Sunday, January 2, 2011

1) why this blog?

Over the last several years, adolescent literacy has become a hot topic among school reformers across the U.S.

Several education associations and policy groups have issued high-profile reports warning of a nationwide adolescent literacy crisis and calling for dramatic efforts to improve reading and writing instruction in the secondary schools. Numerous school districts, states, and (for the first time) the federal government have invested in programs designed to help struggling adolescent readers catch up in basic reading skills. And as of January 2011, 44 governors had agreed to adopt K-12 curricular guidelines (the Common Core State Standards, published several months earlier by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers) that will require middle and high schools to take literacy instruction far more seriously than ever before.

But while reformers have reached consensus on the urgent need to provide more and better literacy instruction in the secondary schools, they have yet to work through some thorny questions about the specific kinds of literacy instruction that should be provided and, perhaps even more important, whose job it should be to provide that instruction.

For example, are reading and writing general skills that students should learn in one class -- English class, presumably -- and then put to use when studying other subjects, such as history and biology? Shouldn't the history, science, and other departments play a role in the teaching of reading and writing? And if literacy instruction does belong mainly to the English department, does that mean it has something to do with the teaching of literature (which English teachers tend to see as their primary area of expertise)?

Among secondary school reformers, an increasingly popular line of reasoning (and one that influenced the committee that drafted the Common Core State Standards) holds that reading and writing should in fact be taught by all of the core academic departments -- English, social studies, science, and perhaps math -- and, moreover, that each of those departments should provide its own kind of reading and writing instruction.

The call to teach reading and writing "across the curriculum" is nothing new, of course. Reformers have argued for decades already that all secondary-level teachers -- and not just members of the English department -- have a responsibility to weave literacy instruction into their work. In the past, though, those reformers tended to assume that all content area teachers should provide the same sort of literacy instruction. In a typical workshop, for example, an expert might recommend some all-purpose teaching strategies that can be used to help students improve their reading comprehension in general, whatever subject matter they happen to be studying.

What is new about the current push for literacy instruction across the curriculum is that this emphasis on generic literacy strategies has begun to fall out of favor, as school reformers become increasingly aware of scholarship by linguists, rhetoricians, and others showing that people use language in very different ways in different settings and academic disciplines. That is, what counts as skilled reading and writing varies greatly (and the qualifier "greatly" is key -- I'll come back to it later) from one domain to another. What distinguishes, say, historians from biologists, isn't just that they happen to know different facts and study different material but that they have their own, entirely distinct ways of reading, writing, communicating, reasoning, collecting evidence, making arguments, disputing claims, and so on. Thus, one can't become a biologist, for example, without learning how biologists read, write, talk, and argue. And one can't provide a decent education in biology without showing students how to read, understand, and produce the sorts of texts that biologists produce.

Hence the argument -- now gaining traction among secondary school reformers -- that reading and writing shouldn't just be taught across the curriculum but that each of the academic departments should provide its own brand of literacy instruction. Historians should show students how historians communicate, chemists should introduce them to the discourse of chemistry, and English teachers should teach them how to interpret and write about literature (rather than presuming to teach them how to read and write in general).

Nowhere has the case for discipline-based literacy instruction been made more forcefully than it was by University of Michigan researcher Elizabeth Birr Moje in an invited Commentary in the October 2008 issue of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (or JAAL), titled "Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching and learning: A call for change." The goal of secondary literacy experts shouldn't be to disseminate their own all-purpose teaching strategies to the content areas, Moje argues. Rather, they should aim to put literacy instruction "in the service of learning in the subject areas" (2010, p. 277), helping teachers to identify and teach the specific kinds of reading, writing, communicating, and (by extension) thinking that characterize their disciplines.

It occurred to me, however, that there was something fishy about Moje's logic (and the logic implied in the Common Core State Standards and other recent proposals for literacy instruction in the content areas). And so I responded to Moje's Commentary with a piece of my own, titled "In praise of amateurism: A friendly critique of Moje's 'call for change,'" which I published in JAAL's December 2010 issue. (Full disclosure: I called it a "friendly" critique because I know Moje personally, and I'm friendly with her.)

