The his­tory of a schism

The Week - - News | Briefing -

One rea­son the read­ing wars have been so in­tense is that they re­flect two ri­val views of hu­man na­ture – a tra­di­tion­al­ist view em­pha­sis­ing the need for hi­er­ar­chy and di­rect in­struc­tion, and a Ro­man­tic view stress­ing the need for en­gage­ment and crit­i­cal think­ing. The most in­flu­en­tial ex­po­nent of the lat­ter in the sphere of ed­u­ca­tion is prob­a­bly Jean-jacques Rousseau, whose book Émile (1762), an ac­count of how best to raise a child to adult­hood, rev­o­lu­tionised at­ti­tudes to school­ing, pop­u­larised the idea of “child­cen­tred learn­ing”, and in­formed the think­ing of “pro­gres­sive” ed­u­ca­tion­al­ists such as John Dewey. Yet the back­lash against the pro­gres­sives has been just as in­tense. In To Kill a Mock­ing­bird, set in 1930s Alabama, Harper Lee poked fun at Dewey’s sys­tem: Scout Finch re­calls how her teacher waved “cards at us on which were printed ‘the’, ‘cat’, ‘rat’, ‘man’ and ‘you’. No com­ment seemed ex­pected of us, and the class re­ceived these im­pres­sion­is­tic rev­e­la­tions in si­lence.” In the 1950s, Why Johnny Can’t Read, by Amer­i­can au­thor Ru­dolf Flesch, at­tacked the “look and say” teach­ing method, which was dom­i­nant at the time and had spread to Bri­tain. In the US, too, phon­ics has won the read­ing war. In 2000, the Na­tional Read­ing Panel found “sys­tem­atic phon­ics in­struc­tion” ben­e­fits “all types of stu­dents”.

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