Who are you calling an ideologue?

23 Mar

I get very cranky about the way something as important as the teaching of reading is framed by some in the media and out there (consequently?) by the public. It really ought not to be framed as a white hats versus black hats conflict. Anyone who sees everything in terms of left-wing conspiracy and thus sees literacy teachers as mindless idiots pushed around by “ideologues” really doesn’t deserve any respect at all. Certainly such right-wing ideologues don’t deserve to be listened to, but unfortunately they too often are. They cash in on our tendency to think someone has been conning us.

I have argued this case again and again for several decades, let alone on this blog, and am rather tired of it all. However, I enter the fray again prompted by this letter in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

As one who taught many a struggling child to read, I bridle at Miranda Devine’s denigratory labelling of Brian Cambourne as the "godfather" of whole language learning ("The crazy politics of learning to read", March 21-22).

Cambourne has produced a wealth of impressive evidence to substantiate his advocacy of holistic approaches to literacy. He is one of many dedicated literacy leaders who rightly emphasise the centrality of meaning in learning to read and that excessive emphasis on fragmented decoding achieves only limited results. Such reductionism can produce "readers" who are able to decode print, but who seldom go near a book.

Whole language advocates are not averse to teaching phonics; they teach embedded phonics as one strategy among many necessary to help children with reading problems. How many times must it be said that almost all schools teach phonics thoroughly?

MULTILIT, or Making Up Lost Time In Literacy, is a program aimed primarily at low progress readers. It is demanding in terms of time and resources and there are question marks about the persistence of some reading gains made. Like more holistic approaches, it also recognises the importance of reading interesting material to and with children, building up sight word competence, linking spelling and writing with the reading program and so on.

To characterise whole language advocates as those who think "children learn to read naturally just by being exposed to books" is insulting. It fails to recognise the wide acceptance of whole language emphases on skills being taught in context, literacy across the curriculum and quality literature at all levels of the reading experience.

Well-implemented whole language approaches, far from being discredited, are preferable to those that treat reading in isolation and splinter the complex process of becoming literate.

Ron Sinclair Bathurst

How about we look at what Brian Cambourne has actually said? Then we might consider what reading teachers actually do, which has been well characterised in that letter.

One articulate exponent of whole language has been Brian Cambourne who emphasises the crucial role in literacy development of what he called conditions of learning (Cambourne 1988) which may be summarised as follows:

Learners need:

a) immersion in appropriate texts.

b) appropriate demonstrations.

c) responsibility for making some decisions about when, how and what they read and write.

d) high expectations about themselves as potential readers and writers.

e) high expectations about their abilities to complete the reading and writing tasks they attempt.

f) freedom to approximate mature and/or ‘ideal’ forms of reading and writing.

g) time to engage in the acts of reading and writing.

h) opportunities to employ developing reading and writing skills and knowledge in meaningful and purposeful contexts.

i) responses and feedback from knowledgeable others which both support and inform their attempts at constructing meaning using written language.

j) plenty of opportunities, with respect to the written form of language, to reflect upon and make explicit what they are learning.

When Whitfield examined the practices of reading teachers K-12 in the Botany region of Sydney in 1993 he found this to be the dominant approach, aside from a minority who favoured such skills-centred, bottom-up approaches as the Macquarie Probes, for example. However, many teachers were taking up the genre pedagogy advocated by the various Metropolitan East Disadvantaged Schools projects on literacy and the then developing English K-6 syllabus document, the final version of which has recently been published. In very many cases the genre pedagogy was deployed in a whole language framework. Typical of this blend of approaches is this STLD (support teacher learning difficulties) teacher in an Infants School:

We work within a framework of a Whole Language Classroom, which reflects also a Naturalistic Approach, and by Naturalistic Approach we mean that the conditions which are operating when a child learns to talk can also be applied to the classroom. Within that Whole Language framework we also do the Genre Writing Approach based on Halliday’s Systemic Functional Model of language and learning. What we are actually talking about is that children have a purpose or a social goal and an audience in mind. So we work with all these frameworks, so I guess we’re a bit eclectic in the approaches and methodologies that we actually use. (Whitfield 1993:4.)

Yes, I am Whitfield (1993) and those with access to university libraries or the State Library of NSW may find that old work of mine: Whitfield, N. J. (1993), Best Practice in the Teaching of Reading, 1993 DSP Action Research Project, Metropolitan East Region, Botany Cluster, Erskineville, Disadvantaged Schools Program. You see, the nonsense was being promulgated way back then and it is just as silly and harmful now as it was then. The extract above comes from 03 — an essay from 1998: Literacy on Ninglun’s Specials. While that essay is aging it is still relevant and is supplemented by links to the latest resources in the area.

In that 1993 project I had access to Infants, Primary and Secondary reading classes in about a dozen schools from La Perouse to Mascot, from Maroubra to Eastlakes. Some of those schools were challenging places to work. I ended up admiring the dedication and intelligence of the teachers involved, and certainly found very little evidence of dumbos swept every which way by airhead lefties. Further, in the course of that project I did extensive reading on the subject going back to the 1890s, and also had the benefit of conversation in the past with my grandfather, a reading teacher from 1906 through the 1940s, and my aunt who had taken up the role in the 1940s through to the 1970s.

Perhaps you can see why I get cranky.

Further thoughts

Jim Belshaw addressed some issues suggested by this post in his Problems with words and measurements.

…Here I want to use an example from Neil. Not, I hasten to add, to attack Neil, but because he has actually brought out an example of what I see as sloppy thinking.

I suggest that you read first Who are you calling an ideologue?. This post deals with a debate in Australia about the teaching of English. Without going into the details, this debate links to Australia’s own unique culture wars, a clash of ideas enveloped in political venom on both sides.