As explained in that piece, my main concern with Moje's argument is that she neglects to distinguish between "subject areas" (a term commonly used to describe middle and high school courses of study) and "disciplines" (which is often understood to refer to specialized, college- and university-level training and professional-level practice).

If one agrees with those scholars who argue that academic disciplines are constituted in large part by the ways in which their members use language -- and in principle I agree, though I would argue that one could just as easily highlight the similarities among various disciplinary discourses as emphasize their great differences -- it follows that disciplinary training should include explicit literacy instruction. It is incumbent upon history professors, for example, to teach their PhD students to read and write like the professional historians they aspire to become.

But does that line of reasoning apply equally well to the job of secondary school teachers? As I pointed out in my article, Moje tends to conflate "disciplines" and "subject areas" and, thus, she appears to assume that the sort of literacy instruction that is appropriate for history PhD students (i.e., instruction meant to help aspiring historians become fluent in the discourse of their chosen discipline) is the same, in essence, as that which is appropriate for middle and high school students.

I think that's a mistake. Rather, I argue that it would be useful to distinguish (and perhaps even create a formal distinction) between secondary school subject areas and post-secondary disciplines, and I think it would be a wise move for school reformers to ask secondary content-area teachers to provide a qualitatively different kind of reading and writing instruction than the sort one might provide to college majors and graduate students.

Further, I argue that secondary educators would do well to define students as "amateur" historians, scientists, literary critics, and so on (and to teach them to read, write, discuss, and argue about historical, scientific, literary, and other topics in ordinary, non-disciplinary, non-specialized language), rather than to conceive of those students as budding members of various disciplines. That's a much more modest way to define middle and high school content area teachers' responsibility vis-a-vis literacy instruction (e.g., they might teach the vocabulary relevant to their subject areas, use short writing assignments as a tool for learning material, and point out some of the most obvious features of discipline-specific literacy), and it's a much more realistic goal for school reformers to pursue, I think, than to try to weave disciplinary instruction into the secondary curriculum.

As it turned out, Moje got to have the last word in our conversation on the pages of JAAL. Immediately following my article, she was given space to publish a short reply, in which she clarified a few of her points and -- as I discuss below -- took issue with a number of mine.

Alas, I think that Moje misread some key parts of my argument, and I have a number of points that I'd like to make in response to her reply. Unfortunately, though, it's impossible for me to respond in a timely fashion in an old-media format such as JAAL, which relies on a months-long process of review, editing, layout, and printing.

So I've taken to the blogosphere....

What follows is my reply to Moje's reply to my friendly critique. I suspect that it will be of interest only to devoted readers of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. If you're not one, then I'm surprised that you've made it this far. If you are one, and have followed my exchange with Moje in the journal, then I invite you to read on, and I'd be delighted to have you continue the conversation by posting comments or questions of your own.

- Rafael Heller

2) continuing the conversation

Early in her response, Moje remarks that she is "puzzled" by one of my main points. My piece argues "that we should not attempt to produce 'disciplinary experts' by the end of high school, and instead should be content with producing amateurs" (p. 275). But that's not a fair criticism, she says, since I seem to be objecting to something that she never said in her Commentary. Somehow, I got the impression that her teaching model aims "to push the college curriculum down to high school"(p. 276), but that's not the case.

[P]roducing experts is in no way the goal of disciplinary literacy instruction; that is, such work is not about producing junior literary theorists, historians, scientists, or mathematicians. (p. 275)

Further, she adds,

Even a strong disciplinary literacy focus would generate what Heller calls “amateurs” (I prefer “novices”) by the end of high school, but they would be thinking and questioning novices who are able to read, write, and discuss everyday decisions that are framed by work in the disciplines.

In short, Moje suggests that I've read something into her Commentary that isn't there, namely an emphasis on teaching middle and high school students to read and write in quite specialized ways, along the lines of what college students might be expected to learn in the course of completing a major. I've exaggerated her meaning, in other words, failing to appreciate that her version of disciplinary literacy instruction is pitched at a "novice" level.

