More is Less

by Robert Pondiscio
December 22nd, 2009

If we’re reading more than ever (and we are) then why aren’t we getting better at it?  At the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Dan Willingham looks at a recent study that shows we are virtually surrounded by text, and spending a lot more time than 30 years ago processing the written word–when you factor time spent with all text, whether it’s in traditional print, online or other media. 

If you think that reading is a skill, then practice should improve the skill. The problem is that, as I’ve noted before, reading comprehension is not a skill.  Decoding (that is, translating the letters on the page into sounds) is a skill. Practice is necessary for decoding to become fluent ( that is, fast and effortless). Once you’re fluent, the most important factor contributing to comprehension is background knowledge. If you know a bit about the topic, it’s much easier to understand.

“A likely solution to the conundrum is that all that extra reading we’re doing is pretty lightweight,” Willingham concludes.

Reading Dan’s piece reminded me of an education shibboleth that I’ve often heard repeated: if children spend 30 minutes a day reading at their “just right” or instructional reading level (a curious concept, given that my “reading level” may vary depending on the subject matter) their comprehension will improve.   I can’t determine the source of that idea, but it seems unlikely to be true.

Study: No Adequate Evidence to Support “Learning Styles”

by Robert Pondiscio
December 18th, 2009

The four most beautiful words in the English language are “I told you so.”   Dan Willingham is not the kind of guy to say such things out loud, but he could.  He’s taken some grief for saying there’s nothing in cognitive science to support the idea that kids have different ”learning styles.”   Nearly 50,000 people have watched his YouTube video on the subject.  Now via EdWeek, along comes a study in  Psychological Science in the Public Interest by a group cognitive scientists who argue “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.”  Let me repeat that:  there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.

Sorry. You missed it?  One more time?  My pleasure:  There is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.

Wagering is now open on how long it will take before this unsupported idea loosens its grip on education.  The over/under is 2o years. I’ll take the over. 

In the absence of evidence for learning styles, the report says the “widespread use of learning-style measures in educational settings is unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources.”

Twenty years sounds about right.  I’m an optimist.

Update:  Become a fan of Learning Styles Debunked on Facebook.

Willingham on Online Teaching

by Robert Pondiscio
December 7th, 2009

Online learning has lots of potential, but the teacher-student relationship can’t possibly work over the Internet, right?  That’s what Dan Willingham used to think too.

Trick or Tweet?

by Robert Pondiscio
October 27th, 2009

Some months ago, I challenged teachers to give examples of good classroom uses of Twitter without using the term “engagement.”  In other words, is it possible to use the micro-blogging site to extend learning or create understanding in a superior way to other teaching methods?  It led to a lively discussion, but I’m not sure I ever heard a compelling answer.

Along comes a recent EdWeek look at classroom uses of Twitter, which describes how teachers “first found Twitter valuable for reaching out to colleagues and locating instructional resources. Now, they’re trying it out in the classroom as an efficient way to distribute assignments and to foster collaboration among students.”  Kathleen Kennedy Manzo’s piece also sounds a cautious and skeptical tone, noting the educational effectiveness of Twitter “or the implications those quick, short-form communications may have for students’ thinking and learning are not known.”

The piece reproduces a series of Tweets from an 11th grade history class in Virginia:

teacher From slavery 2 White House, Michelle Obama’s slave roots revealed. Comments please!
7:46 PM Oct 8th from web

student 1 @fhsush this is really shocking that they traced it back that far and found a tie it really just amazing
8:07 PM Oct 8th from web

student 2 @fhsush thats AMAZING. times have really changed. that is amazing that they can trace back that far.
8:11 PM Oct 8th from web in reply to fhsush

student 1 @fhsush WOW! i would have never guessed that. its awesome to see such a connections to slavery in our own White House. amazing
8:19 PM Oct 8th from web in reply to fhsush

I don’t wish to be unkind, but this is not exactly a riveting exchange for 11th graders, although to be fair, 140 characters is not a lot to work with unless you write headlines for the New York Post.   Lucas Ames, the history teacher in the above exchange apparently gives students the choice of “participating in the Twitter feed or writing an extra research paper.” (Somewhere Will Fitzhugh is clutching his chest and gasping for breath.)

“These students are not always sure about how to use the Internet to find and filter information, so this is forcing them to do that,” said Mr. Ames, who requires students to submit only school-related tweets. “It’s getting kids who aren’t necessarily engaged in class engaged in some sort of conversation.”

