The Learning Wars

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If there is a war on learning, I want to be on Losh's side.

The War on Learning

She's a winner. Elizabeth Losh's The War on Learning makes an invaluable intervention into current debates about the role of digital media in higher education by adopting an approach that is at once hopeful and skeptical, that rejects technological euphoria and moral panic alike, that challenges the promises made by corporate vendors but also those made by educational reformers, and that insists that core principles of inclusion and mutual respect should govern the relations between faculty and students.

As an entomologist uncovers creatures previously hidden underfoot, Elizabeth Losh offers a scrupulous and bracing account of the tumult facing contemporary education by uncovering the unfamiliar forces that inhabit it. Parents, students, and teachers alike won't see higher education in the same way once they've caught a glimpse of the critters pinned to these pages.

This is an essential book that takes seriously all the furious pressures on college teachers and students to play with shiny new toys rather than immerse themselves in the projects of mutually teaching and learning. Losh gets to the heart of all the nonsense that digital utopians and dystopians have been shoveling at us for decades.

It's a must-read for educators, administrators, and students. Search Search. Search Advanced Search close Close. Preview Preview. To Kim I think I would suggest that although a child who enters school reading need not necessarily encounter difficulties - I didn't - unfortunately, my experience rested on my own innate desire to do something that threatened no one and was therefore perpetually tolerated.

My own third son is hopelessly bored with school and if a democratic school were available in this part of the world, I would take him there in a heartbeat. Sounds pretty similar to me, with a few differences. I didn't read quite that early, but I did teach myself before 5 and kindergarten. I wasn't crazy about recess either, partly because it was harder to read, but also because I was hassled by the other kids. I didn't always finish my homework early, but sometimes I did - I liked math problems, because you could tell when you were done with them.

Writing, not so much. And unfortunately, it didn't last - at about 12, I still liked reading, but I started liking boys and music more, and spent a lot of time listening to the radio or on the phone. I was a precocious reader, and for me that meant extreme boredom in elementary school. I remember in first grade we would have reading time and there was this shelf of books we could choose from to read.

They were all picture books with like one sentence per page, which was way below my level. I could have read the entire rack in one day's reading time. I was bored out of my mind. Fortunately, the shelves also hosted the Highlights magazine, which had a picture puzzle section, in which there were pictures with pictures of objects hidden in the larger picture, like you could find a toothbrush hidden in the image of a bookshelf. I spent my reading time finding the hidden objects in the pictures, though that soon became pretty easy as well.

But at least it passed the time and gave me something to do. It would have been nicer if the school had offered me more interesting books to read. I think that may have played a role in why I failed to gain much interest in books during my grade-school years. I never disliked reading, and I would read on occasion, but I never really developed the habit of reading frequently and I didn't even know you could read non-fiction [beyond textbooks] to learn about stuff you were interested in.

I went to a public school, and my advanced level was never catered to. It was suggested by a couple of my teachers that I participate in their accelerated program, but no one really pushed it. I took a placement test one year, but I didn't get in, presumably because of the way the test was administered.

It was given to me orally, and at the time I had a debilitating social anxiety and was petrified of giving a wrong answer. So I probably came across as a lot more ignorant than I actually was. Also, the test questions seemed centered on what my knowledge base was rather than how quickly I learned or how adept I was at logic.

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And given that I was not being exposed to any extra material, I didn't really have any opportunity to pick up more than what was being taught to me, so it's unlikely I would have appeared advanced if it was purely a matter of assessing my existing knowledge base. It's sad, because my time in elementary school was such a waste. It was like incredibly fertile soil in which hardly any seeds were planted. I was extremely curious at that point in my life, and very capable.

I learned a lot from my older siblings, so I was way ahead of my grade level in almost every subject was doing algebra in 3rd grade! But school was understimulating and boring, and no one attempted to cater my experiences to my abilities or give me something more challenging, interesting, or stimulating. So I just learned that school was something boring and easy you did to please other people. I focused on perfecting my execution rather than exploring new territory or trying to satisfy my curiosity. Instead I learned to suppress my curiosity.

I stayed within the lines, got perfect grades, and learned practically nothing. It wasn't until college that I really started to take initiative with my education.

Had I been a student at Sudbury during those formative years, I can't even imagine how different a person I would be today Hannah, that was such a sad story. It is a shame no one found a way to challenge you at school. I'm guessing that's why the gifted classes are available now- to challenge children who can do so much. I wonder,too, how different your life would have been if you could have explored what you wanted to learn. The lack of data, though, concerns me. You mention that studies consistently show that phonics works better in a classroom setting, and argue that the setting is skewing the results.

