Reading Strategies and Cargo Cult Science

by Robert Pondiscio
July 16th, 2009

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.


  1. This is a wonderful post on multiple levels. Remember when Feynman challenged the Challenger disaster review committee on the speculation whether O rings would freeze and create a danger? He did his own experiment in ice water.

    Also remember the second space shuttle disaster which was partially attribued to our “Power Point culture.” Too many decision-makers just get briefed on the “bullet points” and don’t bother with the logic and the evidence. There’s an advantage, even for adults, to reading entire paragraphs, and reading for understanding.

    It’s been said that all hitters in baseball look the same when they make contact. So, if we threw 90mph fastballs and major league curves at Little Leaguers, they’d all hit like Ted Williams. I remember Williams speech where he used that logic to explain how he had made such a great hitter out of Mike Epstein.

    Yes, once students have the prerequisite knowldge and comprehension skills, high-challenge classrooms should look just like high-performing classrooms and move at a comparable rate. Sure, once we teach students how to be students, our disciplinary stats for high-poverty schools should look like the stats of low-poverty schools. But getting there from here is an art, as well as a challenge that requires far more scientific rigor.

    But think of the illogic, that pervades education, that “best practices” in schools that are already effective should be used to turnaround ineffective schools.

    Avoiding “Cargo Cult” science requires us to discuss the operative mechanisms of our policy proposals. NCLB-type accountability is based on the hypothesis that you can focus on narrow parts of the brains of students and educators, and that chop up knowledge and human systems unto measurable pieces. At minimum Core Knowledge argues that you must consider cognitive science. And by emphasizing, AND RESPECTING THE WHOLE OF HUMAN KNOWLDEGE, it opens people up to policies that embrace the whole of schools as social organizations.

    Comment by john thompson — July 16, 2009 @ 11:34 am

  2. One of the of my concerns with many educators is that the balance between “finding the answer” and “figuring out what the problem is” is off, with too much focus on the former and not enough on the latter.

    You’re not going to pick the right reading intervention unless you have a pretty clear idea of the specific problem(s) students are having. Is it decoding? Is it vocabulary? Is it lack of background and context?

    I think not spending the time to get more than a broad brush understanding of problems is one of the reasons for the faddishness of education. If the problem is “low reading performance” there are lots of different approaches that might work, and schools seem to try one after another. What’s actually needed is to break down the problem into it’s component pieces, and use a combination of approaches.

    But its harder to develop a packaged curriculum for that…

    Comment by Rachel — July 16, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

  3. Another problem with the “reading strategies” idea is that developing these strategies is a process that takes years to be a seamless whole in the mind of a reader–a reader who is already fluent and has substantial background knowledge. Teaching these strategies in isolation while simultaneously trying to teach it with a “just right” book for every child seems to me, as a teacher, to be a losing battle. Strategies are boring. Ideas, events, people, places–these things are exciting and absorbing.

    Kids can be taught to like reading and the more they like to read, the more they will read. And they will be able to get more out of what they read the more they are prepared to take on a wide variety of texts with a wide base of content knowledge.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — July 16, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

  4. “One of the things that more advantaged students typically bring to school is a lifetime of background knowledge…”

    Right, and as I understand “the Mathew effect,” fluent readers, who amass new knowledge through reading, pull further and further ahead of the kids left behind practicing ‘strategies.’

    Comment by Catherine Johnson — July 17, 2009 @ 8:58 am

  5. “Strategies are boring.”

    I hadn’t read this comment when I wrote mine!

    I was about to say exactly the same thing: STRATEGIES ARE BORING.

    I would have had a VERY hard time as a kid spending a lot of time practicing STRATEGIES.

    You are SO right!

    “Ideas, events, people, places–these things are exciting and absorbing.”


    Comment by Catherine Johnson — July 17, 2009 @ 9:00 am

  6. The focus on strategies over content continues to leave me dumbfounded. Can someone please enlighten me on this? It is so obvious how children love intriguing stories about history, science, even art and music. My own children LOVED the Iliad and the Odyssey before they were even 10 years old. In my work as a science enrichment teacher in several public elementary schools (in a district considered one of the best in the country) I work hard to bring content to my lessons to fight this problem. Thankfully I now have a new boss who is allowing me more freedom to do this. The former one was more interested in the process and doing crafts than actual scientific literacy.

    Comment by Gina — July 17, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

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