Archive for December, 2005

Turning Out The Light On 2005

Dec 31 2005 Published by under borderland

Living where I do, I may be the last edublogger [see "Show 50 more markers"] to say goodbye to 2005. It occurs to me that I may get to be one of the last bloggers period on the internet in 2005. (There are reasons I call it Borderland.) I probably won’t get the absolute last word this year, but I’ll be close. People out on the Aleutians and in Polynesia, you get the last shot.

Many Thanks

I want to thank all of the people who generously commented on, linked to, or visited Borderland this year. Your attention to my stumbling effort encourages me to press on. It’s been fun, and I’m grateful for your kind attention.

The Refrigerator Text

On Christmas the family got to talking about all of the stuff hanging on the refrigerator. Looking at it, I realized it was a fairly complex text. It had a history, and quite a bit to say about us. The inside also tells a story, but that’s a bit more personal than I care to share on the internet. There are limits, I’ve learned.

I’ve said before that anything is a text; you can read the world around you. So the refrigerator has a lot meaning for us whether we’re looking in it, or at it: Calendar, photos, schedules, art. Most notably, my son made an “I Have a Dream” poster for Martin Luther King Day 2 years ago when he was in third-grade. He wished that we weren’t at war. The poster is still up. It’ll stay up until that wish is fulfilled.

Wishing all a Happy New Year

Be bold. Be kind.

Sunset on the last day of 2005 from the Alaska interior.

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Deschooling Revolution

Dec 29 2005 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics,technology

The Conceptual Region

An interesting series of posts about about the social function teachers serve and the role of digital technology in schools has moved me to crawl out of hibernation today and resume blogging. Posts and commentaries listed below seem to define a problematic conceptual region for education bloggers.

This is actually a widely dispersed discussion topic which I am pulling together here because I see a theme in these posts that addresses basic issues that seem to especially concern educational bloggers. As we approach the change to another new year, it seems appropriate to wonder about the uses and effects that technology may have in education. I sympathize with those who challenge conventional notions of schooling and question the role of technology in that process. I can say with confidence that a shift in our professional activity will not be accomplished without risk of criticism. This is contested territory, and the transition to a new paradigm will not be smooth. None of us knows the way.

Defining the Problem

Miguel issued a manifesto when he acknowledged that we can’t have it both ways:

What, there’s middle ground you say? No, there isn’t…not anymore. We either use computer labs to support information literacy or do online state assessments/test prep. We either train teachers on how to help students learn information-problem-solving strategies or how to help their students maximize scores on tests. We can no longer do both.

The time for parley under a white flag is over. We are involved in a war for the survival of our Nation, our very ideals, and children’s minds. What we do–or fail to do–will determine the course of history…not just United States, but every other country in the world. Digital literacy is critical…but most of us live our lives as if was a choice. We are, like Thomas Friedman wrote, acting as if this were just a test of the emergency broadcasting system. The truth is, as he points out, this is not a test.

It’s both reassuring and disturbing that Ivan Illich, in Deschooling Society, spoke decades ago about the colonizing influence of education, a problem that we find increasingly important in our present time. Cultural diversity, standardization of curriculum, and technological innovation are simultaneously affecting educational discourse, and each perspective brings its own logic to the discussion. Illich argued that social degradation follows from “the institutionalization of values,” a process that is “accelerated when nonmaterial needs are transformed into demands for commodities.”

Educational activism that sees technology in school as the answer to limitations of conventional education confuses process with product. When we head down this path we tend to equate ‘new’ and ‘more’ with ‘better’ so that we can finally claim that technology enables more relevant learning. But is it really more? And in what context is technological learning relevant? It’s important to understand the answers to those questions before we sit back and applaud ourselves for being innovative. The real need we all have is for critical literacies, as opposed to digital literacy or any other kind of literacy. Without a critical perspective we accomplish nothing substantially new no matter how skillful students become with using either pencils and print, or keyboards, microphones, and monitors.

Our society takes a near reverential attitude toward technology. We see progress in terms of technical sophistication, competence in terms of skill, and knowledge as the aggregation of infomation. The commodification of knowledge is driving us rapidly toward new forms of social manipulation and control, where advertising and government propaganda are masked as news; where political consensus is cultivated by media reports of poll results, and where values are defined by legislative acts.

The Power of Dialog

We’ve all become “consumers” of information, and some of us may also be producers, but what are we talking about? As a teacher I’m implicated in the cultural production of a schooled society, and it isn’t easy to be critical of the institution that employs me as an agent. My point of view is contradictory in many ways. I believe that teachers are the most important institutional component, and yet I want to avoid taking too much responsibility for student learning because I recognize that teachers are merely one part of the dynamic. I recognize that new technologies are powerful and transformative, but I doubt their ability to bring significant change to the institution without a critical reappraisal of what we mean when we use the words, ‘literacy’ and ‘instruction.’ The best I can do to work for change on my own is to question the moral righteousness of activist pedagogy, and concentrate on simply cultivating human connections with students and their parents through dialog. The time for sweeping changes may be overdue, but I don’t see how educators are going to initiate that process. The problems we confront are not merely institutional, they are embedded in the relationship between schools and society. Sincere dialog may be the most practical revolutionary stance a teacher can assume at this time. Revolution is Not an AOL Keyword is a poetic statement about what technology will not do for us.