But when I take another look at her original Commentary, I don't see the kind of tempered, qualified goals that she now describes, or any effort at all to distinguish between the secondary and post-secondary curriculum. Far from calling upon secondary content area teachers to help students become disciplinary "novices," she describes the ideal high school graduate as a person who has:

  • "learned deeply in a discipline" (99),

  • been taught "how to access, interpret, challenge, and reconstruct the texts of the disciplines" (100),

  • been led "to understand the norms of practice for producing and communicating knowledge in the disciplines" (100),

  • been led to understand "deeply held assumptions or themes of the discipline" (100),

  • been empowered to "participate in the discourses of the disciplines" (101),

  • become able to "access the abstract and dense print texts of the disciplines" (102), having also acquired sufficient amounts of the necessary domain-specific knowledge,

  • acquired "the power to read critically across various texts and various disciplines" (103),

  • become able to "take on or engage with the identity as historian, scientist, mathematician, or literary critic/writer" (104), and

  • become able to "navigate, critique, and weave together the discourses of the disciplines" (105).

To my mind, these statements suggest not a modest, introductory sort of skill but full participation and mastery of a sort that one might hope to develop by the time one completes a college major or post-graduate degree. It may have been Moje's intent to describe a course of study that aims to produce something distinct from the disciplinary expertise that colleges and universities aim to produce, but I just don't see any such distinction in the pages of her Commentary. I was not unfair, I think, to argue that she neglects to distinguish between secondary subject areas and post-secondary disciplines.

But shouldn't there be some means of distinguishing between the two? Is it truly appropriate to call upon secondary school teachers to help middle and high school students to reach the very same kinds of disciplinary fluency (in multiple disciplines, no less) that one would want an undergraduate to reach in a (single) discipline?

(As an aside, it strikes me as nonsensical to refer to secondary subject areas as "disciplines" at all, since disciplines are, by definition, located in post-secondary institutions. Wikipedia's definition is representative of many others: "An academic discipline, or field of study, is a branch of knowledge that is taught and researched at the college or university level.")

The key question here is one that Moje hints at in those moments when she acknowledges that the secondary subject areas are not, in truth, exactly the same as disciplines (even though she tends to use the terms interchangeably) but are more accurately described as related to disciplines.

How are they related? The subject areas are "framed by" the disciplines, she says. And, mixing her metaphor a bit, she adds that the disciplines "undergird" the subject areas.

In my reply, I pointed out the moments in which Moje makes such distinctions. While she does so in passing, assuming no objection to her use of descriptors such as "framed by" and "undergirded", I argue that these are in fact the key moments in her whole Commentary, as they reveal the core premise on which she rests her argument. That is, she takes for granted that secondary subject areas are closely related to, and take their basic structure from, post-secondary disciplines.

Are they? I'm not so sure. As I argued, it's not at all obvious how we should define the relationship between subject areas and disciplines, and there's plenty of reason to argue that they aren't so closely related at all, especially when one considers the various activities (such as research, publishing, peer review, arguing over methodologies, policing community boundaries, reading academic journals, and so on) that constitute disciplinary life in higher education.

In her reply, Moje offers no direct response to my concern that she too quickly assumes a close connection between subject areas and disciplines. But she does elaborate a bit on her understanding of how they relate to one another: secondary literacy instruction should produce disciplinary "novices," she explains. Rather than becoming expert in disciplinary discourses, they should become able to analyze and debate ideas that are (once again) "framed by" disciplinary work, and they should engage those ideas "on a limited scale, of course," (2010, p. 275). In other words, she continues to argue that middle and high school literacy instruction should be disciplinary, but she allows that it should be scaled down somewhat from what goes on in college.

But in that case, what should one make of her insisting, in the same few pages, that she doesn't mean to "push the college curriculum down to high school" or to treat adolescents as "junior literary theorists, historians, scientists, or mathematicians"? If she's arguing that secondary literacy instructors should teach scaled down versions of college-level work -- framed by the disciplines -- then how is she not calling for the high schools to treat students as junior historians and scientists and so on?

Further, while Moje may be "puzzled" by my concern that she seems to want the college-level disciplines to dictate the form and content of the secondary curriculum, I'm hardly alone in that concern. Over the last century, numerous school reformers and educational theorists of all stripes have explicitly challenged the college disciplines' influence over the K-12 curriculum. That's not just some puzzling, idiosyncratic preoccupation of my own; it is and has long been one of the most critical debates in American educational policy. (And let me head off a likely counter-argument by noting that this doesn't necessarily put me in the camp of those mid-century reformers who promoted an un-intellectual, "life-adjustment" course of study; one can, I'll argue in a bit, make a solid case for an intellectually rigorous, coherent, and common K-12 curriculum that is framed by something other than the familiar academic disciplines.)

