by Paolo Martin
When the sun sets at the end of the day, my alter ego comes out. Sometimes it's the former scientist who revels in mixing and measuring ingredients, experimenting with different flavors in an attempt to make dinner; sometimes it's the amateur athlete, trying to stay fit; but often it's the artist, the musician, practicing violin sonatas for recitals or Cuban salsa tunes for his band. For all of these things, I understand that there's practice involved - for cooking (or science), it's practice learning about the nature of the ingredients (or materials) one is working with; for running, it's regular timed runs, exercises and drills around the track; and for music, it's playing scales and rehearsing fingering and bowing techniques over and over again. All of these drills have given me a certain level of flexibility and control in different aspects of each discipline.
So when I think about learning how to read, I can see the potential benefits of direct instruction and practice in areas like phonemic awareness, phonics, high frequency words, etc. For example, it's not hard to believe that if a child learns to effectively memorize the sounds of various English letters and letter patterns within words, a certain amount of cognitive energy will be freed up to make the process of reading and understanding text easier. For example, it's not hard to imagine a student who practices reading a dramatic script over and over again gaining enough fluency to personally own the text, making it possible to portray the character in a way that is true to the story but imbued with the student's own personal interpretation.
However, I think that many government education institutions' advocacy of "explicit instruction" and drills in reading has gotten out of control in many classrooms. It may have even gone so far as to become a way some teachers justify a deficit perspective on students (i.e., that students come into the classroom as empty heads waiting to be filled) and/or some subconscious need to control their environment. In his blog, Peter Campbell has quoted two teachers as saying: 1. "The most important thing, I think, is to make sure that they [students] know that I am in complete control of everything going on, that there's not a step that I haven't planned in advance." 2. "I assume they [students] just don't know anything." Granted, these quotes are out of context, but I believe they represent a growing way of thinking in education today: that teaching is about getting kids to know what we know and get there by doing what we want them to do. Kind of like obedience school.
Yes. Obedience school. Is it really that far from reality? Perhaps not. While standards and standardized tests should be used to enhance the quality of education children receive and inform the practices of educators, instead they are being widely used to penalize schools, as children's performances on these measures carry huge stakes. So reading instruction in this case is not about the enjoyment of reading or learning to take personal stances on what one reads, but about how high, how far, or how fast. Peter Campbell calls this "Stupid Pet Tricks," referencing some examples from the Association for Direction Instruction (ADI). Performance anxiety is so deeply felt by some students that they become physically ill and vomit over their test booklets. Susan Ohanian reports that Stanford 9 producers insist that those soiled tests be returned to the publisher. In defense of the children she writes, "No group stepped forward and demanded that schools discontinue practices that make kids vomit. Instead, a principal in San Diego insists that kindergartners must take pre-Stanford-9 tests, declaring ‘Unless students become familiar with the exam format, they cannot zero in on the academic skills....'"
It's bad enough that children are increasingly losing control over their personal opinions and insights for the sake of making the right scores on high-stakes tests. It's awful when they become ill over it--when it's not about educating children as much as it is about controlling them.
Tags: assessment, testing, student reaction