April 2009 • Volume 12 • Number 4 • Pages 12-13
Change We Can Believe In:
Real Literacy for Real Learning
Jeffrey D. Wilhelm
I have a big worry. But I also have a solution that could wipe away all the worry.
Here's the worry: Our students will enter a future and workplace that will demand abilities that far exceed those required of past generations and beyond those required by our current modes of schooling and testing.
Here's the solution: Use the inquiry and design model of teaching that includes and expands on powerful notions such as project-based learning, problem-based learning, and cooperative learning strategies. Hone reading, writing, and other literacies to address compelling real-world issues.
A middle school boy once told me, "Don't be confusing this [my school reading] with my real reading." He summarizes the problem for all our students, but particularly for reluctant and struggling young adolescents. The inquiry and design model reframes curricula around a driving question that is interesting to students and promotes real-world learning.
Reductionist Views of Literacy
Currently, literacy is promoted in schools as reading and writing short segments of print. Proficiency is defined as the mastery of specific skill sets. These skill sets are what we test with standardized measures.
What's the problem? First, in this reductionist view, instruction leans toward "teaching to the test." Teachers teach these skills apart from the situations in which they are meaningful and useful. Then, the tests measure these certain skills in a decontextualized way, separate from complementary skills and their actual practical use. At best, standardized tests ask students to identify key details and a main idea from the kind of "textoid" one would never see in real life.
So, what does this mean? What are we actually testing? (Skills instead of orchestrated use of strategies to make meaning.) Does test performance match real-world expertise and use? (Clearly not.) And how are we defining proficiency? (So differently in different venues that nobody knows what it means.) Then, too, the scores label students, and every teacher knows that a student who struggles in one context or with one kind of task may thrive with another task in a different context.
If we are not teaching for true understanding, expertise, and real-world application, what can we possibly be teaching for? And, if current definitions, teaching, and tests don't match this concept, what should hold sway?
Beyond Textbook Learning
In schools, "text" is typically defined as a narrative or simple expository structure that appears in print. Textbooks, which cannot be found outside of a school setting and offer the most densely packaged information known to mankind, are the coins of the realm.
Real literacy clearly supersedes use of textbooks for learning. Literate people read to learn things, to get work done, to participate in various groups and activities, to acquire data, to plan for a trip, and much more. They may read novels, nonfiction articles, Web sites, photographs, maps, databases, spreadsheets, online forums, or blogs.
If we are to prepare students for the real world, we need to pay attention to the wide variety of real-world literacies people actually practice and the rich ways in which they use them. This will require re-conceiving texts and textuality to include multimedia, visual texts, mixed texts (like manga and graphic novels), and various kinds of data displays.
As J. David Bolter argued in his 1993 book The Writing Space, literacy has always meant the capacity to use the most powerful tools to convey and receive meanings. These tools are now electronic and multimodal. Educators must embrace and help students read, critique, and use such texts.
Cognitive research promotes the notion of situated literacy and situated learning. The situation in which literacy is learned and used motivates, enables, and then coproduces the learning. The context is not ancillary to learning—it is absolutely necessary to it.
Whenever we truly learn to use a new strategy, it is in the context of reading something meaningful or grappling with an urgent problem or immediate task. Just as a kayaker needs a river to help teach her how to roll and paddle, to provide her with feedback about what works and how, a "context of use" develops conceptual and strategic understanding and ability.
In other words, people read and compose to understand in order to do something. And we develop strategies of reading, composing, and problem solving with the goal of doing that something. The learning situation is what makes learning real, purposeful, powerful, useful, and fun.
The Power of Inquiry
In a 2004 speech at Boise State University, the famous biologist E. O. Wilson urged teachers to consider the real problems that disciplines were invented to address. He disparaged the "doing of school" over the doing of disciplines.
Let's consider what he was saying: We must prepare our students to be thinkers and problem solvers for the 21st century; to do anything less is a complete failure of our promise to prepare them for the challenges that await them.
Many studies demonstrate the superiority of inquiry teaching over other models—so much so that we can maintain that reading and composing are forms of inquiry, best taught as inquiry and best learned in contexts of inquiry.
Michael Smith and I reported in Reading Don't Fix No Chevys and Going with the Flow that the inquiry model of teaching meets all the conditions of motivation and flow, promotes real literacy practices and understanding, and increases students' standardized test scores.
Our findings are reinforced by the 1995 School Restructuring Study conducted by Fred Newman and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin. More than 2,000 students in 23 schools showed significantly higher engagement levels and higher achievement on challenging tasks when they learned in an inquiry environment. Inquiry practices were shown to have a more positive impact on student performance than any other factor, including prior achievement and background.
Inquiry-based teaching and learning are not about "guessing what the teacher already knows" or finding pre-determined right answers. They are about developing habits of mind for solving problems and making meaning.
When my own students pursue the essential question,"What are my civil rights, and how can I best protect them?" the study of civil rights becomes personal and engaging. The question implies culminating projects such as problem-solution arguments, debates, public service announcements, informational videos. The students eagerly take them up to show their personal claims about the issue and pursue social action for promoting their newfound agendas.
Instruction becomes not something I do to them, but something I do for them by helping them complete their projects to address issues that they believe are important.
Because a deep understanding of the enduring principles of civil rights is necessary, and the purposes and processes must be learned alongside historical understanding, inquiry develops the why, how, and what and integrates various capacities students reflect on, adapt, and then use.
The Power of Inquiry
While it may seem that inquiry demands more time to uncover content than does transmission such as lecture, it helps to teach with the assistance of a meaningful context, and it helps us to do things together that go together.
For example, learning about civil rights, debating, arguing, and writing teeter-totter sentences with a semicolon can best be learned together in an inquiry unit, because all those elements are complementary and useful. This saves time, deepens understanding, and leads to more powerful learning.
Inquiry is not something that just happens; it is a structured apprenticeship into expert reading, composing, knowing, and doing that is pursued in a meaningful context that mirrors disciplinary work in the real world. It leads to real understanding and application.
If we are not teaching for real understanding and use, we need to rethink what we are doing—for the good of ourselves, our students, and the future.
Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is professor of English education at Boise State University and a frequent presenter at NMSA conferences. His book, Strategic Reading, Guiding Students to Lifelong Literacy—6–12 is available from www.nmsa.org/store. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 by National Middle School Association