My concern about the influence of the disciplines on secondary education also explains my choice of the word "amateur." I understand that the word is often thought to be a pejorative (and I should have anticipated that Moje and other readers might hear that connotation and object to it). Much like the word "rhetoric," though, it's an interesting and useful term, and it's overdue for rehabilitation.

My point in referring to students as "amateurs" is to suggest that the secondary literacy curriculum could be defined as not just a scaled down version of what goes on in college majors but could aim to teach an entirely different kind of literacy, qualitatively different from the specialized, professional, exclusive discourses that so thoroughly dominate higher education, and which have in fact, for several decades now, pushed their way down into the high school curriculum.

Why do I prefer the term "amateur" over Moje's preferred term, "novice"? The distinction that I'm trying to make has to do not so much with the scale of the student's achievement (whereby we view the high school student as a less fluent but equally disciplinary version of a college graduate) but, rather, with the student's motivation.

Etymologically speaking, a novice is one who "has entered a religious order but has not taken final vows." The term suggests a certain kind of ambition, an arc of development that points toward a higher (or expert, or professional) status. To apply it to high school students is to suggest that they are, in essence, disciplinary wannabes. It presumes that the kid in 10th grade US history is already on the path to becoming a professional historian, and that the point of studying algebra in 8th grade is to move toward an advanced degree in mathematics.

An amateur, on the other hand, is "one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession." Tellingly, it derives from the Latin amare, to love, suggesting not an ambition for advanced or expert status but a desire to be participating in and getting better at the activity itself, for pleasure and fellowship. (Wayne Booth has much to say on this in For the Love of It: Amateuring and its Rivals, 1999).

That's all very well and good, and it sounds like an admirable, if lofty, way to describe the purposes of secondary education. But is there any real-world consequence to it? Would it matter, in some real way, to think of students as amateurs rather than novices?

Probably not, but here's why I decided it was worth writing a response to Moje's Commentary:

It's not so much that I have a problem with what Moje wrote. She's a university researcher -- it's her job to come up with ideas and persuade others of their merit. I may disagree with her, but she's just doing what academics are supposed to do.

But I do fault those, such as the team that produced the Common Core State Standards, who are now preparing to mobilize billions of dollars and 40-some state bureaucracies in pursuit of goals that aren't coherent.

I don't know that the NGA, CCSSO, and their partners were influenced by Moje's work in particular, but they most certainly were influenced by the line of reasoning of which Moje's work is emblematic. That is, they produced a K-12 standards document that departs radically from previous state standards not only in the emphasis that it gives to secondary reading and writing instruction but in assigning each of several departments to provide their own forms of domain-specific literacy instruction, without giving any one department clear responsibility to take the lead.

I suspect that if states go ahead and adopt those guidelines, the result will be that students will receive even less coherent and effective literacy instruction than they do at present. As I argued in my reply to Moje's Commentary, it's not at all clear what's distinct about reading and writing in secondary history or biology or English or any other class; it's not clear how or whether that instruction should be influenced by the (rather amorphous) discursive standards that are in play in the post-secondary disciplines; and it's not clear that very many secondary teachers are themselves familiar with those standards or participate in the relevant disciplinary communities.

Generally speaking, it's a bad idea to give teachers vague teaching assignments, and it's especially harmful to do so during an age of "tough" standards and performance-based rewards and punishments. How can an accountability system be viewed as credible if teachers aren't entirely sure who's supposed to teach what to whom? If literacy instruction is defined as "everybody's responsibility," then how can any one department fairly be held accountable for students' progress? And if no department is held accountable, then won't literacy instruction soon come to be viewed as "nobody's job" in particular? (The history of the Writing across the Curriculum movement suggests that when accountability systems are lax, as they were in most states before No Child Left Behind, relatively few teachers -- and extremely few outside of the English department -- can be convinced to shoulder the responsibility for reading and writing instruction.)

What would I propose instead?

