Book Reviews

January 01, 2001 6 min read
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THE ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT CHALLENGE: What Really Works in the Classroom?by Jeanne S. Chall. (Guilford Press, 206 pages, $25.) Shortly before her death last year, Chall completed this capstone book weighing the effectiveness of different instructional approaches. A distinguished education scholar and founding director of the Harvard University Reading Laboratory, Chall was widely known for her belief that young children should receive direct phonics instruction and her concerns about the excesses of whole language. Still, she scorned the vituperative, either-or nature of the phonics-whole language debate and was respected, even by opponents, for her open-minded, nonideological approach to the subject.

In this slim volume, Chall argues that classroom instruction over the past century has fallen into two broad categories: traditional “teacher-centered” and progressive “student-centered” approaches. The former, as the name implies, usually involves some form of direct instruction; the teacher determines what students learn and how they will learn it. Student-centered instruction, on the other hand, operates on the assumption that kids learn best when they follow their own interests. The teacher, in this scheme of things, is less a leader than a facilitator—"the sage on the side,” Chall writes, guiding but never dominating.

While Chall rightly asserts that the best teachers draw from both approaches, she contends that teacher-centered instruction is, on the whole, more effective— especially during the elementary years, when children must learn the fundamentals. To simply trust that youngsters will acquire basic reading and math skills by joyfully immersing themselves in a variety of loosely structured learning activities is, she argues, to consign them to failure. And this, Chall states, is exactly what too many student-centered purists have done with ill-fated progressive experiments like the open classrooms of the 1960s and whole language.

But if teacher-centered instruction truly is more effective, Chall has difficulty proving it. One problem is that reliable studies on classroom techniques are hard to come by, mainly because researchers have always had a tough time controlling variables. Another is that the research tends to be heavily ideological, with proponents of a certain pedagogical approach generating findings that support it. As a result, Chall relies on a lot of research that is ancient.

At one point, she defends her position by suggesting that Asian elementary schools do better than their American counterparts because they rely more on teacher-centered instruction. It’s an interesting argument, but it doesn’t hold up when you look at Japan. While it’s true that Japanese schools adhere to a rigid, prescribed curriculum, teachers in that country tend to favor student- centered approaches like cooperative learning and real-world problem solving.

Chall is on much firmer ground when she focuses on reading instruction, her area of expertise. Linking the decline in national reading scores during the 1980s to the ascendancy of whole language, she draws on 40 years of her own research to insist that there is no alternative in the early grades to the systematic teaching of letter-sound relationships. Whole language, with its emphasis on simply providing a literature-rich environment for kids, takes a far too romantic view of how children learn to read, she argues.

Chall’s ultimate criticism, though, is directed less at student-centered instruction than at the polarized nature of American education in general. Too many educators, she argues, adopt an “all or nothing” stance about a particular pedagogy that “makes it difficult to look objectively even at the good features of the opposing views.” Chall wants teachers to tap the entire spectrum of education ideas—to draw on a wide range of classroom practices regardless of their ideological points of origin. In the end, this call for open-mindedness may be her most important legacy.

LEARNING OUTSIDE THE LINES: Two Ivy League Students With Learning Disabilities and ADHD Give You the Tools for Academic Success and Educational Revolution,by Jonathan Mooney and David Cole. (Fireside, 288 pages, $13.) Part memoir and part study guide, this book relates the unlikely success stories of two education outcasts who manage, through a number of offbeat strategies, to get their academic acts together and land coveted slots at Brown University. For his part, Mooney had to overcome the debilitating effects of dyslexia, which made it almost impossible for him to read and write during his elementary school years. Cole, on the other hand, suffered from attention deficit disorder. Restless and rebellious, he began using drugs, got suspended from school, and wound up a down-and-out street kid in San Francisco.

So how did these two youngsters make their ways to Brown? Both credit sympathetic high school teachers, including one who encouraged Mooney to put his thoughts on paper without worrying about spelling. But mostly the authors went about the business of acquiring necessary study skills, which they describe in chapters with titles like “Less Reading, More A’s,” “Cram Like a Pro,” and “Beating the Exam Game.” The tips are good, albeit delivered with a cynical awareness that academic success is as much about beating the system as it is deeper learning. Particularly amusing is the chapter on dominating classroom discussion, in which the authors suggest kids ask “the ambiguously relevant question.”

Mooney and Cole come across as wise, amiable undergraduates, but it’s hard to take them seriously as revolutionaries out to transform an oppressive education system. Reading between the lines, we see that what these youngsters really needed from their schools was not more freedom—as they suggest—but better skills and strategies to help them overcome their respective disabilities.

STICKS AND STONES: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature From Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter,by Jack Zipes. (Routledge, 176 pages, $25.) Zipes is something of an enigma: A well-known scholar of children’s literature, he doesn’t really like kid’s books all that much—at least nothing written since the kiddy-lit explosion of the 1970s. As he tells it here, the most recent books written for the younger sets are “formulaic and banal,” with canned endings that make the world appear “happy and manageable.” This kind of fiction, he writes, induces in kids an unhealthy sense of complacency about the world.

While this argument is certainly provocative, the most interesting part of Sticks and Stones is Zipes’ scathing attack on J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, which the American media have held up as an exemplar of great children’s literature. Indeed, the Harry Potter phenomenon, as far as Zipes is concerned, is a victory for mass media and marketing: The books, like Disney’s animated movies, succeed, he argues, because of “the conventionality, predictability, and happy ends” that are so easy to package commercially. For all their magic, the Potter books, Zipes asserts, are devoid of mystery. Harry, he writes, is a “perfect boy scout” endowed with supernatural powers—"a caricature of various protagonists from pop culture.” There’s nothing in Harry, or in the entire series, that rocks the boat of expectations.

A contrary position, especially one argued with such vigor, is always a pleasure to read. Zipes obviously cannot stop the Potter phenomenon, but he raises important questions about it that will change the way many readers look at the entire children’s literature genre.

—David Ruenzel


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