Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Teaching Reading

I listened to an interview with Mark Seidenberg, a reading researcher and author of Language at the Speed of Sight. I commented in the context of Valuing the Wrong Abilities  on Freddie deBoer's observation that ed schools do not merely dislike information that genetics play a role (as I had previously thought), but that they resist quantitative research in general. Seidenberg confirms this and relates it to their history.

There was considerable debate a century ago and more about what teacher training should be and where it should take place. Many of its advocates believed that teaching was a skill or set of skills quite different from knowledge of a subject, and the training did not belong in the academy at all. Many in the academy agreed, seeing the field as more of a technical skill. Hence the development of Normal Schools and other teacher's academies, entirely separate from the other academic disciplines. In New Hampshire it was Keene and Plymouth Normal Schools, succeeded by Keene and Plymouth State Teachers Colleges, which then became State Colleges, then Universities. I think that is a typical pattern. Within those colleges, until quite recently, it was understood that the ed schools dominated, with other fields to be studied so that you could teach biology or theater or history in high school.

In most states a teaching certificate, based on college education courses, is required to teach in most districts and favored even at many private schools. To be certified is to be a "real" teacher. To my knowledge there is no research showing this improves student outcomes, though that may mostly be because no one in education would ever want to quantify the answer to that.  They don't think that way. We notice this in other disciplines, and the hard sciences look at this with some disdain, but apparently this is even more pronounced in education than it is in sociology or psychology. Those, at least, have some researchers and sectors where quantifying, measuring, and comparing still have meaning. In education, there seems to be little at all.

Our culture has long had ambivalent feelings about the arrangement.  At the level of popular prejudice, the ideas "those what cain't do, teach," and "he's very knowledgeable but he just doesn't know how to teach" exist side-by-side. We believe both. 

Seidenberg researches what methods of teaching reading actually work, not only for the general students, but for those with problems. He finds when actually speaking with teachers that they do not even know this research exists. What they were taught in ed school is that all discussion of phonics versus whole-word and other methods is at best a distraction from their real work of teaching literacy, and at worst a disguise for conservative parents trying to dictate to the experts how things should be done in terms of values. They don't believe that teaching reading is actually their job. Literacy - looking at structures and values and culture and developing a love for learning - are the real point. 

First up, once teachers get into schools and classrooms they begin to unlearn this.  They aren't crazy, or stupid. They pick up pretty quickly that merely teaching a love for science, or not killing their natural curiosity with old-fashioned methods doesn't produce the results they were told they would, and they teach some reading, and they teach some science facts, and they have children rehearse their math facts. They are usually quite generally interested in children learning and doing well in life, and will do whatever is necessary to get there.  Even some sounding out letters, to get them over the first, difficult part. 

But their training, their continuing education, and the apparent focus of education agencies and non-profits, teachers are continually pushed back into the belief of teaching them appreciation rather than skills.  We should be grateful that many of them have enough contact with reality that they move away from this over time. It is easy to caricature the approach that they are trying to teach children to love science, or love reading rather than teaching skills, but when one considers how confirmation bias works, and how powerful an impression correlation creates it is easy to see why the myth persists. Children who are better at music tend to like it more. Children who are better at math, or reading, or athletics or anything at all tend to enjoy the activity more. Those who are not good at them are more likely to put in less effort, or even dig in their heels against any work in the topic.  All the rescue attempts at that point can be perceived as "drill," and the fact that it becomes a wrestling match confirms the impression that it is drill which has created the problem. 

This is why there is a new educational fad every few years, like pointlessly testing everyone to death for No Child Left Behind, or making up plausible but unreliable theories like Myers-Briggs, or Learning Styles, or...this grid of 20. (There are others.)  It's because none of it works, and they sense at some level that it's not working, so they keep trying new things.  Here's a hint: admit that genetics are the first big deal, and incentives are the second big deal, and be alert for the children falling behind and get them medical testing (vision, hearing, dyslexia, speech) and then into boring old-fashioned drill education ASAP. If you do that, you can even keep hating Trump and half the parents. My elementary school teachers certainly thought that half the parents of my classmates were incompetent and teaching them to say "ain't" and split infinitives.

And given that teachers are simply not exposed to actual research showing that initial instruction in sounding out words - the dreaded phonics - works best, especially for those who are not catching on quickly, they will persist in the beliefs of their original and ongoing training.  The best readers absorb the idea of phonics so quickly and move to reading whole words that one could think that was their method.  But whole word would actually involve more drill in the long run, learning to recognise thousands of words on sight. "Whole word" is actually a misnomer, as it comes to mean "everything we do here that's not drill" rather than a particular technique.  That technique is at least something, and better readers will pick it up regardless of teaching method.  It's the others where the technique matters. 

"Everything we do here" are things that do have some importance. Classroom management, work habits, give-and-take, learning to be active at some times and quiet at others - these are valuable. We have also made teachers the front lines in noticing things that are going wrong, such as a child having autism, or vision problems, or behavior control issues, or girls suddenly menstruating and having no clue what that was, or bullying, or a dozen other things.  It is not a large step from there to teaching values.  Schools have always taught values. Complaining at teachers for teaching social justice is the wrong focus. They have always taught social justice, it's just that we define that quite differently now.  We used to call it civics, or citizenship, or deportment, and the focus was on honesty, or politeness, or patriotism, or respect, or other "old" values. But this is not mission creep on their part.  It's what they have always done, and what we told them to do.

Seidenberg's solution is to tear down the Ed Schools, because they take decent, well-meaning people who would like to help bring young people into the world of responsible adulthood, and they ruin them. Yet he knows that is not going to happen, as the institutional power of organisations that produce one-third of all our doctoral degrees by nursing at the government breast is immovable.  He hopes to at least infiltrate them with the idea that "research" is a good thing and has a meaning they are not yet aware of.  (I feel the same about schools of social work, which ruin nice young women who want to do good and teach them to do evil instead.)

He suspects it won't matter what the research says.  Ed schools don't care.


Donna B. said...

I do not remember not knowing how to read, thus I don't remember being taught to read. Since I hated my 1st and 2nd grade teachers, I can't imagine them teaching me much. Kindergarten wasn't a thing where I grew up. There were several toxic teachers I had throughout the years.

Fortunately for my grandchildren, kindergarten was a thing and my oldest two grandchildren were fortunate to have a kindergarten teacher with 20+ years experience.
This teacher "threw out subjects just to see if they would stick" once a week. Imagine our surprise when the 5 year old said "Oh, that's a simile, right?"

james said...

At the pointy end of the business each class is unique and apt to forcefully impress this on you. Whatever you tried to do, something unique happened and so, when you excused the exceptions, whatever the latest fad was seems to have worked. You have a small sample size and no training in statistics, so you don't have much standing to refute the fad. Object, sure, refute, no.

OTOH, the "researchers" have a vested interest in coming up with something "new" and have found that actual research, beyond trying it out with select teachers and select classes, isn't needed for the new idea to be accepted. Advertisement works better than hard numbers, and until that incentive changes they'll use advertisement. Sort of like renting congressmen is cheaper than doing product research.