Monday, December 10, 2012

"Visible Learning," School Reform, and In-school Reading

(I wrote this really quickly; I apologize for typos.  I wanted to get it written while it was still fresh in my mind, but I have too much schoolwork to take a long time and write it well.)

In-school reading makes parents uncomfortable
At my son's middle school, and indeed throughout the district in the city my family lives in (slightly less leafstrewn than Leafstrewn, but graced with the Perfect University and the Institute of Machine Perfection), English teachers are having their students do a lot of in-class reading.  On Parents' Night, I told my son's teacher I was thrilled about this.  Last week, at a pot luck dinner for my daughter's class, a mom who also has a seventh grader told me she had wondered about what I said.  "You said, 'I think in-class reading is a great idea,'" she said. "I couldn't tell if you were serious,  or being sarcastic."

It turns out that she, and many other parents, see reading in class as a strange idea.  That same week, on a parent email forum, a couple of parents raised the issue: why, they said, does school have them doing silent reading, an activity that they could easily do at home?

I wrote a response in which I made the obvious arguments: that reading is (as even such a champion of whole-class direct instruction as Doug Lemov argues) always a productive use of class time; that it is, in fact (as Lemov says), the (very high) baseline against which any other use of class time should be measured; that many kids don't read at home and indeed hardly read at all; that in-class reading allows the teacher to do more one-on-one instruction, which is the best kind; and so on.

Of the parents who responded, most backed me up.  Some parents, however, were still not convinced. Most of these parents were willing to admit that reading in class might be good for other people's children--the implication I think was that good parents would have kids who read--but not for their own children, because their own children didn't need it.  At the pot luck dinner I talked to a couple of parents whose kids read a lot at home; they were confused as to why their kids would spend time in school reading when they could be doing something else.

What the Research Says
I spent several hours over the weekend immersed in John Hattie's magisterial 2009 overview, Visible Learning.  I've also spent some time looking back at Marzano's interesting 2000 monograph, A New Era of School Reform, which is, while less impressively encyclopedic, very much along the line that Hattie takes. Hattie and Marzano stress very clear and well-defined "learning objectives," very clear teacher control over where the lesson is going, and lots of "feedback" going both ways between teacher and student.  Most education reformers over the past twenty years or so have justified their efforts by pointing to research like that which Hattie and Marzano synthesize. For a different perspective, I also looked back at Stephen Krashen's summary of studies of in-class reading, The Power of Reading.  I've learned a lot, but I come away with more questions than clear answers.

Hattie and Marzano are very clear on what does work.  Hattie calls it "visible learning"--he says that it's very important that both teachers and students be able to see what is working and what is not working.  That requires very clear learning objectives, something Marzano stresses that seems to be taken to heart by all of today's reformers.  It also requires a lot of feedback, from teachers to students, but also, and according to Hattie even more importantly, from students to teachers. Teachers need to know what their students are "getting" and what they are not getting.   Teachers should be "activators" and not "facilitators."  Hattie argues strongly and explicitly against the classic "constructivist" conception of teaching, in which the teacher facilitates "authentic" learning that is open-ended, "student-centered," and aimed at "discovery"--that is, learning whose end points or goals neither the teacher nor the student know beforehand.  According to Hattie, this kind of "hands-off" teaching and "intrinsically motivated" learning is "almost directly opposite" to the kind of learning that the experimental data says is most successful.

Hattie and Marzano back up their arguments with vast amounts of experimental data.  Hattie's book is particularly sweeping: his book is a meta-meta-analysis--that is, a meta-analysis of over 800 meta-analyses, each of which included several individual studies.  Hattie's book synthesizes research on over a hundred million students, and with this vast body of evidence, a logical organization, a thoughtful, placid style but a forceful argument, it is certainly the most impressive analysis of educational data I've ever seen.  That said, I came away not fully convinced.

Two Ways to Critique Hattie: theoretically and empirically
There are two kinds of potential problems with the "recipe" that Hattie (along with Marzano and all the other proponents of "clear learning objectives") is selling.

One kind of problem is theoretical: it seems possible that this kind of learning is potentially dry, uninspiring, and limited--and perhaps especially boring to students who get the idea quickly;  also, it's not clear to me that, in the case of reading, the "learning goals" can be, to use Hattie's words, "challenging, specific and visible" (25).

