The following statement somehow showed up on my Twitter feed the other day: “Spontaneous reading happens for a few kids. The vast majority need (and all can benefit from) explicit instruction in phonics.”
It got under my skin, and not just because I personally had proven in the first grade that it is possible to be bad at phonics even if you already know how to read. It was her tone; that tone of sublime assurance on the point, which, further tweets revealed, is derived from “research” and “data” which demonstrate it to be true.
Many such “scientific” pronouncements have emanated from the educational establishment over the last hundred years or so. The fact that the proven truths of each generation are discovered by the next to be harmful folly never discourages the current crop of experts who are keen to impose their freshly-minted certainties on children. Their tone of cool authority carries a clear message to the rest of us: “We know how children learn. You don’t.”
So they explain it to us.
The “scientific consensus” about phonics, generated by a panel convened by the Bush administration and used to justify billions of dollars in government contracts awarded to Bush supporters in the textbook and testing industries, has been widely accepted as fact through the years of “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” so if history is any guide, its days are numbered. Any day now there will be new research which proves that direct phonics instruction to very young children is harmful, that it bewilders and dismays them and makes them hate reading (we all know that’s often true, so science may well discover it) — and millions of new textbooks, tests, and teacher guides will have to be purchased at taxpayer expense from the Bushes’ old friends at McGraw-Hill.
The problems with this process are many, but the one that I’d like to highlight is this: the available “data” that drives it is not, as a matter of fact, the “science of how people learn.” It is the “science of what happens to people in schools.”
This is when it occurred to me: people today do not even know what children are actually like. They only know what children are like in schools.
Schools as we know them have existed for a very short time historically: they are in themselves a vast social experiment. A lot of data are in at this point. One in four Americans does not know the earth revolves around the sun. Half of Americans don’t know that antibiotics can’t cure a virus. 45% of American high school graduates don’t know that the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. These aren’t things that are difficult to know. If the hypothesis is that universal compulsory schooling is the best way to to create an informed and critically literate citizenry, then anyone looking at the data with a clear eye would have to concede that the results are, at best, mixed.
On the other hand, virtually all white American settlers in the northeastern colonies at the time of the American Revolution could read, not because they had all been to school, and certainly not because they had all been tutored in phonics, which didn’t exist at the time.
Around the world, every day, millions and millions and millions of normal bright healthy children are labelled as failures in ways that damage them for life. And increasingly, those who cannot adapt to the artificial environment of school are diagnosed as brain-disordered and drugged.
It is in this context that we set out to research how human beings learn. But collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.
Since the Enlightenment, every generation of scientists has tended to fall into the fallacy that now we stand at the apex of human knowledge and understanding, that error has fallen away at our feet, and that now we “know” how things really are. Depending on the domain being studied, this intellectual hubris can yield results which are comical, awkward, destructive, or, when it comes to children, tragic. In the 1950’s scientists “knew” that baby formula was better for children than human milk, an absurdity which has been responsible for the deaths by diarrheal disease and malnutrition of millions of infants in the developing world. They “knew” that newborns, like animals, did not have sufficiently developed neural systems to feel pain, so they performed surgery on thousands of infants (and animals) without anesthesia. They “knew” that people learn as a consequence of positive or negative reinforcements for behavior rather than as a result of internal passions, drives, and preferences –- let alone as a result of a celestial river running through them –– so they persuaded an entire education system to train children like pigeons and rats, with incessant scrutiny and “feedback,” punishments and rewards.
Right now American phonics advocates are claiming that they “know” how children learn to read and how best to teach them. They know nothing of the kind. A key value in serious scientific inquiry is also a key value in every indigenous culture around the world: humility.