information age. It is the knowledge age.

James Loy:

This example highlights the very definition of information consumption, which provides no meaningful context about why such information may (or may not) be important. It does nothing to help students question how it may relate to their own lives. Nor does it underscore how easily it can discourage and suppress original thoughts.

For Nachowitz, the goal of knowledge-transforming literacy is to teach students how to work with knowledge. It’s about learning how to generate ideas and to ask questions, and to challenge, advance, and justify ideas through social dialogue.

In short, he says, it is about teaching students generative thinking around content. The objective of his work is to remind researchers and practitioners that learning how to discuss and advance ideas is a literate skill that we need to teach.


Marc Nachowitz is a Miami University assistant professor of teacher education, and if you have any questions or if you’d like to give us any feedback, you can find us, and many more episodes on Sound Cloud and on iTunes.