Let’s imagine that one of your most knowledgeable, trustworthy friends came up to you and said: “I just read a bunch of reputable research that said eating vegetables isn’t healthy. In fact, these studies say that broccoli and carrots are harmful and we need to eat more chocolate!”
Even if your friend showed you the studies, the graphs, the testimonials from former veggie-lovers who had seen the light; you’d probably still believe vegetables are healthy. After all, if you could have been eating chocolate all this time, why did you waste years on salads? In fact, you’d be likely to dig in your heels and chomp on even more veggies than before.
This is because, when we are devoted to a certain truth, we tend to ignore contradictory evidence and seek out confirming evidence. We become more committed to our beliefs, which is known as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is why arguing with your grandma about politics is futile, even when you have the facts on your side.
Sometimes, though, confirmation bias can have higher stakes than hurt feelings at granny’s. When evidence tells us that we should rethink our teaching practices, we educators can be more stubborn than your Uncle Leo repeating talking points he got from Sean Hannity. Even if -- especially if -- evidence might suggest we could have been doing better for our students all along, we’ll argue that what we’ve been doing is “best practice.”
I’ve been thinking about the difficulty of changing practice a lot lately, because the past few weeks have seen a series of earthquakes in the literacy-teaching world. With the release of Natalie Wexler’s book, The Knowledge Gap, and Emily Hanford’s audio documentary, At a Loss For Words, it could feel like everything we’ve been taught about teaching reading is wrong. That’s when our confirmation bias protects us by screaming that we should go read something that supports our past practices. After all, change is hard. It might not be favored by our bosses, might need resources or knowledge we don’t have.
But the deepest reason not to change? It feels terrible to think we could have been doing better by the students in our charge.
But if we’re truly committed to providing the best education possible, we have to change as we learn. A the saying goes, “know better, do better.” So, how do we overcome our confirmation bias? How do we start to change, even when it hurts? Below, I share a few tips that have helped me and others (with a few insights into my own biases and mistakes along the way).
1. Seek out perspectives other than your own.
Brooke Gladstone, of NPR, puts it this way: “You have to vary your media diet a little bit, like read something that you just wouldn’t be inclined to read.... And keep taking in their perspective. It’s incredibly helpful to just know what’s going on in the world.”
This process, she admits, can be painful. However, it can be necessary in expanding our awareness. For years, I admit I’ve had a bias against private school vouchers. Studies have shown that my bias was reasonable. However, listening to parent education advocates explain the reasons they want vouchers has made me more aware of my bias and more open to considering other perspectives.
2. Take a cue from Marie Kondo.
De-cluttering expert Marie Kondo suggests that it can help us let go of unwanted clutter by thanking items before we discard them. When it’s time to let go of teaching practices we’ve learned are less effective, we can be grateful for their utility when they were the best we knew. Reading Wexler’s book, there have been several times when she has presented research that counters something I did in my own classroom (or even -- yikes! -- shared with other teachers as good practice.) Yes, it can make me feel guilty. I move past that by telling myself: “It was the most effective thing I knew to do at the time, and now I can do something even more effective.” Staying in the guilt of our past doesn’t help our students, nor does ignoring new evidence.
3. Change your thought pattern.
Cognitive therapists help people overcome challenges by reframing their self-talk. Making small changes in the way you think can change your practices in big ways. For example, although I’m a believer in phonics, when I became exasperated with a student’s attempts to sound out a word, I would sometimes ask them to look at the picture to figure out the word -- even though I had learned this was ineffective, even counter-productive. So I changed my thinking with a short phrase. Whenever I was tempted to encourage a student to guess, I said to myself, “We don’t guess. We say the sounds.” By picking a short, positively-framed phrase I could repeat to remind myself of the change I wanted to make, I altered my self-concept to that of someone who wouldn’t resort to a shortcut.
Change can be painful, and our brains want to protect us from that pain with confirmation bias. For our students, however, shifting our thinking is critical to helping them succeed.
Lately, there’s been a renewal of “the reading wars” -- in part due to a couple of high-profile pieces in the media about the lack, in some schools, of systematic phonics teaching (here and here). If you’re not familiar with the Reading Wars, which crop up every few years, the gist is an argument over the best way to teach reading. I won’t go into all of the details here, but this is a good summary of some of the key issues and timeline, if you’re interested.
One of those issues is whether all students should get explicit, systematic phonics instruction. Some educators, rightly, state that not all children need direct instruction in phonics. Those students will learn to read without this instruction. Advocates of less-systematic phonics instruction would argue: Why waste time on instruction that kids don’t need?
However, as a teacher and teacher-educator I believe in explicit, systematic phonics instruction for all children in grades K-2 -- and for those in higher grades who need it. Timothy Shanahan recently wrote a great blog post from a research perspective on why teaching phonics to all students is beneficial.
But what about the teacher perspective? Why do I teach phonics to all students?
1. I teach phonics because it helps kids learn to read.
I mean, this seems like an obvious reason. First-grade teachers who teach systematic, explicit phonics often describe the “January miracle.” That’s when, suddenly, students who weren’t reading are tearing through texts. This past year, I took over a first grade classroom when a teacher had to go on leave. My students hadn’t been getting consistent instruction in the fall, so the January miracle came around March. By the end of the year, my students had shown NINE MONTHS of reading growth in four months, and were in the 91st percentile for growth on a nationally normed assessment. Of course, phonics wasn’t all we did. Phonics should never be the only reading instruction - a phonics program is not a literacy program. However, my class focused heavily on cracking the code, and it showed.
2. I teach phonics because it builds the love of reading.
The most consistent argument I hear against systematic phonics instruction is that it somehow crushes the love of reading. Tell that to my student, Bisael, who would happily shout, “Miss, we’re getting the hang of this!” whenever the class met a new reading challenge. My students obsessed over the set of decodable books I’d found in my classroom, to the point that I sometimes had to say: “I’m happy you love reading, but I’d like you to take a little more time on your math assignment.” Being able to read the words of a text is the first stop in loving to read, and students who struggle are often those who “hate reading.”
I suspect that those who don’t equate phonics with loving reading have experienced some boring phonics lessons. But just because something is explicit and systematic, it doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Short, snappy, and clear lessons keep kids engaged and learning.
3. I teach phonics because it’s interesting -- to my students and to me.
Can you easily explain why A says one sound in apple and another in apron? Why do some words have a silent gh? Have you ever said to yourself: “English is just weird.” If these thoughts resonate with you, you are thinking about phonics! English is more regular than most of us suspect; it’s just that the regularity is complicated and deeply embedded in the way English has evolved over the years. Sharing this complexity with students is a constant challenge and has so many levels that even those students who “don’t need” phonics can learn fascinating things about the history of our language through phonics.
4. Phonics helps you crush crossword puzzles.
Trust me on this one.
Coming up: How I Teach Phonics
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Catlin Goodrow, M.A.T