kitchen table math, the sequel: against strategies, part 2

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

against strategies, part 2

from Dan Willingham:
I have written (on this on this blog and elsewhere) about the importance of background knowledge and about the limited value of instructing students in reading comprehension strategies.

To be clear, I don’t think that such instruction is worthless. It has a significant impact, but it seems to be a one-time effect and the strategies are quickly learned. More practice of these strategies pays little or no return. You can read more about that here.

Knowledge of the topic you’re reading about, in contrast, has an enormous impact and more important, there is no ceiling—the more knowledge you gain, the more your reading improves.

In a recent email conversation an experienced educator asked me why, if that’s true, there has been such emphasis on reading strategies and skills in teacher’s professional development.

There’s a temptation to say “Oh, Americans don’t value knowledge; they don’t think that people need to know stuff.” But I rarely run into a teacher or administrator who believes that, and I actually have (as yet unpublished) survey data to support that impression. So I don’t think that’s behind it.

Doubtless there is more than one reason, but as a researcher, I have a hypothesis: People think strategies are important because most of the reading research is on strategies. But that’s an accident of the way research is done.

Behavioral research (and educational research in particular) is a more conservative enterprise than you might think. When a researcher decides to conduct a study in classrooms, he or she typically commits at minimum two years of his or her life to the project. What if nothing much happens?

A researcher is therefore motivated not to conduct studies that break utterly new ground, but rather to conduct studies in which one is fairly confident that something will happen.

One takes an intervention that has worked in the past, and adds an interesting tweak.


[T]o be competitive for funding the proposal has to be something for which there is already evidence that it will work.
Now consider what it takes to do research on strategy instruction versus knowledge instruction. Teaching children reading strategies is quick. A research project might call for 10 or 20 lessons in total, each lasting 30 minutes or less. One can imagine getting a school administrator’s permission to do such a study in his or her district.
But the hypothesis for knowledge instruction is that it takes years to make a broad impact on students’ knowledge.
Willingham: The Zeitgeist of Reading Instruction
The Answer Sheet


Anonymous said...

What would be useful would be some sort of list of topics. Those of us who care might try to ensure that our kids (at home or in a classroom if we are teachers) do some sort of reading in many/all of these areas.

A very incomplete starter list might go:
*) Sports (and then football, baseball, basketball, hockey ... cricket and rugby and soccer for others).
*) Science (physics, biology, chemistry, geology, meteorology, dinosaurs, astronomy, ...)
*) History (different times and places? But which give the best coverage ... you don't run into yurts in middle ages Europe): American West, Revolutionary Period, Knights in shining armor, Romans, ...
*) Fantasy novels have things like elves. You don't run into this in biology books.
*) Science fiction ...
*) Politics? How do you get this ...
*) Economics
*) Historical novels can/do cover different subjects than current teen lit. Is there an advantage to reading one Dickens novel over something by Melville?

The idea of such a list would be to try to ensure some sort of basic level of understanding for pretty much *any* book a child picked up. Basically, try to ensure that the "start from ground zero" occurs in school, not in "the real world."

I'm trying to do this consciously, but I'm not super confident of my knowledge of the "space" to cover.

Any help? Am I missing anything huge? Suggestions for things that might be missed, but matter?

-Mark Roulo

farmwifetwo said...

I'm a firm believer in knowledge based/classical education and use our reading time, our 'after' schooling time, to promote the "facts". It's one of the reason's the elder is doing so well in Math. It's much easier to listen to the lesson when you aren't worried about multiplying 2x2.

I did learn that there is an entire book on Math Language. The SLP has one b/c I asked her for worksheets for the younger. I'll be getting a copy next Mon... I admit to being VERY curious about what's in it.

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Tracy W said...

When Sir Terry Pratchett, the British fantasy author, attended school as a kid students at about age 11 sat an exam called 11+ which determined if you went to grammar school (academic) or a comprehensive (vocational). However at Pratchett's school the principal gave every student a test at age 6, and based on that streamed them academically or otherwise. Pratchett was streamed into the other section, but shortly afterwards discovered the joys of reading in The Wind In The Willows, read compulsively from there on, and was the only student in his stream that year to pass the 11+ exams, he says much to the principal's disgust.

le radical galoisien said...

I hated hated hated streaming. >:(