Thursday, November 1, 2012

"Skills" vs. "Process"

A colleague's post
I don't often think about the fact that I didn't go to Ed. School, but once in a rare while I wonder if I maybe missed something important. Last week, one of my colleagues wrote, on an internal forum, a very interesting post about different approaches to teaching reading; when I got to the part about how she was "haunted" by "the skills versus process debate" from Ed. School, I thought: Huh?  What skills versus process debate?  How did I miss that?  Fortunately, as I read on, I think I got the basic idea.

My colleague wrote that she fears her focus on skills undermines her goals around process.  She believes that many of our students in the "standard" (lower) track need a fair amount of explicit teaching of skills--the "training wheels" of checklists, rubrics, graphic organizers, etc.; and, while she sometimes worries that students can become dependent on these training wheels, she also thinks that, for almost all of our students, taking the training wheels off leads to high anxiety and not particularly interesting or imaginative work.

This tension played out, according to my colleague, around a recent passage paper that every tenth grader at Leafstrewn was assigned.  The tenth grade teachers, she writes, decided to take a less didactic or "skills"-focused approach to the assignment; I think this means the teachers didn't provide a lot of scaffolding--didn't tell students to make double-entry notes, didn't give a graphic organizer outline, didn't provide a list of literary terms and concepts, etc.  The students were simply, as I take it, given the assignment.

The resulting papers, my colleague reports, were "somewhere between terrible and mediocre."  My colleague now wonders whether she should have done more explicit teaching around the assignment.  Such explicit "skills" teaching might, she suggests, have made the assignment more like a "paint by numbers exercise," but she is also believes it would have led to better papers.

In her conclusion, my colleague writes that we need both skills and process.  She discusses an article by Lisa Delpit (here I felt on firmer ground--I haven't been to Ed. School, but I have read Other People's Children!).  As my colleague writes, Delpit's argument was that "the students who are most in need of the cultural power and capital schools provide get shortchanged by the skills vs. process debate," at least as it was playing out in the eighties.  Delpit calls the debate "fallacious; the dichotomy," she says, "is false."

My reaction
This was all very interesting to me--perhaps partly because I missed out on the debate fifteen years ago, but also because I worry about the issue all the time, though I don't use the term "process."  I wondered, as I was reading, if the debate was really so fallacious and the dichotomy so false as Delpit claimed. There is a distinction here, and it is significant in the real world, as my colleague's story about the tenth grade passage paper shows.

The story about the tenth grade passage was really interesting; like my colleague, I'm not sure what to conclude.  I do, however, have some questions.

One question is whether we teachers maybe tend to focus too much on the short term when we are thinking about lesson planning and assessment.  My colleague thinks, rightly, that her students' papers would have been better if she had given them, along with the assignment, specific strategies for how to do it.  I'm sure that's true; on the other hand, she shouldn't hold herself responsible for the performance of students that she had never seen six weeks before.  So part of it is that she was the coach of a team whose players she had never coached before, and if they don't know the fundamentals, like basic literary terms, or how to mark up a text, then (a) that's not her fault, and (b) giving them a quick primer on those fundamentals is probably not going to make a lasting difference.

Another question the story raises for me is what we should think of as the fundamental skills we are responsible for helping our students acquire.  Is writing a passage paper a fundamental skill?  Is doing double-entry notes?  Is knowing literary terms?  Maybe they are--although I realize that I myself didn't know what "double-entry notes" were until a couple of weeks ago, and I have certainly never made them myself.  But if passage papers, double-entry notes and literary terms are fundamental skills, akin, say, to the two-on-one in hockey, then our tenth graders probably should have been practicing them in earlier grades. 

But maybe the fundamental skills are deeper--even more "fundamental".  That is, maybe they are the more or less unconscious skills of reading, thinking and writing, and the skill of being able to quickly adapt those skills to a new assignment.  Maybe writing a passage paper is like running a particular play on a two-on-one, or like playing a box-like zone defense when one of your five skaters is in the penalty box.  Running a particular play, or killing a penalty with the box defense, is something that a young hockey player might not be too familiar with, so it might need to be taught, and if it weren't taught, you might expect the results to be "somewhere between terrible and mediocre."

So these are the questions my colleague's story raises for me.  My gut instinct--but I'm not sure I'm right--is always to think that we should focus less on teaching particularized skills than on trying to make sure that our students are doing a lot of reading, a lot of talking about what they read, and a lot of revising of their own writing. My gut instinct is perhaps partly supported by what's been happening in youth hockey in recent years.  According to my friend John, the President of the youth hockey program my kids play in, there has been a realization, in recent years, that a lot of hockey practices have been too focused on explicit instruction, that kids were not getting enough time actually playing the game.  John told me that in the past, coaches used to be able to assume that their players were coming to them with thousands of hours of pond hockey and/or street hockey experience under their belts. That experience gave them a feel for the puck on the stick, a sense of how to shoot, how to pass, how, on defense, to challenge the guy with the puck.  These thousands of hours cannot, John said, be made up for with explicit instruction. 

If the analogy with English class holds (my grandmother tells me that these analogies are suspect--that she mistrusts analogous thinking so much that her memoir, soon to be published, contains only one metaphor!), then I'm still not sure what the lesson is.  What I fall back on is my feeling that if the task is meaningful, and if we can get the students to engage with it, then they will need some explicit instruction and lots of practice.  We shouldn't be too worried about teaching a skill right at the same time we're assessing it.  If the tenth grade common assignment was an initial or formative assessment, then teaching them about double-entry notes probably isn't appropriate.  If it was summative, then it should have come later in the year.  But above all, it is not our job to make the student's product excellent now, while we are teaching them, but to help the students become capable of making their own products excellent in the future.

Trying to think this through leaves me wondering what "process" is, and whether, if I would tend to downplay lots of explicit skill instruction (as opposed to practice and fine-tuning), that means I am more a "process" kind of person.  Maybe, but I don't love that term.  ("Process," to me, sounds like architecture-school claptrap--the kind of hooey untethered to the real world that gets you the kinds of buildings featured on a website I make sure to check at least twelve times a year: the eyesore of the month.)  The process that matters is the process of the students themselves being focused on the product--which I guess is the idea, but using the term "process" implies that the product is not important.  It is--and so the key next step would be to have the tenth graders look back at their own papers and try to make them better--which would require understanding why they were terrible or mediocre in the first place.

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