Manzo quotes Dan Willingham extensively in the piece.  His attitude seems more agnostic than skeptical. 

Like any other tool, the way we make it useful is to consider very carefully what this particular tool is very good at, rather than simply say, ‘I like Twitter, so how can I use it?’ ” said Mr. Willingham, who is the author of the new book, Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.  “The medium is not enough,” he added. “People talk about the vital importance of Web 2.0 and 3.0, and that kids have got to acquire those skills. But we can’t all just be contributing to wikis and tweeting each other. Somebody’s got to create something worth tweeting.”

Having started out as a Twitter skeptic, I’ve warmed to it a little.  I’ve certainly found it helpful, as Manzo writes, as a way to share resources and keep up with what others are saying and reading.  But it’s not very satisfying for anything other than one-way communication—sending or receiving.   It’s the equivalent of scanning the headlines of the paper.  When something intrigues me, I need more than the headline offers.  Thus my challenge to describe a learning activity for which Twitter offers more than student engagement may be a fool’s errand.  In the end, that might be the alpha and omega of what Twitter is good at, per Willingham.  That’s not nothing.  But engagement isn’t learning–it’s a prerequisite to learning.

Breaking the ELA Skills vs. Content Logjam

by Robert Pondiscio
October 5th, 2009

If the authors of the draft national standards are unwilling to name specific works of literature children should read, they should at least name specific literary movements, writes Dan Willingham.

The draft ELA standards floated by the Common Core State Standards Initiative focus almost exclusively on skills–what students should be able to glean from written texts, for example–but remain silent on content.  Dan Willingham floats an intriguing way to split the difference in his latest post at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.  He points out  it’s not a problem to specify what kids should learn in other subjects.  “In science, for example, we expect that students will acquire certain skills– methods of scientific analysis–but we also believe that there is a body of scientific knowledge that students will learn,” he notes. “The same is true of history and mathematics.”  Why, he wonders, should literature be any different? 

Perhaps a better method would be to select literary movements based on their influence.  Specifying literary movements (e.g., Modernism, The Lost Generation, Harlem Renaissance) rather than specific authors would better parallel standards in other disciplines.We might expect a national body to recommend that students study Colonial American History in 3rd grade. We would not expect that national body to specify the particular events that must be studied (and by inference, what ought to be excluded).

“Influence is likely a less arbitrary criterion than aesthetic value, and it is more useful to students. Influential movements changed how future authors wrote, their subject matter, how they thought about literature, and so on,” writes Willingham, who argues understanding something of various literary movements is a key to understanding individual works of literature.

Is it really impossible for literature experts to agree on a set of major literary movements with which American high school graduates ought to be familiar? It would not be an easy task, surely, but I think that, if given the chance, a group of literature experts (teachers, editors, professors, writers, and critics) could rise to the occasion, especially if the criterion—literary influence—were made clear.

There is more at stake in getting the balance between process and content correct if the national standards movement is to succeed.  “A stated goal of the common core standards is to prepare students for college,” Willingham concludes.  ”If the standards leave the selection of literary works utterly to chance, they are unlikely to meet that goal.”

Willingham: Reading Is Not a Skill

by Robert Pondiscio
September 28th, 2009

Dan Willingham reviews the draft voluntary national standards in reading and sees a problem:  ”Teachers and administrators are likely to read those 18 standards and to try to teach to them,” he notes.  “But reading comprehension is not a ‘skill’ that can be taught directly.”

His latest blog post at the Washington Post’s education page observes that teachers tend to teach comprehension as a series of “reading strategies” that can be practiced and mastered. “Unfortunately it really doesn’t work that way,” he writes. “The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read.”

Prior knowledge is vital to comprehension because writers omit information. For example, suppose you read “He just got a new puppy. His landlord is angry.” You easily understand the logical connection between those sentences because you know things about puppies (they aren’t housebroken), carpets (urine stains them) and landlords (they are protective of their property.)

Policymakers need to pay attention here because this is what those of us who complain about curriculum narrowing are complaining about: the natural impulse to focus on pure reading instruction in an attempt to boost reading scores is self-defeating.  When you see, as Dan does, how “bad readers” look like good readers when they have background knowledge to bring to bear on a topic, the reasonable goal of education becomes increasing the number of topics children know something about.  It may sound smart, even heroic, to focus like a laser on reading instruction, but ultimately the law of diminishing returns kicks in.  You build comprehension by building background knowledge in the reader–not by endless practice in determining the author’s purpose, finding the main idea and making inferences. 

