Rainbow over Galileo Lane, Tucson

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A dialogue with Brian Cambourne

Brian Cambourne raises an issue
Here's the issue I'm trying to unravel.  I've tried to set it out in "logical" ( to me) steps so if there's any flaws in my thinking you might be able to identify them and point them out.
 1.The so-called 'reading wars' are essentially about what a 'scientifically valid pedagogy' of reading instruction should look like.
2.  As a 'theory of pedagogy' can only be derived from,  (and based on) a 'scientifically valid' theory of learning,  then the 'reading wars'  should more accurately be described as 'learning wars'.
3. Why, after more than approximately 120 years of research in the field, hasn't psychology as a domain of inquiry been able to come to some sort of agreement on  what human learning is and how it works?  
4. Why in other scientific disciplines ( e.g biology) can the field come up with a theory like evolution and psychology cannot do something similar with respect to 'learning'?
5. I think there's some kind of 'malaise' affecting psychology but I don't know what it is when it comes to 'learning'. I just know that psychology as a field hasn't ever really seemed 'comfortable' with learning as many of the theoretical squabbles which erupt in the field are often about learning. 
6. I certainly don't believe that those who do the research in learning are poor researchers, or scientifically illiterate or 'dumb', but I have no other hypotheses to explore as to why, as a field of inquiry, psychology ( and therefore education) has not converged to a single fully tested theory of learning?
Brian C
Here’s my take on your important question
First we I think you and I know that “the reading war” was as David Berliner said a “manufactured” war over a manufactured crisis with those with a political agenda of using reading to attack public education and completely privatize it. 
So setting that aside . What comes next. Well you’re talking about a scientifiic pedagogy of reading but that ought to depend not only on a theory of learning but an understanding of the reading process itself.
There are three aspects of research that should be involved
Reading process: how do we make sense through written language?
How do people learn to read (develop literacy)?
How is instruction successful in supporting the learning?.
But as you know most of what is called reading research starts with the last aspect. The entire National Reading Panel only looked at instructional research and with that only experimental research.
So the first part of the answer to your question is . There is a lack of base in an understanding of reading as a language process .  Second as you say there is no examined base in understanding the learning of reading (no learning theory)
But the major reason why psychology has failed is its commitment to the experimental paradigm in research.
They design experiments with control group, hypotheses and  fancy statistics. But 1. The experiments are not rooted in a theoretical model (or perhaps we should say they start from an unexamined view of what they think they are studying) 2 Experimental research is an inapproriate way to study language and learning( at least in humans) Experiments require that you hold everything constant while letting one thing vary. Language doesn’t work that way .
To sum up it is their worship of the experimental model of research which causes them to be atheoretical and thus not to examine what reading actually is.
So now in England you have everything reduced as far as  the government is concerned  to which should we use synthetic or analytic phonics in teaching reading ? The psychologists are comfortable with that but the reading professionals and teacher educators are not. Because they understand reading and how it is learned (at least they have a broad  sense of that.)
Einstein , perhaps the most important scientist of our era never did an actual experiment. Physics has two aspects- theoretical physics and experimental physics. Each depends on the other. There is little respect in psychology  particularly educational psychology for theory.
Ironically, the linguists, whether Chomsky or Halliday equate learning with Skinnerian behaviorism.
As you know wCHomsky, Lenneberg and most other linguists accept the notion that language isn’t learned but is innate.
I thought  that my social-personal theory of language learning was consistent with Haliday’s but he told me has no theory of language learning- in fact he said the psychologists had their turn and now it’s our turn.
If I keep talking about a theory of learning and a theory of language learning as interchangeable  it’s because in my own view languge is learned in the same way anything else is learned.
I’ve always sought to develop a theory of learning because as a scientific realist I do research not to find cause and effect but to develop a theory of the underlying structures and processes of Reading , language and how both are learned 
My own theory is that what is innate in humans is not language but the ability to think symbolically. That makes language possible. Our human need to connect with each is what makes language necessary. So all humans have the ability to invent language and do so throughout their lives. But this invention has to move toward or expand on the social language of their family and community so that they can communicate and connect so the too forces that shape language development are personal invention and social convention.
Language is what makes human learning unique among animals. It becomes the medium of thought and communication and learning. Through it we magnify the intelligence- we can learn through language what others have learned through experience. If we understand that then we understand that written language is learned in the same way as oral. When our personal and social needs for connection go beyond face to face we develpop forms such as print .
That’s enough for now

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