Problems with Solutions
Many times we are faced with what is clearly a problem, but we fail to find solutions. It often results from a failure to ask the right questions. As often happens, we confuse the metric with the causes of the problem.
The Nation’s Report Card
The United States annually administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It is nicknamed the nation’s report card. It assesses what students know and can do in critical subject areas. The Christian Science Monitor recently released the results and analysis for the 2013 NAEP report card. Below are two selected quotes:
A full 25 percent of 12th-graders in 2013 scored below basic, compared with 20 percent in 1992, and just 37 percent scored at or above proficient, compared with 40 percent in 1992. Those scoring at the proficient level could answer questions requiring them to recognize the paraphrase of an idea from a historical speech and the interpretation of a paragraph in such a speech.
Scoring well on NAEP was strongly correlated with students who reported that reading is “enjoyable,” said they “learn a lot” when they read, and said they regularly discuss what they read in class. [emphasis added]
The first paragraph clearly represents an educational problem. The second paragraph indicates a possible path to a solution. It is natural to ask, what are the root cause? What is going on here in these classrooms with these students? It might be the underlying instructional practice, it might be educational funding, it might be too much television and media consumption at the expense of reading, or it might be the result of shifting cultural-economic patterns in society. I am sure other options could be hypothesized as well.
Let’s concentrate on one problem reported in the findings: students have difficulty recognizing the paraphrase of an idea from a longer text. Instead of “paraphrase” we could easily substitute other words such as summary, main idea or gist. The natural question to ask is, what is the cause of this inability to synthesize knowledge into a paraphrase?
Then we can ask, how do we fix it? What is the solution? The key may lie in the second quote: scores of proficient and above were associated with enjoyment and value placed by students on reading. Just as importantly, they regularly discuss what they read in class. Teachers often do not have the luxury of extended analysis; Monday is around the corner.
On the road from problem to solution, there are some pitfalls.
- Blame game:
Unfortunately, once we think we have found or named a cause, we often look for someone to blame. This type of “accountability” finds much of its strength in sanctions and punitive responses. It finds it strength in fear. Blame is so unproductive, and it rarely leads to a solution.
- Paralysis by analysis:
Ok. Let’s think about this. Then let’s think some more. Too much analysis can lead to a failure to try to solve the problem. Sometimes empiricism is the best method for exploring solutions to complex problems: hypothesize, try something, observe results and then evaluate. Repeat.
- Someday/ Monday:
Teachers often do not have the luxury of extended analysis: someday someone will find an answer. However, on Monday all those students will show up in your classroom. The Someday/Monday dichotomy captures one of the core challenges in teacher professional development around education technology, but it also applies to general instructional strategies as well.
In first looking at the Nation’s Report Card summary, I must admit that it is easy to get overwhelmed. I decided to focus more on reading since it is a core skill. I have been a Reading Specialist and a high school English teacher during my career, so I have a natural interest in language and reading. In the elementary grades I found that teaching main idea was extremely challenging. It was no less so in high school. Why? I have learned that it does not exist as a discrete skill, but it is a set of thinking skills that are highly influenced by context.
The light went on for me as I thought about this. Main idea – or summary – was an analogue to Noam Chomsky’s theory of transformational grammar. (Don’t run! Let me explain – briefly!) I read Chomsky in my studies as a reading specialist. He was a linguist who posited that there was a deep structure to all grammatical structures within our brains. It reflected it self in multiple ways as part of the surface grammar – which always seemed to be in flux. That is why trying to teach grammar has been such a bear of a task.
When I taught English Language Learners in what were then called ESL classes, I learned that students acquired language. Through multiple variations in context and comprehensible input, they started to master the underlying grammar. In the same way, students learn to summarize or grasp the gist of passages through discussions of what the gist is. You might call this collaborative summarizing. In educational psychology one might call it the social construction of knowledge.
I had the opportunity to film some instructional practices in the classroom that offer instructional strategies that target the ability to summarize. It is not an innate ability. Rather it is a learned set of skills that require clear instruction, time and repeated practice. I learned a great deal as I filmed collaborative summarizing – in a third grade classroom and in a 7th grade classroom. The methods could easily be applied to high school. They are posted on YouTube; see below.
Comments on Coal Miners and Teachers
Many are familiar with the story of the canary and the coal mine. It is derived from actual historical practice. Coal mining has always been a dangerous trade. Early on the miners learned that a canary could be used as an early warning system, as a way to warn of deadly gases that had no smell. If the miners found that the canary in the cage had died, they then knew the air was bad, and it was time to get out or put on respirators.
The coal miners were practical people. They knew that some unseen thing existed below the surface that might kill them. They probably did not know that it was carbon monoxide. They used an empirical method that worked and saved lives. If a canary died, they did not blame the canary for not being strong enough. I taught for 25 years, and I believe that teachers are like coal miners: They show up everyday, mining minds, looking for practical methods that work. Like the miners, they make connections based on their observations.
When I reviewed the Nation’s Report Card, I connected the findings to the video work I had done as well as to my own teaching experiences. Collaborative summarizing works because students are social, and they want to learn and share. However, they need an instructional strategy to guide them. That is what good teaching is about. It is complex. It is empirical. It is a solution to the problem.