Dr. Seuss and Dyslexia

Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, wrote some of the most famous children’s books of all time. The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham have more in common than just being popular. Both were written almost entirely with sight words. Most people are unaware that Dr. Seuss books were created to supplement the majority of whole word reading programs in schools. In 1957, Seuss was commissioned to write a book using only 223 sight words supplied by the publisher. The publishers believed that if kids could memorize the words in the book, they would be better prepared for reading instruction at school. Dr. Seuss books have been categorized with the ‘look say’ movement, a method of teaching beginners to read by memorizing and recognizing whole words, rather than by associating letters with sounds. It was invented in the 1830s by Thomas Gallaudet, the famous teacher of deaf students. For some strange reason he thought it could be adapted for all readers.

Because the books are so simple you would think they were easy for Dr. Seuss to write. The reality was much different:

Ted_Geisel_NYWTSThey think I did it in twenty minutes. That damned Cat in the Hat took nine months until I was satisfied. I did it for a textbook house and they sent me a word list. That was due to the Dewey revolt in the Twenties in which they threw out phonic reading and went to word recognition, as if you’re reading Chinese pictographs instead of blending sounds of different letters. I think killing phonics was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the country. Anyway, they had it all worked out that a healthy child at the age of four can learn so many words in a week and that’s all. So there were two hundred and twenty-three words to use in this book. I read the list three times and I almost went out of my head. I said, I’ll read it once more and if I can find two words that rhyme that’ll be the title of my book. (That’s genius at work.) I found “cat” and “hat” and I said, “The title will be The Cat in the Hat.”

By reading Dr. Seuss books children entered grade one already having mastered a sight vocabulary of several hundred words. The hope was that reading would be a breeze. However some parents started asking: how is it that my child is showing signs of dyslexia before even having had any formal reading instruction? Because they memorized Dr. Seuss books! The children developed a block against seeing words phonetically, with some developing dyslexia. They became sight readers with a holistic reflex rather than phonetic readers with a phonetic reflex. The problem is that this approach ignores the letter-sound association of reading. This sort of practice produces the symptoms of dyslexia: reading words backwards, reversing letters when writing, gross misspellings, word guessing, word skipping, leaving out words, and putting in words that aren’t there. The reason why dyslexia is so hard to cure is because the child has acquired a holistic reflex, automatically looking at words in their whole configurations.

Once the words get more complex the sight reader has no strategy to sound out the words. By third or fourth grade, where the reading demands are much greater, the sight reader’s overburdened memory cannot handle decoding. This explains much of the ‘fourth grade slump’. There is a breakdown in learning. The reading disability becomes evident. No wonder many students struggle to comprehend what they are reading when they have trouble even decoding the words. The phonetic way is a method used for thousands of years with an unparalleled track record of success. Why did educators try to reinvent the wheel with the sight method?

Dr. Seuss knew that ‘killing phonics’ was a cause of dyslexia. But somehow that insight, made by one of the most famous writers of children’s books, has escaped educators.

Learning That Sticks

Why don’t most of us remember what we learned in school? It seems a lot of what we were taught failed to stick. In Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, there are useful suggestions for improving our ability to retain things. Learning is a three step process – initial encoding, consolidation and retrieval – and it’s deeper and more durable when serious effort is made. Spacing out practice and interweaving it with other learning is more effective than mass practice methods like cramming the night before an exam. Retrieval practice (known as the ‘testing effect’) involving the recalling of facts and concepts from memory through self-testing is more productive than just rereading notes or a textbook. The reason is we are often poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. This is due to illusions of mastery. While all of these strategies are the individual learner’s responsibility, there are ways teachers can make learning stick too.

Most of the following principles are common sense, however there is something known as ‘the curse of knowledge’ that can prevent teachers from making their lessons stick. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it is like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. It can sometimes be difficult for us to share knowledge with others, because we cannot easily recreate the state of mind of our students. Every year we bring new knowledge to our class. Given that we’ve taught it before, teachers need to ensure that we are transforming our ideas into a language that is understandable to our students. Always being aware of the differences between expert and novice is important. It can have a significant impact on making learning stick.