The kids who score well on reading tests are ones who know a lot about the world—they have a lot of prior knowledge about a wide range of things–and so that whatever they are asked to read about on the test, they likely know something about it….Can’t you teach kids how to reason about texts, and thereby wring the meaning out of it even if they don’t have the right prior knowledge?  To some extent, but it doesn’t seem to help as much as you might expect. For one thing, this sort of reasoning is difficult mental work. For another, it’s slow, and so it breaks up the flow of the story you’re reading, and the fun of the story is lost.

And Dan has a line in his post that I wish could be on the wall of every classroom in the country:  “Hoping that students without relevant prior knowledge will reason their way through a story is a recipe for creating a student who doesn’t like reading.”

Ultimately the draft national standards do not serve us well by reinforcing the idea that reading a a skill.  It’s not, Willingham notes:

The mistaken idea that reading is a skill—learn to crack the code, practice comprehension strategies and you can read anything—may be the single biggest factor holding back reading achievement in the country. Students will not meet standards that way. The knowledge base problem must be solved.

A request–no a plea, really:  Forward Dan’s post to every teacher you know.  Tweet it.  Blog it. Put it on your Facebook page.  Do it now.   We’re not going to solve this problem until or unless we see this for what it is.  Here’s the link: Reading Is Not a Skill.  Pass the word.  And while you’re at it, here’s Dan’s video, Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading


Nineteen Points and One Very Bad Idea

by Robert Pondiscio
July 24th, 2009

Near the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson sought to reassure Americans that what was known at the time as “The Great War” was a just cause.  In a speech to Congress, he outlined America’s war aims in “Fourteen Points” that were as broad as insuring freedom of navigation on international waters and fair trade, and as specific as redrawing the borders of several European nations and restoring their pre-war populations.  French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, in one of history’s finer bon mots, quipped, “Fourteen points?  Why, God Almighty has only Ten!” 

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan goes Wilson one better.  Five, actually.  He has Nineteen Points.  God has fallen nine back, well off the pace.

According to detailed guidelines being released today in Washington, states that hope for a piece of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund will have to abide by 19 detailed criteria on academic standards, data-tracking, teacher recruitment and retention, and turning around low-performing schools.  “You can’t pick or choose here,” Duncan tells USA Today.

EdWeek’s Michele McNeil notes the guidelines “send a strong message that any state hoping to land a grant must allow student test scores to be used in decisions about teacher compensation and evaluation.”  While opposition to that will be summarily dismissed as the product of accountability-averse teachers unions, Dan Willingham has cogently described why this particular reform is not ready for prime time.  Still, states like New York and California, which currently forbid by law using test data to evalute teachers will not be eligible for Race to the Top funds, as McNeil points out:

Being able to link teacher and student data is “absolutely fundamental—it’s a building block,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview. “We believe great teachers matter tremendously. When you’re reluctant or scared to make that link, you do a grave disservice to the teaching profession and to our nation’s children.”

To be sure, there is much to like about this Ed Reform Early Christmas, and the sense of urgency is welcome and laudable.  But let’s be clear, No Child Left Behind, however well-intentioned, did little to advance the idea that children benefit from a robust, well-rounded curriculum.  It did much to advance the idea that children must be taught whatever might appear on a year-end test. If time was limited, anything that did not contribute to this near-term payoff was jettisoned. Thus, aggressive accountability measures actively worked against the patient, steady development of background knowledge that creates both well-educated children and, ultimately, higher test-scores.  It beggars credulity to think that using data to hold individual teachers directly responsible for student gains will result in a sudden outbreak of big picture thinking in classrooms across the country. 

The idea that reading comprehension is a function of background knowledge has not taken deep hold in America’s classrooms.  And what teacher — especially the new, young and relatively inexperienced teachers who disproportionately fill struggling urban schools — will have the wherewithal to insist on the steady buildup of knowledge across the curriculum?  Indeed, if we are to have 19 points, why not round up to 20 and insist that a Race to the Top cannot happen without attending to a well-rounded curriculum?   Instead we are almost certain to have more — much more — of the deleterious effects of our data-driven, muscular accountability age:  endless focus on reading strategies that have limited impact, mind-numbing test prep, and no attention to the essential long-range development of background knowledge that will make reading gains possible years down the road.