If you look at Miranda Devine’s article, and assuming her reporting is in any way correct, then Brian Cambourne is engaged in an intellectual war. Miranda Devine’s response falls to the same class.

Neil, an experienced English teacher, is sympathetic to Brian Cambourne’s position, but also believes the whole debate misses the point – there is no single solution. Neil is right. I think that I can show quite simply and clearly that the debate is misdirected….

Jim then goes on to say some very sensible things about the standard complaints about literacy emanating from some academic and business circles – complaints I recall hearing for the past forty years and more. (I take that up in my 1998 essay.)

I have had another look at Miranda Devine’s article after reading Jim’s post. I am sure much she says is correct, but it is also very selective. (By the way, the Redfern Multilit program is run by Ashfield Uniting Church’s Exodus Centre in premises owned by South Sydney Uniting Church of which I am a member. I am sure it is doing a lot of good, but then most intensive programs with small groups tend to.) “Brian Cambourne is engaged in an intellectual war. Miranda Devine’s response falls to the same class.”  True enough, but I think 1) Cambourne has been a bit silly in his emails and 2) reporting has distorted his purpose. What Cambourne is talking about in statements like "When you rely on evidence, it’s twisted … We rely on the cognitive science framing theory, to frame things the way you want the reader to understand them to be true." – which out of context does sound bizarre – is Sociology 101 rather than “a postmodern justification for obfuscation.”

For example, see Framing explained from Values Based Management, hardly a site of rampant pomo.

Framing (F) is focusing the attention of people within a field of meaning. Tversky and Kahneman should be seen as the founders of framing theory, although Fairhurst and Sarr actually coined the term.

Contrary to the central concept of of rational choice theory (people always strive to make the most rational choices possible), Framing theory suggests that how something is presented (the “frame”) influences the choices people make.

Frames are abstract notions that serve to organize or structure social meanings. Frames influence the perception of the news of the audience, this form of agenda-setting not only tells what to think about an issue (agenda-setting theory), but also how to think about that issue.

F is a quality of communication that leads others to accept one meaning over another. It is  the process by which a communication source defines and constructs a political issue or public controversy.

F is an important topic since it can have a big influence on what people think! Try the first example on the right to test if you can withstand framing…

Framing is not per se a bad thing and in fact is an unavoidable part of human communication. We find it in the media as events are presented within a field of meaning.  We find it in politics as politicians attempt to characterize events as one thing or another; we find it in religion, and we find it in negotiating when one side tries to move another towards a desired outcome. Finally it can also be used by leaders of organizations with profound effects on how organizational members understand and respond to the world in which they live. It is a skill that most successful leaders possess, yet one that is not often taught.

According to Fairhurst & Sarr (1996) F consists of three elements:

1. Language,

2. Thought, and

3. Forethought.

Language helps us to remember information and acts to transform the way in which we view situations. To use language, people must have thought and reflected on their own interpretive frameworks and those of others. Leaders can and should learn framing spontaneously in certain circumstances. Being able to do so has to do with having the forethought to predict framing opportunities. In other words, leaders must plan in order to be spontaneous.

Fairhurst and Sarr (1996) described the following Framing Techniques:

a) Metaphor: To give an idea or program a new meaning by comparing it to something else.

b) Stories (myths and legends): To frame a subject by anecdote in a vivid and memorable way.

c) Traditions (rites, rituals and ceremonies): To pattern and define an organization at regular time increments to confirm and reproduce organizational values.

d) Slogans, jargon and catchphrases: To frame a subject in a memorable and familiar fashion.

e) Artifacts: To illuminate corporate values through physical vestiges (sometimes in a way language cannot).

f) Contrast: To describe a subject in terms of what it is not.

g) Spin: to talk about a concept so as to give it a positive or negative connotation.

Miranda’s columns are usually classic examples of framing or filtering an issue through an ideology – hence the title of this entry.

The theory is known and used by many linguists worldwide, including this Indonesian blogger. In the world of linguistics the theory is often associated with George Lakoff.

Lakoff acknowledges that both academic and political cultures are slow to change. But he is optimistic, pointing to the way in which the growth of cognitive psychology has undermined the rational-actor model that long dominated economics. In his own field, Lakoff predicts that "brain-based linguistics" will soon become the new standard — indeed, eclipsing Chomsky.

And despite his setbacks, Lakoff is not giving up on politics. He is still confident that his ideas can make a difference to Democrats. When he wrote Thinking Points, his handbook for progressive activism, he sent the first copy to Barack Obama. "I don’t know if he read it," Lakoff says, as a wide grin flashes across his face, "but a number of people have observed that if you look through Thinking Points, it is the Obama campaign.

Since, unfortunately, the gurus at Macquarie University (or their enthusiastic supporters) seem to frame promotion of their product at $349.00 a kit as a negation of Cambourne’s reputation and life work he was drawing on framing theory to determine a counter-strike. Whoever persuades the people with the purse strings is likely to prosper of course, though Cambourne isn’t actually selling anything – except perhaps his reputation, that of his department, and the potential for research grants. Further, the conditions of learning – the concept he is most famous for – outlined above really apply whatever one may think of phonics, a point made in the letter with which I began.

And you will note, won’t you, how I have been deliberately framing that paragraph. It does work. Ask Barack Obama.

Miranda ends on a grand irrelevance, except it is part of her framing of the issue: “This has been as futile and damaging as the notion that we cannot prevent catastrophic bushfires unless we stop climate change. It is using the tragedy of illiterate children as the means to achieve an ideological end.”


One response to “Who are you calling an ideologue?

  1. Jim Belshaw

    March 24, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    I found your additional comment very interesting, Neil. To my mind we can distnguish between the use of framing to guide to facilitate learning and the same technique to control learning. Or any form of opinion. I talk a fair bit about the second!

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