Simple

The ability to decide what is most crucial is at the heart of simplicity. It is an essential skill for all good teaching. When planning a lesson or course outline, some concepts are more critical than others, so we ask ourselves: what should be left in and what should be taken out? To get the ideas we are teaching to stick with students, we need to identify our core messages. We need to cut extraneous details. We need to trim the fat.

Teaching with simplicity does not mean dumbing down the curriculum, but instead choosing what content is worthwhile. A good way to communicate lots of information succinctly and make it stick is through anchoring it to what students already know. Teachers use this simple principle of anchoring all the time. Another effective way to make the learning memorable is analogies, the bread and butter of teacher explanation. 

Unexpected

Sparking curiosity is one of the holy grails of teaching. According to George Loewenstein’s gap theory, this inquisitiveness arises when we feel there is a hole in our knowledge. One of the keys to the theory is that we need to open gaps before we can close them. Teachers must make students realize they need to fill these gaps. If we want to know something but don’t, it’s like an itch that needs to be scratched. The trick then is to sometimes deliberately withhold information for awhile in order to pique curiosity. This struggle to find the answer can aid in the development of long-term memory.

Some unexpected approaches to use are: create mystery out of ordinary topics, construct your lesson around an interesting story, and ask students to make predictions and estimations at the beginning of lessons. This last technique, also known as ‘concept testing’, forces students to commit to an answer and gets them more invested and curious about the outcome.

Concrete

Many aspects of a curriculum (especially in math) can seem abstract and mysterious. If we can make concepts more concrete and link them to the tangible through real-world examples, the learning will be more enduring. The Velcro Theory of Memory says that the more sensory ‘hooks’ we can put into an idea, the better it will stick. Using the five senses to provide concreteness helps to etch ideas into our brains. It’s the difference between reading about something in a textbook and experiencing it firsthand through experiments, manipulatives, field trips and other sensory experiences. Think of how much easier it is to remember a song than your credit card number, even though the song has much more data. The same rules apply to learning at school.

Story

Psychology has shown that stories are ‘psychologically privileged’ in the human mind. We seem to be primed to remember narratives more and have a natural affinity for stories. Personal anecdotes, stories of past students or even ones taken from today’s headlines can all be used to help make learning stickier. The stories don’t have to be overly dramatic, captivating or entertaining, as long as they allow students to experience the mental simulation of placing themselves into the story. The mental simulation that stories provide is the next best thing to actually doing something. Stories are like flight simulators for the brain. A class can be transformed through their power, as stories are the currency of our thoughts.

 

Making our teaching stick is easier than it seems. It just takes a bit of time and focus. Keeping these four principles in mind when lesson planning is a good step towards ensuring that what we teach endures in the minds of students.

 

The End Of Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s taxonomy has acquired a mythological status in education, being one of those reference frameworks that teachers adhere to with some sort of blind allegiance. It has been around for so long that educators take it for granted. While some question and criticize its validity, it is still being widely used by teachers as a tool in the analysis of learning objectives. The levels appear on tests, and factor in lesson planning and curriculum design, with the taxonomy being ubiquitous in schools. A Google search offers over a million results. Despite its widespread use, I’ve never understood its appeal.

Originally designed by Bloom and a team of psychology graduates in the 1950s (updated 2001 by Anderson and Krathwohl) as a method for the development of college test questions for WWII veterans, the six levels of cognitive domain have dominated education for the past half century. However, the hierarchical pyramid was never meant to be used as an evaluative tool and does not claim to measure ‘effective teaching’. With that said, Bloom’s still serves as the backbone of many teaching philosophies, in particular those that lean more towards skills rather than content. Unfortunately, it’s time has come and gone. The taxonomy no longer serves a useful function.

