Back to Balanced Literacy in NYC?

To those familiar with the history of New York City schools, this should come as no surprise: NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña is pushing for a return to Balanced Literacy, which she has long supported and which she sees as compatible with the Common Core.

Some dispute her claim; a New York Times article by Javier Hernández  quotes Common Core architect Susan Pimentel, who says that part of the Balanced Literacy philosophy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.” Later, it states that she sees the two as potentially compatible. Compatibility aside, is this return to Balanced Literacy a good idea? I say emphatically no–and will give two reasons that weren’t mentioned in the article. It was in large part my objection to Balanced Literacy (as dogma) that spurred me to write Republic of Noise.

Balanced Literacy, which traces back to initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s, rests on the premise that children learn best when allowed to teach each other and themselves. The teacher is a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage”; students have frequent opportunities to choose their own books; and most lessons involve small group work (or sometimes independent work). The program was extensively developed in NYC schools in the 1990s. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein mandated it throughout NYC schools in 2003. It is the foundation of the Reading and Writing Project, founded by Lucy Calkins.

While certain elements of Balanced Literacy, applied prudently, could be part of good teaching anywhere, the program as a whole has dangerous weaknesses. Many critics have pointed to the lack of curricular focus and the implied disparagement of direct instruction. The NYT article quotes Robert Pondiscio, who became an eloquent and passionate critic of Balanced Literacy as a result of teaching it in the South Bronx:

“One of the best things you can do to build reading proficiency is to build a strong base of background knowledge,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization. “When you have 24 kids reading 24 books, you’re not accounting for that.”

Indeed. Moreover, when there’s no specific content that the students are learning together, what do they get instead? Strategies, strategies, and more strategies. Reading strategies, writing strategies, strategies for remembering your strategies. In the absence of content, such strategies become vapid. Forget about holding a candle; they can’t even hold hot air to subject matter. Also, some of these “strategies” involve sidestepping the text–for instance, a teacher might encourage students to figure out unfamiliar words (that is, to figure out what they actually are) by looking at the pictures.

Here’s my contribution to the discussion: Balanced Literacy is to be distrusted because it is an all-encompassing pedagogical package that comes with both a worldview and a fever. Moreover, its emphasis on group work discourages high-level, sustained, and original work and thought. [Read more...]

Teamwork for what?

“Social-emotional skills’ such as teamwork, collaboration and communications are fashionable these days, writes Diana Senechal. She thinks students need to learn “a different way of being with others, a way of coming together for something interesting and beautiful.”

Teen socializing can be one of the most miserable experiences in life. If you don’t fit in, you have several options: to try to fit in, to take pride in not fitting in, to ignore the whole thing, to experience shame, or to build friendships over time. Many young people do a combination of all of these—and still go through school with a sense of rejection that stays with them for years, even decades.

If students get together to study a work of literature or music, they “come together as participants and witnesses, as people with ideas and questions,” Senechal writes. In her eighth-grade English class, she “came to know my classmates, and they me,” in discussing The Sword in the Stone, Henry IV, Antigone, The Glass Menagerie and  more.

Something similar happened in other classes, in chorus, and in our production of Romeo and Juliet. We were given room to think about something, to appreciate something, to work on something substantial.

Most group work  “degenerates into regular socializing with a task added on,” Senechal writes. “Too often, the group members shut out the student with the unusual idea (who, in many cases, would get much more done if allowed to work alone).”

Teamwork is not good in itself, she argues.

Just as much as students need to work together, they also need to think and act on their own. . . . Yes, there are times when you need to learn how to work together (on something specific)–for instance, how to act together in a scene, or how to conduct a physics experiment together. Still, the teamwork skills (if that’s the right term for them) will be determined by the work at hand. Teamwork as a generic skill does not exist (or if it does, it’s dreary).

. . . schools should offer more than the purely social; they should give students something worth learning and doing together, something beyond the peer group and its limited, limiting judgments.

Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

I think people learn teamwork only when they’re on real teams coming together to dramatize Romeo and Juliet, sing in the chorus, march in the band, win the game, put out a newspaper and so on.

From boredom to creativity

A little boredom is good for children, Dr. Teresa Belton told the BBC. Children who are kept active and stimulated every minute don’t have a chance to develop their imaginations, argued Belton, senior researcher at the University of East Anglia’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning.

Interviewing writers, artists and other creative people, Belton heard many stories of boring childhoods. Writer Meera Syal grew up in a small mining village with few distractions.

