Literacy is Knowledge

City Journal writers such as Sol Stern often criticize “student centred” approaches to learning, especially those baptized by Marxist pedagogue Paulo Freire. While Freire’s view of intellectual freedom in relation to Marxism is suspect, I think that this threat is basically ignored because university education lecturers read praxis as another instance of Dewey’s experiential pragmatism. Freire is one of the few cases where liberal westerners willfully ignore the token moniker of “Democratic” (which is the rhetorical appeal of every marxist regime) and buy into Freire’s rhetoric of self-determination and freedom.

If you remember, true praxis is the enemy of “filling the bucket” and “banking” approaches to learning. What Freire and Dewey have inspired, rightly I think, is a move away from rote learning. But their free-wheeling rhetoric on literacy has taken its toll on our approach to tradition and our general disregard for great books and high culture, Shakespeare notwithstanding.

The reason textbooks are so bad is not that they are filled with facts, but that they are filled with soul-sucking, mind-numbing and extremely boring narratives…or rather, facts without narrative.

This is what amazing teachers like Rafe Esquith understand (Hobart Shakespeareans in 5th grade…). Seeking to introduce inner city kids to great literature, movies, and ideas  transforms lives.

Here is Robert Pondiscio, a former 5th grade teacher, in City Journal:

…Math is relentlessly hierarchical—you can’t understand multiplication, for example, if you don’t understand addition. Reading is mercilessly cumulative. Virtually everything a child sees and hears, in and out of school, contributes to his vocabulary and language proficiency. A child growing up in a book-filled home with articulate, educated parents who fill his early years with reading, travel, museum visits, and other forms of enrichment arrives at school with enormous advantages in knowledge and vocabulary. When schools fail to address gaps in knowledge and language, the deficits widen—a phenomenon that cognitive scientist Keith Stanovich calls the “Matthew Effect,” after a passage in the Gospel of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” The nature of knowledge and vocabulary acquisition all but assures that children raised in language-rich homes gain in reading comprehension, while the language-poor fall further behind (see “A Wealth of Words,” Winter 2013). “The mainspring of [reading] comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read,” explains Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia.

To make matters worse, most reading curricula have focused on developing generalized, all-purpose reading-comprehension “skills” uncoupled from subject-specific knowledge—reducing a complex cognitive process to a collection of all-purpose “reading strategies” to be applied to any book or bit of text that a student might encounter. Attempts to teach reading comprehension as knowledge-neutral put an enormous premium on student engagement. For teachers, reading instruction can often feel more like cheerleading: sell kids on the magic of books, get them to read a lot, and—voilà!—they will emerge as verbally adroit adults with a lifelong love of reading. As generations of results show, this approach doesn’t work.

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