[Susan notes: Lynn Stoddard has sent this letter to the Utah State Superintendent of Education (after previous discussion with him), Utah State Board members and one legislator.
Go forth and do likewise.]
Submitted to but not published
I have done much thinking about what you perceive to be the main purpose of public education and your role as our new Superintendent. In our meeting I got the impression that you are open and willing to learn, especially from one who is old enough to be your father.
I would like to share some thoughts on what you feel are the commitments citizens should expect you and the State Board to keep, literacy for every child, high quality instruction and relevance for every child.
High Quality Instruction for Literacy
Human literacy is made up of two main parts, listening and speaking (part one) and reading and writing (part two). The first part, listening and speaking, is learned naturally in our culture and we do not try to "teach" it in the normal sense. Children learn to "listen" by listening and to "speak" by speaking. For a long time I thought one of my granddaughters was growing up in a foreign language home, because her words were "Dutch to me." But gradually her words are beginning to sound more English. Raynee has had almost no instruction in listening and speaking. She is learning to listen by listening to others and to herself trying to mimic the talk of others. This is how nearly all children in any culture learn to listen and speak their native tongue. Most learn well without formal instruction.
Can children learn the second part of literacy in a natural way that doesnĂ˘€™t give them an aversion to reading and writing? Can they learn to read and write in a way that increases rather than destroys their desire to do it? The answer is yes, if we give attention to each childĂ˘€™s individual needs. Victor Weisskopf said something that applies here: "People cannot learn by having information pressed into their brains. Knowledge has to be sucked into the brain, not pushed in. First, one must create a state of mind that craves knowledge, interest and wonder. You can teach only by creating an urge to know."
This means that Ă˘€śhigh quality instructionĂ˘€ť consists mainly of "creating the urge to know." If you create the "urge to know," next will come the "urge to read." Here's the secret. If you want students to become voracious readers, don't teach reading; teach inquiry. Reading is an important part of inquiry, but it may not be the most important part. The most important part may be curiosity. Students will learn to read the natural way if they develop an insatiable curiosity. This kind of curiosity leads to inquiry, an "urge to know" coupled with powerful questions and active investigation. So now we come full circle back to Weisskopf's main point,
"knowledge has to be sucked into the brain, not pushed in." It is something the learner does for himself, not something that is done to him. Unfortunately, much of the reading instruction in Utah and other states is a direct, "push-it-in" kind with little regard for a child's "urge to know." Commercial reading programs usually do not pay attention to the great span of individual differences and readiness to read. In this way they often destroy curiosity rather than nurture it.
There are several things more important for children to learn in elementary school than reading and writing --- things that are damaged or destroyed if we do not teach literacy with great care. These include curious inquiry, individual gifts and talents, creativity and caring cooperation. As I said in another essay, if we make reading and writing the main business for children, we can give them an aversion to learning. Unfortunately, in far too many cases, we have made learning to read a dreary "business" for children and many have learned to hate it In a KAPPAN article, "Reading and Happiness," Lawrence Baines reports that "In a span of 20 years, American students have transformed from being among the most to the least avid readers of literature in the world." I attribute this largely to the way reading is taught in a high-pressure way, before most are ready for it. Reading that is taught as a "business" also destroys confidence and feelings of self-worth.
There is much more to say, but I will end with this point. If you want literacy for all children and high quality instruction, you will find and develop ways to assess schools in how well they nurture student inquiry. An opportunity exists for parents and teachers to create schools and homes of inquiry Ă˘€“ centers for exploring Ă˘€“ with objects, printed material and pictures that invite questions, student's, parentĂ˘€™s and teacher's questions, questions and more questions, on and on. When a student finds a particular interest, parents and teachers can help him or her find printed and audio materials that can lead to questions and more questions. The "urge to read" comes from this process. When it happens, usually at a different time for each child, s/he will learn to read naturally in a way that results in relevance (not "rigor") for each learner and a "craving for knowledge interest and wonder."
Frank Smith. "Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices, Flaws and Fallacies of 'Scientific' Reading Instruction" 100 pages, Heinemann 2003
Lynn Stoddard. "Educating for Human Greatness" Holistic Education Press 2004
Lynn Stoddard. Pamphlet: "Educating for Human Greatness, A Higher Vision of Teaching, Thinking and Learning" 24 pages, Self-Published Supplement 2008