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Curriculum Opinion

‘Disrupting Thinking': An Interview With Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 09, 2017 11 min read
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Kylene Beers & Robert E. Probst agreed to answer a few questions about their new book, Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters.

LF: You write about having seen a lot of reading lessons focused on “extracting” and you’d like to move them over to “transacting.” Can you elaborate on that point?

Kylene Beers & Robert E. Probst:

By “extracting,” we mean simply taking information out of texts. That’s the sort of reading we do when we are looking for some information to use immediately: How often do I take this medicine? How much vanilla do I add to this recipe? How do I fix my garbage disposal? If your house is on fire, we want you to read how to use your fire extinguisher and put those directions into action. Immediately! Extract and use. Reflecting on memories called to mind and other aspects of the reading experience are less important than immediate extraction and application of the information!

The term “transacting,” which we borrow from Louise Rosenblatt, shifts the emphasis slightly from the text to the impact of the text upon the reader. When we read the novel, rather than reading to remember a list of character traits, we’d rather read to explore what the character’s choices show us about life in general and perhaps ours in particular. When we look at the article about global warming, rather than merely memorizing ways methane contributes to the problem, we’d rather read to wonder what this information means in our own lives, what we understand our responsibility is, what we agree with, and what we want to challenge.

A reader who is transacting with the text isn’t simply trying to remember what the author said or what the character did, but rather he may be aware that one moment he feels very skeptical and doubting of the writer, at another moment he may be enthusiastically in agreement with what he finds on the page, that at some point he comes to like and care about a character he at first had rejected, or that he is becoming critical and distrustful of a character with whom he had, at first, been very sympathetic.

We focus on this in the book because for too many years too many teachers have felt pressure from tests to focus on extracting information. This might have (and we aren’t sure) raised some test scores, but data about who reads at age 17 suggests it hasn’t raised lifetime readers. We need to disrupt the practice of merely reading within the four corners of the page.

LF: In the book, you discuss a “Book, Head, Heart (BHH) Framework.” Again, can you share a little more about that here?

Kylene Beers & Robert E. Probst:

The BHH framework is simply an effort to remind teachers that a primary focus on what the text says isn’t enough. Lifetime readers see reading as a valuable experience for helping them think reflectively about themselves and the world around them. This framework is just that, a framework—not a list of questions to be answered for each text that is read.

We’d add that some have asked us if the BHH framework is really just a KWL chart. We don’t think so. KWL charts might suggest some inferences that readers might make, but KWL charts still focus on thinking about what the text offers. We’ve also been asked if the BHH framework is simply another way of reminding kids to think about what’s in the book and beyond the book. Again, we don’t think so. When we asked teachers to tell us what the phrase “beyond the text” meant to them, teachers talked about inferences kids should make. Few mentioned that it means considering what the reader has taken to heart. It’s time we explicitly help students recognize that reading is a changemaker.

Finally, we’ve been asked if kids should always find something to take to heart with every text they read. No. Of course not. Some texts are read simply to get information. Some texts offer us respite from a long day but don’t carry a message we find critical to carry to our hearts. The reader decides if that text at that moment offers them something worth taking to heart.

We want to remind readers of Disrupting Thinking that if what you’re doing is creating passionate, curious, lifetime readers, readers who go to a text expecting it to have bearing upon their lives, then don’t change a thing! But if your students seem to think that they read to finish, read to answer questions, read because something was assigned, and fake read their way through the school year, then perhaps it’s time to try something new. Perhaps it’s time to show kids that reading is what can allow them to think about how they might change, might grow, might become more than they ever thought they could be.

Too often, the work all of us do in schools is work we undertake simply to “cover” the material, to have done it. The students will say “We did Shakespeare last year, why do we have to do him again?” or “We read about all those ‘isms’ last year—socialism, communism, fascism—why do we have to read them again?” They read to get through an assignment or be done with a writer or a text and then they are eager to lay it aside and forget about it. For too many, reading is something to be finished. We would encourage them, instead, to carry something away with them, some sense of how they might be slightly different as a result of reading the text. An important text should offer us something, something worth taking to heart.

LF: The word and concept of “disrupting” has been used a lot with businesses, but some educators (including me) are wary of how it has sometimes been used to paint a picture of a future privatized and techcentric school system. I know that’s not how you’re using it, however. Can you explain what you do mean by using the word and why you chose it?

Kylene Beers & Robert E. Probst:

Well, no one who knows us or our work would ever think we support anything that is about privatizing education. We believe in public schools and know they are a backbone of this great country. And we love to talk about how technology has always been a part of schools. Remember the outrage evoked by moving from the cartridge pen to the ball point pen, or the sliding rule to the calculator, or the carbon paper in the manual typewriter to the auto-correct electric typewriter? Remember the excitement of the film strip which eventually was replaced by the 8mm movie? The overhead projector became the LCD projector which became the smart board which has turned into a myriad of handheld devices (under the label of BYOD). Schools have always been connected deeply to technology. But that wasn’t what we had in mind when we chose the term “disrupting” as a part of the title.

The inside front cover of the book shows the middle of the journal we kept while writing this book. If you look closely, you see some of our thinking the day we chose this term. We struggled to find the word we thought captured the thinking we were looking to share.

