The idea that it’s enough to simply ”find what works, adopt it, and spread it around,” notes scientist/blogger Allison over at Kitchen Table Math is an example of what physicist Richard Feynman called “Cargo Cult Science“:
In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.
“Cargo Cult education seems to be all the rage in lots of communities,” Allison notes. “Sure, districts could just start grabbing lessons from high performing schools but that won’t make the students suddenly read or write. Unless they understand what’s underneath the ‘lessons of the high performing school’ then it won’t matter.”
I had never heard this Feyman anecdote but I may have to start calling our reliance on “reading strategies” instruction “Cargo Cult Reading.” Its entire point is to teach children “what good readers do” and the habits of mind that are reflexive to able readers. It’s the exactly the same thing–you teach kids to mimic the behaviors that lead to comprehension–but without the background knowledge that actually makes it possible. Indeed, a staple of strategy instruction is to teach children that good readers ”activate their prior knowledge to create mental images, ask questions, and make inferences.” How exactly does that work in the absence of prior knowledge to activate?
One of the things that more advantaged students typically bring to school is a lifetime of background knowledge (or “schema” as reading strategy enthusiasts prefer to call it) that makes comprehension possible. Without it you’re sitting in the jungle waiting for the planes to land.