Letters to the Editor
To the Editor:
I would like to comment on the article concerning the award by the National Council of Teachers of English of its distinguished-research award to Nancie Atwell for her book, In the Middle: Writing, Readinq, and Learninq With Adolescents ("Award Heralds Recognition of the Role of Teachers as Researchers," Dec. 12, 1990).
There are many reasons to applaud the recognition of the book, and the stimulation it promises for the involvement of teachers in research. But while the article addresses a number of issues related to teachers as researchers, one aspect of teachers' research--complying with the requirements of the protection of human subjects in research--has not received the attention it deserves.
As a member of the institutional review board of my university, I sometimes see proposals for dissertations and for other research projects that neglect to provide for all the necessary protections of subjects' rights. The problems of teachers' research, when it explicitly involves students in their own classes and is not a normal part of the conduct of education, may be even more difficult to address than these.
Among the most basic precepts of protection of human subjects in research is that the researcher must provide clear information about the research purposes and procedures, and assure potential participants that their choice to participate or not to participate is without constraint. In the case of minors, of course, parental permission is also required.
What is difficult here for teachers using their own students in activities explicitly for research is that they cannot assure students who refuse to participate that their refusal will not have negative consequences for them. The conflict-of-interest between the teacher as teacher and as researcher is so pervasive that few students are likely not to feel the coercion that results. Thus, they may give their consent to participate in the research even when they might not want to.
There is room for teachers' research, especially as it reflects on their practice, and if it is based on activities that are part of normal school and classroom activities. The research is not "normal educational practice" if it is engaged in primarily for the purposes of research, not education.
Evaluation of existing practices is a normal part of educational development, and a dissertation certainly may be carried out on "normal educational practice." But one needs to be thoughtful about what is defensibly "normal" practice (for example, video or audio taping of students, experimental grouping practices that could not or would not be implemented in a school, and use of materials for the purposes of research alone would not normally be).
Educators who utilize their diaries, case notes, records, and so forth, which are collected or maintained as a normal part of their educational activity, have every right to work with those materials as they see fit, as long as confidentiality of the students is strictly protected.
Teachers should be encouraged to systematically study their practice and to reflect on it. Using their own students for explicit research, however, is fraught with complex ethical issues which need thorough exploration. The protection of human research subjects should be the concern of all educators as well as researchers and those who combine both roles.
Primary and secondary schools, unlike universities, are not generally knowledgeable about human-subject regulations and rarely have a committee to assure compliance. Should teachers' research become common, committees like those in universities may well be necessary, even if most of the research is not governmentally funded.
Floyd M. Hammack
Associate Professor of Education
New York University
New York, N.Y.
To the Editor:
As a researcher who has done much basic and applied research on how to use imagery and visualization to improve children's learning, I read your article "Parents in S.C. Attack Alleged 'New Age' Program" (Jan 30, 1991) with deep personal interest. I was previously aware of the controversy regarding thinking skills in that state, because my professional speaking takes me to South Carolina once or twice a year on average.
Although I am not a fan of Tactics, there is little doubt in my mind about the origins of the visualization techniques in that program: They are adaptations of procedures studied by information-processing psychologists during the last 20 years. That the processes involved in visualization as defined by the information processors overlap visualization as practiced in some Eastern religions reflects that there are only so many processes that the mind does. I personally doubt that there is any information-processing component that would not be part of some religious practice.
What is especially curious to me--given that the objections to thinking-skills programs are coming from groups labeling themselves as Christians--is that the visualization tactics most akin to those in Tactics are ones used specifically by some Christians for centuries. For example, the Franciscans and Dominicans in the Middle Ages used mnemonic imagery in much the way that Tactics prescribes.
There is a good deal of evidence that good readers, thinkers, and problem-solvers use imagery and other higher-order thinking skills that are prescribed in Tactics; there is also good evidence that such processes facilitate reading comprehension, thinking, and problem-solving. Programs like Tactics are intended to teach such skills to students who would not develop them on their own otherwise and, thus, give those students a better chance to succeed academically.
Although the jury is still out on the effectiveness of Tactics, there is enough evidence supporting the instruction of the processes covered by Tactics to take considerable pause before purging such instruction from the curriculum. Those arguing for removal of such teaching are ethically obligated to make a case for why they want to deprive their children of instruction that might assist them to understand more of what they read, remember more that they need to learn, and solve more of the problems that are presented to them.
As a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, Republican Roman Catholic, I was nothing less than flabbergasted when, during a recent visit to the state, a South Carolinian referred to me as a "New Ager." My inference at that time was that New Age was being used as synonymous with educational scientist, which I am.
After some relection, given additional information about the South Carolina controvesy, I am beginning to wonder if a New Ager might be anyone who does not identify with extremely right-wing religious and educational practices. If that be the case, New Ager I am, even if the imagery I study and prescribe for students has only the remotest resemblance to the imagery of Eastern religions!
Professor of Education
University of Maryland
College Park, Md.