In recent months, across social media and content domains, especially literacy, the black and white, yes or no rhetoric has seemingly intensified. If you are on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, you’ve undoubtedly witnessed it and probably walked away with a bit of whiplash.
Sometimes, it really does feel like watching a vigorous ping-pong match “Yes-NO! NO-Yes! THIS not that! THAT not this!” and even within the same “camps” or points of view. To say this creates confusion and sows the seeds of misunderstanding or misinterpretation is an understatement. Some recent examples of how important conversations have had different take aways and then morphed into something more black/white: Phonemic Awareness should always occur with graphemes (letters) never without. We should always engage teacher-led reading instruction never independent reading. Only direct instruction should be utilized never inquiry. Decodable books are the only text, there should never be access to other books.
(Please see resources at the end of this post for more accurate, research based answers regarding the above examples, as this post is not intended to focus on them, I encourage you to take the time to read and listen, I am also happy to hear your thoughts after!).
For schools or educators trying to make decisions and changes based off all of the volleying? It can be incredibly challenging. Who should you listen to or what information can you trust? Do you need to choose a solid “yes or no” position like in the above mentioned binaries and if you do, does that mean you throw away and replace every single thing that you have been doing?
As humans, it is only natural that we: seek structure, crave certainty and attempt to categorize the world around us. We tend to also want easy answers and solutions. Sometimes, as a result, the format of our thinking (and our conversations or those we are listening to) becomes dichotomous.
A problem with this approach is that scientific research, even in the realm of education, is not absolute, and a firm yes/no, black/white response, like after shaking a magic 8 ball, isn’t the type of answer it can provide nor do I think an answer like that is ideal when considering all parts of an interdependent system, especially a school or its curriculum framework. I also believe that it is less likely to promote collaborative conversations that support both meaningful and long lasting change as it prohibits us from digging in and asking, as well as answering, really important questions related to the “why”, “how” and “what next”.
To be clear, I firmly stand on the side of educational research and strongly advocate for its use in informing both curriculum design and instructional practices. I also am not denying the existence of practices that need to be reconsidered, especially those practices that do not have a strong basis in research to begin with or those that were based on opinion more than they were facts. I do, however, think that in any discourse surrounding a process of change, we need to be realistic about what research can and cannot do. This also includes being mindful of the questions/answers we are seeking and how these answers translate to practice in our classrooms and are used to produce the most successful outcomes. An equally important point to consider is knowing how to critically evaluate and choose reliable sources of information to undergird our work.
So, what can educational research do for us? It can present us with a continuum and strong indications of “better or worse.” In order to make collaborative, positive and lasting change in our practice, as well as to have a greater impact by increasing our “instructional mileage”(outcomes), it is more productive and accurate to look through a lens of “levels of effectiveness” as opposed to falling into those yes/no or black/white dichotomies.
Further, by using this lens in our discussions, we are able to consciously weigh potential strategies and in the context of a particular school’s ecosystem. This is also where a research informed guide can be helpful in supporting this process and the decisions we make by encouraging us to look at change in intentional and sustainable ways while avoiding “silver bullet” solutions. It is then that we are able to be set on a more even course toward improved outcomes.
Through close examination of school data, instructional practices, curriculum, and in collaboration with high rigor studies and research that provide strong converging evidence, we find ourselves not only on more solid ground to identify and define our target needs and priorities but also with more momentum to promote well informed strategic moves in our implementation (or even de-implementation) work.
Certainly, we ALL want to be more effective, I don’t think anyone would argue against that and fortunately, if used as intended, science, and the research it yields, can help us move toward continually higher levels of effectiveness while offering the opportunity to increase that instructional mileage for our all of our students.
Resources related to Phonemic Awareness , Direct Instruction vs. Inquiry and Decodable Text:
Shanahan, T. (2020) “Letters in Phonemic Awareness Instruction or Reciprocal Nature of Learning to Read: Accessed from: https://www.readingrockets.org/blogs/shanahan-literacy/letters-phonemic-awareness-instruction-or-reciprocal-nature-learning-read
Hansford, N. (2021) “Inquiry Based Learning” accessed from: https://www.pedagogynongrata.com/inquiry-based-learning
Hattie, J. 2017) “Hattie Ranking 252 Influences and Effect Sizes Related to Student Achievement” accessed from: https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/
Mesmer, H. “Decodable Text Series: The Research on Decodable Text”. Melissa & Lori Love Literacy Podcast. Spotify. November 4, 2022.
Last Edited on December 5, 2022