Readers of Borderland can look forward to following a line of inquiry about a broadened conceptualization of curriculum I plan to explore with my students in the coming months. I’m restless and dissatisfied, looking for a better way.

10 responses so far

From Limitation to Possibility

Dec 21 2005 Published by under borderland,education

“Vision controls our perception, and perception becomes our reality.” This is a quote from an excellent video that I recommend to anyone who is responsible for nurturing the development of other people. Dewitt Jones is a former National Geographic photographer who turned to writing and lecturing on the creative process. The video, Celebrate What’s Right With the World, features riveting photography and asks the question, “What’s here to celebrate?” It’s a voice of optimism and encouragement urging us to exercise our imaginations and explore our human potential to transform ourselves and each other, to become more fully alive in the pursuit of a vision of a better world. Look around. Stay open to possibility. Find your edge and embrace the challenges it offers. For a sample of what he has to say, check out this video.

Believe passionately in something and work to make it real.

Half the time I’ll have with my students this year has passed. It’s time to reflect and regroup. It’s hard to see the difference we make because it happens so incrementally – all the more reason to focus on possibilities. Listen for the aha’s! They come from a magical place.

2 responses so far

Evaluating Truth Claims

Dec 19 2005 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

There has been recent interest among education bloggers about how we can help students evaluate information they find on the internet. This topic was particularly relevant to an article about Wikipedia’s accuracy. Recent posts by Miguel and Clarence Fisher also addressed the question. Both Miguel and Clarence seem to suggest that there should be a standard for truth that transcends the social criteria we apply when we rely on “trusted sources” and experts for our information. Even trusted sources and experts need to be challenged sometimes. Nobody is infallible. Miguel is uncomfortable with the danger of becoming insular and not remaining open to new ideas, which is something that I mentioned in my last post. New ideas are the breeding ground for innovation and creative inspiration, which is one of the great features of reading and writing on the web. Dissent is obviously important in a democratic society. The problem Miguel sees comes when ideas are recycled so many times they become dogma and displace critical thinking. The danger that Clarence mentioned is that accepting information as truth simply because it’s popular, or “common knowledge” leaves us vulnerable to accepting unsubstantiated beliefs in place of truth. There is a more structured approach to the problem that I’d like to share here.

Phi Carspecken offers a method for evaluating truth claims in his book, Critical Ethnography in Educational Research (1996). His theory sets forth validity criteria for assertions about the nature or condition of the world we as we know it. Carspecken acknowledges the thinking of Jurgen Habermas and American pragmatists Dewey, James, and Pierce in the development of this critical epistemology, which he sums up by saying that whenever we consider a truth claim, we need to look at the validity conditions associated with it.

Claims and Realms
There are three different kinds of truth claims, each appropriate to a different communicative realm.

  • There are statements of objective fact.
  • There are subjective claims.
  • And there are normative-evaluative claims.

These three communicative realms each require different validity criteria.

The first communicative realm is “objectivity.” Truth claims that are made about objective reality are assumed to be similarly observable by anyone. A disagreement in this area is due either to either a perceptual error, or to a discrepancy in the understanding of terms that are being applied to the observed phenomenon. An example of an application of validity criteria in cases such as these might be if someone were to say, “My new truck is 4-wheel drive.” The validity test would be to know if there is a new truck (perceptual accuracy), and to find out whether ‘new’ and ’4-wheel drive’ have the same meaning for all communicants. Statements of objective fact must meet the test of “appearance vs. reality.”

The second communicative realm is “subjectivity.” Truth claims made within a subjective background are understood to have privileged access. That is to say that knowledge of the subjective realm is always available to the speaker, but may be concealed from others. The sorts of things that fall into this domain are emotions, desires, thoughts, etc. Others who are included in disclosures of these subjective claims must assume that the speaker is being honest if they accept what the speaker has to say. Carspecken says that “disputes taking place over subjective-referenced claims are ultimately structured by the self-knowledge vs. performance distinction” (p. 70). These claims always boil down to reputation and reliability because there is no way to ascertain with certainty another person’s subjective state.

The third category of truth claim is the normative realm. These are special types of claims about what is proper or appropriate. We can always agree or disagree with claims such as these based on values about what we believe to be right or wrong. These claims reference the nature of our shared world, as opposed to the objective world or a subjective world. Disagreements in this realm hinge on values and can’t be resolved unless there is first an attempt to reach “common ground” and to understand the values held by each participant in the dispute.

