The wisdom of Jeanne Chall

I keep going back to Jeanne Chall’s 2000 book “The academic achievement challenge”. Such is the ouroboric nature of education that, despite being 16 years old, Chall’s critique is as valid today as it was then, given a little tweaking of the buzzwords.

In 2000, ‘self-esteem’ was the rallying cry. It was the phrase that everyone used for students feeling good about themselves and their education. Since then, Carol Dweck has set her Mindset Theory in direct counterpoint to self-esteem, claiming that the self-esteem movement was misconceived. Read Jo Boaler’s, “Mathematical Mindsets,” – a book that aims to apply Dweck’s Mindset Theory to the maths classroom – and you will encounter the idea that, in order to prevent students hating and fearing mathematics, we need to use investigatory, problem-based learning techniques.

Compare this with Chall’s 2000 take on self-esteem:

“Teacher centered education views self-esteem as an outcome of doing what one does, especially when one does it well. Student-centered education tends to take a different view, namely, that self-esteem is a prerequisite for learning…

Recently, using the concept of self-esteem to explain why students learn or do not learn has spread to all kinds of schools, traditional as well as progressive. Thus, when children fail, lack of self-esteem is often cited. The result in such instances is that certain teaching procedures become favored because they are presumed to raise student self-esteem. We hear more and more that certain practices, such as hands-on science, are worthwhile because they also enhance students’ self-esteem. One hears of schools whose first objective is to build students’ self-esteem, hoping it will bring about improved academic achievement.”

So, in 2000, if you wanted to promote self-esteem then the prescription was progressive teaching methods. Now, if you have the opposite goal of building a growth mindset it seems that the prescription stays the same: progressive teaching methods.

We see a similar argument around motivation, both in the prescription and the direction of cause and effect. Traditionalists believe that motivation will come, if at all, with increased proficiency. Progressive educators believe that increased proficiency will come with motivation and, in order to motivate students, you need – can you guess? – progressive teaching methods.

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7 Comments on “The wisdom of Jeanne Chall”

  1. Iain Murphy says:

    Sorry but this a gross simplification of both Jeanna’s and Carol’s work by trying to link the word self-esteem without acknowledging that neither of them give it the same meaning. In your quote Jeanne recognises the word as having different meanings. Both do agree that we need to make the student the focus of learning. Carol shows that if you develop this self esteem by praising talent rather than the work you create a fixed mindset that stops progress as the student beginnings to need that affirmation of self over effort. Not something we want in Maths when we are consistently introducing new ideas and processes that need to be tried and failed before they might be grasped. Jeanna agrees that if a student is presented with work too hard you will disenfranchise the student and lose them but Carol and Daniel Willingham show that if the work is to easy they will similarly become disconnected as their work/effort isn’t rewarded simply their success by “talent” leading to a fixed mindset and boredom.

    The challenge is to get every student into that challenge zone while completing our national curriculum and prepare for NAPLAN (because we know it affects our schools ability to fund) within class time with limited resources. Add to that every measure of the average high school class shows at least a 5 year spread in skills (probably more like 7 or 9 as most of these studies create glass ceilings for the most talented) and the problem becomes difficult in any classic classroom.

    • Tara Houle says:

      Actually Greg pretty much nails how dressed up fads are, well, merely dressed up fads. Jo Boaler has jumped all over Dweck’s mindset theory to promote her new book, about how children learn best by letting them discover how brilliant they are under their own direction…even tho this isn’t what Dweck really intended. Progressives will take any latest trend and bend it to “their” meaning, in order to promote failed child centred learning.

      Here’s a novel idea: why not just use what works. In mathematics, we have a very successful system for teaching children arithmetic whereby they go on to grasp higher order mathematics. The problem, as the past 2 or 3 decades will highlight, is that progressive educationists have decided that they need to change this system, which took a few millennia to create, and make it “better”, utllizing whatever trend, or fad, which comes along, in order to promote their latest gimmick.

      I am not quite sure I follow your interpretation of Dweck’s and Willingham’s work, as I, too, have read their studies, and did not come to the same conclusion you have. What I do recall, quite clearly, are how straightforward teaching methods are incredibly successful regardless of the various abilities of students in a singular classroom. But unless these teacher led, explicit methods are utilized, chaos usually ensues.

  2. Tunya Audain says:

    Reading Wars — Is It Ethical To Keep Spreading The Damage?

    Which other field other than education would allow their patients, clients or students to suffer harm from withholding best practice?

    A review of Jeanne Chall’s many positive contributions to advancing the art and science of teaching to read brings forth ethical questions — still unresolved. Many questions are being posed why functional illiteracy still persists, especially amongst certain groups: racial minority children, boys and children in poverty.