As Brenda Sugrue states here, Bloom’s taxonomy is not supported by any research on learning. Developed before advances in cognitive science (applicable to education), the taxonomy is little more than a best guess by some knowledgeable people of the time. It has led to several misunderstandings among educators as outlined in this post by Grant Wiggins. While it may help some teachers with questioning and checking for learning, for students it’s just a triangle. It lacks clarity. Students find it difficult to chart their progress. To them, more or less, it is meaningless.

What’s the alternative? I think there is real merit in the SOLO taxonomy. For some teachers, especially in the UK, this taxonomy is well known. Although it has received criticism, most notably from David Didau in this post, I believe it has a lot of positive aspects. Like many things in education, the more practical, the better. SOLO provides that pragmatic approach that Bloom’s always lacked.

SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) offers a structured framework to help students progress in their thinking and learning. As its creators Biggs and Collis (1982) state, ‘it provides a simple and robust way of describing how learning outcomes grow in complexity from surface to deep learning.’ While it is similar to Bloom’s, it has one major advantage: a user-friendly, common language of learning that allows students to explicitly understand the learning process. SOLO has none of the confusing overlaps of Bloom’s (i.e. ‘identify’ appears in knowledge, comprehension and analysis).

 

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  • Prestructural – Students don’t have any real knowledge or understanding of the topic. You will typically see blank stares. They will usually answer, ‘I don’t understand it.’
  • Unistructural – Students have limited knowledge of the topic. They may only know one isolated fact or aspect of the topic. They have some basic understanding.
  • Multistructual – Students responses focus on several relevant aspects but they are seen as independent and little connection is made. They are unable to link ideas. Assessment at this stage is mostly quantitative.
  • Relational – Students start to integrate concepts into a coherent whole with the development of higher order thinking. They link together and explain several ideas on a related topic. The pieces of the puzzle fit together.
  • Extended Abstract –  Students reach the most complex level. Ideas are linked together, extended to the bigger picture and then looked at in a new and different way. This is the holy grail of learning.

 

The benefits of SOLO can be found in its ability to make progress more visible. Ideally, it empowers students to take more control of their own learning and gain greater independence. The forward momentum found in the taxonomy can be a powerful motivator. As well, the idea of progression between the levels is more clearly defined than in Bloom’s. It is something that students can plainly see and experience. SOLO allows students to reflect meaningfully on what their next steps in learning are. Hopefully, it also gives them a sense of purpose in their learning.

In the end, it’s what every teacher wants for their students.

Cognitive Load & The Struggle Zone

Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development is a concept that all teachers are well aware of. ZPD is that sweet spot that pushes learning beyond the comfort zone of what students can do on their own and provides them guidance from an expert to move them forward into new learning. The concept just makes sense. It inspired Jerome Bruner to develop the theory of scaffolding, another familiar teaching tool that forms one of the foundations of good teaching. Both ideas have proven to stand the test of time and are a cornerstone of teacher training. The significance of both is undeniable. However, there is another key theory that is unknown to many teachers. It is not usually taught in education programs, despite being just as (if not more) essential as ZPD and scaffolding.

 

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Cognitive load theory suggests that learning happens best when it matches the abilities of our working memory. It refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in working memory, where new information is processed. Unfortunately, it is limited. We can only process between 4-6 items at a time, and the information in working memory lasts only around ten seconds. If you think of solving a math problem, where you are asked to remember multiple steps at a time, you can see how the limits of working memory can be a problem. It can quickly become overloaded. As a result, lots of information given to students can often be missed, as it is not processed by a working memory that is overwhelmed.

The good news is that we have a huge storage capacity in our long-term memory which is like the hard drive of a computer. Once something is stored as schema in long-term memory, it is easy to retrieve and use. The construction of schemas in long-term memory and their development into higher-levels that become automated is what helps students to increase their expertise in any given area. It frees up working memory to process other information. The tricky part is transferring new learning from working memory and getting it to stick in long-term memory. Why was I never taught this in teachers’ college!? Its implications for learning are profound.

