Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Willful Ignorance and the Informational Text Controversy

Recently, I wrote here about the issues of informational text and literature. Since then, there seems to be even more controversy and teacher confusion.

In the past, most states required the teaching of literary and informational texts, though they were not very specific about this imperative. The National Assessment has long used a roughly equal mix of literary and informational texts in their testing, a feature replicated by many state tests. During the past decade, elementary reading textbooks have been rebalancing their selections, including more informational text all the time.

Nevertheless, there has long been an imbalance in the coverage of literary and informational texts in American classrooms. My advisor, Dick Venezky, was writing about this in the 1970s, and even earlier Nila Banton Smith documented how much we have protected children from various kinds of texts durig various eras of American educational history.  

Reading teachers as a group tend to love prose fiction and they want everyone else to love, too. Not surprisingly the international comparisons have found that U.S. kids do better with literary texts than informational ones (not the pattern among our trading partners). That’s imbalance is troubling because informational text includes the reading of science, history, mathematics, business, health, finance, engineering, journalism, anthropology, political science, economics, and environmental sciences.

Why so much hubbub about common core encouraging greater attention to informational text? Initially, I think it was due to honest confusion.

The standards said that 50% of elementary reading should be informational and by high school this grows to 70%. But does that pertain only to the English Language Arts? How precise do we need to be in accomplishing that division of coverage? And how do we count it?

Let’s take these questions one at a time. The first question is extremely important to high school English departments, where, not surprisingly, there has been great concern about this requirement. They need to understand that these requirements govern not just the ELA class, but students’ entire school reading experience. Thus, how much informational text students need to read in any class is somewhat dependent on what they are doing in their other classes. There would be much less informational text burden in ELA if kids are reading in their other classes.  In most schools, an English class makes up about 15-20% of the students’ instructional day, say one of six periods… they will have to read a lot of literature in an English class to ensure that 30% of their reading time is literary. Bring on the poetry, short stories, novellas, plays, etc.

Another thing that teachers should not be worrying about is whether the mix is actually 55% or 72%. These numbers are approximations, meant more to give a general idea of emphasis rather than a strict prescription. Personally, I would vary from these depending on how the kids were doing.

Finally, the counting problem is something I have wanted to write more about since last I broached the subject. I explained the problems with counting words, pages, or selections. Sue Pimentel, one of the authors of common core, wrote to me (I will soon print some parts of our communication on this) indicating that this division is expressed in terms of time. Thus, we are speaking less about a program or a set of materials, and more about student experience.

Yesterday, the Huffington Post reported on a critique of this aspect of the common core by Sandra Stotsky. Sandra has been upset about this issue and believes that the common core will lead us straight to hell because it will disrupt the literature curriculum. This is important, according to her, because students learn to think when reading prose fiction.

Today, Sue Pimentel provides a well-reasoned response to Stotsky’s commentary showing that there is still a major emphasis on literature in English classes within common core.

Although I appreciate Sue’s attempt to clarify this matter, I doubt it will do much good. Sandra’s opposition is not due to a lack of understanding of the standards, but to “willful ignorance” or the willingness to ignore any facts that may stand in the way of her arguments.

She knows, for example, that the 50% and 70% guidelines have to do with students’ school days rather than their English classes alone. I’ve explained that to her myself, and she has acknowledged it. Nevertheless, she writes as if this guidance is only for the English teacher and as if students should only be reading in the English class (which certainly contradicts the fine work she herself has done on the value of civic literacy).

Stotsky herself believes that English teachers should guide student analysis of rhetoric (in speeches, essays, and criticism), but indicates that it doesn’t matter how much of the informational text is made up of such texts. In other words, she is all for the use of informational text in the English classroom, but she doesn’t provide any guidance as to how much of this might make sense.
One of the problems is that Stotsky embraces an idea that has long been rejected by psychologists. She believes that students develop the ability to think analytically from the reading and discussion of literature, much as educators a century ago believed that it arose from the study of Latin. Edward Thorndike slayed that dragon by showing that teaching something specific like Latin does not change us cognitively in general ways. Enabling someone to analyze Latin grammar doesn’t improve their ability to analyze other kinds of ideas (in fact, getting learning to transfer continues to be a staggering problem in teaching).

The problem with willful ignorance is that it attempts to win the argument by confusing the subject. When I was on the National Reading Panel there were critics who claimed that our report said  phonics was the most important aspect of reading instruction or that we were trying to reduce the emphasis on reading comprehension and vocabulary. The problem is not just that these criticisms were wrong, but that those who leveled such claims often knew they were wrong. They wanted to stir up opposition by spreading already-disproved claims.

In any even, I, too, am committed to the teaching of literature (one of my daughters even majored in English at Kenyon no less)… but while literature is valuable, so is history, economics, political science, biology, chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. There is no empirical evidence showing that reading texts drawn from any of these fields of study will enhance your general thinking ability—but they all teach you how to think about certain aspects of the world. 

And isn’t that the point? The truly educated man or woman is not knowledgeable of Twain and Shakespeare while being ignorant of Darwin and Einstein. Students need to develop power over ideas—and those ideas should not be drawn from a narrow pool.


Sue Bartle said...

Nice post - I like your wrap-up and this section - "There is no empirical evidence showing that reading texts drawn from any of these fields of study will enhance your general thinking ability—but they all teach you how to think about certain aspects of the world."

I have been working with librarians and teachers in New York State on identifying and using quality nonfiction as we shift to the Common Core Standards. Marc Aronson and I have done over 20 workshops since September around New York State. One thing we emphasis - is that using Nonfiction will help create not only a critical thinker but a critical reader. And not only do you learn to think but you should learn to question and continue to develop a quest to find answers:)

Sue Bartle

Tom Hoffman said...

OK, is this what you (or Pimentel) have in mind?

Let's say you've got four weeks of hour long classes. 20 hours each subject.

12 hours in ELA will be devoted to reading instruction - reflecting more time spent on writing. These are split 9/3 in favor of literature.

8 hours spent on reading primary sources in history/SS (2/5ths of each week).

4 hours in science; 2 hours in math; 4 in electives (health, art, etc.). All informational.

That gives you 70% informational. Now you just have to sell those numbers to the science, math, etc. teachers.

Tim Shanahan said...


Obviously, this could be done many ways and involve many classes, but your example is spot on. As I've written in past emails, I'm not a big fan of making this division so specific, but in any case, schools are required to help students to be effective readers with a wide range of texts and English teachers will be expected, as they should be, to spend time on texts other than literary ones (just not as much time off literature as is being claimed).

However, let's clarify something. Actually, I don't have to sell anything to you or the content teachers because your state already bought it. I was just explaining the purchase. 46 states (through their governors, chief state school officers, legislatures, and/or state school boards) have adopted the common core goals and that is what students and schools will be measured against beginning in 2014. These standards do NOT belong to the English Departments alone; they belong to the public schools.

Meghan said...

How does this align with the research showing that self-selected reading is best for creating great readers?

Suppose readers don't SELECT enough non-fiction to comply. Are their teachers to ignore the research so that they can follow the Common Core State (sic) Standards?

Tim Shanahan said...

First, research does not show that self-selected reading is best for creating readers.

But your question makes no sense. Schools are aimed at teaching students those things the society has determined to be worthwhile. Making sure that students can read history, science, mathematics, current events, etc. in no way dictates what children should be doing on their own time.