    Unfortunately it is an ideologically polarized “war” that continues to affect the reading scores and lives of many children. Discussion of the issues is to invite strong feelings, which hinder forthright action.

    In the forward to the paperback edition of Chall’s book, “The Academic Achievement Challenge” (2002) the foreword by Marilyn Jager Adams has this to say:

    “ . . . reviewing the research on phonics, Chall told me that if I wrote the truth, I would lose old friends and make new enemies. She warned me that I would never again be fully accepted by my academic colleagues . . . Sadly, however, as the evidence in favor of systematic, explicit phonics instruction for beginners increased, so too did the vehemence and nastiness of the backlash. The goal became one of discrediting not just the research, but the integrity and character of those who had conducted it. Chall was treated most shabbily . . . “

    Now, we are hearing about an enthusiastic program by various philanthropic and government agencies (World Bank, World Vision, etc.) to spread literacy to underdeveloped countries. There is a toolkit available, but within the very document — EARLY GRADE READING. ASSESSMENT TOOLKIT. March 30, 2009 — is this one hint of predictable trouble ahead:

    “The reading ‘wars’ are alive and well in many low-income countries, often miring ministries of education and teaching centers in seemingly endless debates between the ‘whole-language’ and ‘phonics-based’ approaches.”

    What’s to be done? Isn’t there a “right to know” that a community at the receiving end of a do-good project should have access to — pros and cons? Aren’t there any ethical protocols that guide projects in developing countries that are mounted by outsiders? I have no means to warn these countries or to stall these do-gooders from exporting foreign wars, albeit reading wars without bloodshed, into innocent countries. I’m just a granny seeing the education field being horribly irresponsible, for rich and poor countries alike. It’s ALL children who are denied the power of reading who are poorer. And society!

    If the education system is still full of nastiness, as it was for Jeanne Chall, is there any hope? Then “the system” needs to be abandoned.

  3. Greg on your say-so I’ve purchased this book. Am looking forward to reading it 🙂

  4. Tunya Audain says:

    Persist & Find The Paperback Edition, 2002

    When acquiring the Jeanne Chall book — The Academic Achievement Challenge — it’s worth getting the edition that contains the foreword by Marilyn Jager Adams: “In a new foreword to the paperback edition, Marilyn Jager Adams reflects on Chall’s deep-rooted commitment to and enduring legacy in educating America’s children. ”

    If you are either a teacher or otherwise very interested/concerned about the field of education you will grasp what a contested field it is. Most of the public and practitioners simply do not know that this field is plagued by rivalries, which seriously intrude and harm both the teacher side and the student side.

    There are a number of angles to be aware of: a) political — left or right philosophies, certain their view is correct about what’s best; b) economic — there’s big bucks in the competitive publishing business; c) belief systems that verge on group-think and mass hysteria when fads proliferate and defy reason. You may know of other categories of disputes in the field.

    For example, Rick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, sees progressives as dominating the ed reform discussions & efforts — 90 to 10 percent. Conservatives have little “refuge”, he says.

    But, there is a third force (besides the progressive and traditional) which is completely marginalized in these contests — the purely practical side — teaching and learning via what works and is evidence-based. What the 21st Century needs is education free of partisanship, free of greedy self-seeking profiteering, free of hysterical faddism and free of downright laziness in avoiding the discipline of proper pedagogy. But, Chall promoted what worked and was treated “shabbily”. (See quote in my previous comment.)

    Parents, who are legally, and in reality, those ultimately responsible for their children’s well-being and education are frustrated that the trade, industry, field, whatever (hard to call it a “profession”) is so prone to dissension and lack of self-control and self-regulation. Even more frustrating is the field’s tendency to sideline critics and parents as if “the system” has achieved some mantle of “social license” to keep blundering along.

    If you want to do right in this trade, it’s advisable to know the landmines! This foreword by Adams is the most succinct statement I have yet to find in the literature that warns about the insider problems fueling the Reading Wars, Math Wars, and Science Wars — real obstacles to practical education today.

    People who respect the art and science of teaching and seek the best choices for children eagerly await the emergence of some practical standards to guide the future of education. At present, there is a real crisis of confidence about the field of education, both within the field and amongst the public in general.

    [Apologies for this editorial. I just meant to pass on the information about the important foreword in the paperback edition, 2002, of Chall’s book, which contains a key insight into her contribution and travails. Got carried away because while the School Wars continue to do havoc, there are few writings that actually describe or even hint at these invisible hindrances to education.]


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