I want to see that data. I want to see a study done of unschooled kids or at Sudbury Valley or something, analyzing how, when, and how easily these kids learn to read. For data on phonics vs. That will lead you to other research and you can examine the evidence yourself. For data compiled from case studies of precocious raiders, I suggest you start with the review article by Lynn Olson and others, which I also list in the reference section, and with the doctoral dissertation I cite there.

It would be very difficult to do any systematic studies of just how and at what rate children in unschooling families and at Sudbury schools learn, because you can't follow them around taking notes and if you did it would interfere with what they are doing , but for my attempt to compile case histories, see the blog post that I link to early in this post. I would love to see more research on how children learn out of school, but it is really difficult to do in a systematic manner.

For what it's worth, I have a pretty good memory and I remember I didn't learn phonetically, when I learned on my own at 4. I remember thinking phonics was a stupid way to learn to read. I think some of the issue is that we're dealing with the English language, which is crazily irregular. I don't know if you'd get any kids learning Japanese or Italian phonetically those are both pretty phonetical languages. That is what I was thinking.

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My son is 9 and reading and language seem to be difficult for him. He is taught and rule and then "oh by the way there is an exception to the rule" or this same sound is spelt a different way.

The best practices for teaching reading in school do not mimic natural learning.

It's a very good and valid question. I think that compulsory education does a great disservice to our species. Books like Peter's are great works showing why we should stop harming our children, and there are very valid scientific reasons to stop teaching our children in litters. Unfortunately, we live in a society obsessed with data, and precocious readers will always be written off as outliers.

I hope my research can definitively answer your question, because it is one of the biggest questions that must be answered to release the stranglehold on our societies children. I've seen that at some of our other ALCs there are children requesting lessons and that we have resource people supporting students in their reading. Knowing that a lot of the people involved in our model are bringing with them experiences from other potentially more typical 'schooling' environments, I'd like to be able to address this topic more adequately with parents and other volunteer adults.

I'm also curious how this applies to other languages, beyond English. Mandarin, which is essentially complex pictograms, seems like it would be a great research area. Especially given that tough on schooling policies are often justified in comparison to competition with Chinese students.

Though I guess that's a separate question to answer: does self-directed learning work more effectively in a given culture because language? Russ, I'm a principal at a small private school though quit this year to try to get into a sudbury type school. Our school is pushing Orton Gillingham instructional approaches hard.

I'm skeptical of any reading program and am not sold. Do you have an opinion on OG and the more important question would you be willing to share what you found through your research? My research has been self-study and simply in my free time not related to my profession.


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I was not awarded the NSF grant, or I would be further along. That being said, the premise of my thesis is that fluent reading and phonemic recoding of unfamiliar polyphonograms are two separate skills the two streams hypothesis. There are fMRI studies which support this, in addition to a lot of other work in neuroscience and dyslexia. I do have a small amount of data to support this idea, though it is somewhat intuitive. The answer is yes, with very high accuracy.

On average, it takes 4—14 time separated encounters with a word both the polyphonogram and the meaning to gain fluency also known as RAN, rapid automatized naming. With fewer than four encounters it is a safe bet that there is no fluency, and with more than 14 encounters it is a safe bet that there is fluency for most emergent readers. In this study, encounters were not phonemic recoding encounters, but simply engaged aided reading encounters; though it should hold true for both practices. My feeling is that OG ignores neurodiversity and is simply a rigorous and often effective approach to forcing a mind fit a certain mold.

I wrote an article about neurodiversity if you're interested. Both of my children are unschooled. My older son 10 does not read well yet. My younger soon 7 reads well and taught himself to read some time between age 6 and 7. After reading Smith, Pinkerton, Holt, and others, and observing both of my children, I have come to the conclusion that the mechanism by which children learn to read naturally is neither whole word nor phonics. Instead, it's pattern matching.

Sometimes the patterns are whole words, sometimes parts of words, sometimes letters, and sometimes even shapes of words. And, by shapes I mean complex shapes, kinda like ideograms, not the dumb word outlines that some of us were taught in school. But that's also pretty much the way that at least some "whole-language" advocates such as Frank Smith describe it. Reading development is dependent upon a whole host of factors and skills. One is development of phonological awareness and understanding of sound-symbol relationships so phonics has a pre-requisite of auditory skills.

Another is development of symbol imagery, the ability to "see" and recall symbols mentally. That might be a more precise description of what you are talking about when you say pattern matching--recognizing and recalling symbol combinations mentally. Another is concept imagery, the ability to visualize meaning, and connect language to those visualizations. Lindamood-Bell are educators who have done the most work to develop materials for symbol imagery and concept imagery. But all of those abilities will develop best when a child is happy, lives a life with meaningful to them activity, and is supported in pursuing their interests.

