Pedagogical Errors

We’ll get back to Mating in Captivity tomorrow; Scout’s honor.

In the meantime, The Atlantic has published a piece which confirms my assertions from the post preceding this one. Specifically, that the attempts to modernize instruction away from techniques that have been proven effective is yielding poor results. After describing an example the author observed in a D.C. elementary school classroom, the article begins to state its case:

That girl’s assignment was merely one example, albeit an egregious one, of a standard pedagogical approach. American elementary education has been shaped by a theory that goes like this: Reading—a term used to mean not just matching letters to sounds but also comprehension—can be taught in a manner completely disconnected from content. Use simple texts to teach children how to find the main idea, make inferences, draw conclusions, and so on, and eventually they’ll be able to apply those skills to grasp the meaning of anything put in front of them.

This is backwards, right? It gets worse, yet simultaneously gives me comfort with the fact that our kids have 1) not been subjected to this approach, and 2) always read whole books, whether they could read themselves or whether I had to read them to them. Here’s why:

In the meantime, what children are reading doesn’t really matter—it’s better for them to acquire skills that will enable them to discover knowledge for themselves later on than for them to be given information directly, or so the thinking goes. That is, they need to spend their time “learning to read” before “reading to learn.” Science can wait; history, which is considered too abstract for young minds to grasp, must wait. Reading time is filled, instead, with a variety of short books and passages unconnected to one another except by the “comprehension skills” they’re meant to teach.

As I noted, the results are in:

As far back as 1977, early-elementary teachers spent more than twice as much time on reading as on science and social studies combined. But since 2001, when the federal No Child Left Behind legislation made standardized reading and math scores the yardstick for measuring progress, the time devoted to both subjects has only grown. In turn, the amount of time spent on social studies and science has plummeted—especially in schools where test scores are low.

And yet, despite the enormous expenditure of time and resources on reading, American children haven’t become better readers. For the past 20 years, only about a third of students have scored at or above the “proficient” level on national tests.

I taught my kids to read by reading to them and also using this admittedly drab phonics book, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy LessonsIt wasn’t glamorous, as phonics instruction rarely is, but it got the job done and prepared them to be able to read content and then comprehend it.

Of course, it might be helpful if teachers, you know, actually teach kids something about the content they are expected to comprehend as well, which also seems to be missing from the current model. At least it is if The Atlantic piece is to be believed.

The passage and quiz approach leaves a lot to be desired, and I’m sure it’s easier on both the student and the teacher, but what about the long term implications? Why use it if it doesn’t work?



4 thoughts on “Pedagogical Errors

  1. no display name says:

    It’s not boring to the teacher but keeps them busy, and it “maps well” for parent volunteering. You don’t have to explain what they need to do, so any parent can slot right in.

    Smart kids will figure out what they need to and score decently no matter how terrible the pedagogy, and the fact that not-smart kids have trouble means…more funding is needed. The solution to needless complexity is always just a little bit more of it.


  2. Elspeth says:

    @ no display name:

    That’s always the answer, isn’t it? Throw money at the problem. Never mind that we’ve been doing that -more and more and more money- for 40 years and it hasn’t worked.

    There is an almost religious objection to looking back at what was done when literacy was higher and draw from that, so the “schools need more money!” cries will go on.

    I hadn’t considered how this approach allows for the person at the front of the classroom to be an interchangeable cog. Of course, when our older kids were in public school first grade, I was a volunteer who took struggling readers aside one on one and worked with them on learning to read- from an age and skill appropriate level book.


  3. Krysta says:

    I find it concerning that we seem to have the data necessary for better teaching, but it doesn’t seem to happen because we’d rather pursue the newest educational fad. It only makes sense that reading comprehension will be better if you know more about the subject–I know, for instance, I have to read a text several times if I am unfamiliar with the subject, whereas I can probably read it once if it covers a topic I know a lot about. It also makes sense that texts will make more sense if not presented in isolation. Excerpts from longer works are going to be somewhat confusing, like starting a story in media res. But I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned that a lot of solid teaching isn’t glamorous.

    The sense I get is that teachers face a lot of pressure to entertain and to engage. If a student doesn’t like a class or enjoy a subject, it’s because the teacher didn’t make it interesting enough for them. There’s a lack of accountability for the student to develop intrinsic motivation; it’s all about the student being stimulated by videos and games and hands-on activities. But, the reality is, before you can really go into all that, you probably need to start with a “boring” lecture providing background information, the building blocks the students need to complete a hands-on activity or play a game. But, if teachers are discouraged from doing the boring parts of the class, if they are told they should not lecture or provide information, the students are at a loss.

    There’s a lot of talk about creating information together as a class and breaking down barriers between student and teacher. And I believe in that to the extent that students should be able to see themselves as participants in learning; they aren’t mindlessly repeating whatever the teacher tells them to. But. There is a reason there is a teacher and students. The teacher knows more. You can’t just tell a class to read, say, Shakespeare with no guidance, no historical background, no talk of how drama and poetry work, no mention of various popular literary criticisms. The students are going to be adrift, with no idea of what they’re supposed to DO with Shakespeare in this case. Sure, maybe they can respond emotionally, but most teachers want students to do that as a first step and then move onto analysis. And, for that, they need background information. From that “boring” lecture the teacher is discouraged from giving because lectures are out of style.

    To put it all more succinctly, yes, students need information to read and to do other work for ha matter. The best way to do that is still through “boring” methods like lectures and reading the textbook. You can’t really impart information through a lot of other ways (besides video, but good luck finding one with everything you’d say in a lecture). And students can’t do all their fun activities like making a website or building something if they have no information to start with.

    Liked by 1 person

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