Thursday, May 30, 2013

Not as easy as A-B-C

Today's NYT has an article about how much easier it is to raise K-12 students' math scores than it is to raise their reading scores. Here's the opening:

David Javsicas, a popular seventh-grade reading teacher known for urging students to act out dialogue in the books they read in class, sometimes feels wistful for the days when he taught math.

A quiz, he recalls, could quickly determine which concepts students had not yet learned. Then, "you teach the kids how to do it, and within a week or two you can usually fix it," he said.

Helping students to puzzle through different narrative perspectives or subtext or character motivation, though, can be much more challenging. "It could take months to see if what I’m teaching is effective," he said.

Educators, policy makers and business leaders often fret about the state of math education, particularly in comparison with other countries. But reading comprehension may be a larger stumbling block.

As the article goes on to note, there are a lot of reasons for this. Math is a much more universal language, not as dependent on things like cultural context and not as intimately connected to home and family life (kids learn math in school, but they learn vocabulary, sentence structure, and the expression of complex ideas at home--and they're either introduced to books at a young age or they're not). It's not that math is easier, but at the lower levels it's more straightforward to teach or remediate in an academic setting.

But although the article mostly has implications from educational policy, testing, and teacher evaluation, it's surely relevant for those of us in higher ed, too. Those bozos in other departments who blame the English department when their students still can't write--even after a whole semester of freshman comp? Listen: writing is hard! It takes a long time to learn how to do well, especially if students enter with deficiencies. Those people who claim that the humanities are easy majors, because all students do is read books and talk about them? Not so!

As I point out to my Shakespeare students after we've spent 30 minutes looking at one speech and I can tell they're getting tired of being pushed to talk about individual words, images, or poetic devices, this is shit they do all the time without realizing it, whenever they ask a friend for an opinion about an email or text message they just received: "But what do you think it really means? Why did he use that word? Why that word?" We all know, on some level, that the words people choose and the way they arrange them mean more than their dictionary definitions convey. And the people who can best pick up on those meanings have an edge in life: they're quicker, more perceptive, and more versatile. They can tell signal from noise, they can recognize things that are implied but aren't stated explicitly. They tend to be better at moving among different worlds, tolerating ambiguity, and seeing possibilities.

Reading well is more than just comprehending a text's basic content--and even "basic content" is tough to comprehend for those without exposure to a wide range of styles and genres (a student who can read a scene from an Elizabethan play and summarize its plot is also someone who can identify the key components of a legal contract or an initial public offering). Being able to figure out how a text works, to recognize patterns and variations, to grasp primary meaning and any possible subtexts--those are major life skills. They're career sills. But they're not easily or quickly obtained ones.


Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Reading and writing competently are a kajillion times harder than basic math.

Bardiac said...

Great point, Flavia!