I like this model for evaluating truth claims because it offers a rational, and fun way to think about what you hear in everyday talk. You can begin learning to think about the validity requirements that are implied in conversation, or in what you read in the paper or hear on the news. Most statements have multiple layers of meaning so that even simple exchanges can be understood to imply a variety of truth claims. Students at the elementary level can learn to differentiate fact from opinion. It might be a stretch to get them to think about ‘validity criteria’ but I think we could involve them in analyzing the subjective ( my world) / objective (the world) / normative (our world) distinctions.

Using validity criteria, a person can know what sorts of evidence are necessary to substantiate (or refute) a particular claim. It’s important to note that we can’t know whether something is true or not from using this heuristic, but we can think about the sorts of arguments that need to be brought to the discussion. In the case of someone looking at “trusted sources” honesty is one of the criteria for subjective claims, but is not necessary for objective claims, since we all presumably have access to the same information. I suppose a need for trust arises when we for some reason need to verify an information source that is not immediately available to us. In the case of the “echo chamber” mentioned by Miguel which concerns adopting opinions within an insular social network, those would fall within the normative-evaluative realm, and are a question of values and what we believe about how the world should work – a subject that gets a lot of exercise.

At the very least, it’s something to think about while everyone else is busy talking.

Carspecken, P. (1996). Critical ethnography in educational research. New York: Routledge.

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Naming The Literate

Dec 19 2005 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

Any interpretive act could count as reading. We can read the weather, read a river, read a face, or read a room full of people. Since interpretations of the same phenomenon can vary, we know that a range of meanings for any text is possible depending on a person’s point of view. Diversity of viewpoint is as important to our social and intellectual ecology as biodiversity is important to Earth’s natural ecology. Etienne Wenger described how meanings can be managed either productively or destructively within a community of practice by those at the center of the community.

Communities of practice structure an organization’s learning potential in two ways: through the knowledge they develop at their core and through interactions at their boundaries. Like any asset, these communities can become liabilities if their own expertise becomes insular. It is therefore important to pay as much attention to the boundaries of communities of practice as to their core, and to make sure that there is enough activity at these boundaries to renew learning. For while the core is the center of expertise, radically new insights often arise at the boundary between communities. Communities of practice truly become organizational assets when their core and their boundaries are active in complementary ways.

In the everyday world when someone comes up with an unexpected or unusual reading – a questionable interpretation of something – we generally ask for clarification and try to sympathetically assess the intelligence behind the thinking. We may not agree, but this is how understanding is constructed through dialog. Communication flows in order to create consensual domains among people. I think of this as the negotiation of meaning, and I see it as a core feature of all literate activity. When meanings are narrowed and reified we no longer have communication; we have dictation.

US government education policy is working to create public consensus for a particular definition of literacy. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a research report a few days ago on the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). Links from the main page include a press release, a statement from the commissioner, a FAQ page, a transcript of an online chat with an associate commissioner, data tables, and a 40+ page document called Key Concepts and Features of the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

Reading is a social construction. It’s a social construction because any attempt to define reading also implicitly defines the reader. There can be no action without an actor, and both reading and reader must conceptually accompany each other. The NCES looked at ‘functional’ literacy and defined it as “the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” If we look at what this means, we can begin to understand what the government’s “official” definition of ‘reader’ entails.

The NAAL differentiates between three different types of texts:

  • They see prose literacy as the ability to retrieve information from continuous prose sources like editorials, news stories, brochures, and instructional materials.
  • Literacy also refers to document literacy, or the ability to search, comprehend, and use noncontinuous texts in various formats. Examples of document literacy include job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and drug or food labels.
  • The NAAL also tested for quantitative literacy, which includes balancing a checkbook, computing a tip, completing an order form, and determining the amount of interest on a loan.

As this definition of reading has been constructed, so has the hypothetical average American reader: a middle-class, civic-minded, working, consumer. I don’t disagree that these are desirable things to know. I’ve worked hard in my life to become a person who can do those things. My point, though, is that reading is a social construction, and it’s definition is heavily value-driven. Not everyone wants to be identified in those terms, or read for those purposes. There is no such thing as an objective all-purpose definition of reading that is separate from an ideology which selects criteria for who a reader can therefore be.

I appreciate the full disclosure of information the government provided about their research project. It helps me to illustrate why standardized testing is not a valid way to assess reading ability, and also gives me a chance to make a point about literacy as a social value. One of the core concepts that the NAAL addressed was the definition of functional literacy. The research assumed that

there are different levels and types of literacy, which reflect the ability to perform a wide variety of tasks using written materials that differ in nature and complexity. A common thread across all literacy tasks is that each has a purpose….All U.S. adults must successfully preform literacy tasks in order to function-that is, to meet personal and employment goals as well as contribute to the community.