Cognitive load is divided into three types:

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  • Intrinsic load – refers to the inherent complexity of the learning material. Teachers cannot do much to reduce this load but it can be balanced. According to Sweller, it can ‘only be altered by changing the nature of what is learned or by the act of learning itself’. It is what it is.
  • Extraneous load – any difficulty that comes from how the task was presented. Teachers should avoid the use of anything that distracts students and makes the learning process harder. It is the load to be wary of. Effective lesson planning can help rein it in.
  • Germane load – this is the work that goes into creating schemas (permanent knowledge) and it happens when lesson plans and courses are well designed. This interesting post by Nick Rose explains in it more detail with links to studies.

 

In order to get students to maximize germane load and get into the struggle zone of effective learning (thinking hard, high challenge and low stress), some things we can do are: teach fewer concepts per lesson, chunk the learning, limit distractions, narrow the success criteria and procedures, avoid switching focus of attention, revisit material and use models and worked examples.

The importance of cognitive load and memory is something every teacher needs to consider. Many think of memory as rote learning, a linear stuffing of the brain with facts, where understanding is irrelevant. When you teach it properly, with imagination and association, understanding becomes a part of it.

Challenge the Snake Oil

The amount of pseudoscience that exists in education is a serious concern. There is no shortage of claims that are supposedly backed by ‘research’, to the point that the word has become meaningless in education. Despite being debunked, myths like learning styles, school killing creativity or Dale’s cone of experience, continue to be accepted as truth by many teachers. Why do these myths persist?

There is no easy answer. One of the reasons seems to be networks like Twitter, where groups of like-minded teachers and administrators circulate rumours and misinformation that are strengthened through repetition. If we hear something repeated over and over, it begins to sound true and our brain tricks us into thinking the information comes from many different reliable sources. Another explanation for why the myths persist is the fact that any self-styled expert can publish anything they want. We are overwhelmed by many so-called experts in every medium, which makes knowing who to trust a tricky thing to determine. This situation is made worse by the fact that education draws from diverse disciplines, exponentially increasing the number of experts telling us what’s best for teaching and learning. Add to that a slew of cognitive biases, and we can begin to see why education myths are so hard to get rid of.

In dealing with new initiatives imposed on us, it can be difficult for teachers to find the time to separate fact from fiction. Most teachers are too busy to sift through educational blogs and research findings to decide if what they are being asked to do is worthwhile. We also lack the necessary expertise to assess the research. As a result, the majority of teachers will simply accept the methods they are being asked to implement, without really questioning the credibility of the information. This is a problem. If teachers are expected to adjust their practice based on the latest educational trend, we need to be able to assess the validity of the claims underlying the supposed research that justifies it. When people say snake oil is backed up by science, teachers need to challenge that.

It is important for educators to heed the words of Mark Twain who, despite talking about religion and politics, offers a warning that can be applied to education when examining the source of our understanding about teaching: ‘In religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.’  

In medicine, doctors are not expected to spend countless hours pouring over the latest research. Instead, there are reliable summaries that are published in reputable journals that allow doctors to keep up-to-date. In education, there is no institution that publishes something similar to this. Teachers and administrators are left on their own to decide what works best. No consensus is reached in the judgement of the validity of educational research. Consequently, new practices that end up being adopted are often based not on sound research, but on the ability of the researchers to market their ideas to administrators and school boards. The most persuasive ideas get the most traction. The repackaging of old concepts into shiny new buzzwords is well know to those who have attended any professional development.

So what can we do about this?  According to de Bruyckere, Kirschner & Hulshof in Urban Myths About Learning and Education, when looking at the research behind the claims, we can avoid educational myths and ineffective teaching practices by asking the following questions:

  • Is the author objective?
  • Is there talk of a correlation or a casual connection?
  • Is the author honest in describing the opinions of others?
  • Does the author give evidence, cite research and make connections?
  • Does the evidence come from a reputable scientific study?
  • Is the research published in a peer-reviewed publication?
  • Is the test group large enough?
  • Was a control group used?
  • Was a correct method of statistical analysis used?
  • Is the effect statistically significant?

