‘Fresh View’ of English Calls for Active Learners

By Robert Rothman — March 29, 1989 4 min read

A coalition of leading English groups calls in a new report for a “fresh view” of teaching the subject, one that will broaden the scope of instruction and make students active rather than passive learners.

The report is based on a 1987 “summit meeting” of English educators, which was criticized by one U.S. Education Department official as representing “part of the problem” in the field.

The groups argue in the report that the traditional approach of having teachers impart knowledge to essentially passive students has failed to foster the ability to read, write, speak, and listen effectively.

What is needed, the report states, is a model in which “English teachers are engaged with students in ‘practicing'--in regularly speaking, reading, writing, and listening to ever-more-varied modes of language.”

“We’ve used rote drill, and we all know the results,” said John C. Maxwell, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, the largest group in the coalition.

“The teachers who met” at the conference, he said, “are convinced that the way we have been going, the way classrooms are organized, and the way teachers act, have not done the job.”

“We need to have a new view of the way we work with youngsters,” he said.

To effect such a transformation, the groups recommend a shift from the use of basal readers to the use of children’s literature, and the adoption of broader forms of assessment that include work portfolios as well as standardized tests.

They also propose reducing class sizes to ease interactions between teachers and students, and allowing greater flexibility in school schedules.

But perhaps more importantly, said Mr. Maxwell, the changes will require teachers to abandon “deep-set habits.”

“People are accustomed to a mode of instruction and classroom environment that is not conducive” to the type of learning envisioned by the report, he said.

The 1987 conference, held in Maryland, was billed by its sponsors as the first high-level meeting on the future of English education in more than two decades. (See Education Week, Aug. 5, 1987.)

In addition to the ncte, the sponsoring organizations included the Association of Departments of English, the College English Association, the College Language Association, the Conference of Secondary School English Department Chairs, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the Conference on English Education, and the Modern Language Association.

According to the report--edited by Richard Lloyd-Jones, professor of English at the University of Iowa, and Andrea C. Lunsford, professor of rhetoric and composition at Ohio State University--conference participants reached a consensus on the need to overhaul the way the subject is taught from kindergarten through college.

For one thing, the report states, the 60 teachers who attended agreed that the traditional “tripod” of Eng4lish studies--language, writing, and literature--was too narrow.

“Conference participants saw English studies as including a broader range of activities than the tripod suggests,” it states, “and talked about the English teacher’s need to foster student learning in reading, writing, interpreting, speaking, and listening.”

In addition, participants concluded that schools should integrate formal study with what students “bring to the classroom from outside it,” the report says, and that their goal should be to promote the development of “active learners.”

“They imagined a classroom where students would write for one another as well as for their teachers, and where students would listen to as well as learn from one another as well as from their teachers,” the report says. “They envisioned teachers who would not only take their subject seriously, but also consider who their students are, what they know, and how they can be drawn into their own--and one another’s--education.”

Conferees also agreed that the curriculum should encompass a broader range of materials than it traditionally has, including more works by women and members of minority groups, and more use of other media, such as television, magazines, film, and technical reports.

But they did not agree, as one prominent educator who addressed them suggested, that there needs to be a set of facts all students should be expected to know.

The conferees rejected the content-specific theories of E.D. Hirsch Jr., author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Should Know, the report says, because such a list “often leads to reductive forms of instruction and assessment that defeat the goals of engaging students and fostering judgment as well as the acquisition of facts.”

Chester E. Finn Jr., the former assistant secretary of education for educational research and improve8ment, said at the time of the conference that the groups’ proposals represented “part of the problem” in English education.

Last week, he commented that “there is a conspiracy under way in the education profession to drive knowledge out of the classroom, and insert in its place something called cognitive skills.”

But Mr. Maxwell responded that the debate over whether content or skills should be emphasized represents a “false dichotomy.”

The idea that “the report is not concerned about knowledge is absolutely false,” he said.

“The process by which you learn something is extremely important,” Mr. Maxwell said. “That does not mean the subject matter is not important at all.”

Copies of the report, “The English Coalition Conference: Democracy Through Language,” are available for $6.95 each from the National Council of Teachers of English, 1111 Kenyon Rd., Urbana, Ill. 61801.

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 1989 edition of Education Week as ‘Fresh View’ of English Calls for Active Learners