My response to this statement is that yes, there are different levels and types of literacy that are necessary for us all to have, but they may not necessarily all be the same levels and types. Furthermore, I ask, “Is test-taking now one of the types of literacy we all need?” The NCES said that the representative sample of adults tested had to perform “literacy tasks similar to those they encounter in their daily lives,” and that “none of the tasks require specialized knowledge, and all of them were reviewed for bias against particular groups.” I know, having participated in a test item writer’s workgroup, that the bias review can be done by any number of individuals – probably not from the tested population – and that questions about controversial or sensitive subjects are removed. But bias reviewers can not possibly anticipate all of the individual reactions to the test items. Bias is considered with respect to groups of people who may be disadvantaged by questions pertaining to specific subject matter. The statement that none of the items require specialized background knowledge reveals the arrogance of test makers to assume that there are common denominators of experience that run throughout all social classes and regions of our country. I agree with NCES that all literacy (I’ll call them acts, not tasks) acts are purposeful. Some of the test items that were shared in the document involved buying the correct kind of sandpaper, computing gas mileage for a vehicle, and deciding which of three food sources contain vitamin E. So I wonder how familiar these activities are to people who don’t work with wood, don’t own a car, and may not go to the doctor, or care about what they eat? I question whether the test items were similar to those encountered in the tested adults’ daily lives, or whether they are similar to those that the government only assumes they encounter in their daily lives.

My experience as a teacher requires me to administer these types of tests, and I know that even when a kid can read the words on the test, they may not understand the question because the syntax is alien to their speech patterns. A linguistic register is the variation within a language as it is applied to a specific set of purposes. It might also be thought of as a discourse, defined by it’s use. Most adults are not practiced in the test register, or may not have been especially strong test-takers in school. The test question may be about buying sandpaper, but seeing that the test-taker’s purpose wasn’t to actually buy sandpaper, the question wasn’t their own. The test-taker’s actual question was, “What does the test want me to say?” And they may have been thinking, “I don’t use sandpaper. Who cares about sandpaper” – with the bias reviewers and the psychometricians none the wiser. Their purpose isn’t to use the sandpaper, but to complete the test, and their investment in choosing the correct sandpaper may be considerably lower than their desire to move on to the next test question.

My brief critique of this test applies generally to all standardized educational testing that relies on multiple choice questions. This research methodology is very limited in the type of information it can provide. Inferences that are drawn from the data should be carefully weighed. Interviews and dialog are far more reliable and informative than these standardized testing instruments, but individualized qualitative measures are expensive to administer and it’s hard to control for the variety of responses people give for each question. Good scientific research will limit the number of possible alternative explanations that can be offered for a given data set. I’m left with numerous alternative explanations for the results of this test. To me, the conclusions drawn with respect to the “literacy of US adults” should be qualified and referred to as the “middle-class standard of literacy for US adults,” or some other limiter so that people who hear about the results can think about what the test actually measured. (I haven’t even mentioned results yet. They barely matter to me.) My challenge is to the test’s construct validity, that is, I doubt it actually measured real reading.

When politicians cite test results from exercises such as these and cry for more intervention or reform to the educational system, the programs and policy decisions that follow seem virtually inevitable. Policy that is driven from these kinds of research findings carries an air of urgent necessity. Nobody questions the loss of control and the narrowing of meaning that results because a consensus has been developed through a process of opinion control which could only be accomplished within an uncrtically literate population. This type of “scientific” research is responsible for what we see in our schools now. Standards have been imposed on us by politicians, not through professional consensus but through political whim. Certainly, educators participated in the writing of those standards, which lends legitimacy to the standards and helps to create hegemony that subjugates teachers under threat of sanctions for failure to meet adequate progress toward the agenda of universal ‘literacy’. I cringe when I hear teachers talk about teaching to the Standards because I know they are talking about the standards we’ve been force-fed, not the standards that spring from the personal knowledge we have of our students. The government’s effort to define literacy as a functional skill has the potential to narrowly confine the range of acceptable interpretations for public and corporate policy decisions, and may contribute to the consolidation and centralization of power in societies that are willing to endorse these conceptions of literacy.

The New York Times reported the results of this test with the headline


The average American college graduate’s literacy in English declined significantly over the past decade, according to results of a nationwide test released yesterday.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, given in 2003 by the Department of Education, is the nation’s most important test of how well adult Americans can read.

Consider this news in light of what commissioner, Mark Schnieder has to say: “I will first present the changes in literacy between 1992 and 2003. We reanalyzed the 1992 data for the prose, document and quantitative literacy scales using the 2003 procedures. Prose and document literacy did not change on average, while quantitative literacy increased.” Schnieder says that prose literacy scores for college graduates fell, and also said that more research in this area is called for.

I ask, “Why are we doing this research to begin with?”

