THE NEW LITERACY: Redefining Reading and Writing in the Schools, by John Willinsky. (Routledge, Chapman & Hall, $45; $14.95 paper.) The "new literacy,'' as described by Willinsky, is less a pedagogy than a politically charged movement "to shift the control of literacy from the teacher to the student.'' Literacy, in this view, is not a kind of technical mastery but an act that alters consciousness and challenges established values-- even the values of the school itself. Student readers and writers are most emphatically "not empty vessels waiting to be filled.'' They construct meaning out of their own life experiences and cultures. All of this theorizing may seem a bit abstruse. But many of our classrooms, by implementing process-writing and creative-writing workshops, have already accepted many of the new literacy's tenets, especially its central one: a romantic faith in each child's ability to express a rich inner self. For teachers trying to teach children how to construct, say, a coherent narrative, this lofty emphasis on personal expression may seem excessive. Even Willinsky, a cautious supporter of the new literacy, expresses a few doubts about the movement. His book is important, however, because it urges us to address the philosophical and political assumptions implicit in any system of teaching reading and writing.
SCHOOLING: The Developing Child, by Sylvia Farnham-Diggory. (Harvard University Press, $17.95; $8.95 paper.) School, unfortunately, is something all too many of us associate with multiple-choice tests, boring textbooks, and jarring bells. This bleak institution, Farnham-Diggory tells us, is the legacy of the educator Edward Thorndike, who conceived of school as a factory where students, passive recipients of knowledge, learned discipline by toiling at isolated tasks. The problem with the Thorndikean model, the author convincingly argues, is not only that it dehumanizes students but also that it simply doesn't work. It wrongly assumes that we learn by mastering a series of disconnected steps, whereas cognitive research demonstrates that we actually learn by encountering the "whole'' in all of its inherent complexity. Farnham-Diggory's own vision of a school draws heavily on the child-centered philosophy of John Dewey. Like Dewey, the author argues that children learn best by participating in concrete, "hands-on'' activities instead of being given parcels of disconnected information. While the author acknowledges that changing the current structure of our schools will be difficult, Schooling succeeds in spurring our desire for reform.
The reviewer, former chairman of the English department at University Lake School in Hartland, Wis., is on leave to write a novel.