Saturday, May 14, 2011

Taught to the Tune of a Hickory Stick

The Facebook friend (he's also a blogger) who'd linked to Kim Brooks's article, sent me e-mail today. Among other things he wrote:
I think for example that sentence diagramming of the parts of speech is helpful, up to a point. I think, or at least hope, that my grammar is pretty decent even if I never fully grasped the various definitions of different kinds of participles, and so forth. but as I don't have kids or know that much about what schools are actually doing nowadays, and I must admit I regard as suspect a lot of elite journalism blather about these kids these days, etc, like the fuss about that documentary that came out last year about charter schools (which I haven't seen, but it sure sounded like agit-prop advocacy for spending less on poor-district schools and union-busting).
I don't have kids either, but I learn something of what schools are doing nowadays by reading writers on education. (And by asking younger acquaintances about their experience.) What I read indicates that standardized testing has invaded schools to the extent that less and less time is available for kids to learn. This will lead to lower scores on the tests, which will lead to demands for more "accountability" and more testing, which in turn will lead to lower scores. Lower scores wouldn't be such a problem, since the scores are meaningless in themselves, but the emphasis on tests and the time wasted on preparing for and taking them will mean that students won't have time to learn. In short, the current demands for accountability, standards, and so on are a self-fulfilling prophecy, at the expense of children.

My friend, by the way, was referring to the recent documentary Waiting for Superman, which I haven't seen yet. I still mean to see it, but from reviews and interviews with the filmmaker I gather that it's based on the belief that American students compare spectacularly badly with their counterparts in other countries. Since this is false, the film's recommendations of charter schools and union-busting are irrelevant at best.

My friend also misunderstood what I'd written in my comments on Facebook. He thought that when I'd said "traditional methods of teaching don't work, for a variety of reasons", I was talking about "how students in poorer districts do in our inequitable system." While our system is inequitable, and students in poorer districts are poorly served by their schools, I was talking about all students who are schooled by traditional methods. (See John Holt's How Children Fail, based on his experience teaching in good private schools. His point wasn't that rich kids have it tough too, but that many of the faults in traditional schooling are built into the system.)

I write as one who grew up in the 1950s and 60s, and went to small rural and small-town schools. After three townships were consolidated, my high-school graduating class had about 95 students in it. I remember taking standardized tests, mandated by the state of Indiana, starting in the fifth and sixth grades. For me they were a break from school routine, and I actually enjoyed taking them and (therefore?) did well on them. I did well on the SAT, too, when it came time to take it, and on other tests required for college-bound students. I was lucky: I did my required schoolwork pretty easily and quickly, so I had time to read my way through our school libraries, teaching myself the literary modernists among other writers, and using my self-taught typing skills on the school's IBM Selectrics to write during one of my study-hall periods when I wasn't studying French, Spanish, algebra, geometry, and so on. Oh, and watching TV and teaching myself to play guitar while discovering the new wave of American and British pop music along with European and American art music from the public library's lp collection. My math and foreign-language teachers taught me subjects I couldn't have taught myself, and I'm grateful to them. But most other subjects I learned on my own, because I wanted to. That's the ultimate aim of education, I thought, to prepare students to educate themselves.

In yesterday's post I wrote that I considered diagramming sentences "fun, for awhile anyway." But that reflects my own intellectuality and geekhood. When I was taking high-school Spanish, I used to recite verb conjugations as I rode around on my bicycle: trabajo, trabajas, trabaja; trabajamos, trabajais, trabajan. Much later, when I was studying Russian at IU in my thirties, my first-year instructor (a graduate student, and one of the best teachers I've ever had -- thanks, Becky!) apologized for the emphasis on grammar and structural analysis in the course; I told her that I liked those aspects of the class, because they helped me learn. For many people learning new languages as adults, immersion with a minimum of grammar is the best way to learn; but I (and I suppose others) think of grammar variously as being like a handhold, training wheels on a bicycle, a crutch, or a map: a means of guiding / supporting myself as I negotiate a new and strange territory. Students should have access to different tools and aids so that they can figure out what works best for them.

Elementary-school instruction in children's native language is different. They come to school with their spoken language already largely learned, with reading and writing to be learned as additional skills. One reason I have trouble reading Korean, I think, even though hangul is a phonetic alphabet, is that I don't know what the words I'm reading mean. Even in Spanish and Russian the words were familiar, if at times deceptively so. Learning to read English, however, meant dealing with words I already knew. Written language is not exactly the same as spoken language, but speech is a bedrock / a map / a handhold / training wheels for learning to write.

What angered me about the other commenter's remarks about traditional English grammar instruction was not that she argued for (say) diagramming sentences as one way among others of learning to write -- she claimed, dogmatically and incorrectly, that it was the only way to learn how to write well. Since yesterday I've had time to check what I thought I remembered about the effects of traditional instruction. It's well summed up by this passage in Alfie Kohn's The Schools Our Children Deserve (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), pages 225-6.
Grammar instruction provides a spectacular lesson on how old-fashioned dogma continues to drive beliefs and practices in direct contradiction to scientific findings. In the mid-1970s, a group of New Zealand researchers reviewed the available literature and wrote that "sixty years of empirical studies on the practical value of teaching grammar have failed to demonstrate any consistent measurable effects on students' writing skills." Nevertheless, they set out to design a test of their own, dividing 164 secondary school students into three carefully matched groups and exposing them to traditional grammar instruction, to a new "transformational grammar" curriculum, or to a course that just used the grammar time for more reading and creative writing. Three teachers rotated through each approach, so each group of students was exposed to all three teachers doing the same kind of instruction. At the end of three years, there were virtually no differences among the groups, which is to say there were no measurable benefits of traditional grammar instruction.

Returning to the question in 1991, two U.S. scholars contributed a definitive chapter to a research handbook published by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English. They found absolutely nothing to challenge the New Zealanders' conclusion. Indeed, a meta-analysis performed by one of the authors a few years earlier had discovered that students studying grammar actually did worse than their peers on some measures, raising the possibility that almost "any focus of instruction is more effective in improving the quality of writing than grammar and mechanics." The major question suggested by all the data was why grammar retains its appeal "when research over the past 90 years reveals not only that students do not learn it and are hostile toward it, but that the study of grammar has no impact on writing quality." The best answer they could come up with is that grammar is easy to teach, easy to grade, and "provides security in having 'right' answers." The grammar sections of a textbook should be used as a reference tool, they concluded, and not as a course of study.
This is important, because traditionalists usually attack advocates of other approaches to teaching as hostile to "excellence," as wanting students to "feel good about themselves" rather than to learn, and so on. In reality, it's the traditionalists who favor approaches that, at best, contribute nothing to students' learning, and may actively hamper it. (They also think that insulting students who don't do so well with traditional methods will somehow inspire them to "excellence.") Students like me, who are able to teach ourselves how to read and write, may escape the worst effects of traditional methods, but what about the majority, who end up avoiding reading and writing, and regard writing in particular as a mysterious chore, unable to express themselves except by cutting and pasting other people's status messages on Facebook?