Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Learning by thinking things through (reading) --- Non-learning by testing

One of those unfortunate necessities with school is that in the early grades spelling is learned by rote, at least a first, and likewise for arithmetic.  If a kid gets past rote pretty quickly, primarily through reading, later perhaps also by writing or through other means of expression, then those early lessons by rote have done their job well and the kid can move onto more mature approaches to learning, which entail understanding narrative produced by others and then by producing narrative himself or herself.  What happens when a kid doesn't get past rote, neither through the later grades in elementary school, nor in middle school, nor even in high school?

At this juncture in the writing, I stopped for quite a while.  There is, of course, much narrative provided by TV and the movies, also by video games.  Given that, one needs to ask: does reading nonetheless hold a privileged place in the kid's learning?   I wanted to claim that it does, but I also wanted some evidence to support that claim, so I proceeded to look for that evidence.  I first did a Google search on "the difference between reading and watching TV for learning" but without the quotes.  I looked at a few links from there, none of which I found satisfying.  So I did the search again, this time using Google Scholar.  (I love that when on the campus VPN, a Google Scholar search suggests where the piece can be accessed from a database the Library has provided.)  The very first hit is a remarkably interesting piece by Neil Postman called The Disappearance of Childhood.  (Readers who don't have access to ProQuest will find the link takes them to a login screen.  For that reason, I've reposted the article, so everyone can have access.  It is a definite copyright violation, but I doubt anyone will lose sleep over this.  Not too many people read my blog and Postman's piece is pre-Internet.  His devil is TV.  But that helps make his piece such an interesting read.)

Postman makes a very large argument.  He asserts that the concept of childhood itself was a consequence of Gutenberg's printing press, which democratized literacy.  In the Middle Ages, there wasn't  a period of life known as childhood.  Adulthood immediately followed infancy, around the age of 7.  By that age everyone had learned oral communication skills, which we humans are hard wired to acquire.  That was all the education necessary.  So a 7-year old could start working.  Once reading was deemed a necessary skill, one that requires education to acquire, there needed to be a period of time for that education to occur and a dedicated place (school) for the learning to happen.  In Postman's view, school and childhood are two sides of the same coin.   This is a period of slow and steady maturation, intellectually and about how the world works.  Students learn through their play as well as through their schooling.  

Postman then asserts that television undoes this separation between childhood and adulthood because TV programming is accessible to everyone (meaning the content is lowest common denominator sort of stuff, since only that will have a wide audience) and the skills required to view TV and make sense of shows and the commercials are already there in young children.  (Ten years ago there was a piece that made the opposite argument, arguing that audiences were growing more sophisticated by virtue of TV.  Mainly, however, it was making an argument that for DVDs watching the same show multiple times was necessary to rationalize the purchase.  Thus, that sort of programming had to provide stories where new things came across in a second viewing.  In turn, that meant the stories had to be intellectually challenging.)  What is most interesting in Postman's critique is the consequence he draws from this undoing on the larger society.  If you buy his argument, it is very easy to cast the current Republican race to be the Presidential nominee as a product of trends Postman identified more than 30 years ago.  It also suggests that mobile devices aren't the cause of the problem with lack of attention, as many now assert.  The problem was already there in TV's dominance over print.  My generation, which as kids or perhaps as teens witnessed the transition from black and white to color TV, lived at the cusp of this transition.  That is useful to bear in mind.

