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Revisiting What Can You Let Go?

Lately I’ve been privileged to follow thought-provoking conversations from my PLN (Professional Learning Network, for you non-Tweeters) about the idea of change in education. Education in notoriously slow to change; in fact, I’d argue that education is often resistant to change. The ever-astute Dr. Mary Howard posed this question, “Why are we still seeing so many things happening with absolutely no research basis in classrooms?” The wise Evan Robb wrote equally bold words. I’d actually take Mary’s words one step further by asking, “Why are we still seeing so many things happen that are DISPROVEN by research?” It’s one thing for there to be no research on a particular technique or strategy; it’s even more reprehensible to rely upon techniques that have been shown by peer-review research to be ineffective. That’s what gets me so excited by the John Hattie / Doug Fisher / Nancy Frey work about Visible Literacy – educators relying on effect sizes (or a measure of the impact / effectiveness) of particular teaching approaches.

In his post, Evan Robb focuses on the practices that we must let go of - like round robin reading - questioning how it is possible for it to still exist in classrooms today. If I could get on a soapbox, I’d extend a similar argument about spelling instruction. We’ve known for years that writing a spelling word three times over does not make a student more likely to correctly spell that word in his independent spelling. Yet, only last year my first-grade daughter brought home this exact assignment. I’m fascinated by effective spelling instruction, which is truly an amalgamation of word study, phonics, and fluency. But I will step off of my spelling platform for a minute, and save that for a future post.

Here’s my biggest fear. Of all of elements of literacy instruction that exist today, my prediction is that the overleveling craze will be the slowest to change. I’ve written before about my issues with leveled libraries, as have Pernille Ripp, Stefanie Affinito, Jennifer Affinito, Mary Howard. So much has come out recently highlighting the dangers of leveled libraries, yet nearly every school I enter has them – and my fear is that they will continue to exist for years to come. As much as I cringe when I see them, I don’t think leveled libraries will be quickly replaced.

Education is slow to change. I see this in my life as a parent, as a former teacher, and as a teacher educator. Research shows that most teachers revert to the way that they were taught as children, which is particularly discouraging for those of us who devote our time to top-notch teacher education. Chances are if you are reading this, you are either a teacher or a parent (or both). In whatever capacity you serve, I challenge you to rock the boat. I’m holding myself to the same challenge.

We all hold responsibility in bringing about change. I like to tell my preservice and early career teachers that teaching – by its’ very nature – is an act of defiance. In higher education, we can do better. We can make explicit efforts to ensure that our preservice teachers are not placed in classrooms where they see ineffective practices. We can do a better job translating our research into practitioner-friendly venues. As administrators and districts, we can prioritize meaningful professional development in the coaching model. As teachers, we can be brave enough to critically examine our own practices. Would you want to go to a doctor who did not stay up to date in best practices? Would you want to go to a doctor who performed surgeries in the same way they were done thirty years ago? There are too many amazing opportunities and resources – from free PLNs and Twitterchats, to state and regional conferences, to journals, to blogs and TED talks – for teachers to hide behind a veil of “I didn't know better.” As parents, we can engage in tactful and respectful dialogues with teachers and administrators, as in, “What research have you used to inform your decision to use XXX practice” or “I hearing a bit of conversation against XXX practice/strategy/curriculum. What is your take on this issue?” As the wise Gravity Goldberg pointed out, it will take all of us to bring about change – being advocates in whatever roles we hold. After all, our #kidsdeserveit.

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Dr. Molly Ness, LLC
molly@drmollyness.com
Rye, NY 10580