Science or craft

If you’re anything like me and live in a world surrounded by elementary education, you have certainly heard about the “Reading Wars.” If you aren’t sure what that is, it’s basically a back-and-forth debate among many educators about what is the best way to teach students to read. A quick Google search will show that articles about the reading wars have been in existence for years. In a search today, I see reference to Horace Mann arguing a whole language approach in the 1800s, or Rudolf Flesch arguing in support of systematic and sequential phonics instruction in 1955. Since the 1980s, the debate has gone back and forth between explicit phonics instruction as compared to a whole-language approach. I learned to read in a school that bought into a whole language approach, but I know I had friends who struggled to learn to read that way. Personally, I started my career as a teacher in a school that utilized the Four Blocks Literacy Framework. For years as a classroom teacher, I referred to Guiding Readers and Writers by Irene Fountas and Gay Pinnell constantly (my version is marked up, dog-eared, and tabbed from years of use). Most recently, the buzz has been around The Science of Reading, which refers to the research of cognitive scientists on how we learn to read and what is needed to reach a level of proficiency.

Now, I must be completely honest here, I feel I am relatively early in my learning about the Science of Reading, and that’s not really what this post is about. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the topic because I want to be knowledgeable, and as a former science teacher, I believe in the importance of learning from the most recent research available.

What I have learned about the Science of Reading drove me to a book by Mark Seidenberg called Language at the Speed of Sight. Seidenberg is a cognitive neuroscientist (in case you need a definition, cognitive neuroscience is the study of the biological processes that underlie human cognition – in simpler words, it’s the study of how people learn). His research has been focused on learning and early childhood development. While there are many directions that I could choose to dig deeper based on this book, the piece I want to examine first revolves around the role of teacher education as a potential lever to lead to further growth in the reading proficiency of students.

Before I dig too deeply into that, I want to say something first – I’m not sure how much I buy into the whole “Reading Wars” argument. I don’t know how we grow together in our learning when we equate something to a war. In general, based on my studies of history, there are no winners in a war. Ultimately, as an educator, I am constantly trying to grow so that I may have a greater impact on my students. One of the things that I have noticed as I dig deeper into articles and research on the “Reading Wars” is that it seems that there is little willingness to find a middle ground. People are entrenched in their beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. I have long believed in the power of growing together. At times I read and research topics I don’t completely agree with because if someone believes in that thing so strongly, maybe there is something I can learn from them, and often, I do learn something. That idea of being better together does not seem to really be in existence from the two sides of the “Reading Wars” argument.

There was something that Seidenberg said near the end of the book that stood out to me. In Chapter 12, he talks of “the absence of a strong commitment to basic science as a source of evidence within the culture of education…” He goes on to argue that this absence of science has potentially had detrimental effects on reading education. So often in education, decisions about teaching and learning are made in the classroom by teachers who truly believe that the steps they are taking will support students. Those decisions might be based on feeling, experience, or something that is working for a colleague. What Seidenberg argues is that those decisions need to be based more in the realm of science and research. But in most Schools of Education, prospective teachers were not taught to cultivate a “scientific ethos” that allows them to be able to identify meaningful and recent research, and then make teaching moves based on what the science says. I’d argue that unless you have an advanced degree in education, you probably haven’t learned a lot about how to seek out research-based tools and interventions. I know that before my master’s program, I don’t think I had a solid footing in what it meant to be an educational researcher.

I’m not ready to say that I completely agree/buy into all that Seidenberg shares about education, but I will say that this scientific ethos does seem to be lacking in some schools of education. Part of this point from Seidenberg relates to the fact that so much of what schools of education focus on is developing philosophical beliefs in educators. I know for a fact that one of the courses I took required me to write a philosophy of education. I don’t recall much work on learning how to be an educational researcher until I was forced to research while completing my master’s program.

Many in education, myself included, have defined teaching as heart work and referred to it as a craft. But as I dig more into an understanding of cognitive psychology and the study of how people learn, there are certainly some long-held beliefs of my own that I’m being forced to reflect upon because the research tells me I might be wrong. We probably can’t get by purelyon feeling and heart and craft. Those things are a piece, but we also need to have a solid grounding in the science of learning as well.

So, there’s a question that I’m left to continue to reflect upon: What if educators saw education as science, in addition to craft? I believe there are some important areas that all of us as educators might be able to learn and grow.

Part of the role of educators is to figure out how to support our students who are not growing as learners in the way that we might hope they would. Maybe they are reading at a level that we consider below proficiency. When this happens, as teachers, we put into place interventions to support our students. Too often, it seems to me, we put in place an intervention based on what we “feel” might work best. But we do so without making sure that the intervention is research-based, and at times without making sure that the intervention supports the area of weakness for that student. I think that part of why this might happen is that many educators were not trained to look at the research.

In addition, many of us may not know how to do our own action research on strategies we try within a classroom. In action research, you identify a question or problem, test out a strategy, gather data, and determine if it works. In true action research, there is a phase of literature review where we try to gain a deeper understanding of research that may have already been done that is tied to our question or problem. This is where I think that sometimes action research falls apart because many educators haven’t been trained in the process of reviewing research. Our background gave many of us a solid background in philosophy, but not as solid of a background in research.

And here’s the issue – learning to do this takes time! It isn’t insurmountable, but on top of all the other things that are on the plate of teachers, it is challenging.

As I continue to reflect on these points, I’m challenging myself to find ways to support teachers in their efforts to learn about research. I’ll be looking for ways to share knowledge and provide sources of quality research. Luckily, we live in a day and age where Google allows us to find scholarly articles quickly and easily on just about any topic in education. Hopefully, through this continued exposure, we can expand our knowledge as researchers. In addition, I’ll be seeking opportunities to help guide teachers through action research of our own.

I’m curious to hear from you – what is your experience with education research? On a scale of 1 to 5, how well prepared do you feel you were to do your own research on educational tools, interventions, and strategies? If that number is lower than you’d like, what do you plan to do so that you know the decisions you make in the classroom are rooted both in research and science, as well as feelings and experience?