If you’ve been following the recent conversation about phonemic awareness, you may be experiencing a range of thoughts and emotions that include avoidance, confusion, and disappointment. I’ve felt all of those, and more!
Many of you have expressed thoughts along the lines of … If the experts can’t agree, then is there really a science of reading?
Although I don’t support the personal attacks and angry rants, I recognize that disagreement and conflicting conclusions are essential elements of science. Science advances through the free exchange of ideas – even opposing and conflicting ideas – in a community of professionals who are willing to keep each other honest.
Raising questions about prevailing beliefs and practices is healthy, normal, and necessary. The ideas and practices that hold up to challenges are the ones we can implement with confidence. The ideas and practices that lack scientific support form the basis for future research.
Because disagreement often feels uncomfortable, we might be tempted to take sides and hunker down in our positions. We must be careful to avoid silencing or belittling others. The free exchange of ideas depends on awareness of our own biases, blinds pots, preferences, knowledge base, alliances, and susceptibility to the seduction of power and influence. Diverse perspectives are fundamental to the scientific process.
A common pitfall when learning something new is putting too much trust in the “experts.”
Although we can use the guidance of experts as an influence on our decisions, we can’t let the experts make decisions for us. Educators must make important judgments on students’ behalf that involve balancing competing interests and weighing conflicting opinions. This can feel like a heavy burden, but I believe we are up to the challenge.
Here are some guiding principles that I am currently exploring.
1. Avoid overstating or acting overly certain of things that are not certain. State your understandings accurately and clearly, and expect others to do the same. Use phrases such as:
2. Demonstrate humility by reminding yourself that you don’t know it all, you are always learning, and you are capable of changing course when you receive new information.
3. Be willing to admit when you are wrong. This is especially difficult when you have invested in a particular approach or persuaded others to agree with your position. Try to keep the focus on what is best for students.
4. Get comfortable with moving forward without complete or exact information, even with conflicting information. Be prepared to measure the impact of your choices on students, and make a shift if what you are doing isn’t working.
5. Expand who you are listening to, listen carefully to people with different ideas, and seek to understand differing perspectives.
6. Be cautious about who trust. Explore the backgrounds of the people you allow to influence you. Develop a close circle of colleagues with whom you can safely learn and explore ideas.
7. Increase your knowledge of reading research and also understand that some of your instructional choices won’t have research support. Return to item #1.
Dr. Stephanie Stollar is the founder of Stephanie Stollar Consulting LLC and the creator of The Reading Science Academy. She is a part-time assistant professor in the online reading science program at Mount St. Joseph University, and a founding member of a national alliance for supporting reading science in higher education.