A return to “Death and Life”

I have been enjoying my recent return to Diane Ravitch’s latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (Basic Books, 2010). I have read the book many, many times; I edited it and was research assistant during the final stages of revision. After dozens of readings, the book remains absorbing, invigorating, and beautiful.

As I read it this time, it occurs to me that the central error of Balanced Literacy is very similar to the error of implementing Balanced Literacy (or any other model) across a system. Ravitch’s book draws an implicit and compelling parallel between the two errors.

Balanced Literacy makes the mistake of putting the “strategy” at the center of instruction. Ravitch describes the approach in chapter 3:

Teachers are supposed to teach the prescribed strategies and procedures, and the students (alone or in groups) are expected to practice their reading strategies and refer to them by name. A student might say, for example, “I am visualizing,” “I am summarizing,” “I am making a text-to-self connection,” “I am making a prediction,” or “I am making an inference.”

The emphasis on strategies is misguided (in my opinion). Reading strategies, taught and applied generically, can distract from the text and distort its meaning. What’s more, one learns much more about literature from close reading of specific literature than from instruction in the strategies themselves. The strategy approach is supposed to apply to all students and texts, but each text should be approached on its own terms. Of course, patterns and general practices do emerge, but they come out of the careful reading and attentive listening.

So there’s the central error: taking a so-called strategy, which is ill-defined to begin with, and applying it to an array of situations, without carefully considering the specifics.

A similar error can be found in the very act of mandating Balanced Literacy across a district. Ravitch describes how Balanced Literacy migrated from District 2 in New York City to the entire school system of San Diego and then back to New York City as a whole. [Read more…]

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…]