Another good approach to testing whether or not we should believe the research is from Daniel Willingham’s When Can You Trust the Experts. Willingham’s four steps in judging the legitimacy of the research are: 1) Strip it: clear away all the wordiness and look at what outcome is being promised 2) Trace it: look at who created the idea and what others have said about it. 3) Analyze it: why are you asked to believe the claim?, what evidence is offered? and does the claim match your experience? 4) Should I do it? weigh the pros and cons of whether it is worth adopting.

If we are going to dispel myths in education, we need to dig deeper and question the science behind many of the claims. Teachers can no longer just passively accept what they are asked to do without knowing if it is really backed up by quality research. Failing to do so is a mistake, one that could make a real difference in students’ learning.

The False Wars

‘In war, truth is the first casualty.’ – Aeschylus

The phrase ‘premature ultimates’ coined by the British literary theorist I.A. Richards describes those conversation stoppers that, ‘bring investigation to a dead end too suddenly.’ In education, this often takes the form of polarities, where there is a seemingly automatic taking of sides on educational issues based on whether one considers themselves to be progressive or traditional. Each side takes an ideological stand and the investigation grinds to a halt. No one wants to concede anything, dialogue breaks down and any thoughtful discussion is lost.

This false progressive vs. traditional dichotomy often strangely associated with politics (progressive = liberal, traditional = conservative) has played out in several educational ‘wars’, most notably in reading and math. In the reading wars, phonics was viewed as a right-wing suppression that deprives reading of its naturalness and destroys a love of literature in children, while whole language was attacked as a left-wing abandonment of the responsibility of teachers and parents to teach kids to read properly. The math wars, which started in the late 1980s, are still being fought, with the latest contention being over the standardized testing of times tables in the UK. Some wonder if these wars exist at all. Maybe it’s all just a front to sell textbooks, employ professors of education and provide a speaking tour for educational experts. The old Hegelian dialectic of problem-reaction-solution. To assume otherwise would be naive.

The wars of education, dividing issues into two camps, leaves little room for progress. Educators and policymakers are so busy getting dug in, they don’t stop to listen to the other side. This results in an echo chamber of ideologies which are self-perpetuating. It’s the same old, same old. Assumptions are not challenged and common sense is often ignored. Perhaps the solution to much of what ails education can be found in this: pragmatic changes in the structure of the ruling ideas.

Those involved often fail to find common ground and much like real wars, the fighting just continues on. Both are related to power, control and exploitation. Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for only 268 of them, or just 8 percent. Of the past 150 years of modern education, educators have been at peace for very few of them.

It is time to end the education wars.

A Quality Education

Curriculum is vast. It can be overwhelming, and structuring it effectively is demanding. Within each subject area, there is a range of topics and concepts, making it difficult to narrow the focus and determine what exactly is worth teaching. How broad should our scope be? How in depth should we go? How long should we spend? Determining what we want students to learn is a decision that will inevitably lead to valuing some knowledge and skills over others. Some things have to be left out.

Is there essential knowledge that all students should be taught? The work of E.D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Foundation offers a specific and coherent curriculum that has achieved success in the United States. Perhaps it is worth implementing here. How else can we reach a consensus on what the curriculum should include? Maybe using the test of time is a suitable approach. The older the knowledge, the more worthy it is of being learned. Ignore newer insights because they’re not as old. Nothing dates quicker than the cutting edge. Despite what the ed-tech pundits would have us believe, learning has not changed significantly in the new century. We still learn the same way.

Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and author of several books on language, cognition and human nature, offers a convincing definition of a quality education:

‘It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.’

If we want to provide a quality education, we need to ask ourselves what is truly worth knowing. What knowledge has enduring value? Twenty years down the road, what do we want students to remember?