Monday, February 17, 2014

Who speaks for reading, writing and literature?

“Do you call reading work? I don’t even remember how I learned. When it was too hot to play, Grandfather would take me into his library where it was dark and cool, and read to me out loud from his books, and later I would sit beside him and read to myself while he studied."
The Witch of Blackbird Pond is one of many novels featuring smart heroes or heroines who learned how to read and/or write without formal instruction. Given that the authors are themselves smart, linguistically gifted people who may likewise have learned language arts informally, with an ear for language naturally tuned for polished prose by their typically avid reading habits, this isn’t surprising.

But what’s problematic is when the highly articulate messages of the small minority of self-taught readers and writers—messages emanating through actual or fictionalized versions of their personal experiences—are generalized to the population as a whole. Most kids won’t learn to read simply by being read to and by being surrounded by interesting books; and most kids won’t become good writers simply by writing a lot and participating in student-centered writer’s workshops. Most kids need intensive instruction in phonics and extensive feedback from discerning adults on their sentences and paragraphs, as well as extensive guidance and practice in revision.

Unfortunately, just as the kinds of people who didn’t need extensive math drills—i.e., math professors—are also, some of them, among the most convincing spokespeople for eschewing math drills (they’re math professors; surely they know what it takes to learn math!), the kinds of people who didn’t need extensive language arts drills—i.e., articulate writers and speakers—are, some of them, the most convincing (i.e., articulate) spokespeople for eschewing language arts drills.

Articulate writers and speakers also tend to be very well read, and therefore self-educated, in key content areas like history, geography, politics, and current events. As a result, they may not appreciate of the degree to which most kids depend on a systematic, content-rich curriculum at school. And, especially if their reading doesn’t extend to cognitive science research, they may become convincing spokespeople for the idea that schools should focus more on “higher level skills” rather than specific content—and/or the idea that all you have to do is encourage kids to be curious and read a lot and they’ll learn what matters on their own.

Genetics being genetics, these highly articulate but wrong-headed spokespeople also often have kids that take after them in their avid reading habits and ears for writing. As a result, they are never directly confronted with the inadequacies of the trends in education to which they so happily give verbal support, or with how rapidly everyone else’s verbal skills are declining.

Surely these people recognize how unusual their talents are, and how special their kids are (don’t all parents?). But somehow when it comes to K12 education, they forget to consider how others might differ. Or, espousing an egalitarianism that confuses equality of ability with equality of opportunity, they deliberately suppress such considerations, blissfully unaware of how many kids they’re leaving behind in the dust.


AS said...

I very much agree with this. I have had some involvement in curriculum development and have noticed many times that subject experts simply forget how much they had to learn to get to their level of expertise. It seems that the application of this expert knowledge often comes to feel like applying common sense. This leads to curricula that don't put enough emphasis on building knowledge. It takes good teachers to keep subject experts grounded in what level can be reached by normal students in the available teaching time.

C T said...

I agree, too. It's great for experts to teach budding experts, but they are unlikely to be the best instructors for average and below-average ability folk because 1) they don't understand how to help us "get" what they picked up with little effort, and 2) when experts talk to those on a much lower level of understanding, their words often go right over our heads, such as when a math & physics Ph.D. relative tried to explain integration to me back when I was taking high school calculus.