James Paul Gee
Tashia Morgridge Professor of Reading
University of Wisconsin-Madison
This document is in response to your letter. In my view, educational research has had very little long-term impact. It fuels “fads”, “fads” usually started by other forces (e.g., Sputnik, the Asian Tigers). The waxing and waning of educational practices, at least in the United States, marches, by and large, to the drumbeat of other realities (social, cultural, and political), not educational research itself.
There has been some improvement in schools since the time in the 1980’s when I switched from theoretical linguistics to education, improvement in some equity factors and in the treatment of culturally diverse students. Yet schools today reflect current research very poorly indeed, for example research in the Learning Sciences. For instance, contemporary reading instruction does reflect research (most of it not all that recent) on phonemic awareness and decoding and this is all to the good but it poorly reflects the much more massive and important research on emergent literacy, a body of crucial research that is viewed by Washington politicians as not “evidence based” because no one sets up controlled experiments inside people’s homes. The absolutely crucial research on specialist and academic languages (registers) as a sine quo non for school success is virtually unknown and ignored in this country.
In fact, learning in many schools today compares poorly with learning going on outside of school in some popular cultural practices (e.g., compare the reading level and specialist language of a Yu-Gi-Oh card to the reading level and lack of academic language in the child’s classroom) and within some “communities of practice” (e.g., some fan fiction writing sites where many non-native speakers are learning to write English better than they are in their ESL classes). Privileged homes are setting up learning systems in their homes via modern technologies, especially digital technologies that are not only accelerating their children’s school success, but preparing their children to be tech-savvy and to be comfortable with technical and technological learning, attributes that will be crucial for success in our global world (see Friedman’s book Flat World). Schools do next to nothing to make up for this new equity divide (which is not primarily about access to equipment, but about access to distinctive learning systems). This emerging equity divide has barely registered in research and has had next to no impact on schools by the time it does, the horse will be long out of the barn and the problem probably unaddressable.
The low impact of educational research is due to many interacting features, far too many to discuss here. One factor, not the only one by any means, is the profoundly poor way in which educational researchers are trained. Take my own area of educational linguistics (sociolinguistics and discourse analysis). I have a PhD in theoretical linguistics from Stanford and I published in theoretical linguistics for some years before I got interested in Education. Over the years I have learned a lot about education, though I have not taken education classes or been “trained” in education. My students get a good training in educational issues and a good general background on language. But there are two problems: first, they have no real access to a deep and extended training in the discipline of linguistics and, second, almost every course in a School of Education is set as a first course or at an introductory level (this for institutional and financial reasons) there is nothing like the deep prerequisite structure and advanced courses that are part of the training in any discipline.
The same is true in nearly all areas in nearly all Schools of Education, no matter how prestigious they are. The advanced training my own students get, where they get to accumulate and share advanced specialist knowledge (a rarity in Schools of Education), they get when I mentor them together as a small on-going group over several years, something most professors cannot do, for financial reasons, and something that is becoming nearly impossible for me to continue doing.
So, what research do I think has had an impact? Let me give one initial example. The so-called “sharing time” research had an impact of sorts. This research, looking at the linguistic differences between African-American and white children when they were telling sharing time “stories” (show-and-tell), was started by a research team at Berkeley . The team’s findings were published initially by one of the graduate students on the team (Sarah Michaels, 1981, "Sharing time”: Children’s narrative styles and differential access to literacy, Language in Society, 10, 423-42), though I believe this was not the team’s intention. Soon a variety of other papers appeared, relating to this initial research, some by people connected to the original group and some by people not so connected (e.g., myself). People like Jim Collins, Jenny Cook-Gumperz, Courtney Cazden, and myself eventually produced work in the area, some of which corrected some of the errors in the original research. Much of this research was not initially published in educational journals, but rather in linguistic journals (e.g., Language in Society, Discourse Processes).
This research has had several impacts. First, people came to see that practices that looked innocent and, perhaps, marginal to school (like sharing time or show-and-tell) could have a significant impact on children’s lives and futures in school. Second, taken with a body of related research going on in linguistics at the time, people came to see that young African-American children often made deep sense, based on their cultures and language practices, when they seemed to teachers to be making little or no sense. This research has had an impact on the local practices of teachers and on some teacher training programs; it has been around long enough that it has had impact on people who have not read it directly but been influenced by the research and practices it influenced. It has not had, as far as I can tell, any really major impact, though it is part of a larger cultural switch in research and educational practice in terms of which African-American children and families are treated with more respect than they had before, though such children are still, as a group, significantly at risk for school failure.