In an amazingly irresponsible statement, quoted from the Times article,

Grover J. Whitehurst, director of an institute within the Department of Education that helped to oversee the test, said he believed that the literacy of college graduates had dropped because a rising number of young Americans in recent years had spent their free time watching television and surfing the Internet.

My first reaction was to wonder if perhaps the 1992 data wasn’t accurately correlated with the more current numbers. Then I thought that perhaps the change could be due to a changed college demographic, and that our colleges may have a more diverse student population now than they did 13 years ago.

But of course, the power move is never far off. From the US Dept. of Ed press release:

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, [who] today announced plans to coordinate adult education efforts in 2006 across multiple federal agencies. “We must take a comprehensive and preventive approach, beginning with elementary schools and with special emphasis in our high schools. We must focus resources toward proven, research-based methods to ensure that all adults have the necessary literacy skills to be successful.”

What we need is not more literacy. We don’t need more intervention or interference, or whatever anyone cares to call it. We need more critical literacy. We need to teach about the purposes and the contexts of literacy. We need to teach about power and point of view. All teachers must begin to recognize that the power to control definitions is the power to control thought. Literacy is as easily a means to subjugation as it is to liberation. Literacy is power, and it cuts both ways.

3 responses so far

Talking About Thinking

Dec 16 2005 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

My students’ attention to their reading is getting a little more fine-tuned, and I believe that’s because of the talking I’ve done about metacognition. I’ve focused heavily on metacognition lately. My approach is blunt. For the last couple of years, ever since I read Mosaic of Thought, I’ve taught my classes about schema theory. Instead of the usual question – response kind of background building that I did in the past to introduce a reading selection, my approach these days is to spend a few short class periods teaching about schema theory in terms the kids can understand. I also read aloud from novels – ‘chapter books’ they call them – and model my own thinking process for them by thinking aloud. I stop and tell them about a question that occurs to me as I’m reading. Or I remark about a word, or a phrase I find interesting. If I stumble on a passage because I miss a comma or don’t correctly anticipate an inflectional change, I’ll say, “Oops! That was a miscue.” Sometimes we don’t get very far in the book if I get way off into a connection about something, and then they run with it. A lot of people might say that we’re just wasting time, and I suppose we would be if I didn’t understand what the exercise was good for. I’d answer anyone who challenged my teaching this way by saying, “We’re building schema!” From Mosaic of Thought I learned to pay attention to the little side trips my imagination makes when I read. I learned to talk back to the book. I learned to activate my background knowledge. I learned to monitor my thinking. In some ways, reading is a meditation. I read the words. I also read my response to the words. I savor the response. The best part of the meaning comes from somewhere way down there.

This might sound corny. It’s weird to talk about with the kids because I wonder what they must think about this grownup talking to them about imaginary stuff as if it’s real. And it is real. Nobody has ever said these things to them. Yesterday I told the kids that they (fourth graders) had filled in enough blanks for a while. I asked them if they’d ever seen a paper with a sentence on it that had a word missing, and they were supposed to write just the missing word. Heads nodded. Hands raised. One kid said, “Lots!” I told them that the reason teachers gave them those papers was that they are easy to do and easy to grade. Right or wrong, mark it and move on. One of the kids said, “Sometimes the answers are already on the page.” I’d forgotten about those things. Some worksheets have a “word bank” so that all you have to do is look at the choices and pick one that seems to fit the space. I told them that they were going to be filling in blanks for me, too; blank pieces of paper. Some of them smiled. They know their teacher is a bit crazy, and he’s having fun messing with his students’ minds.

I did a Google search for “think alouds” before I started writing this. Thinking aloud as a teaching strategy is not a new idea. There were dozens of links to sites with information about think alouds. But I didn’t care for most of them. Too many of the examples looked like skills exercises. I don’t view thinking aloud as teaching a skill. I see it as modeling a practice. There is a difference. When I demonstrate a strategy, I’m relying on a socio-cultural model of reading in which the students participate as apprentices, and the teacher plays a mentoring role. When thinking is approached as a skill, it’s done as an artificial exercise. I doubt there is much chance that students will do it on their own in that case, since it will probably feel like just another exercise. A scary thought. Truly, we can easily school kids to ‘not think.’ The best think alouds are spontaneous, and they invite the students to participate. This National Writing Project article on think alouds is an excellent introduction to what they are about and how to use them.

After a lot of talking and modeling, I passed out a set of books from The Boxcar Children series. I have about 20 titles on the shelf in the room. They’re pretty easy, and they’re mysteries. What a great genre for asking questions and making predictions. I passed out sheets of paper and told the kids to write their thinking while read. In the beginning, many wrote overly long summaries and never got to a single original thought. I went around and had students quietly read to me. I asked questions, and visited with them about their work. For the kids who wrote long summaries, I asked, “and what do you think?