First, here's what I wouldn't propose: I'm too much of a pragmatist by temperament to call for some sort of great, transformative agenda for educational change, so I wouldn't try to argue that my favored approach to literacy instruction would entail a radical restructuring of public education. Moje says that she doubts that I really believe "that one should give up on a goal of educational change simply because it is difficult" (277), pointing out out that I surely wouldn't give up the fight against discrimination and poverty. She misreads my motives here, though. I have no problem with the pursuit of difficult objectives. But I do object to the investment of massive amounts to time, effort, and resources in pursuing goals that are fuzzy and/or rooted in highly questionable premises (especially when one can choose to pursue other goals that, while less satisfyingly dramatic, are more clearly defined and realistic).

Moje claims that her version of disciplinary literacy instruction is "an act of social justice" (206), which is fine for her to say as long as she doesn't mean to imply that anything I propose would automatically count as retrograde and evil. (Myself, I've always been persuaded, thanks especially to the work of David Tyack and Larry Cuban, that the best and most just approach to school reform is to "tinker toward utopia.")

What I would advocate, then, are some modest efforts to rethink what we want secondary reading and writing instruction to accomplish.

I think that an important and realistic goal for secondary literacy instruction would be to graduate larger numbers of young people who read the newspaper, stay informed about current events, and make a point of reading, writing, discussing, and debating about issues of broad public concern simply because (and much like amateur musicians, cooks, and roller skaters) they enjoy doing so, it brings them closer together with their friends and neighbors, and they see it as a normal part of everyday life.

That instruction certainly ought to be explicit, and it should help students to produce various kinds of written and spoken texts, flexibly adapting their language and content to the given situation and audience. Especially important, I think, would be for students to become skilled at handling the sorts of non-specialized genres that tend to show up in "general interest" magazines, college application essays, letters to the editor, and informal debates. Further, that instruction should be systematic, giving students terminology they can use to talk about literacy itself, and which will allow them to identify differences among various domain-specific discourses (including not just disciplinary ones but also local vernaculars, journalistic language, military jargon, and so on).

As to which metalinguistic framework would make for the most effective teaching system, I don't know, but there's certainly something to be said for the kinds of explicitly rhetorical curricula used in hundreds of first-year college writing programs across the country, and it isn't hard to find promising models at the high school level either. For example, the College Board's Pacesetter English program attempted something along these lines. In the Dec. 2010 issue of English Journal, George Hillocks describes a high school course that he teaches, using a modified version of Stephen Toulmin's curriculum for teaching argument. In their book They Say, I Say, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein propose an intriguing, template-based approach to teaching argumentation. And in the Feb. 2010 issue of JAAL, Nelson Graff describes an interesting approach to teaching rhetorical analysis. Any of these approaches could, I think, produce high school graduates who have done a lot of close reading, focusing on all sorts of literary and non-literary texts; who have produced numerous and many kinds of written and spoken texts; and who are, coincidentally, "broadly literate" in a way that potential college professors and employers will recognize as such.

Such literacy instruction certainly could include some introduction to, analysis of, and even attempts to mimic disciplinary discourses, but the goal would be to become aware of those discourses and how they operate in the world, without necessarily expecting students to develop any sort of professional fluency in them. Likewise, students might be assigned to discuss and argue about interesting ideas and content drawn from science, history, and other disciplines, but which one doesn't necessarily need disciplinary training to understand. One doesn't have to be a sociologist, after all, to make a relatively compelling argument about the death penalty, or even to make use of data reported by professional sociologists. Nor does one need to have graduate level training in regression analysis in order to criticize and respond to a sociologist's op ed in the local newspaper.

On the other hand, and as Moje argues in her reply, one does need to understand certain somewhat sophisticated concepts in order to make sense of and use such research findings, even if they have been simplified for presentation in a newspaper column or magazine article -- by way of example, she notes that students should be able to distinguish between causation and correlation, so that they are not easily misled by statistics.

But it's worth pointing out that long before the emergence of the modern academic disciplines, plenty of ordinary Americans knew the difference between cause and correlation. I agree with Moje that middle and high school students should be taught that distinction and many other intellectual commonplaces, but I think she's wrong to describe that as a specifically "disciplinary" skill, or to suggest that students won't be able to use that skill unless they've been steeped in the disciplinary discourse of science. (For that matter, "science" isn't a recognized academic discipline at all).

