Classroom Caffeine

A Conversation with Norman Stahl

November 24, 2020 Lindsay Season 1 Episode 3
Classroom Caffeine
A Conversation with Norman Stahl
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Norman Stahl talks to us about the landscape of education research, learning, thinking, and making connections. Norm is known for his work in college reading, the history of reading, and qualitative research in developmental reading. Dr. Stahl is Professor Emeritus at Northern Illinois University.

To cite this episode:
Persohn, L. (Host). (2020, Nov. 24). A conversation with Norman Stahl. (Season 1, No. 3) [Audio podcast episode]. In Classroom Caffeine Podcast series. https://www.classroomcaffeine.com/guests. DOI: 10.5240/CD21-162B-5985-D9C6-1021-6

Lindsay Persohn:

Education Research has a problem. The work of brilliant education researchers often doesn't reach the practice of brilliant teachers. Classroom Caffeine is here to help. Each week, I invite a top education researcher to sit down and talk to teachers about what they have learned from years of study. This week, Dr. Norman Stahl talks to us about the landscape of education research, learning, thinking, and making connections. Norm is known for his work in college reading, the history of reading, and qualitative research in developmental reading. Dr. stall is Professor Emeritus at Northern Illinois University. For more information about our guest, stay tuned to the end of this episode. So pour a cup of your favorite morning drink. And join me your host, Lindsay Persohn. For Classroom Caffeine research to energize your teaching practice. Good morning. I'm here today with Dr. Norman Stahl, and he is going to tell us a bit about his work in education research. Norm, from your own experiences in education, could you share with us one or two moments that inform your thinking now?

Norman Stahl:

Well, when we use the term education, you've got to remember that that's both profession and one's own life. And so if we really start in education, you know, it's the kindergarten and being absent the first day, I never really caught up. And then that may be true for my professional career. In the education side of it, and that's the profession, the things that influenced me, in very many cases, were the earliest experiences I had, when I ran the tutorial program at San Francisco State first getting to work with students throughout the San Francisco Bay area, you know, is something that had a huge impact. And then moving on through the years and the type of people that I met working with the organizations and the like, the type of moments when you're thinking about research really comes down to a couple things. One, what is the project, but secondly, who were the folks you were working with, because the to interact. And on top of that, it's the successes you had and the failures. And both are very important. I think teachers need to understand that, that they're going to do some things in their classroom or working with parents or whatever else that really bomb that might truly inform them in a greater way down the line to change how they interact, how they react, and the type of things they can do for kids. And I use kids but my experiences have been primarily nowadays working with college readers, and to teacher training to a certain degree. So one of the most important activities that I've had, options that I had for working was the languages of the disciplines project at Pitt many years ago. But it was the first true research project I was ever involved with. And we were looking at what were the type of problems in content field courses that the students would be facing, particularly the general education courses, which are very broad in nature, and often very troubling. And we were looking at some of those courses that caused the greatest problems, such as physics, such as Introductory Psychology, in a program that looked at social science, but as a hard science, logic, and trying to find out exactly what problems were and then try to see if we could find ways to overcome those. In many ways that project pre dated disciplinary literacy. The disciplinary literacy folks don't know much about it. That's our own fault, because we really didn't publish it to death. But it had a huge impact on me learning how to do very early qualitative research before the term was even being used. It went back to my roots from San Francisco State that was considered anthropology, which was a whole nother world in many respects in qualitative research, although certainly the the foundations. So that was a huge project. And I, I think what we discovered was that there were a number of different types of problems that students had, ranging from simple vocabulary all the way up to the complex types of thought ways that were being used by the individuals who were teaching in the courses. We found metaphors could be a problem. For instance, one professor used, the example of the eye is like a camera. It's a great metaphor for explaining, but nine tenths of the students had no idea how cameras work. So for teachers, you got to be really careful on the ways you try to explain things. Because you got to have whatever your example is something that is in the knowledge base that the students might have. So that project, I think, had a huge impact on me and opened a lot of ways of looking at things. And then another thing that had huge impact was in working in the state of Georgia for five years, ending up with a number of very, very bright national class individuals, all of us pretty young thinking we knew everything at the moment. Later, we discovered that well, even when we did, we didn't, but learning to work with colleagues from across institutions. And we look very directly into the cognitive moment and strategic learning. And what we learned, or at least I learned, I still believe this very strong, it's not about teaching little strategies, like, Well, God forbid, SQ3R, or some of the other ones, and we call them strategies, but it's teaching students to think strategically, and then they might pick tactics to move forward with. And unfortunately, we're still teaching strategies, which are prototypic, and may work for the teacher or some researcher. But it's really the kids have to have a bag of tricks of what to do when they get involved with different types of tasks, and run into different types of roadblocks. And that's really metacognitive when you think about it. So if that makes some sense.

