Towards the Pebbled Shore

Last week I examined the perplexity facing students caught between the demands of solid reading and the push to make learning into a kind of Quick Quaker Oats®. Since there is no way to resolve the conflict between these demands, I came down in favor of 1) complexity and 2) taking time, as my imaginary students did in that posting.

A major educationist publication[1] has also recently plumped complexity. To understand why this is both good and bad news, we must examine what it says. Briefly: educational testing shows that the strongest “differentiator” between students who met or exceeded “benchmark” scores and those who didn’t was the ability to answer questions “associated with complex texts.” It was not the ability to answer questions related to “cognitive processes, such as determining the main idea or determining the meaning of words and phrases in context.” Part of the bad news is that these are the kinds of question usually found in Testing and Accountability instruments and Aptitude or Achievement Tests.

What helps to make bad news of this is that some of our commonest “measures” of complexity miss the boat. Consider how “complexity” is often “measured” by “quantitative means”[2]. Most of these “measures” work by the mysterious substitution of “proxy values” for the actuality of complexity. These mysteries are arcane—some would say arbitrary—and they lead to questionable “measurements.” Take as an example Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in which this sentence appears: If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? I ran this speech through my MS Word Flesch-Kincaid Readability Tool, which analyzed it as having 8th-grade readability. F-K also rated Shakespeare’s Sonnet 60 (“Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore”) as having 2nd-grade readability. Uh-huh.

The solution to problematic findings of readability like these should lie in the abandonment of a wrongheaded mythology of measurement in favor of connoisseurship and the cultivation of finesse and its application to the selection of reading, but that is not what our Appendix proposes. Instead, it claims that what we need is something called a Coh-Metrix report on readings, weighing them against more than sixty indices. Or, if sixty are “daunting for the layperson or even a professional educator unfamiliar with” them, further research may identify and “isolate the most revealing, informative factors.” I will await this research without bated breath.

Consider another issue visited by our Appendix. Showing how education research results occasionally lead to a valuable conclusion, it claims that students must approach their complex reading “independently,” that is, without lots of scaffolding, guidance, slicing, dicing, and “scanning for discrete pieces of information.” The Vegematic® approach to reading instruction so commonly used deprives them of this opportunity. If, as I said last week, reading is like coming to an unexplored country, we will not learn to be explorers when our trip is a Cook’s tour laid out in advance.

Consider by analogy the unexplored country of Pieter Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Well, it is perhaps unexplored by your students, who, let us say, must make something of it. If they are to explore independently, they may not run to the internet for a study guide, because in doing so they give up their independence. On the other hand, they might need to hear the story of Icarus and to have their exploratory glance discreetly turned in a productive direction. Give them two more items: Matisse’s The Fall of Icarus and William Carlos Williams’s poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” After some quiet time of Google-free looking, reading, note-taking, and thinking, bring them together for a session of Shared Inquiry about the three items. By the time it is finished, the students will have done some independent but guided exploration of that country. What they produce may not be Meyer Schapiro or Simon Schama, and that is what will be good about it in the context of education: it will be their own best-exploring selves testing independent conclusions by discussing them with their classmates and you. You will know whether your students have struck gold during their explorations if they can say why Icarus might be the center of the Matisse picture while almost invisible in Breughel. But not every quest strikes gold, and that fact of life must be respected. There are times when the guide, if he is also a teacher, must forbear to yak about the lie of the land. (This does not mean the teacher is a constructivist: the teacher may guide exploration with tips and advice, propose ancillary readings, and subject findings and understanding to Socratic questioning.)

If the analogy holds, as I think it does, a course in complex reading allows students to encounter something unexpected and to deal with it in their own terms. With the added confidence and sophistication that experience brings, they will achieve a finer and solider understanding because they will have done it more or less independently. The I.B. course in Theory of Knowledge has been many things to many people. It has been many things to me! One that it has been to me is a course in complex reading. For many years I began and ended it with readings by William James. I had my reasons, but one of them was to prove something to the students. Every year they would invariably oblige me by commenting that the last reading in James was much easier than the first one. I could then gratify them by saying, “No, they were equally difficult, but in the intervening year you became far better readers.” That is the good news.

[1] Common Core State Standards, Appendix A, p. 2, “Why Complexity Matters”

[2] ibid, p. 7

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