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Finding the Relativity in the Classroom

By Mark Weakland
 | Jan 05, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-84516475_x300As a science nerd and lover of nonfiction, I’ve turned my reading attention recently to Albert Einstein while marking the 100th and 110th anniversaries of his theories of general and special relativity. Mulling over the oddities of space-time and quarks, my mind has drifted to teaching, and I have found that physics sheds some light on my educational endeavors. Leptons linked to literacy, you say? Yes.

When Einstein theorized that light exists as a particle (or quanta) a century ago, he laid the foundation for the fields of quantum mechanics and cosmology. Since then, scientists studying bosons, the Big Bang theory, and black holes have come to understand that certain aspects of our universe can be measured precisely, w other aspects are beyond exact calculation. On one hand, the circumference of a circle strictly determines its area. On the other, there is absolutely no way to know when the nucleus of a radium atom will decay. What can always be predicted and what will forever remain random coexist in a universe that is both determinate and indeterminate.  

In education, researchers have made great strides toward making the field more deterministic. Methods of assessment have been advanced and data have been disaggregated. Theories have been tested and refined through replicated experiments to the point where we can now say with confidence that a young child’s ability to master phoneme-grapheme association determines his or her early reading acquisition and the quality and expertise of a child’s teacher determines the degree to which she or he will learn.

Yet there are limits to the degree of determinacy education can reach. As the field travels the path of reductionism, striving to identify what is strictly quantifiable in reading development or determine which instructional methods lead to perfect learning every time, reflecting on these limits may be helpful. After all, associating sounds with symbols is not the only skill a young child brings to bear on reading, and although we may know that a student’s learning is determined by the quality of the teacher, we may never know what qualities are present in all highly effective teachers.

This is not to say I am an advocate of randomness in education. I am not. Determining through research which type of instruction works best, which materials lead to greater learning, and how best to formulate an effective program of teacher training are worthwhile and even necessary endeavors.  Education needs rigor, data, and quantitative analysis.

But we should be wary. Educational systems love the cutting edge and the paradigm shift, but neither necessarily involve rigor. And our love affair with everything new and different leads often to uncertainty and heartbreak. A multitiered system of support supplants Response to Intervention, heterogeneous grouping is swept away by mass customized learning, and the latest version of a core reading program flies in with more subroutines and monitoring systems than a space capsule, but are we really sure that any one of these complex systems definitely determines learning?

Think of this: Physicists postulate that the universe operates on levels of determinacy and indeterminacy simultaneously. Think of our universe as a layer cake. Each layer exists and operates on differing physical laws. On the bottom is the layer of quantum physics, where particles and waveforms arise, decay, and collapse at random. Upon this foundation of unpredictability are built atoms, rocks, and planets, which behave in predictable ways. Living on these very predictable rocks and planets are microbes and people, which evolve and behave in indeterminate, chaotic ways.

We can acknowledge that certain aspects of education—how to motivate a child, how to inspire a colleague, how to find the exact and perfect way to teach reading—lie beyond the purview of strict determinism, even as we strive to define scientifically what works and what does not work. And we can work towards rigor even when we know that science can never totally quantify which specific practices and materials determine complete learning. Our field is an indeterminate one, focused on millions of freethinking beings acting in unpredictable ways. First graders give a hug without notice, third graders fall out of their seats unexpectedly, sixth graders come to school frequently with more than close reading on their minds. The beauty of teaching, which is both a science and an art, is that through the skillful practice of what we know, through our quest to gain greater knowledge, and through a lot of inspired and hard work, we can create order from chaos and help determine outcomes for all our indeterminate and oh-so-interesting students.

mark weakland headshotMark Weakland is an educator, consultant, and author of books for teachers and children, including Super Core! Turbocharging Your Basal Reading With More Reading, Writing, and Word Work.



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  1. Moumita Adhikary | Jan 11, 2016
    Good tips for bringing kids and teens to study.
  2. Ludmila Battista | Jan 05, 2016
    Great article!  With so much emphasis on standards-based assessment, it's refreshing for a reminder that education and teaching is indeed a "science and an art."   Of course research-based methods and theories are important and will continue to add to successful learning, but I hope policy makers don't forget that there is a humanistic part to education as well....our children are not 'products' and we should not 'market' them to an industry!  I hope efficiency and the 'bottom line' does not put the profession, and as a result, our children at risk.  Thanks for the reminder.

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