Now, several days later, I’m hearing, “I made a connection!”

“I like these books!”

“Look at the word I found.”

“Mysteries are fun!”

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Models of Education: Overview

I’ve been thinking about the models teachers have for instructional decision-making. Theories are the foundation for the conceptual models we use to explain our observations and predict what could happen in our classrooms. Some theories are useful for day-to-day operations. We have theories to explain why math is hard for some kids, to predict who will get their homework turned in, and what our students might do to get better grades. The theories we use every day are like hunches. The problem for teachers is that our everyday theories may not be helpful for our students. Our instructional decisions needs to depend on substantially more than a hunch. I’m not saying we should abandon intuition. Intuition is a way to gain insight into problems. Our professional approach to educational practice, though, should be considered in light of models that are based on research findings.

The question is, “Which research recommendations do we follow?” As a body of literature, educational research points in different directions. Whether to use whole language or sytematic phonics instruction, for instance, was a question that became so contentious it was referred to as the Reading Wars. Deciding which research to be guided by in our instructional planning and decision-making is confusing. As a field, Education has received a lot of research attention over the last 100 years. We’ve been the theoretical stomping ground of countless researchers from multiple academic disciplines looking for the holy grail of education. Publishers and program merchants have found a niche for their products. Policy makers, lobbyists, consultants and curriculum specialists are busy aligning standards and current trends. We’ve inherited a storehouse of contradictory information to read and think and talk about. I want to explore some of the issues that surround the models of education that we commonly see, and maybe reach a rational place to stand within the overall discourse.

I found an entry point for my inquiry in a book chapter, “What Whole Language Is, and Why Whole Language” from Constance Weaver’s, Understanding Whole Language: From Principles to Practice. This book is a little different than the usual literature on the topic. In the introduction Weaver says that

Most of the professional literature on this topic is directed toward teachers. This book, however, is designed for a broader audience of not only teachers and teacher educators but curriculum supervisors and specialists, principals and superintendents, parents and members of school boards.

Weaver defines whole language as more of a philosophy than an ‘approach’ to teaching reading. As such, whole language is based on the principle of developing literacy in the context of authentic literacy practices that pervade the curriculum and are integrated into the whole life of the student. This view of literacy development stands in opposition to the conventional teaching practice of fragmenting knowledge into skills that are taught systematically.

These two opposing paradigms for literacy learning are profoundly different. Weaver points out that implementation of the philosophy depends on the teacher’s understanding of it, as well as his his or her willingness to let go of conventional teaching methods. This being the case, definitions of whole language are variable. The central thread that runs through whole language classrooms is a constructivist view of learners as active participants in the process of meaning-making rather than passive recipients of information presented by a teacher or text. Weaver refers to the whole language model as a ‘Transactional Model’ and to the other (behavioral model) as the ‘Transmission Model.’ Without going into detail about the particulars of each of these models, it is necessary to point out that in practice most teachers are not wholly aligned with either one of the two models. The models can be seen as existing on an ideological continuum of educational practices. Teachers often talk about being ‘so much’ of a whole language teacher, which I believe is an acknowledgement of practical and ideological limits to what we do in our work.

Weaver shared a very helpful graphic that was published in The Art of Teaching Writing (1986) by Lucy Calkins.

The graphic is a simple grid that contrasts teacher and student levels of input. I’ve redrawn it here because it provides a good reference for one way of understanding how these models translate into practice.

Quadrant 1 represents low student and low teacher input. It describes the classroom activity of teachers and students working within a transmission model of education. At its extreme limit, this model exemplifies an educational process that relies heavily on packaged curriculum materials, scripted teacher prompts, and a narrow range of acceptable student reponses.

Quadrant 2 describes classrooms in which there is high teacher input with low student input. This represents the practices of teachers who prepare detailed lessons that require minimal thought from the student. These lessons maximize the student’s opportunities to successfully complete the assignment. They may include pre-organized materials, worksheet prompts, extensive modeling, and/or detailed written directions. Weaver says that this type of classroom typifies what we have come to know as traditional education.

Quadrant 3 characterizes the the classroom with low teacher input and high student input. This, according to Weaver, represents a particular (perhaps naive) interpretation of what has been called “process” writing. Within this model students may be encouraged to write, but are given little feedback or instruction in strategies that will help them to grow. Students retain ownership of their learning but may not learn as much as they would in a direct-instruction classroom.

Quadrant 4 is where there is high teacher input and high student input. This is the whole language ideal. Responisibility for learning and making decisions is shared by teacher and students. This is the transactional model of education.