I wondered what those word outlines were! The extra lines around words in my son's kindergarten word wall were so confusing to me, I didn't know it was a tool of a sort. I kept wondering when my son would be taught reading and ended up homeschooling in his first grade year when no one appeared to be actually teaching reading. It was amazing to see the lightbulb go on one day for him, so to speak. I was a precocious reader and wondered why my three didn't read like I did. Parents learn, I guess, that our children are not us- and they do things on their own time. Peter, why do you never differentiate between biological primary abilities like speaking and biological secondary abilities like reading?

David Geary has dozens of publications on this, surely you have read some of them??


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  5. It is predicted that the need for instruction will be a direct function of the remoteness of the secondary ability to the supporting primary systems. You keep trying to apply evolution-based natural learning to non-natural things! There is no need to delay reading instruction or hope it happens by magic. You are only putting the child at a disadvantage.

    I agree with Matt. There is twenty years of science that shows the real difference between kids who read early and those who don't. First, English's phonological structure causes most difficulties.

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    Both whole language and phonics are much less effective means of teaching Reading than compared to other alphabetic languages. English is a hard language to listen to because of it's very large number of speech sounds, especially vowel phonemes. Even small disruptions in hearing ear infections, noisy households can disrupt speech and reading. Students who are precocious readers have stronger listen abilities, especially auditory discrimination and phonemic awareness.

    Not surprisingly, virtually all secondary students with reading difficulties have some manner of auditory processing difficulties. From an evolutionary viewpoint, reading just builds of our innate language acquisition powers. But it is learned, just as speech, requiring tons of "natural" learning. We lack a reading center in the brain so we hijack the speech and language centers to read and write. See Deshaene's brilliant work. All the student freedom in the world doesn't make up for the lack of auditory and phonological testing and interventions for struggling readers.

    It's educational malpractice. I am passionate about this because I spent 40 years struggling to read despite endless exposure to literature and language and years of phonics. A speech pathologist using research based methods and interventions took two months to get me to read accurately, fluently and with pretty good comprehension.

    Learning is an innate gift of evolution. But we live in a complex world that requires massive amounts of education to learn adaptively. I have always been severely hard of hearing, yet learned to read very early, by age 3 or 4. Even I cannot explain this, since I have no memory of the process; I am merely telling you what my parents told me of my early learning. I was always an avid reader and mathematician, from a young age. My folks loved to read; they subscribed to two newspapers and several magazines, and not a day passed that I did not observe several people engaged in the act of reading.

    They'd also read aloud on a regular basis. I adopted the same practice with my children. I did not restrict my reading materials to children's books; they heard me read from newspapers and textbooks and novels. Hi Bruce. I am a speech-language pathologist with a unique perspective. I both have worked with children with reading problems professionally and I unschooled my children, who are now adults. My daughter was a precocious reader.

    At age 6 reading the Chronicles of Narnia for example. My son was very slow to read and persisted with some spelling deficits and has what I consider to be difficulty with symbol imagery, which is found in some children with reading difficulties. He did not have difficulties with phonological awareness. He was a child who was never as interested in listening to stories as his sister was who was obsessed! He was also slower to develop his articulation and expressive grammar but within the normal range. Some educators are finding more and more that addressing phonological awareness is necessary but not sufficient and that many problems are with symbol imagery.

    I find this also in the children I see for therapy. Also some problems are with concept imagery, and this type of problem is found in individuals with hyperlexia, who decode well but have poor comprehension. Some of these children have autism, some don't. I am working with an young teen presently who has a mild form of this problem--and I can tell you that lack of interest in the content and methods of traditional school are definitely interfering with her reading development.

    It isn't just that she needs her problem identified, she also needs her life to be more in synch with who she is, and our test-obsessed school system is a poor match for her. As for my son, he learned to read and spell without formal intervention, just like Peter Gray says, because he developed his own internal motivation on his own timetable. Just like all the kids who have gone to Sudbury Valley School. Did I watch very carefully over time what was going on? Did I worry at times? But because his problems were mild he is just fine now as an adult.

    Not the best speller but not any worse than the dyslexic engineers I have known that had traditional education. My view is much closer to Peter's. I think lots of kids with mild to moderate problems of phonological processing, symbol imagery, or concept imagery, will develop reading just fine if given an unschooling option. I think there will be some, and you may be one of them, who need some formal intervention. But in either case, giving the child the freedom to learn on their own timetable and the freedom to develop their sense of self and sense of meaning and purpose in the world is going to advantage the child and be optimal.

    Holding Peter Gray's view does not preclude getting some intervention if and when the child asks for it. And that might not be for a long time. Another story--a close friend had a daughter with some mild learning issues.

    She finally left school to unschool at age 16 her mom said she couldn't leave school until she could drive since both parents worked. She still had significant writing problems and some reading problems at the time she left school. She got no intervention for those issues, but she got happier. Within a few years she won a writing contest while enrolled in college.

