Friday, June 6, 2014

I Blog; Therefore, I Am

       Descartes said, “I think; therefore, I am.” I want our students to say, “I read and write; therefore, I can think.”

Rene Descartes
Yesterday I managed to get myself in the middle of a heated discussion with several of my colleagues over how learning takes place. It was a seminar provided by my university for teachers who frequently teach freshmen. The idea is to develop instructional strategies to meet the needs of these first year students who have widely varying backgrounds and academic preparedness. At one point I found myself positioned between a French language instructor, who also happened to be French, and a philosophy instructor.

The philosophy teacher discussed some ways that he got his students to read and think about philosophers like Plato and Kant. The French instructor animatedly argued that the problem with American students is that they cannot think critically about complex text because they have not been drilled in the basics. The gist of the argument was that American teachers and parents coddle their students too much, do not insist that they learn basic things in language, reading and other topics through drill and therefore, cannot think critically.

The philosophy instructor, looking for common ground, brought up the name of the great French philosopher, Rene Descartes, and offered how he was trying to get his students to read and understand the man who famously said, “I think; therefore, I am.” Our French colleague would have none of it, insisting that these students can’t think about Descartes because they have not been drilled in his writings or in the grammar of their own language for that matter. (I hope I am doing justice to the two professors’ arguments here, as the words were flying quickly to and fro).

I jumped in and suggested that they were arguing over the need for a frame of reference in critical thinking and that the real disagreement was over whether this frame of reference was a necessary prerequisite or something that was a part of the learning and critical thinking process.

This got me thinking about learning and critical thinking. Certainly, you need to know “stuff” in order to think critically about “stuff.” But does learning proceed in a linear fashion: first we learn that low level “stuff”, and then we think about it on a higher level. I don’t think so. I think the two go hand in hand. Let me cite an example.

About a year ago I started to write this blog with the purpose of providing my thoughts on literacy instruction, something I felt I already knew a great deal about after 45 years in the field. One of my earliest blog readers suggested that I read Diane Ravitch’s blog to see what was happening in public education and why teachers might be having difficulty implementing what I suggested. At the time I really did not know much about the corporate education reform movement. I had many concerns about the Common Core approach to literacy instruction and I thought charter schools were the wrong simple answer to a complex problem, but that was about it.

I read Diane’s blog. Then I read Anthony Cody and Valerie Straus and Mercedes Schneider and Bruce Baker and Jonathan Pelto and EduShyster and I became radicalized and a staunch advocate for public education through my blog, which changed from a teacherly advice column, to an anti-corporate education reform philippic.

I learned as I was going and my blog entries reflected my learning up to that point and later entries were more informed than earlier ones because I was learning more. What I believe I was doing, in the term coined by literacy researcher, Frank Smith, was “reading like a writer.” Smith says that there is entirely too much to learn about writing for it to be learned from instruction, no matter how good. Students learn most of what they know about writing by writing and reading. Reading in a special way. Reading like a writer. I would add to that getting timely feedback on their writing from teachers.

Because I was a practicing writer, I noticed things in what I read in a special way. I was simultaneously gathering information and thinking critically about that information. The two cannot be separated. My writing drove my learning and my critical thinking.

Of course, some things about writing can be learned through direct instruction: end punctuation, capitalization, punctuating dialogue. But most of the “stuff” of writing we learn by writing and reading in this special way. “Stuff” is acquired because we write.

Similarly for reading, we learn how to read, mostly, by engaged reading. The trick is, of course, that word “engaged.” If our philosophy instructor can get the students engaged in the reading of Descartes, the students will learn “stuff” about Descartes. Again some introduction will be necessary, some activation and building of background knowledge to get the students engaged, but once engaged students can gain basic information and begin to think critically about Descartes through the reading.

Essentially, of course, I am arguing from a constructivist perspective: the idea that students “construct” their understandings in the process of listening, reading and writing about a topic. For this perspective I borrow from not only Frank Smith, but Piaget, Vygotsky and Louise Rosenblatt among others. My French instructor colleague was taking a more behavioral approach; first learn the basics and then you can apply that knowledge to higher order thinking.

The behavioral approach has informed much of the periodic “back to basics” movements of the past 50 years. In reading this usually takes the form of a heavy emphasis on phonics, the basics of reading if you will, before focusing on “real reading.” The approach ignores that students learn much about what they know about phonics by reading for meaning in real reading situations and by writing in an effort to communicate.

So call me an unreconstructed constructivist, if you will.

What does all this have to do with the classroom teacher in today’s Common Core abused classroom. Just this: students mostly need to read to get better at reading and mostly need to write to get better at writing.

The Common Core instructional format of “close reading” may have a small place in overall reading instruction, but as it is presented by Common Core promoters it is a model that relies heavily on teacher centered instruction and teacher developed “text dependent questions.” We had another name for “close reading” in the 1950s – skill, drill and kill.

In writing it appears to call for formulaic writing emphasizing informational and persuasive writing. Not bad in itself, but when tied to testing it may drive us away from student selected topics toward writing toward the prompt. In fact, it is already doing so.

What do we lose with this type of instruction? Only student engagement in their learning. And when we lose student engagement, we lose our audience and the hope for developing the kind of critical thinkers we all seem to desire.

Descartes said, “I think; therefore, I am.” I want our students to say, “I read and write; therefore, I can think.”