Skeptical Practice: It Really Is Never Too Late to Learn

Our System for Adult Basic Education Support (SABES) office at World Education coordinates the development of a lot of Massachusetts state-wide trainings, including a new Foundations course for all new state-funded practitioners. One of the themes we hit again and again in this intensive training is a teacher’s need to continually reflect on her practice. Are my students engaged? Are they really learning, and how do I know? What should I do differently when certain students don’t seem to be getting it?

But over the past few years of my three decades in the field (I admit it), I’ve been getting some heavy-duty training myself–from the Student Achievement in Reading (STAR) project and Learning to Achieve, the week-long institute on teaching students with learning disabilities. Trainings like these have immersed me in “evidence-based practice,” “explicit instruction,” and other hefty take-aways from the worlds of research and academia. One result is to make me face the possibility that in my teaching and presenting I’ve never really been “reflective” enough. And if pushed to the limits of transparency, I’d have to admit that I’ve always been too willing to let intuition and flavor-of-the-month teaching practices stand in for proven results.

These collisions with in-depth, research-based professional development have stirred up some intriguing memories. I once taught summers in a program to prepare Boston high school seniors for college. The curriculum stipulated that every student would read a Shakespeare play from start to finish; one year, staff chose Romeo and Juliet. A class day arrived when I learned that most of the students in the room did not know where Verona was, or for that matter, the country of Italy. Ah, a “teachable moment” had arrived! I filled the board with drawings of Europe, threw in the other continents, and…hey, why not…a good bit about meridians. Looking back, I recall feeling wonderful about how much knowledge I could ladle out about our planet, but come to think of it the students did not read a single word of Shakespeare that class.

More recently, I did a stint of coaching with a great pre-GED teacher. He wanted to use an evidence-based practice to teach vocabulary, which requires that the teacher concentrate on high-frequency words that appear in texts regardless of their content (e.g., predict, coordinate, decline.) The evidence indicates that the words should be learned in isolation and applied in a variety of ways, and that only 5-10 words should be tackled per week. My teacher chafed at this limitation, and finally he insisted that we provide students with additional words taken from a reading we were doing that day. He was, in effect, reinstating the traditional practices of relying on context and preparing students for a particular text. The next class day, however, we asked the students for the definitions of those additional words…and they could not define a single one of them! The words taught via the evidence-based method? No problem. In fact, the students had started to use those words in their daily conversation.

This late-date ferment has led me to conclude that the word “reflective” is a bit too casual and passive-sounding for me. I’ve speculated that the ongoing alertness needed for solid teaching should be ramped-up to a level better expressed as Skeptical Practice. Now, when I hear a teacher say that one of his slower learners “probably has a learning disability,” I find myself asking, gently of course, for proof. Or if another teacher tells me that she never misses an opportunity to add to her students’ “background knowledge,” I wonder if they are learning to read or solve equations as well. And if a cited source is referred to as “professional wisdom,” I find myself wondering how the citer knows it’s truly “professional” and genuinely “wise”?

I’m finding that some of my colleagues here at World Education have been bitten by this same bug, or at least admit to a growing cognitive itch. One just came back from a conference where a healthy debate erupted around the terms “research” and “data-based” and when and if they are the same things. Another reports that the ideas of Malcolm Knowles, considered sacred in our field, have been taking hits in her adult development workshops. Participants pipe up, “Don’t school children have prior knowledge too?” and “My high school daughter sure seems role conscious to me.” In the prior issue of this Newsletter, my colleague, Change Agent editor Cynthia Peters, pointed out that learners contributing to a recent issue on persistence reported very few “negative experiences” with their prior schooling. On the contrary; they had to stop out mostly for family- or work-related reasons, and are now very happy to be back in school.

My fledgling exercises in Skeptical Practice have already pushed me in directions that I’m finding useful. The word “data” used to give my hives, but now I find myself eager to learn more about data collection and analysis. If a learn that a curriculum or classroom practice came from “the world of K-12,” I no longer assume it won’t be relevant for adult learners. Again the contrary; I see pedagogy as a countryside littered with treasures I chose not to see. I’m even wading fearlessly into research reports, now with the hope of finding nuggets of gold rather than layers of choking dust. Old dogs, new tricks…yes, but what about “missed” or “dismissed” tricks? It really is never too late to learn.

Published by

Carey Reid

Carey Reid

Carey has been involved in education for over thirty years, from basic skills instruction through college. He is presently a staff developer with World Education, focusing on curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Carey is a STAR National Trainer and a Learning to Achieve certified trainer. He also provides direct support to adult literacy license-seeking practitioners in Massachusetts.