As a teacher who would describe himself as more 4 than 1, I still see artifacts of 2 and 3 in my teaching. Perhaps owing to limitations of the input model, or maybe due to the limitations of my own imagination, I can’t seem to find a place to locate myself on the grid. It’s hard to occupy different quadrants simultaneously. If I had to choose, I suppose I’d put my classroom practice somewhere in the bottom left corner of quadrant 4, or maybe the lower right of number 3. My philosophy is transactional, but that doesn’t always work for my students. So I’m left to wonder about the efficacy of a model that seems to force us to choose between a philosophy and real world conditions. I wonder if I simply don’t understand how to translate whole language theory into practice; maybe I need a better model.

It gets more complicated. Recognizing that curriculum choices reach beyond the merely cognitive, I know that any educational philosophy I embrace carries social and political consequences for my students. Looking critically at which groups of students are privileged and which are disadvantaged by our instructional decision making is where I enter the problematic space that education research has taken me.

In Social Linguistics and Literacies, James Paul Gee distinguishes between acquisition and learning as distinct processes for becoming fluent in social Discourses, which he also calls ‘identity kits’ or “ways of being in the world” (p. 127). With respect to literacy learning, acquisition involves becoming skillful in practice, without formal teaching. It is the way that all people come to know their first language. Learning involves conscious knowledge gained through explanation and analysis. It involves the attainment of meta-knowledge about a topic or a social domain. Gee believes that schools must provide students with both. However, there is a balance to be struck.

Acquisition must (at least, partially) precede learning; apprenticeship must precede overt teaching. Classrooms that do not properly balance acquisition and learning, and realize which is which, simply privilege those students who have already begun the acquisition process outside the school. Too little acquisiton leads to too little mastery-in-practice; too little learning leads to too little analytic and reflective awareness and limits the capacity for certain sorts of critical reading and reflection (p. 139).

Gee maintains that acquisition and learning are means to different ends, and that each is necessary for a person to gain the ability to manipulate a Discourse to one’s social advantage. They must have expressive skill, developed in practice, with speaking, reading, and writing. Students must also have analytical knowledge about how literacy is socially applied so they can use it to attain their goals. According to Gee, students need time in school to explore and experiment with literacy, but they also need direct instruction about literacy. Over-reliance on process methods can disadvantage students who are not already immersed in academic literacy practices. Many students from non-mainstream families don’t readily understand how to use metacognitive reading strategies, or how to make good choices for their own learning. I’m not saying that they can’t, but rather, I think they need to be explicitly taught how to operate within what for them is a foreign discourse.

I can’t embrace models that point uncritically to liberatory pedagogies if they don’t also acknowledge the need to provide literacy instruction to that end. Balancing the needs of students who require different levels of teacher input is one of the most complicated aspects of teaching. Our knowledge of our students, their needs, motivations and limitations is key. Students with social, cognitive, emotional, or physical challenges all need different structures to support their learning than do the students who are born into families for whom school literacies come as a matter of course. Finding the balance for some almost invariably unbalances the educational experience of another. The need for differentiated instruction is apparent. But what does that look like? Is it yet another model? I’m still reading Constance Weaver’s book, and my classroom is a work in progress. Each day is another revision.

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Fun Lessons

Dec 08 2005 Published by under borderland

I don’t know how many people might already be reading The Dilbert Blog, but since I haven’t seen any mention of it except on, where I learned about it, I thought I’d mention it here. I’ve got nothing else coherent to say at the moment.

I discovered this blog back in October, soon after it was launched. I watched it for a few days and then lost track of it in the daily chaos. It’s been rattling around in the aggregator, though. A couple of days ago I saw the post, Humor Formula, and I followed the link. I found out I was missing half the show by just scanning it in the daily feeds because the comments are nearly as much fun as the blog posts. Scott Adams is getting sometimes over a hundred comments each day. Lately he’s been offering dancing lessons and having contests.

Laugh and learn.

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Struggles for Control

Dec 04 2005 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

It’s interesting how some things don’t go away, but only change form. A chance encounter with a 14-year-old book chapter written by Patrick Shannon sounded hauntingly similar to another discussion that recently occurred in ed-tech blogs and discussion forums on the internet.

Shannon described three different points of view in a long-running debate about what constitutes effective literacy education. He described advocates of the different positions as having either a skills-based, interactionist, or whole language orientation. Epistemologically these viewpoints differ according to whether one sees students receiving, constructing or transacting new knowledge. They are functionally different according to whether we believe skills, strategies, or purpose are the foundation of literacy. In educational practice, the teacher is either the cause, the conductor, or the facilitator of learning (Shannon, 1991).

I was interested in what Shannon had to say because I’ve approached reading teaching more as an interactionist than a whole language teacher. In an ideal classroom I’d use a whole language approach, but I don’t work in an ideal world and the disconnect between my practice and my beliefs is a source of growing discomfort for me.

