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Follow the Map!

By Mark Weakland
 | Jan 31, 2017

ThinkstockPhotos-86535128_x300This summer my great aunt told me, “I have a theory about how psychic energy flows between plants and people.” And over a beer this fall, a buddy laid out his theory on why his girlfriend broke up with him. Although these two said they had a theory, what they really had was a belief, confident thinking not necessarily supported by facts.

Big deal, you might say. What’s wrong with using theory when you mean belief? In late November, a friend, who is a literacy coach, told me she was struggling to reach a certain group of worksheet-loving teachers. “I tell them how important it is to have their kids read for extended amounts of time. But they just don’t believe that will make children become better readers.”

“How is that possible?” I exclaimed, jumping up and down and waving my arms. “The connection between reading amount and reading achievement isn’t something you choose to believe or not. It’s a fact!”

In science, a theory is not a belief. A description of what it actually is can be found in a New York Times article. In it, Kenneth R. Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University, says, “A theory is a system of explanations that ties together a whole bunch of facts. It not only explains those facts, but predicts what you ought to find from other observations and experiments.” In the same article, Peter Godfrey-Smith, author of Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, suggests we think of theories as maps, “To say something is a map is not to say it’s a hunch. It’s an attempt to represent some territory.” 

I love this analogy: Facts are to a theory as features are to a map.  Likewise, a geography map is to a territory of earth as a theory map is to a territory of science. The best maps—derived from decades of observation, experimental confirmation, and replication—are highly descriptive and strongly predictive. Thus, they are tremendously useful. Well-established maps provide paths of action, enabling us to solve problems, alleviate suffering, and plan for the future.  Germ theory helps us to stay healthy, plate tectonic theory helps us plan for disasters, and climate change theory shows us how to fix the environmental mess we are creating.

We teachers are fortunate to have strongly predictive maps at our disposal. Reading is probably the most extensively studied subject in the field of education. The many facts that describe and demarcate its territory include the following: orthographic, syntactic, and semantic processing systems at work when we read; metacognition helps readers comprehend; fluency influences comprehension.

Likewise, we are blessed to have a map of instructional theory that is increasingly realized. We know, among other things, that instruction should be direct and explicit at times, that positive reinforcement molds behavior, and that providing feedback both during writing and reading and while commenting on behaviors leads to greater learning.

We are living in a time when policies and positions supported by facts are under siege. A countering move is to strongly and actively stand up for the well-established maps of reading theory and instruction theory.  And we must say that teachers have an ethical duty to follow them. When teachers follow the maps of reading and instruction, they always have an excellent chance of leading their students to the destinations of competent reading and writing. But when teachers dismiss the maps, they are wandering in the wilderness and so are their students.

Powered by talk radio, internet misinformation, and unfair and unbalanced news reporting, the trend of making decisions based on beliefs and feelings rather than facts has been gathering steam for more than two decades. Now it is common to see people calling the theory of anthropogenic climate change a hoax, saying the theory of evolution is just a secularist’s whimsical idea, and, in the case of the aforementioned teachers, treating the theory of reading as a notion that one is free to believe or not.

Rather than allowing folks to dismiss our maps, which we have gained through great effort and are of immense value, we should be standing up for them. My new reading coach pep talk is “Use the map! Use the map!” Using and promoting the maps of reading and instructional theory are actions counteracting a backward slide into a dark place, where personal beliefs trump scientific enlightenment and critical thinking.

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.

 

3 comments

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  1. Laura | Feb 10, 2017
    My question would be how do you make research findings more accessible to Ts? Easy to find, read, share ...? Many teachers lack the time in their day for extra searching & reading ... how can we bring these facts & results right to them?
  2. Marina | Feb 08, 2017
    Although I agree with the general premise regarding following research-based data to improve and guide instruction, I find the author's digression into political grandstanding will keep me from sharing or referencing this piece. This is a shame since it starts out quite well otherwise. Just as personal belief should not guide instructional methodology over fact-based theory, neither should personal political vendetta stain otherwise reasonable pedagogical discussion. 
  3. Martha A. Colwell | Feb 07, 2017

    Excellent article. I agree with it totally.  Martha Colwell, Assoiate Professor, Framingham State University

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