WHY IS READING EDUCATION SO PEDAGOGICALLY CONFUSED? by Brian Cambourne

For retrospective miscue.com

In the previous blog post on this site Alan Flurkey describes the pedagogical confusion he’s encountered in his career as a reading educator. He argues that much of this confusion would disappear if more stakeholders in children’s reading education knew and understood miscue analysis. In this blog I intend to examine in more detail the nature of this pedagogical confusion by addressing the question in the title, i.e.

Why Is Reading Education So Pedagogically Confused?

I began teaching in 1956. When I entered the profession Reading Education had a culture of on-going ‘turf battles’ and/or ‘paradigm wars.’ These battles have continued to rage within the profession for at least the last sixty years. Not only have they become increasingly destructive and counter productive for the field, they have attained the status of “Reading Wars.” As such they have generated a confusing array of contradictory interpretations of so-called ‘effective reading,’ ‘effective learning,’ effective assessment, and ‘effective pedagogy’. One consequence of these  “Reading Wars” is that we now have a professionally insular culture in which competing groups of reading researchers and theory builders stay rigidly within their own theoretical and research ‘silos,’ rarely crossing theoretical or paradigm borders, talking to and writing only for each other, rejecting ideas that do not support the conceptual frameworks they value. Attempts by policy makers to invoke ‘science’ and ‘evidence-based research’ as a way to reduce this theoretical confusion haven’t helped. Instead a new round of argument and debate about ‘whose science” and ‘whose evidence’ has erupted.

Such a state of affairs begs the question posed in the title.

Here are some ‘dot-point’ thoughts which explore, expand, and (hopefully) offer a possible explanation for this state of affairs.

  • The ‘Reading Wars’ are really about what a ‘scientifically valid pedagogy’ of reading instruction should ‘look like’.
  • Because a ‘ scientifically valid 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.’
  • After a hundred or so years of research and theory building, psychology as a domain of scientific endeavour hasn’t been  able to develop some sort of consensual agreement on what human learning ‘is’ and how it ‘works.’
  • Instead an abundance of extant (often conflicting) learning theories are continually emerging from experimental psychology. (http://www.hyperkommunikation.ch/seminare/gruppenprozesse/tip/theories.html)
  • In other (historically older) theoretical domains such as physics, biology, astronomy, evolution etc.,  after a century of research and theory building , broad “umbrella” theories which lack either internal and/or external validity  are eliminated from serious consideration. New data and research which converge toward a single set of derivative, explanatory principles begin to emerge.
  • When it comes to one of its key theoretical concepts (learning), after more than a century of experimental research and theory building, psychology has not yet reached this degree of theoretical maturity. Psychologists are still squabbling about the nature of learning.

Until the profession converges towards a single, tested, derivative theory of human learning which accounts for the complex abstract knowledge humans continually construct and apply in the world the Reading Wars will continue to be fought, and we will continue to be perceived as an internally dysfunctional, epistemologically immature, and scientifically naïve rabble. Little wonder politicians want to take control of the field away from those who call themselves ‘Reading Educators.’

Brian Cambourne for retrospectivemiscue.com

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