This is a difficult time to be a teacher. Pressures of high stakes testing have the impact of narrowing curriculum. Meanwhile, the use of commercially produced assessments contributes to pressure to label students according to reading levels that shape reading goals. This blog entry explores the way that teachers in the literacy field can work together to enhance instruction through the systematic examination of questions about practice.
Reflective teachers engage in ongoing, self-initiated inquiry (Calderhead, 1992; Elder & Paul, 2008). Dialogue and collaboration helps teachers take responsibility for improving instruction (Day, 1999). Far too frequently, teaching practices that are grounded in a deep tradition within the research literature become misunderstood and misapplied in classrooms. One example is the facilitation of student goal setting. There are debates in the literacy field over whether these goals should include the explicit enunciation by the child of improvement according to specific reading levels. This blog will address how understanding and conducting research can help teachers to better address this issue in the classroom. I argue for an approach to teaching that continuously draws upon research and inquiry in order to inform the academic and social consequences of instructional choices.
Student Goal Setting and Reading Levels
Reading is a goal-directed activity in which a person makes meaning of a text. Setting goals helps students to become increasingly motivated readers (Kintsch, 1998). This is because goals enable students to become focused on a task that they view as relevant (McCrudden, Schraw, & Kambe, 2005) and purposeful (Locke & Gary, 2006). Goals that are specific and appropriately challenging (Kleingeld et al., 2011) are linked to improved confidence among students to be successful readers (Schunk, 2003; Smith & Wilhelm, 2002). Students self-regulate as they read a text by setting goals and monitoring progress toward accomplishing these goals (Bray & McClaskey, 2015). Importantly for social-constructivist teachers to bear in mind, goal-setting appears to be increasingly effective when teachers and students systematically work together to name the goals and monitor progress (Pincham, 2006). Also of importance for teachers of students who are identified with specific learning exceptionalities in reading, goal setting has long been linked to long-term gains among students with learning disabilities (Raskind, Goldberg, Higgins, & Herman, 1999).
Debate arises when the goals are related to Lexile style reading levels lacking in personal and social meaningfulness to the student. Lexile measures are used to track either the difficulty of a text or a student’s reading level. While Lexile levels are commonly used in schools, other commercial companies such as American Reading Company provide alternate means of identifying reading levels. In the American Reading Company’s system, levels are identified via color schemes that correspond with a reading level. One key concern is that communication of goals based on Lexile-type levels may also communicate to students a set of beliefs and assumptions about who they are as readers, and “what” they are as readers, thus positioning students as character types in a particular storyline about those who are reading at identified levels (Harré, 2012). A Lexile level is not one that a student would naturally identify if reading a text on his or her own. So, tying goal setting to Lexile levels raises the issue of power (Lukes, 2005) if consideration is given to who is legitimate to speak (the student?) regarding goal-setting and whether the student’s voice may be getting silenced.
This debate raises an important question. What is a teacher to do in the face of administrative and curricular pressures for students to make gains as typically determined by Lexile levels? Communication of goals based on Lexile levels may be unavoidable for teachers in many school districts depending on administrative pressure. My suggestion is that it’s important to help students also set goals that are personally meaningful, rather than rely on Lexile levels as the key to goal setting. This is easier said than done. It requires an ongoing analysis of research literature related to literacy and pedagogy. Further, I recommend that teachers also engage within inquiry communities and conduct forms of classroom inquiry.
Joining Inquiry Communities and Conducting Inquiry
Inquiry communities help teachers to develop knowledge of practice through ongoing, supportive dialogue and reflection (Lytle, 2008). Dialogue in the group is based on a search for understanding and improvement of practice (Swales, 1990). Collaborating on classroom-based research opens new opportunities for communication among teachers and university faculty, while it increases awareness and reflection of issues related to learning and participation in the teaching profession (Rock & Levin, 2002).
Steps that can be taken by teachers to ensure that they benefit from participation in an inquiry community include the following: engage in a group that fosters a supportive environment for reflective thinking and for inquiry; seek to continuously learn about the role of reflection in teaching; seek to engage in ongoing dialogue that fosters systematic reflection and inquiry. I recommend that teachers strive to join (or build) a learning community (Schwab, 1976) with dialogue that involves seeking new educational ideas and the improvement of teaching practices (Swales, 1990). Crucially, teachers need to feel safe to take risks in a supportive environment that is open to new ideas and new concepts.
Teachers conducting classroom inquiry engage in systematic, intentional study of professional practice through a planning process of gathering and recording information, documenting experiences inside and possibly outside of classrooms, and creating a written record. Typically, the methods include journal entries that are coded to identify the themes and patterns (Guwaldi, 2009). The goal is generally to address questions and make sense of experiences through a reflective stance toward classroom instruction and classroom learning. Prior to embarking on classroom inquiry, I strongly recommend seeking dialogue in an inquiry community and studying material related to reflective teaching (Hatch & Shulman, 2005; McCann et al., 2005; Zeichner & Liston, 2014) and methods of conducting teacher research (Chiseri-Strater & Sunstein, 2006; Falk & Blumenreich, 2005; Freidrich et al., 2005; Hopkins, 2008; Hubbard & Power, 2003; Lytle, 2008; McBee, 2004).
Taking a Pragmatic Approach
This blog is grounded in a pragmatic approach to the reading of research to inform the act of being a reflective practitioner. Dewey identified attitudes that are involved in the development of a habit of inquiry. I believe that these attitudes are important when it comes to how teachers approach research. Open-mindedness involves willingness to rethink fundamental ideas through ongoing reflection and inquiry. Reflective thinking in a moment of doubt is then “occasioned by an unsettlement and it aims at overcoming a disturbance” (Dewey, 1916/1980, p. 336). To solve the problem, according to Dewey (1933/1986a), a teacher should exhibit wholeheartedness, or an in-depth commitment with full devotion to personal and emotional resources. Dewey viewed the development of a habit of pursuing inquiry in the face of doubt as an essential aspect of reflective thinking. However, commitment should also involve responsibility. A sense of responsibility entails taking seriously the moral choices faced in life and in the classroom setting by habitually evaluating, through inquiry, how actions may bring about desired or undesired consequences. The reading of research then fosters an ethical sense of responsibility among teachers. Finally, Dewey (1916/1980) urged an attitude of directness, or faith that actions grounded in in the attitudes of open-mindedness, wholeheartedness, and responsibility in the conduct of inquiry are worth taking for the benefit of a democratic and just society.
Schön (1991) differentiated between reflective thinking performed while a professional is engaged in an activity, reflection-in-action, and reflection-on-action involving the review and examination of past action. Schön stressed the value of reflection in the context of practice. Ongoing reflection is informed by what the teacher learns from the inquiry by weighing the merits of redirecting activity against time constraints and need for curriculum coverage. A reflective practitioner gains self-knowledge while engaged in theorizing by taking control and responsibility for knowledge.
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