Mastering the Educational Arts
My coursework began with a confluence of three guiding questions: what does it mean to really learn something? what approach to teaching best suits such learning? what does it mean to be literate? Clearly, these are not questions with quick answers—if there even are answers to these questions—but beginning the Master’s of Arts in Education with an attempt at articulating answers directed my previously disorganized thoughts on teaching and learning. It was by sheer luck that my three initial courses each opened with one of these guiding questions. These questions also left their mark on each of my later semesters. They guide me still. In fact, I believe I have become a Master of literacy education by dedicating a year and a half to attempting to answer and refining the answers to those three questions. What is literacy? How is it taught? When is it fully learned?
My earlier experience
I officially entered teaching in a peculiar field. The world of standardized testing is reviled—often rightly so—by nearly everyone. Yet, preparing students for the standardized tests that stand in their way is a necessary evil. It takes a great deal of research and development to fully understand the content and methods of the ever evolving monsters like the SAT and MCAT. Successful test prep requires knowing the scope of each subject, the structure of the questions, the relative frequency of each concept, the length of questions and answers, the language used questions and answers, how question difficulty is determined, the scoring algorithms of each section of a test, among other aspects. Teachers, especially those at public schools, do not have the time or resources to help their students excel on these exams. As such, a private industry was born out of demand. Unfortunately, test prep services are only available to those who can afford it, thus widening the socio-economic divide.
Nonetheless, I have helped a great many deserving students and have learned a lot about teaching and learning along the way. Over the years I have had many highly motivated students who struggled to improve. These students, in particular, challenged me to consider the affective aspects of education. I learned from these students just how important emotions are to learning. When a student is scared, anxious, overwhelmed, or pessimistic it is increasingly difficult for that student to learn and apply new knowledge and skills. In order to help students with these various forms of testing anxiety I needed to adapt my teaching. But it was difficult to find reliable resources without professional guidance. Enter graduate school.
Learning about learning
Arguably the most important concept I learned in graduate school is that of transfer of learning. While most any class, lecture, or seminar can correctly claim that its attendees have learned something—some artifact of knowledge, some factoid, some thing—that is not a real measure of educational success. As I learned in CEP 800: Psychology of Learning in School and Other Settings, students regularly move along through their courses while only retaining misconceptions, deformed memories of some learning objective. As shown in the Annenberg Foundation documentary A Private Universe (1987), even when a teacher is confident in a student’s learning that student may still not be able to explain the key point of the lesson. In contrast, transfer of learning happens when students actually incorporate learning objectives into their lives. I think it reasonable to assume this is the goal of all educators.
Yet the question remains, how does transfer of learning best happen? While I was familiar with gradually releasing responsibility to my students—like first learning to ride a bike with training wheels, then removing them—I was unaware of the many ways it could be done to better address all students. As I reviewed the literature on learning theories I found a surprising amount of dualism separating mind and body. Such theories as behaviorism and information processing stood in opposition to my teaching experience. These persistent theories are reductionist and wholly ignore the fact that the brain is literally inseparable from the body. But later in CEP 800 I studied the principles of embodied cognition, which posits that our physical and emotional states affect learning. Needless to say, I was pleased to encounter a learning theory that appeared to correlate closely with my professional experience. While I felt newly emboldened in my stance toward the integration of the mind with the body, I remained wary of confirmation bias. Just because I found a theory that matched my previous assumptions about learning didn’t make it a strong, validated theory.
Learning about teaching
I began EAD 877: Program Planning and Evaluation in Post-Secondary Contexts by taking and discussing two teaching philosophy inventories. Both gave the same results—no dominant traits but with deficits in social change impulses. At the time, I interpreted the results to mean I often taught with different styles in response to student behavior and informal formative assessment. But as I encountered embodiment theory of learning in CEP 800 I also studied in EAD 877 an apprenticeship mode of teaching called situated cognition (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). The theory starts from a belief in the superiority of teaching that makes explicit the thoughts and behaviors of a master in the subject at hand, much like apprentice-master relationships to craftsmen. Whereas one situation might be a blacksmith discussing his observations of the iron and whether it meant it needed more or less heat, the other would be the expert reader reviewing potential difficulties in a passage and what strategies might be appropriate to improve comprehension. According to Brown et al. (1989), activity and perception are epistemologically prior to conceptualization of new information. In other words, in order for a student to achieve transfer of learning she must first watch the new concept in action and practice employing it.
Learning about literacy
Teaching adolescents in general presents challenges to transfer of learning. But teaching literacy skills to adolescents has particular difficulties. I read a variety of articles on the subject, collected in Best Practices in Adolescent Literacy Instruction (Hinchman & Sheridan-Thomas, eds., 2014), for TE 843: Secondary Reading Assessment and Instruction. As O’Brien & Dillon (2014) noted, student interest in reading and writing declines with every year after third grade. The authors go on to detail the futility of extrinsic motivators, like rewards and incentives, as a method to reverse teenage interest in reading. I found these observations especially vexing in terms of my inquiry into literacy learning. If this is the prevailing context for middle and upper grades, then how is an educator to have any confidence in achieving transfer of learning?
