Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Might suspending your preconceptions and biases be something to strive for?

This week's Education Week is promoting not just "creativity," but "personal connections" and "relevance." In "Can Readers Really Stay Within the Standards Lines?", authors Maja Wilson, a former high school English teacher and current teacher of literacy instruction at the University of Maine, and Thomas Newkirk, a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, express concern about the common core standards for K12 English.

What specifically concerns them is what the common core standards (CCS) say that K12 readers should be focusing on--namely "the text itself," or "the text on its own terms." They find this an old- fashioned ("early and mid-1900s") notion, and also disagree with CCS's idea that "while the personal connections and judgments of the reader may enter in later, they should do so only after students demonstrate 'a clear understanding of what they read.'" Nor do they like CCS's proposal that publishers should pose "text-dependent questions [that] can only be answered by careful scrutiny of the text" and that "80 to 90 percent of the Reading Standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis; accordingly, aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions." Finally, they question CCS's conception of what close readings are all about: "Student knowledge drawn from the text is demonstrated when the student uses evidence from the text to support a claim about the text."

All this, they write, both represses the reader, and shows "distrust of reader response." Second, "this readerly repression is unnatural, and probably impossible":

Since you are obviously still reading this Commentary, you be the judge. Have you stayed within "the text itself"? Have you cordoned off preconceptions, biases, prior reading, and associations until you finish and comprehend this text?
Third, if you don't make things relevant to students' lives, how can they possibly find them interesting:
All the instruction in the world won't help a reader who has already decided that a text is distant and irrelevant. But helping students understand the text itself means helping students find themselves in it. We worry that if textbooks, curriculum, and assessments align themselves to the view of reading in the common-core guidelines, students will become alienated from the very complex texts with which they will be required to grapple.
Wilson and Newkirk then contrast two ways one would teach, say, Nicholas Carr's 2008 essay from The Atlantic, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Their way:
Before assigning the essay, we would have students log their media use for a day (texts, emails, video games, TV, reading, surfing the Internet) and share this 24-hour profile with classmates. We might ask students to free-write and perhaps debate the question: "What advantages or disadvantages do you see in this pattern of media use?" This "gateway" activity would prepare students to think about Carr's argument. As they read, they'd be mentally comparing their own position with Carr's. Surely, we want them to understand Carr's argument, but we'd help them do that by making use of their experiences and opinions.
In the classroom envisioned by the standards guidelines, these personal connections and opinions might be allowed later, after students have encountered and come to know Carr's text "on its own terms." Some preteaching would be allowed in the common-core classroom—as long as it didn't distract from the text. So students might be presented with a list of vocabulary words in the article or maybe be given information about the genre being read. But as they read, their attention would be focused almost exclusively on Carr's argument.
I agree with Wilson and Newkirk that it's difficult for readers to "cordon off preconceptions and biases." But does that make it desirable to encourage the opposite? I realize I'm about to suggest something as old-fashioned as the common core standards, but here goes: Might preconceptions and biases be things that potentially interfere with accurate text comprehension; things, in other words, that we might want K12 schools to discourage? Maybe my impressions are distorted by my own preconceptions and biases, but it seems to me that, when my students write analyses of the week's reading, the main way in which they go wrong (when they go wrong) is by focusing insufficiently on the text, and one of the main reasons why their focus is insufficient is because they are... distracted by their preconceptions and biases.

In fact, you see this everywhere--particularly in areas where conflicting, strongly-held beliefs come into play. How often have you posted a careful, meticulously qualified comment on the Internet, only to have someone who disagrees with you mischaracterize your "some" as "all," your "not all" as "none," your "sometimes" as "always," or your "not always" as "never;" exaggerate your evaluative phrases; erase your qualifications and delineations; or otherwise obliterate all the subtlety you've tried so hard to communicate, distorting your position into a straw man to be zealously ripped apart? While this tactic may simply indicate that your adversary doesn't have any good arguments against your actual views, it's often also a case in point of preconceptions and biases interfering with reading comprehension.

I suspect that that's what's going in a recent Amazon customer review of my book. Here Jennifer Bardsley, who has also appeared on this blog and who describes herself as holding views on educational theory that are "the polar opposite" of mine, writes:
Despite what Dr. Beals claims, STEM careers require communication and collaboration. Do engineers create digital cameras in isolation? Do cancer researches conduct private experiments and then keep mum about their findings? In my opinion, gently encouraging students to become better about sharing their ideas and thinking can only help them in the long run.*
But here's a passage straight from the book (Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right Brain World):
There's an important difference, people forget, between cooperation and collaboration. Yes, many modern mathematical and scientific puzzles are large enough that multiple scholars attack them simultaneously. But they do so not by divvying up the pieces, working independently, and only reconvening to present and tweak one another's solutions. They collaborate, but they mostly work separately, not cooperatively. (p. 42; italics as in the book).
(There's also an entire section devoted to "Teaching Rules for Conversations," which includes strategies for encouraging unsocial children to share their thoughts more effectively with others.)

Perhaps if we did more to encourage people to begin by suspending their biases and immersing themselves in other people's arguments--or worlds, or whatever else their words create--we'd have a society that is not only more literate, but also more open-mined and tolerant. For this, the common core standards for K12 English may be a start--so long as they don't end up being distorted by people's preconceptions and biases.
*Ms Bardsley also faults Left Brain Child for lacking footnotes and a bibliography, not noting that references are repeatedly embedded in the text (publishers' preferred format for trade books), or that some of the world's most heavily footnoted texts are complete nonsense.


John said...

How am I supposed to make my own unique torches-and-huts airport in the forrest, if you keep insisting there are real airports, and that I need to learn how they work in order to properly replicate one or make meaningful improvements to their design?

In a certain sense, the preference for individual ownership of nonsense is a group cohesion strategy. If everyone is full of crap (please excuse the language), and everyone gets a similar boost of serotonin from hearing other people's unfounded crap, then you get a bunch of people who agree on and know nothing, but feel like they all do and avoid confrontation because they've obliterated the meaning of contradiction.

Until people start thinking they are NOT full of crap, but everyone else is. Then the stabby starts.

Our preference to deconstruct personal biases and personal cognitive biases, and to address our own fallacious reasoning (encouraging others to do this) seeks to instead abstract knowledge from group cohesion/xenophobia and identify common reality which can be reasonably agreed upon to the benefit of all.

However, if we can't teach people - it seems that some think it is simply sufficient to flood the brains of non-learners with neurotransmitters normally reserved for the purpose of reinforcing actual accomplishment.

This is an anti-pattern.

John said...

"Our preference *is* to deconstruct...etc"

Hainish said...

I have never felt so alienated and distant from my english classes than when my teacher would ask us for a personal response to the book we were reading. If Wilson's and Newkirk's methods had been in full swing when I was in school, instead of simply just becoming popular, I might have gone from boredom and disengagement to full-on throwing books at the walls. As it was, I simply avoided all lit courses in college, like the plague. (Thanks, reader response theory!)

OTOH, I would have loved a lit class that focused on literature in a historical context.

Wilson? Newkirk? Are you listening? If you want to alienate smart, left-brained kids from your subject area, you may just have hit upon a method that works.

ChemProf said...

Um, why would they be teaching a 2008 article on technology in English class anyway? Remember those things called books?

The "personal response" thing is so out of hand. I have to train students not to include their personal assessment in their lab reports. "This was an interesting way to learn about atomic structure."