We think in some ways it’s unfortunate that we saw the potential power of that word, “disrupting,” at the same time as many other people in business, and perhaps in industry, were also identifying its potential. We surely didn’t want to echo their language. But the word disrupting suggested to us change. If your thinking is disrupted, then it is, presumably, changed slightly and we had come to see change as one of the primary purposes for picking up a text. If, after all, you read a text and there is absolutely no change whatsoever, you know nothing more than you did before you read the text, you have exactly the same attitudes and feelings you had before you read the text, you will behave and think precisely the way you have always behaved and think, and the text has had absolutely no impact upon you at all.

We believe readers should be open to the possibility that a text may give them the opportunity to change. They may read it and say, “I think I see the world more clearly now,” or “I have broadened my understanding of this concept,” or “I have changed my mind completely about this issue” or even more simply, “Wow.”

When we have emphasized extracting from a text, we have perhaps encouraged readers to conform to the text, to remember and perhaps to hold it in reverence or to see it as the authority. When we have emphasized getting the answers right, we may have valued correctness too highly, and thus rewarded getting things right, winning arguments, and dominating in the debate about interpretations. We should value as highly, or perhaps even more highly, the willingness and the ability to rethink ideas and to change our minds. In other words, we should welcome the potential disruption a text offers to our thinking.

LF: You write about “best practices” and “next practices.” Can you talk about what you mean by those phrases and a couple of examples from each?

Kylene Beers & Robert E. Probst:

We read the other day that the long-accepted medical best practice of requiring patients to complete a full-course of antibiotic treatment might not be a best practice. In fact, it might be a bad practice, one that is contributing to the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

We each bought a new iPhone recently. It was no longer current by the time we returned from the store.

That new refrigerator? Well, darn. Now the newer fridge can electronically record what we need to buy at the grocery store.

Businesses are always asking “What’s next?” What’s next is different from “What’s best?” In schools, teachers have been so overwhelmed with the push to assure that kids will pass that damned test that they fall back on the assurance that this (or that) is a best practice. Best practices seem safe. Best practices ought to promise best results. Best is, well, best. And so we hug the coastline of best practices because trying something uncharted might just send us off into waters where, as ancient maps once warned about unexplored waters, “here, there be dragons.”

We suggest that teachers in a school come together to decide which best practices they know they can all endorse across contents. And, then they ought to embrace those. And they ought to wonder what they should be trying next. More flexible schedule (if you say, “That would never work; I don’t even know that that means,” then perhaps you haven’t quite embraced disruptions). More small group work? More choice reading? Flipped classrooms? Stationary bikes in classrooms to help channel energy? Self-expression as the goal of a school? Remember, to embrace a disruption means asking yourself what needs to change and then confronting the assumptions that make those changes hard.

LF: There’s a sizable section in the book on “Silent Reading.” How do you imagine it happening in schools and why do you think it’s so important?

Kylene Beers & Robert E. Probst:

Perhaps the more important chapter would have been “Does Reading Still Matter?” We are beginning to hear that question and while we believe the answer is a loud and resounding, “YES!” we know that if the question is being asked, we best have an answer other than our adamant assertion that of course it does. We best know why reading still matters.

This is a time when information and entertainment can come to us in ways that don’t require we read. Need to learn how to install a ceiling fan? Go to YouTube. Want to make a cake? Turn on the Food Channel. Wonder what time it is? Ask Siri. Need to get from here to there? Tap on Google Maps. Want to know why everyone loves that newest bestseller? Download the audio version and listen on the way home. In a time when you don’t have to read for information or entertainment, why does reading still matter?

We believe reading matters now—perhaps more than ever—because when you read you are alone with your thoughts. It’s you, the text, the character, or the information. You and your thoughts alone. No political commentator telling you what to think. No paid actor reading words the way he has decided they should be stressed. It’s you. Your thoughts. Your responses.

That’s why we wrote the chapter on silent reading. For a long time in this country (everywhere, actually) reading was oral. That was in part because for a long time we didn’t have enough texts for everyone to have one. But before that, it was because a primary text that was shared was the Bible and the church wanted to make sure that the scriptures were properly understood. So, it was read to people. The reader controlled the meaning-making; the listener simply took it in.

Ah! The reader controlled the meaning-making. Why do we talk about silent reading? Because we want to raise up kids who make meaning for themselves. Who think. Who respond. Who do not rely on political pundits, television commentators, flashy salesmen, unscrupulous preachers, or corner-hawkers (we’re in New York City as we write this and just survived the barrage of corner-hawkers as we headed to our hotel) to tell them what to think. Reading matters. Silent reading matters most.

How will that look in your classroom? That’s for you to decide. Sometimes, everyone might be reading the same book. Other times, students might be in small groups reading what that group has chosen to read. Still other times, students might be reading with a buddy, each checking in on the other every few pages or few chapters. In Disrupting Thinking, we discuss with more specificity how this might look in various settings. We trust you, though, to make the best choices for your students.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Kylene Beers & Robert E. Probst:

We’ve been asked why our book is filled with questions more than answers, more than strategies, more than activities teachers might share with students. We think that’s a fair question, one deserving of an answer. We think that teachers have been undervalued as decision-makers for several decades in this country, and we want to be a part of disrupting that practice. And so we present—especially in Part III—practices that are worth questioning and perhaps some practices that are in need of disruptions. We offer those as starting points with discussion prompts to get ideas flowing. But after that, we trust you, we trust teachers and teacher-leaders to make the decisions that are best for your students, for your community, and for the literary ecosystems you are trying to make sure thrive in your schools.

LF: Thanks, Kylene and Robert!



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