Greg Ashman is a teacher, originally from England but now living and working in Ballarat, Australia. He was the deputy head of a London comprehensive and is currently head of maths and pursuing his interest in educational research.
In my previous Labour Teachers post, I argued that taking a political stance did not necessarily imply views on how to teach. However, if our priority is social justice then there are a number of arguments of which left-leaning teachers should be aware.
Reading is clearly an important skill. Those who cannot read are unable to access sources of information. If you cannot read newspaper or online articles about current events then you are unlikely to be able to effectively engage in politics. This will disenfranchise the disadvantaged. It would be clearly false to claim that education can level the playing field and remove disadvantage but it should at least do the best that it can. Teaching reading is part of this.
This energises many who argue for more effective approaches to teaching reading such as the use of systematic synthetic phonics (see here, here and here) rather than ‘whole language’ or ‘balanced literacy’ methods. However, this is only part of the discussion around the teaching of reading.
In the 1980s, an American Professor called E. D. Hirsch Jr. wrote the book ‘Cultural Literacy’. It was a publishing hit, drew praise from conservatives and a lot of criticism from liberals. The latter group saw it as a call to inculcate a new generation of students with irrelevant factual information about dead, white males. In effect, it was characterised as a reactionary text.
However, Hirsch viewed himself as a liberal and this is an interesting aspect of the story. As a college professor, he noted that some groups of students did not know much about the American Civil War and that this resulted in them having difficulties in reading a passage on Grant and Lee. Presumably, their previous teachers had thought that the Civil War lacked relevance. If you believe, for instance, that reading, writing, analysing, evaluating and so on are transferrable skills then it doesn’t matter so much the context in which these skills are taught. And so, in order to motivate students and be respectful of their backgrounds, the practice had evolved of teaching students through contexts that were deemed to be relevant to them.
There is much educational theory arguing for such a stance. Paolo Freire gives a vivid description in his 1968 text, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ of the ills of what he characterises as the ‘banking model’ of education. In this model, teachers apparently take a dehumanising approach to their students, assuming their absolute ignorance and attempting, instead, to fill them up with facts in the way that one might make deposits at the bank. The better alternative was to engage students in discussions that were relevant to them; to pose problems.
However, Hirsch argues that a lack of broad historical, cultural and scientific knowledge is a significant disadvantage. Reading may be an excellent way to gain knowledge but Hirsch quotes research showing that a reader needs to know and understand 90-95% of the vocabulary in a text in order to learn from the unknown 5-10%. Understanding a text cannot be done by application of reading comprehension skills alone. Instead, it depends upon the reader having a wide body of background knowledge. This is because writers assume such knowledge on the part of their readers and miss things out that would otherwise make the text pedantic and tedious.
Consider, for instance, the first paragraph from a recent news item from the BBC website:
“Polar bears are unable to adapt their behaviour to cope with the food losses associated with warmer summers in the Arctic.”
Setting aside vocabulary, what else would you need to know in order to make sense of this? Typically, when reading a text, we produce a mental ‘situation model’ to picture what is happening. In mine, I see white polar bears near the top of a spherical world struggling to find food. I also have an understanding of the concept of global warming that helps me make sense of this concern. If, for instance, I did not realise that global warming predicts consistently warmer summers in the future then I would not understand the significance of the claim.
For an educated adult who makes these connections readily and easily, it is difficult to empathise with someone who does not – this is “The curse of knowledge”. However, note that this knowledge sits within the domains of geography, science and nature. These are exactly the sort of supposedly inert, disconnected facts that are often disparaged by those who dislike knowledge-based learning. If we want to educate children for political engagement; an engagement that may help to change social circumstances, then we need to give them knowledge of the world.