Sunday, 31 December 2017

New Year’s Resolutions and our attachment to bad habits

It’s that time of year again, when we all start kidding ourselves (and if we’re especially clever, each other) that we’re off to a fresh start when the calendar clicks over to January 1, and we dream of the better selves we’d like to take forward into the new year. These better selves are invariably slimmer, more rested, more physically fit, and better-read versions of our current selves, albeit elusive and ephemeral in nature. Behaviour change is the subject matter of volume-upon-volume of psychology text book and journal article, not to mention the business models of fly-by-night snake-oil merchants keen to cash in on our earnest wish to meet our better selves, in spite of our equally matched poor tenacity in achieving and sustaining change.

In some aspects of our lives, changing practices is built on changing beliefs and attitudes, though it can be difficult to disaggregate the cognitive and the behavioural components of change. Do we change our behaviour because of new information that has come to light, or do we change our beliefs and attitudes as a consequence of behaving differently? The answers to these questions are complex, but we can be fairly certain that information alone does not change behaviour. If it did, there would be very few people in wealthy, first world nations who

  • are over-weight,
  • do not get enough exercise,
  • smoke,
  • drink too much alcohol,
  • ingest illicit substances,
  • mis-use prescription medications,
  • drive too fast,
  • drive while over-tired,
  • leave small children in locked cars on hot days,
  • consume too much salt,
  • do not get enough sleep.....

……you get the picture. 

      Information alone, does not change behaviour. The same applies in education, where voluminous amounts of information about the skills novice readers need to acquire (and indeed need to be taught) do not translate into behaviour change for education academics, with respect to the knowledge and practices that are passed on to teachers-in-training.

If information alone changed teacher classroom practices, we would not see

  •  early years classrooms in which beginning readers are sent home in Week 1 with lists of sight-words on flashcards to learn by rote;
  • children being encouraged to take their eyes away from the text and scan around for some vague, often unhelpful clue in an accompanying picture when they encounter an unfamiliar word (why we would teach the known practices of poor readers to all novices is a complete mystery to me);
  • children being encouraged to “read ahead” in the hope that they can retrofit the meaning of an unfamiliar word (assuming of course that their fragile working memory has not caused them to lose the meaning thread altogether);
  • teachers so distracted by their own love of “beautiful children’s literature” that they conflate the process of learning to read, with the joy and benefits of being read to in the early years;
  • predictable readers that contain no scope or sequence with respect to the range and complexity of phoneme-grapheme correspondences to which beginning readers are exposed;
  • teachers employing incidental, analytic phonics in a mis-guided belief that they are “doing phonics” with early years readers. 

So it is pleasing (if slightly odd timing on New Year’s Eve) to see this announcement that the New South Wales government is de-funding Reading Recovery in that stateReading Recovery has long been contested in education circles, coming as it does, out of the (largely discredited) Whole Language stable of reading interventions, and failing to deliver longterm benefits in spite of its resource intensity. News that it has been de-funded will be contentious in some circles, not the least of which because of the special status that has been associated with being “Reading Recovery trained”. I often hear these words uttered in education circles in a way that suggests a certain awe and reverence, and membership of a special, elite “club”.

One of the things that makes giving up old practices and beliefs (whether at New Year or any other time) most difficult is of course our tendency as humans to behave and affiliate in tribal ways. So, if you are a Reading Recovery teacher, chances are you will have affiliated with other Reading Recovery teachers, attending similar professional development, reinforcing / confirming existing biases, and providing mutual comfort in the familiar and the “known”. You probably haven’t been exposed to critical commentary around the shortcomings of the approach and the poor long-term outcomes achieved on a population basis, particularity for the weaker of the weak readers. You see children in front of you apparently improve in the short-term, and so you “just know” it works. This is not much different from the fact that if you are obese, you will tend to have friends and family who are too, and if you smoke, one of the most difficult things about giving up, is sacrificing the contact with networks of peers who also smoke. In both cases, there’s a lot of mutual affirmation of ideas that some psychologists call “ego-syntonic” i.e. beliefs that harmonise with sense of self and do not cause personal unease or self-doubt.

Without unease or self-doubt however, we cannot question our beliefs and practices, let alone change them. Mark Twain famously said of giving up smoking, that it was the easiest thing in the world to do; so much so that he himself had done it hundreds of times. We've seen many false dawns too, in reform of early years reading instruction. For that reason, I am only guardedly pleased to learn that NSW will fund the creation of 50 "Literacy Expert" roles. Maybe I'm missing something, but shouldn't every teacher be a literacy expert?? This is where we need some New Years Resolutions from education academics. 

Giving up unhealthy ideas and practices in early years reading instruction is no less important as a public health issue than challenging unhealthy eating, or smoking. 

So, here’s to the NSW government on taking a step towards behaviour change and breaking bad teaching habits in early years classrooms. This is what leadership looks like and I wish them (and all education jurisdictions) a happy and successful year in 2018.

(C) Pamela Snow, 2017.

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