A second example: A large body of research that started in Australia , called the “genre movement”, headed initially by Jim Martin and Gunther Kress, developed a left wing critique of progressivist educational practices (such as “Whole Language”). They argued that such immersion and child-centered pedagogies hide the rules of schooling and school success from non-middle-class children (the middle-class children learned the rules at home), making them think that the expression of their “voice”, the processes of their “development”, and their own “goals” were the focus of schooling and the basis for advancement and rewards. The genre movement argued that all children needed to be taught the actual “genres” of reading, writing, and talking that lead to school success and needed to master the “discourses of power”, that is, the “ways with words” that lead to success in society, so that, in some cases, working class children might use that success to effect changes in society. This body of claims got popular in the U.S. only when Lisa Delpit made similar arguments in a Harvard Educational Review article. An African-American educator saying that progressive pedagogies could deskill African-American children was a powerful incentive for the spread of this larger movement, which already had American followers (this was how Delpit was read, not necessarily how she wished to be read). There is no doubt that this body of work, thanks to the charge given to it by Delpit in the U.S., has; along with the traditional right-wing critique (a different critique) greatly enhanced the diminishment of progressive pedagogies in our schools. However, these were not replaced with the post-progressive pedagogies that genre theorists called for in Australia and that scholars like myself called for in this country, they were replaced by skill-and-drill back-to-basics pedagogies.
A final example: A plethora of research in the 1980’s, for example, Ann Brown’s Communities of Learners or Liz Cohen’s Complex Instruction, argued for new (in my view post-progressive) pedagogies in terms of which all children would learn at a deep and conceptual level. This research, and the best of it was later represented in work by people like Andy diSessa and Rich Lehrer, was supported because at the time the Asian economies (e.g., Japan and Singapore ) were killing the American economy. The theory then bandied about was that this was because countries like Japan were training every citizen to be a “knowledge worker” for a “knowledge economy”. The U.S. therefore wanted to support “thinking pedagogies” to compete. When the Asian economies turned down, and we discovered it was the shortage of service workers, not technical workers (many of whom just immigrated here), that put a brake on the boom economy of the 1990’s, we lost our interest in such pedagogies and found a new interest in standardized pedagogies that would be good for training service workers.
Let’s end with an example of good research that has had a negative impact. The research on the importance of phonemic awareness is the only research in the current “reading wars” that is really somewhat new, other than that the old first-grade studies done 30 years ago have never been advanced upon. The research on phonemic awareness has certainly led to better reading instruction in some cases and to better and earlier assessments. But it has also led to a tunnel vision approach to early reading that ignores emergent literacy and ignores the necessary early grounding in vocabulary and preparation for academic language. It thus gives rise to a phenomenon that has been known for 30 years, the “fourth-grade slump”, the phenomenon whereby many children seem to be learning to read well in the early grades, but cannot read to learn well in the content areas once the language demands become more complex and academic in fourth grade (often earlier today).
What good research can do is to put pressure on schools and society to ask certain questions, take up certain issues, and make certain choices if and when the time is ready for such choices. It can certainly impact on how we train teachers, though this is an area on which I could write another response, the research that has largely informed teacher training is politically correct research that thinks we still live in the 1960’s, it is a prime case where liberals have done as much or more damage than conservatives. In fact, the detachment in Schools of Education between mainline research and the training of teachers (largely left to people who think that if teachers just “reflect” and are multiculturally sensitive all our problems are solved; we do an immensely poor job of teaching teachers to teach content for a global high-tech world) is a major dilemma.
The future is on us. It is not the 1960’s, the world as the baby boomers were taught to see it, is over, long gone. It is imperative that we train researchers and support research that gets ready for the battles to come. We have lost many in the past, battles over equity for traditional print literacy were not wholly lost, but they were not unmitigatedly won by any means, but they are in the past. We should go forward aware of the mistakes we have made and why we made them and engage in work that will, this time, put us ahead of curve, not behind it. However, I fear we are largely still fighting the old battles and leaving the new ones, for example the new equity divide I discussed above, there are many others, with no contest. Reading at a third-grade level by third grade is good of course, save it will get a child absolutely nothing in the modern world where all jobs that require only standardized skills, no matter whether these be low or high skills and prestige jobs, will be done out of the country. What it means to narrow the literacy gap today is a whole new ball game, and most Schools of Education (not to mention the government) aren’t on the field.