Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Mathematization of Reading Comprehension (and Love)

Online dating is touted as "the answer" to anonymous city lives: one simply punches in requisite information (height, weight, age, eye colour, religion, work, hobbies) and one's preferences in a partner - and voila - a list of matches is found for you. In a survey of participants in the online dating world, however, Dan Ariely and his team discovered that the odds of finding the "right one" through an online service are not as good as one might expect. Why? Ariely writes, "In the same way that the chemical composition of broccoli or pecan pie is not going to help us better understand what the real thing tastes like, breaking people up into their individual attributes is not very helpful in figuring out what it might be like to spend time or live with them." (The Upside of Irrationality)

We keep trying, of course, to find formulas, to remove uncertainty, to speed up the processes of these "messy" things in our lives.

We certainly keep trying in education. We have a test of reading comprehension. Because we know that kids who can take notes to organize their thoughts, make connections, infer, determine importance, synthesize and so on can comprehend better, this test tests their tools. The reasoning: then we'll know what to teach them. If they struggle to make connections to the text we'll teach "connections." A perfect formula!

It probably increases the odds of understanding and enhancing reading comprehension as often as online dating hits the perfect match. Comprehension (like love) is complex and so much more than the sum of its parts. And it's elusively individual. Ultimately we've only learned how well they can write this particular sort of test and we get some glimpse into their reading comprehension. That's not a bad thing. It's only a problem if we put more weight on it than it deserves - if we believe our story that it's a perfect formula - if we don't have a rich array of data from many sources to make our teaching decisions in our schools, our classrooms and for individual students.

Of course, what we're looking for, rather than this messy muchness, is some perfect diagnosis - a CT scan for learning that reveals the map of a student's weaknesses so we can "fix" them with a series of well-crafted lessons determined by a rigorous and precise formula. But, alas, learning doesn't work that way. Reading comprehension is no more matter of the right tools than love is a function of eye colour preference and similar hobbies. We need, at the very least, in the first place to engage with the text. Or we need, instead, deep purpose. And we need to be able to bring our attention to bear on the text (even if we're tired, bored, angry, confused). And we need the flexibility to read differently with different texts. And so on. Our inability to comprehend (or show our comprehension) of any one text on a particular day could be caused by any of these factors (and others) or a complex combination of them.

I've been thinking lately, that if we spent less time seeking the formula for reading comprehension and more time providing a sea of opportunities, rich experiences, flexible tools, sharing what works not telling what's right, then we might have a better chance of providing each child with what seems in the 21st century, a basic right - the ability to read well.

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