In short, I'd love to see the secondary schools make it a priority to teach a sort of literacy curriculum that was, until the early 20th century, fairly common in American schools and colleges (though, in the past, it was offered almost exclusively to affluent white males), and which borrowed various elements from the classical tradition of rhetorical education.

Would that empower adolescents to interrogate disciplinary discourses, arguments, and decision-making? Is it the "act of social justice" (276) that Moje claims for her version of disciplinary literacy instruction? Well, that depends. I don't know that acquiring a thorough education in a disciplinary discourse necessarily makes one any more likely to challenge that discourse or bend it to the goals of social justice. For example, graduate students of law, architecture, and medicine are required to master highly specialized disciplinary discourses, but can one make any generalizations at all about the impact that their disciplinary training has on their desire to work toward a just world?

The more pressing question is who would teach such courses. And here's where I see an urgent need to redefine the purpose and responsibilities of the English department.

As I described in my response to Moje's Commentary, many Americans have always vaguely assumed that English teachers were in fact supposed to provide the sort of literacy instruction that I'm describing (i.e., making explicit, systematic, and ongoing efforts to teach students to read closely, write extensively, argue logically, and become aware of and responsive to discursive variety, both in and out of school). However, while there may be thousands of English teachers out there who do offer such instruction, the larger field of secondary English is anything but clear on its mission, or what place literacy instruction has in it, and the available research paints a depressing picture, suggesting that most English teachers do not provide much reading and writing instruction at all, much less decent instruction.

As I argued recently in a commentary piece for Education Week, if policymakers are being serious when they say that secondary students should receive a lot more, and better, literacy instruction, then they will have to make it somebody's job -- and their whole job, not just a sideline to the rest of their work -- to provide that instruction. I assume that such people can most readily be found in English departments, and English departments are where such instruction is most often thought to belong, so it is the English department that I would reshuffle, creating a formal distinction between the job of teaching literature and the job of teaching literacy.


One last issue:

Toward the end of Moje's response, she wonders whether I'm treating teachers as amateurs, and whether I've impugned them by calling into question their commitment to their disciplines or their capacity to teach high-level material

I acknowledge that I should have been more explicit here. The specter of "teacher bashing" hovers over every education policy debate these days, so it's wise to acknowledge that it's there and be clear which side one's on from the start. So let me be clear: I am not and never have been one to argue in favor of test-based accountability, test-based teacher evaluation, scripted lessons, union-busting, TFA-style alternative certification, or heavy-handed top-down decision making about content and instruction. That said, I do think that many of the nation's teachers have received inadequate preparation in, and have a weak grasp of, the subjects they teach. I don't think that's a controversial statement. and Moje herself makes a similar point.

In my earlier piece, I argued also that secondary level teachers tend to have nothing like the professional lives experienced by college faculty (at least by faculty in past generations, before the "adjunctification" of higher education), tend to be less closely identified with their disciplines and departments, and tend to be more committed to the teaching mission of their institutions. Moje takes issue with this, arguing that the teachers she has worked with are quite strongly identified with their disciplines. But I think she misses my point.

First, it's hardly unusual to say that colleges and universities tend to reward faculty for research and publishing over and above teaching and service, or to note that many faculty have internalized those values, becoming more closely identified with their departments and disciplinary associations than with their own institutions. It's entirely commonplace to make that claim in higher education circles (e.g., see Boyer's seminal 1997 report), and I didn't think that I had to explain or justify it.

Further, because college-level reformers have made so little progress, over the last several decades, in raising the status of teaching relative to research and publishing, I proposed that secondary schools might be more hospitable to general education than colleges have been. After all, the pressure to "publish or perish" is not an issue for middle and high school teachers.

Is it really so objectionable to suggest that secondary-level teachers tend not to identify themselves with their subject matter communities to the same degree that college faculty tend to do? Is it such a terrible thing to say that a curriculum emphasizing general education, and not just disciplinary specialization, might be more welcome in secondary schools than in higher education?

In any case, I think Moje ought give me the benefit of the doubt on this score. There's plenty of teacher-bashing to go around, and there's no reason to go looking for it in my writing.