Luckily, the research isn’t all bleak. In fact, my own small experiment, along with authors like Hall & Comperatore (2014) and Wilhelm (2007), suggests that not only do students enjoy reading and writing but also educators know how to encourage that joy. The apparent disconnect may result from researchers simply asking the wrong questions. Or perhaps perceptions of what ‘counts’ as literacy. Which is a much debated, and often personal, subject. If I follow the definition provided by UNESCO for basic, functional literacy, then I accept a false dichotomy which paints people as either literate or not. At the other extreme, academics like James Paul Gee (2006) so broadly define literacy as to nearly any form of communication or way of knowing. Gee’s thoughts on the subject are reflected in the prevalence of ‘____ literacy’ terms, like numerical literacy and computer literacy. I find this conception of literacy equally problematic—it appears to divorce words from the definition. So, I constructed a working definition of literacy as: competence in engaging the world by reading, writing, and speaking. I think this definition occupies the middle ground in a few important ways. First, it keeps communication through words at the forefront. Second, it ensures that someone who is considered literate can fully participate in society. In the context of education in the USA and the onset of the Common Core (CCSS) I think it is safe to say that true literacy education aims to develop students who can fully engage the world through language.
Once again, however, the question remains, how do students best learn such literacy skills? As Wilhelm (2007) argued, true inquiry grows the sweetest fruit. By inquiry the author meant making literature relevant through the pursuit of ‘essential questions.’ In brief, an essential question is one that cannot be answered without debate. My three guiding questions (what is literacy? how is it taught? and when is it fully learned?) are, in fact, essential questions. Befitting of the peculiar unity to my first semester, teaching literacy through inquiry parallels a situated cognition mode of instruction. When the educator journeys alongside the student in genuine pursuit of an essential question—helping the student past obstacles on the way—that is when transfer of learning for literacy skills can be most reliably achieved.
Then, of course, inquiry doesn’t get students beyond the roadblocks to understanding. That is the role of the literacy expert. As Allison & Harklau (2010) discussed, meta-cognitive strategies are crucial to getting the most out of a literacy task. Whereas functional literacy may be a purely cognitive skill, meta-cognition is the act of monitoring understanding and recognizing alternative ways to approach a task for greater success. In other words, meta-cognition is basically a fancy term for self-awareness. Operating in tandem with modeling and defining meta-cognitive strategies is the need for the educator to consistently challenge students. In their Deliberate Practice Model (DPM), Munger & Murray (2014) described the benefits of curated challenge for students as not only a boon for climbing the so-called ‘staircase of complexity’ employed by the CCSS but also for intrinsic motivation in students. The DPM is based heavily on Ericcson’s (as cited in Munger & Murray, 2014) research on how to become an expert, which was famously used in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice theory in his book Outliers. Essentially, the DPM requires the educator to conscientiously select texts or tasks that will push the limits of the student in an area of weakness while maintaining her confidence elsewhere—and I couldn’t agree more. So the astute teacher would not lead a student from The Hunger Games directly to The Count of Monte Cristo but perhaps to Lord of the Flies instead. While both share themes with Katniss’s travails, one is far more linguistically dense. If meta-cognitive strategies and thoughtfully guided practice are among the best ways to elevate the literacy skills of all students, then I take it as my charge to promote these pedagogical moves for all teachers.
Naturally, the pursuit of answers doesn’t just end here. Quite conversely, I feel as though I have merely constructed the entrance to my professional, academic rabbit hole. When it is complete the burrow should drop and wend to new locales. And now that I have a strong theoretical basis for my approach to literacy education, courtesy of my Master’s of Arts in Education coursework, I can both disseminate my newfound knowledge and further refine it into a crystalized expertise. Perhaps that will be 10,000 Gladwellian hours working in a school district creating and delivering professional developments. Perhaps it will be Doctoral research into the nuances of becoming literate in multiple languages. Either way, down the rabbit hole I go.
Allison, H., & Harklau, L. (2010). Teaching academic literacies in secondary school. New York: Guilford Press.
Annenberg Learner. (1987). A private universe: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 11.
Gee, J. (2006). What is literacy? In H. Luria, D. M. Seymour, & T. Smoke (Eds.), Language and linguistics in context. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Hall, L. A., & Comperatore, A. (2014). Teaching literacy to youth who struggle with academic literacies. In K. A. Hinchman & H. K. Sheridan-Thomas (Eds.), Best practices in adolescent literacy instruction (Second edition. ed., pp. 80-97). New York: The Guilford Press.
Munger, K. A., & Murray, M. S. (2014). Text complexity and deliberate practice. In K. A. Hinchman & H. K. Sheridan-Thomas (Eds.), Best practices in adolescent literacy instruction (Second edition. ed., pp. 99-119). New York: The Guilford Press.
O’Brien, D. G., & Dillon, D. R. (2014). The role of motivation in the engaged reading of adolescents. In K. A. Hinchman & H. K. Sheridan-Thomas (Eds.), Best practices in adolescent literacy instruction (Second edition. ed., pp. 36-61). New York: The Guilford Press.
Wilhelm, J. D. (2007). Engaging readers & writers with inquiry : Promoting deep understandings in language arts and the content areas with guiding questions. New York: Scholastic.