“Language comprehension is a slow-growing plant,” observes E.D. Hirsch.  “Even with a coherent curriculum, the buildup of knowledge and vocabulary is a gradual, multiyear process that occurs at an almost imperceptible rate. The results show up later.” 

This is clear, this is obvious, and this is certain.  But there is simply no room for this kind of thinking in an accountability system that insists –for every good reason under the Sun–on results right now and encourages individual teachers to compete instead of cooperate.

Fast-forward.  It is 2016.  After a years of holding teachers accountable for short-term gains, and creating incentives that actively work against the buildup of knowledge, with disappointing results, we wake up and realize we are going about this the wrong way.  A few look back and say we should have listened to our Cassandras.  But other energetic, well-meaning  reformers see it another way.  Instead of realizing we have fatally neglected a robust curriculum, that we are reaping what we have sown, they will conclude that as a nation we simply have no good 8th grade reading teachers.  Aggressive, immediate action is needed.

Because after all, the data doesn’t lie, does it?

Close Only Counts in Horseshoes…and School Choice?

by Robert Pondiscio
July 14th, 2009

Why do parents enroll children in underperforming schools when there appear to be better choices nearby?   For some, transportation may be a dealbreaker,  according to a new survey by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education posted by EdWeek’s Debra Viadero:

The results suggest that transportation is especially challenging for low-income families, 45 percent of whom do not own cars, or who own vehicles that are unreliable. According to the survey, one third of those families said they did not enroll their child in the school they preferred due to transportation difficulties.

Dan Willingham recently unpacked one of the paradoxes surrounding school choice over at Britannica Blog with his patented cog sci spin.  In particular, he takes issue with the argument that choice will improve the overall quality of education, since parents would not knowingly send their kids to “bad” schools.   Yet they do it all the time.   “Why should we expect people to make rational decisions about their child’s schooling,” Willingham notes, “when they don’t make rational decisions in other complex arenas?”

I can imagine an advocate saying ‘But the real point is that it’s the parent’s choice. If they want to send their kid to a mediocre school because it’s close to the home, that’s their business.’ Fair enough, but that is a different argument. We are no longer debating whether choice will improve schools but about philosophy of governance. What happens if parents do not make sensible educational choices for their children?  We don’t let parents choose not to educate their children—there are truancy laws. Should society intervene if parents send their child to a school that the parents ought to know is terrible? And are we, as a society, going to allow people to make poor choices for which there is a collective cost? Perhaps this is the educational equivalent of letting people choose to drive without wearing a seatbelt.

When I taught in the South Bronx, I routinely (and quietly) encouraged dozens of families to enter their children in the lottery for the KIPP school less than a half a mile away, but few ever did.  Meanwhile, the massive and dangerous middle school across the street was the top choice of students leaving my school.   Granted, there were three basic flavors of middle school in the neighborhood : bad, worse, and abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here   Still, to Willingham’s point, a disproportionate number made what I perceived to be the worst possible choice.  The one thing it had going for it was proximity.

Update: Jay Greene wanders into the fray at his blog and in the comments below.

Six Reasons Merit Pay is Unfair

by Robert Pondiscio
May 26th, 2009

President Obama loves merit pay.  So does Arne Duncan.  Editorial writers from coast to coast support the idea proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger  that “teacher employment be tied to performance, not to just showing up.”  Dan Willingham wanders into the fray with his latest video, “Merit Pay, Teacher Pay and Value-Added Measures,” and offers six reasons why “value added measures sound fair, but they are not.”

The political winds certainly seem to be very much at the back of merit pay plans.  Months or years hence, there may be a temptation to describe the “unintended consequences” of such plans.  Call them unintended, but not unanticipated.

Coming Soon to a Screen Near You

by Robert Pondiscio
May 21st, 2009

“In a world where ed reformers think merit pay is the key to improving student outcomes…”

The summer’s biggest blockbuster?  Dan Willingham is about to give his patented YouTube treatment to the issue of performance pay for teachers. Tongues will wag. 

While you wait for that, check out Dan’s latest over at Britannica Blog, which takes up the question of whether ”common sense” can be taught.  The short answer:  “To some extent, yes,” he says.  Because of the complexity of human thought and how we face unfamiliar problems and situtations, smart people will do dumb things.  “But with sufficient practice, people can come to recognize the types of errors the reflective mind makes, and learn to avoid them,” Willingham notes.