Monday, July 20, 2020

From the archives: Learning Outside the Box

First posted September 2016; edited slightly

Every adult has particular memories of school, or school supplies. For those of us who started school in the 1970's, it might be Bic Banana pens, or (for the Canadians) packs of Laurentien/Laurentian pencil crayons. Newsprint fliers for Scholastic paperbacks. Library books that had pockets and cards in them. Glue in clear bottles with rubber tips (or, earlier, the ever-discussed white paste in a jar that the bad kids would eat). And of course the also-ever-discussed smell of ditto-machine fluid.
I've often talked about my "experimental '70's" elementary education. Some parts of that were good, or at least fun; other things we could have done without. The photo above is a 1960 SRA Reading Laboratory (SRA meaning Science Research Associates, which should tell you a lot right there). We used a box like this maybe once a week in the 1970's. I didn't hate it. I liked, somewhat, the challenge of jumping ahead through those coloured levels. Each learning card had a story, which I thought was sort of like reading a Sunday School paper. The activities were a bit like doing word games. And I suppose I thought that it was better than some other things they might have had us doing instead. (This blogger isn't even that charitable, although she does include the fascinating story of where the first "box" came from.)

I found a scanned-in review of this, also from 1960, and this is what it said:
"This is a U.S.A. attempt to individualize reading instruction in a large class with a wide range of reading ability. A triumph of pedagogical ingenuity combined with superb industrial design, it provides, in a container 16 x 8 x 8 inches, sufficient material to keep a class of forty students with a reading range of over six years purposefully busy for at least fifty-four periods...The levels, each of which is identified by a distinctive colour, are very carefully graded and cover a reading range of approximately 7.5-15 years and are designed to interest children from 9 to 12 years. The material, however, is stimulating and so attractively presented that the laboratory would be acceptable to most children up to the age of fourteen years."
Are you excited so far?
"The laboratory consists of:--  150 Power Building Cards, 15 at each of 10 levels, all very attractively illustrated and laid-out, which give carefully planned training in reading for comprehension, word recognition and semantic skills; a Key Card for marking each Power Builder; 150 Rate Builder Cards..."
and so on and so on and so on.

If I told you that the review of the learning kit came from a journal called The Slow Learning Child, would that make a difference?

"I am jealous for the children; every modern educational movement tends to belittle them intellectually; and none more so than a late ingenious attempt to feed normal children with the pap-meat which may (?) be good for the mentally sick*..." (Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education)
*"Mentally sick": obviously the terminology for cognitive disability has changed a great deal since 1923.

And that, I think, was what was wrong with this attractively presented triumph of pedagogical ingenuity. It taught us to read reprinted stories on folded cards, answer multiple-choice questions about main idea, and work through lists of antonyms. You might become very good at answering main-idea questions and picking out antonyms, just like you might master the technique of shaking chicken parts in a bag of something that comes out of a package and then putting them in the oven for the required time. It's a programmed skill, but it doesn't make you a chef.

And those cards didn't make us readers.

According to the blog post I linked above, the teacher who first came up with the idea was working with seventh graders and had too limited a budget to get fancy consumable materials, so he cut and pasted some workbooks to make them re-useable. (Shades of some homeschoolers, yes?)  But here's the thing...he could have used books. He could have done what Marva Collins did (without a box). He could have asked the students to narrate, to tell and write about the books they were reading. He could have taken advantage of the natural world around them.  Maybe I have the completely wrong impression, and they spent every afternoon reading classic novels and going out for nature walks. He could have done a lot of things, and maybe he did, I have no idea.

But I think he should have skipped the box.

At any rate, we can. Our boxes these days may look like computer pages instead of shiny cards, but they're no more real or necessary than SRA kits were in my classroom. Don't buy or do the things that make you feel more like a teacher. Do what matters for the students. Do the things that really feed mind-hunger. Nurture the readers and writers, curious human beings, creative spirits, and care-takers of all kinds.

That's my back-to-school post.

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