TV viewing and book reading can co-exist in a way where the latter provides intellectual nurture and the former provides entertainment.   (And some TV viewing might provide intellectual nurture as well.)  That's how it was for me and indeed how it must have been for Postman as an adult (he was 24 years my senior), who in the piece I've linked to comes across both as well educated and as someone who watched a lot of TV.  At issue is whether this sort of duality is the norm or if instead one mode comes to predominate.  And here it is worth distinguishing the mechanics of reading, on the one hand, from the habit of reading, on the other.  Every kid who goes to school gets taught on the mechanics of reading.  But reading requires effort, especially for the kid who has not yet acquired the habit. Watching TV is easier.  That much, Postman's piece and the next one at the Google Scholar site, Television is "Easy" and Print is "Tough"... make quite clear.   When the kid is out of school and chooses which to do, what drives the choice?  It is not hard to imagine that if the reading habit doesn't take hold at a fairly young age, then it doesn't take hold at all.  Postman writes:

Alongside all of this, the Europeans rediscovered what Plato had known all along about learning to read; namely, that it is best done at an early age.

Now I want to get back to the persistence of rote.  My conjecture is that it happens primarily in kids for whom the reading habit is weak or not present at all.  School has two different jobs.  The first job is to teach students.  The second job is to assess what students have learned.  In the ideal, these two jobs are complements.  Teaching obviously feeds the assessment of learning.  In a virtuous cycle, the assessment, in turn, feeds subsequent teaching.  But there are unintended consequences, particularly on the student's ego.  Nobody likes to perform poorly when tested.

For kids who are reading regularly, the entire process that begins with the list of new words to learn (when I was a kid that was on Monday) and culminates with the spelling test (likewise, when I was a kid that was on Friday) with practice in between indirectly is a prod not just for reading, but reading at a certain level, where at least some of the new words are likely to appear in the story.   In this way the reading embodies the lessons learned from spelling.  Likewise, if a kid can figure out a new word from the context of the reading passage, then reading is a way to practice spelling, by seeing it in print before confronting it on a list.  But for kids who don't yet have the reading habit, spelling tests themselves may be the culprit.  Each week there is more stuff to memorize, yet the stuff is not used in an interesting way.  School becomes synonymous with memorization.  Rote then has hardened into the way students prepare for tests.

If this story that I am telling makes sense, then the key question is what might be done to get the reading habit more widespread among kids.  Comparing now to when I was a kid, there are so many other temptations now.  And measured by "special effects" those other temptations are vastly superior now to the TV we had when I was a kid.  This is the issue in upper middle class households, where the kids may be doing well at school test-wise, but where they are not really learning because they prepare for their tests by rote.

When I was in 6th grade (still elementary school then) my teacher was also the school librarian.  He had me work in the library a good part of each school day.  Some of that was real work - putting the plastic covers onto the book jackets of newly acquired books to protect the books from wear and tear.  Much of that, however, was free time that allowed me to read some of those books.  If every kid had that opportunity that sustained for an extended period of time, would each develop the reading habit?

Here I took my second break in the writing, but this time for not so long.  I did a search on "getting young kids to read" and found several pieces that said more or less the same thing.  Having shared reading experiences counts for a lot.  I know there are volunteer programs for mentoring school kids, but are there volunteer programs that encourage shared reading?  One of the pieces emphasized this as a parental responsibility, and I suppose in an upper middle class family with both parents residing in the household, it is a parental responsibility.  I'm guessing however that even in that setting surrogates for the parents will be doing some of the shared reading.  And in single parent households, an increasing reality, surrogates may be the only answer, even if it isn't a perfect answer.  The additional factors are for kids to select readings according to their then articulated interests.  This, in turn, requires having realistic alternatives from which the kid can choose.

Since I'm trained as an economist I tend to think of things from an opportunity cost perspective.  And what I'm wondering now is whether quite a bit of the effort and resource going into faculty development at college to improve pedagogy and facility with learning technology wouldn't be better spent on early childhood education, having more libraries, more books, and surrogates with whom the kids can read together in a comfortable environment.

Let me close by noting that in today's Inside Higher Ed, there is a piece about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and funding technology mediated Personalized Learning.  I've got to wonder, why fund a lot of remediation at the college level instead of funding getting the kids on a better learning track when they are younger?  We who are in Higher Ed like to see funds coming our way.  But doesn't it make more sense to encourage these kids to be readers before they become adults, just as Plato suggested?

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