“Boredom is often associated with solitude and Syal spent hours of her early life staring out of the window across fields and woods, watching the changing weather and seasons.

“But importantly boredom made her write. She kept a diary from a young age, filling it with observations, short stories, poems, and diatribe. And she attributes these early beginnings to becoming a writer late in life.”

Society sees boredom as uncomfortable and uncreative, Belton said. But creativity “involves being able to develop internal stimulus.”

“When children have nothing to do now, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen. The time they spend on these things has increased.

“But children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”

Reminds me on Diana Senechal’s book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

I’m baaaaaaaack

I want to thank Michael E. Lopez and Diana Senechal for their wonderful contributions to the blog while I was off cruising the Norwegian fjords and celebrating a family wedding — the first of six weddings we have in the next five months.

Let me remind you that Michael blogs at Highered Intelligence and Diana is the author of  Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture

Power to the introverts

Our culture is designed for gregarious team players, says Susan Cain, author of Quiet, in this TED talk on The Power of Introverts.  Schools require children to work in groups, “even in  the most solitary of assignments, such as creative writing,” she complains. Students need the chance to think and learn on their own too. “Solitude is the school of the soul.”

Diana Senechal’s Republic of Noise also criticizes the mania for group work, collaboration and “groupthink,” rather than solitary contemplation.

Twitter, text, talk, but no time to think

Everybody’s connected all the time, “sharing” every 140-character observation, updating each other on their latest cup of coffee, tweeting and texting. But there’s less time to think, writes Diana Senechal in her new book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

An English teacher quotes Senechal’s critique of the stress on group work and collaboration.

“Our public schools, which should encourage students to see beyond the claims of the movement, have instead caved in to the immediate demands of the larger culture and economy. Convinced that the outside world calls for collaboration, school leaders and policymakers expect teachers to incorporate group work in their lessons, the more of it the better. They do not pay enough attention to the ingredients of good collaboration: independent thought, careful pondering of a topic, knowledge of the subject, and attentive listening.

“One oft-touted practice in elementary school is the ‘turn and talk’ activity, where a teacher pauses in a story she is reading aloud, asks a question, and has the students talk to their partners about it. When they are done, they join hands and raise them in the air. Instead of losing themselves in the story, they must immediately contend with the reactions of their peers. Many districts require small-group activities, throughout the grades, because such activities presumably allow all student to talk in a given lesson. Those who set and enforce such policies do not consider the drawbacks of so much talk. Talk needs a counterbalance of thought; without thought, it turns into chatter.”

I memorized a sonnet by Wordsworth in the 10th grade. Forty-odd years later, it stills comes to mind: “The world is too much with us; late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers . . . “

Compulsive tweeting and checking of e-mail is harder to resist than alcohol or cigarettes, according to a new study.

Putting group work in its place

My book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be released by Rowman & Littlefield in November and is already available for pre-ordering. In the book, I discuss group work, the folly of the “big idea,” pitfalls of “mass personalization,” and more, with references to literature, philosophy, and mathematics.

It is unclear what the future of group work holds, but I hope that it will be given its proper place–that it will be used when it actually serves the lesson and not when it doesn’t.

The Common Core State Standards seem ambivalent over the matter. The English language arts standards state, for instance, that third-grade students will “engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 3 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.” The emphasis here could be either on clarity of expression or on the range of collaborative discussions.

Group work has its place, but its place has been greatly exaggerated by proponents of various “workshop models,” Balanced Literacy, “21st century skills,” and so forth. People often forget that its quality depends on the contributions of its members. To contribute something substantial to a group, you have to do a great deal of work alone.

Working alone is not merely individualistic or competitive. It allows one to sift through thoughts, absorb information, commit information or literature to memory, think about it in different ways, try out ideas, slow down, speed up, and return to something one has learned or read before. For many, it is the happiest and most fruitful part of learning, along with the instruction itself.

When group work becomes a mainstay of instruction, it can limit the lesson and even the subject matter. The most common complaint about group work is that some students do much more work than others. But there are many more problems.

First, because students lack perspective on the subject, they are likely to disregard opinions that don’t make immediate sense to them. They may focus on those points of view that help them finish the task quickly. If someone in the group sees a problem with the entire premise, that person will likely be ignored.

Second (and related), because group work tends to focus on a task, the group members may not take time with questions that require time. They may take the shortest route to the goal, which for some topics and subjects is not the best. [Read more...]