The Value and Politics of the Unsaid in Instructional Design

This post on Rick’s Caf矃anadien is just a teaser for an article that hasn’t been published yet. (Not fair!) But one point he makes really caught my eye:

Designs too often try to meticulously define all of the content, whereas a big part of the aesthetic experience is leaving room for the viewer/participant. Artists do this intentionally — they leave some things unresolved.

I once did a study for a graduate class in which I correlated the accounts of the Vietnam War in high school history texts with the pedagogical techniques they employed. What I found was that those texts that largely stuck to the pre-Pentagon Papers account of the war (often including versions of events such as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that were flatly contradicted by reliable documentary evidence) also stuck to review questions that were largely multiple-choice regurgitations of fairly low-level reading comprehension and retention skills. In contrast, the texts that presented a post-Pentagon Papers account of war events tended to ask far more high-level interpretation questions. For example, they might show a relatively ambiguous photograph of a Vietnamese native along with some textual context of where the photograph was taken and ask the students to discuss the perspective of the person in the photograph.My point is that “leaving room for the participant” which, in effect, invites the learner to interpret (or, at least, interpolate) is often ideologically charged. And this is true across a shockingly wide range of teaching situations. For example, in the United States, you can often predict people’s political leanings by asking them whether they believe phonics or whole language is the right approach to teaching reading. Liberals almost always support whole language while conservatives almost always support phonics. (For a shocking account of just how far this can go, written from a liberal perspective, read James Moffett’s Storm in the Mountains.)

This is a tragedy for two reasons. First, as the author of the article will presumably point out, leaving room for interpretation is motivational. Everybody likes a puzzle. That’s why the Mona Lisa’s smile is so famous. But also, critical thinking skills don’t develop without the opportunity to exercise interpretation. And it is this exact linkage (using the word “critical” in the more conventional sense, for a moment) that probably causes pedagogy that encourages interpretation to be seen as ideologically charged. If you can think critically, then you are empowered to criticize the official version of truth as well as the people who promote it.

However, taking this up a meta level, it’s also possible to overgeneralize the degree to which higher critical faculties are important for specific learning processes. For example, there is a fact of the matter whether learning early reading skills are developed by engaging our higher-level meaning-making abilities (supporting whole language), our lower-level phonetic processing abilities (supporting phonics), or a mix of both. And the evidence so far (both behavioral and neurological) strongly favors phonics. I know a lot of bright (liberal) elementary school teachers who are believers in whole language and claim that they see kids learn with it all the time. But this discounts the fact that kids are learning machines and, particularly when they come from home environments where the parents read a lot, will probably learn to read even if the teacher does nothing. The few reading teachers I have known who have approached the question empirically and tried both methods have invariably ended up favoring phonics.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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