Teachers adopt different bits and pieces from the various philosophical camps. We can end up with a situation where we have literature circle groups who are answering comprehension questions and taking spelling tests on Friday. These teachers may believe they are teaching whole language lessons because they have kids discussing books when in fact they are solidly in line with the skills camp. Shannon blamed our reliance on basal readers for much of this pedagogical confusion. One of the points he made was that basals seem to offer teachers choices, but all of the choices are someone else’s when we limit our options to those that are in the book. He disputed claims by advocates of reciprocal teaching that it puts students in control of their learning. With reciprocal teaching students are engaged in a contrived activity scripted by someone else. In the case of a basal reader-inspired lesson, it is the publisher who ultimately retains control.

In whole language classrooms, control of literacy lessons is shared by students and teacher. Whole language teachers approach their instructional role with a profoundly different set of assumptions about learning than skills-oriented or interactionist-oriented teachers do. Whole language teachers understand that what is taught is often not what is learned. Whole language teachers believe that student activity should be grounded in meaning, and that students should have the opportunity to make decisions about what they read and how they respond. A more democratic social organization of the classroom results from this approach.

In our age of standards and accountability we and our students are expected to behave as though literacy can be reduced to a set of tested skills, and that capable readers are those who score well on multiple choice tests. Good teachers in the age of accountability are expected to know how to target their instruction so all learners will develop precisely the skills they need in order to pass the test. How much are we missing by having to accept such a narrow conceptualization of literacy? Readers are expected to infer the author’s purpose, but where in this scheme do we address the reader’s purpose?

I heard echoes from recent discussions about the risks of student blogging when I read

Whole language lessons from basals promise teachers and students a voice, but it ensures that they have nothing of social or political consequence to talk about. Basals assure that all the risks will be academic and that nothing will change outside the classroom (p. 139).

All the risks will be academic…Wow! While it may appear from earlier statements of mine that I agree with advocates of content filtering, my position is actually more grounded in individual responsibility and a conviction that teachers who use internet technology to promote student voice should do so with a full understanding of the environment and the tools that are being employed. I believe the same for literacy instruction. The risks of sharing responsibility with students in literacy lessons are that the teacher may be found negligent and blamed for low test scores even though students might be engaged in a rich learning environment. Risks always involve consequences. We weigh risks against potential rewards. Without consequences, we haven’t changed a thing.

I’m thinking quite a bit about whole language and inquiry now.

Shannon, P. (1991). The Struggle for Conrol of Literacy Lessons. In B. M. Power, and Hubbard, R. (Eds.), Literacy in Process (pp. 132-141). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann .

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Blogging the Literacy Discourse

It’s a day to hug the woodstove, chop wood, grade papers, read, write, and take a nap. Minus 20 degrees – too cold to snowboard. I want to comment briefly on the response I’ve gotten since I decided to narrow Borderland’s focus to literacy-specific topics. It’s been encouraging to see a significant jump in readership, and so I’ll stay the course. I hope it doesn’t get tedious.

Speaking publicly with an authoritative voice about literacy is a little harder than just sitting down and freewheeling about the latest stray thought to cross my mind. I’ve gone back to some of the books I have on my shelf. I’m reading and re-reading things that I’d forgotten about. Neural processing activity has taken a jump along with the blog stats. It’s also going to take me a little bit longer to put a post together because of the research and the deliberation necessary to think things through a little bit more.

I’ve thought more than a couple of times that I wish I’d had this forum available when I started graduate school. That was way back in 2000. I know. Not that long ago. But I bought my first computer in the fall of ’99. If I’d had a blog and a wiki to use back then, I’d have a database full of my research and writing. It’s on a disk. But to move it all into a database and publish it will take me way too long. I could go back and rip stuff from the papers I wrote…that has possibilities. We used Blackboard in the program, and for me it was the first time I’d ever written for a group of people. After I got over the initial discomfort, I started to like it. When I finished the program, I missed the intellectual discourse. So blogging is a natural outlet for me now.

Since I got the degree, I’ve been on the prowl for coursework that I could apply to the masters for advancement on the school district’s salary schedule. I’m set to reach the M+36 goal at the end of this semester, and that’s the end of my road. From here I plan to back away from formal coursework and workshops for a while. I spoke up at a staff meeting recently and announced that I was getting a divorce from the university soon. I’m weary of being “professionally developed.” I think I may be the intellectual victim of too much of a good thing.

But honestly, I need to feed the idea factory. I like to read research and to think about abstractions. The blog is going to give me a chance to follow the muse. I did something yesterday to facilitate this slight change of direction. I paid for electronic access to all of the International Reading Association’s publications and archives. I’d recommend it to anyone in graduate school doing research in literacy. The entire collection is searchable. I entered the word ‘inquiry’ into the search field and got 270 references from journals and book chapters. People might wonder why anyone would want to follow such a pointless pursuit. There won’t be any money in it for me. It’s going to take up a lot of time. All I can say is that it seems like something I need to to do. I’m trying to make sense of my career choice, and writing publicly about it is more meaningful than thrashing around on my own. I hope you find some value in it.

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