A second class of problems, that I'll deal with in a post later this week, have to do with the empirical evidence Hattie is using: (a) the evidence for this recipe's efficacy seems to be quite thin in the case of reading; (b) the evidence for this recipe's efficacy seems to be mostly short-term, not long-term; (c) Hattie's evidence is mostly from controlled experiments, not from natural experiments; (d) Hattie and especially Marzano argue loudly that their evidence shows that poverty can be overcome by good schools and good teaching, but as far as I know this has never actually been done by an actual school in the real world--or at least not in the United States--despite the fact that thousands of schools across the country are trying to put this kind of "visible learning" into practice.

A theoretical critique: Is "Visible Learning" possible in English class--and if so, is it doomed to be dry and boring?
Today I wrote the following on the board in my "Honors" American Lit. class: "Learning Targets:  (1) I will be able to write a good question about a sophisticated text and find a specific passage through which I can explore the question; (2) I will be able to discuss coherently the relationship between Hawthorne and Transcendentalism."

The cluster of A students who sit near the front of the room noticed what I had written and hooted derisively.  One of them asked, "Is that a joke?"  Another said, "No teacher in my entire school career has ever written learning targets on the board."  Another one said it reminded him of a description of a typical day at a Fall River charter school that was posted a few days ago on Edushyster, an anti-corporate Ed reform blog.  This led to a spirited discussion for a minute or so, before I shut it down so that we could get to our learning targets.

One student said that she liked the idea of learning targets, even in English class, but the most common knee-jerk response from the kids was that putting up a "learning target" every day in English class was laughable and ridiculous. Again, we didn't spend much time on this, but I believe their reaction was based on two ideas that I've written about before: (1) that, on the micro level, the skills we work on in English class are very complex and interdependent, so that isolating one of them each day is either absurd (today we're learning about commas in Hemingway) or obvious (the one I put up), while on the macro level the skills are  (2) daily learning goals promote short-term thinking, while English-class skills are gained over the very long term--learned through repeated practice over years.

What are the learning goals in the case of upper-grade reading?
It is worth asking, then, what people who support "visible learning" would say should be our learning goals.  The obvious place to look for these learning goals is in the Common Core.

The Common Core has two reading strands for grades 6-12, one covering "Literature" and one covering "Informational Text."  I looked at the Literature strand.  The Common Core specifies 9 standards for literature in the ninth and tenth grade.  Three of them are below:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

These standards seem fairly unhelpful. They are essentially the same as standards from earlier grades (1).  That would be fine in itself; as I've written, English class is a matter of practicing the same skills over and over.  The problem is that these standards don't tell us anything we don't already know.  We know that every English student in the world will be required to "determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text." This is quite a low-level goal. 

In the end, I don't think putting a "learning target" up on the board is a particularly bad idea.  I don't think it's necessary, but in the hands of a decent teacher it won't necessarily hurt.  The danger with the practice is that it may lead to reductive, simplistic, boring teaching, in which kids are taught a lesson completely focusing on the simple structure of Hemingway's sentences.  On the other hand, the danger with the opposite approach, the let's-just-read--and-talk-about-it approach, is that it may lead to a class that is way too loose.  Either way is dangerous, but it seems unlikely that telling kids specifically what they are going to learn in every lesson is going to lead to more learning overall.  Learning in English class is, as the Common Core standards admit both implicitly and (sometimes) explicitly, cumulative and long-term.  To pretend that students are going to be noticeably better at "determining the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text" after a day-long lesson, or even after a month-long unit, is silly.  Determining the meaning of words and phrases is a life-long task--and it is one at which the learning curve becomes flatter and flatter.  I am probably better in some ways at this now than I was when I was twenty-five; but I'm not sure anyone would notice the improvement.  Does this mean that reading a new author (as when I discovered Edward St. Aubyn last year) is useless?  No, of course not.  But it would be silly to set targets for that learning ("I will be able to describe Patrick Melrose's family dysfunction...").

That may mean that more advanced students will be the more dismissive of "visible learning"; perhaps, but I think it's not necessarily great for any students, and I'll talk more about that in a post on the empirical critique of Hattie's work later this week.

The fourth grade standards include the following:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.2 Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including those that allude to significant characters found in mythology (e.g., Herculean).

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