How you interpret “the science of reading” depends on how you think of “science”: Part II

The “science of reading” has become a loaded term — partly due to how “science” itself is conceived.

In Part I, we examined a 2003 article by Keith Stanovich that proposed 5 different “styles” that can influence how science is conducted and perceived. In that article, we learned that in education there may be a tendency to lean towards “coherence” in narratives or the “uniqueness” of silver bullet fads. These tendencies can subvert science-based reading practice.

In Part II, we will look at yet another stellar 2003 piece by Paula and Keith Stanovich titled, “Using Research and Reason in Education: How Teachers Can Use Scientifically Based Research To Make Curricular & Instructional Decisions.

A tip of the hat to the Reading League for this source.

In this dense and lengthy article, the Stanovichs examine how classroom teachers can leverage an understanding of the existing evidence base and of the scientific process at large to inform their practice. It’s so lengthy that I’m going to break it up into more than one post!

There’s a ream of great pull-quotes in this piece, so for your twittering convenience I’ve added a lil’ Tweet button to some of the real ringers, such as the following:

“As professionals, teachers can become more effective and powerful by developing the skills to recognize scientifically based practice and, when the evidence is not available, use some basic research concepts to draw conclusions on their own.”

I will readily admit that I am not very scientifically literate. The methods section of a research paper makes my eyes glaze over, and you’ve lost me at “dependent variable.” As a result, I find much of what is put forward by the Stanovichs in this paper enlightening. They outline what I’m sure are basic stuff for some, but I appreciated these fundamentals, and I also noticed that the authors suggest — here and in their other paper — that scientists themselves can have trouble with these principles.

In the introduction to the paper, the Stanovichs make a strong argument for the need for greater scientific understanding amongst teachers. It is a matter, they claim, of “professional autonomy,” as in an environment in which “anything goes,” the result is “a fertile environment for gurus to sell untested educational ‘remedies’ that are not supported by an established research base.”

Yep. The field of education is most definitely a fertile environment for both self-proclaimed and widely venerated “gurus.”

“The ‘anything goes’ mentality actually represents a threat to teachers’ professional autonomy. It provides a fertile environment for gurus to sell untested educational “remedies” that are not supported by an established research base.”

Education has therefore become run by political disputes and personal agendas rather than scientific results:

“A vast literature has been generated on best practices that foster children’s reading acquisition…Yet much of this literature remains unknown to many teachers, contributing to the frustrating lack of clarity about accepted, scientifically validated findings and conclusions on reading acquisition.”

“The field’s failure to ground practice in the attitudes and values of science has made educators susceptible to the ‘authority syndrome’ as well as fads and gimmicks that ignore evidence-based practice.”

The Stanovichs therefore recommend training teachers to apply some basic scientific criteria for evaluating knowledge, which “could easily be included in initial teacher preparation programs.”

These criteria include:

  1. “the publication of findings in refereed journals (scientific publications that employ a process of peer review),
  2. the duplication of the results by other investigators, and
  3. a consensus within a particular research community on whether there is a critical mass of studies that point toward a particular conclusion”

These may seem disarmingly simple, but the reality is that even the basic gate of evaluating current evidence on reading practice from the standpoint of peer review could do a lot to clear up a few misconceptions out there.

Publicly Verifiable Research Conclusions

We know the peer review process ain’t bullet proof, but it is a minimal guarantee that information will not be pseudoscience.

“Peer review is a minimal criterion, not a stringent one.”

Furthermore — and here I think the Stanovichs illuminate what is the most powerful aspect of peer review — it removes the status of any “special” knowledge attributed to such “gurus” aforementioned.

“Research-based conclusions, when published in a peer reviewed journal, become part of the public realm, available to all, in a way that claims of “special expertise” are not.”

What the Stanovichs mean by “public” is not accessibility to the general public so much as that the research has been published as part of the greater effort of scientific consilience to build a body of knowledge that can be tested and verified.

Many educators believe that knowledge resides within particular individuals—with particularly elite insights—who then must be called upon to dispense this knowledge to others. . .

Science, however, with its conception of publicly verifiable knowledge, actually democratizes knowledge. It frees practitioners and researchers from slavish dependence on authority.

Science can democratize knowledge. What a beautiful idea. It can free us from the Lucy Calkinses of the ed world and allow any and all to understand it — so long as we make the effort to grasp and verify it.

“Empirical science, by generating knowledge and moving it into the public domain, is a liberating force. Teachers can consult the research and decide for themselves whether the state of the literature is as the expert portrays it.”

This made me think of the work of journalist Emily Hanford, who has done our field the invaluable service of synthesizing decades of reading science into more readily digestible forms for the general public and for educators. Interestingly, her name has become almost synonymous with “the science of reading,” and, like the term, can raise a few hackles. But don’t read her as an “expert” on the matter. Review the extensive footnotes provided by her pieces–and beyond–and then decide for yourself.

But how do we know, beyond peer review, what makes something “research-based”? What the heck is science, anyway?

We’ll examine the Stanovich’s answers to these questions in Part III! Stay tuned.

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