    She went on to get a Master's Degree in history, which of course required a lot of reading and writing. My point is that there is something connected to our essential selves, whether you want to call it "natural" or something else, that is important in developing literacy skills. And of course I strongly disagree that it requires "massive amounts of education to learn adaptively" if by that you mean formal education.

    Instead of reading, he was doing a lot of playing. And a lot of playing with Fischertechniks, building complex mechanical models. And I firmly believe that all this play was vital to him developing the skills he has today in logical analysis along with a strong sense of being a competent independent learner that can teach himself whatever he wants to learn. His most recent project has been multirotor drone technology and I have been fascinated to watch his progress with this business he is self-employed doing various tech-related work. I will never for sure know whether or not forcing him to "work on his reading" would have interfered with his development of his gifts, but I strongly suspect that it would have.

    All I know is that he is happy he had his freedom not to be pushed or given "therapy" to get him to read on the normal timetable. And that it was okay with us that when he did start reading it was just Calvin and Hobbes for a long time. On your first quote: Maybe the students who were behind in reading in elementary school never caught up to their peers because they had been forced to read when they did not want to, and never recovered a curiosity or delight in the activity as a result.

    How many of us, for instance, were forced to do math when we didn't want to, and have suffered a hatred of math ever since? Or read a book in high school because we had to and only decades later discovered that it was a book we actually would have liked if we had read it in another context?

    On biologically primary and secondary abilities: I doubt that a child raised without being surrounded by language would produce language; language acquisition becomes a child's goal because it is so obviously important to interaction with others in the child's life.

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    The line between biologically primary abilities and cultural abilities is therefore problematic. But mostly I wanted to reply to your statement about the need for instruction in order to learn to read. I won't lay out my daughter's entire learning curve, but suffice it to say that when she was 10 and a half, I was too anxious to tolerate any longer her statement "Mom, I don't want to read. I am just not ready yet. I would stay out of the room unless called upon, and she promised that she would spend that time looking at the words, not looking at pictures and not daydreaming.

    She thought I was silly for being anxious, but agreed to the scheme. Four months later, we went to the library and got a Percy Jackson book which I had refused to read to her--our deal was that books read aloud had to be appealing to both her and me and she read it. There was nothing from me in between. There was no, nada, zilch, direct instruction, and she went from not really being able to decode even basic signs to knowing how to read well enough to read Percy Jackson in four months.

    Direct instruction may very well be called for by some kids at some points and it should be fully available to them should they want it. It is not necessarily needed in order to learn how to read. Hi Matt, thank you for taking the time to express these thoughts. Let me respond, at least briefly. First, concerning the problem of late reading for kids in school, I am well aware of the data. But I am also well aware of many cases of children who go to Sudbury schools or are involved in self-directed learning at home who learn to read late and who become great readers and achievers as they go on in life.

    I describe some of these cases in the post that I linked to early in this post, but I have since accumulated many more. As one example, my study of the graduates of the Sudbury Valley School turned up two cases of young people who came to the school at age 15 unable to read they had been diagnosed as "dyslexic'. Both learned to read within a few months of being at the school, and both went on to college and did well--no problem reading. I suspect that children in standard schools who don't learn to read early fall behind because, in that setting, almost all further learning is based on reading.

    I know I struggled in the early grades because I was a late reader, but I did manage to break out of it and now I read just fine. However, many kids who are late readers in school are labeled "failures" early on and adopt a self-identity of failure or as rebel. I know one young man well who was in that situation.

    This is the first installment in our series of essays written by veterans. We asked service members to share how their time in uniform shaped their perspectives on American life. The first time that I taught the Middle East to my high-school students, I expected questions on terrorism and the war in Iraq. My students knew that I was a Marine and a veteran of the war, and even though the history class concentrated on the advent of Islam and its expansion from the Arabian peninsula into Africa, Europe, and Asia, I prepared to use that context to form a discussion around the modern-day conflict.

    Some would simply be indifferent. Some would be hesitant to enter the discussion. Still, lessons on its history meant teaching them that its harsh political realities today—including terrorism—are more closely linked to European imperialism, modern strongmen, and foreign intervention than anything we were discussing concerning the early days of Islam. This class unit was, in my mind, the best opportunity for engaging students with those complexities. Then nothing. After an initial inquiry about Islam and terrorism and a short response there were no more questions. I tried motivating them to ask questions or offer comments; I made it clear that the classroom was the place to talk about these things.

    Still nothing. So we moved on, and the rest of the year rolled by. And again: nothing. The more I asked my students about their thoughts on the Middle East, the more I realized that it was not simply a matter of disinterest although that is certainly a factor among some , but rather that the subject only existed to them in an abstract manner. But for my students, this was a war that had existed for almost their entire lives: In fact, from the moment many of them were born, the U.



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