Lindsay Persohn:

Oh, yes. In fact, you've already given us so much to think about. Failures, as we see them in classrooms, and how we can learn from those and also disciplinary and content area literacies. And then, of course, that huge metacognitive and thinking piece, because teaching kids to think is a real challenge, because it's certainly not a one size fits all kind of model. And like you said, there has to be a nice bag of tricks to pull from, in order to make real real meaning from text and from the world around us.

Norman Stahl:

And we've got to understand that it's developmental, having worked a lot with college students, you'll start to see a lot of it doesn't even really come together until after they're in their junior year.

Lindsay Persohn:

Right. And we expect first graders to do it.

Norman Stahl:

Yes, yes, any first grader can think like Einstein.

Lindsay Persohn:

So that leads pretty naturally to to my next question, what would you like teachers to know about your research?

Norman Stahl:

Well, I think what more so is I'd like them to know about research, and that it does have a place, it may not always be readily available for you to understand, because it has to be translated in most cases. And a gentleman by the name of Harry Singer, who was from out west, brilliant researcher, said at one time that it took 10 years to get from a research project into the classroom. That's a long time. But it also points out that very often there are people playing specific roles that take it from the research base, to the teacher, and they're translators. Many of them do not do research, but they do a form of scholarship. They write the methods, books, they teach the classes, they do the workshops, who helped to bring those ideas forward. In many cases, those ideas, what's been found in the research will change through that process as well. And so it may not be exactly what was in the research. Secondly, understand with research, there's a lot of different types of research. And teachers aren't expected to know all of them. I mean, most professors are not particularly well versed in all of them. I mean, there's a handful, of course, but I wouldn't claim to be. So it's important to understand research is important. It does have a place in the classroom, and maybe eventually, but it will get there. And then as you work with it, don't expect it always to work. I mean, there are going to be times that you're going to have to manipulate it, smooth out the rough edges and try to find what works for your classroom. But moreso, what does it do for each and every kid, and each and every kid is going to respond differently to a particular teaching method that evolves or technique out of that research. So I think that's a fundamental type of thing that I wish teachers would understand. And not to be afraid of it. Because it's not all that scary, there might be some stuff that's downright stupid. But for the most part, it shouldn't be scary. And the other is to understand there are going to be different vantage points developed, depending upon the philosophical base of the individuals that are trying to teach you what this new research has to say. And we see that all the time with the Reading Wars. Here you have the Science of Reading. On the other hand, you have people trying to be more balanced in the middle. And the far side of the other would be still kind of a Whole Language orientation, natural text. There are different ways of looking at it. And you got to find out what works best for the kids that you happen to work with. Give you an example, a very dear friend, who spent his entire career teaching fifth grade in the San Francisco area, for years taught a whole language orientation, and he loved it. And he did wonderful, wonderful things with the students. Then all of a sudden, he discovered DISTAR. And DISTAR is a very phonics oriented type of program. And so what he did in the morning, he taught DISTAR in the afternoon, where he had the kids, he did a whole language program. And he had the greatest gains that he ever had in all the years of teaching, because he brought two different things that were supposed to be disparate together. And it was a wonderful way to approach and he just did great teaching, I used to watch him. And still in his retirement, he's working with kids doing some of the same type of stuff. So it's important to understand a lot of these things are supposed to be different. So let's say that certain researchers really can't be married together to be more effective for a classroom.

Lindsay Persohn:

I think what you're really doing here is giving teachers license to think as well, I think we've gotten into a culture of schools where teachers are really expected to just sort of do what they've been told or do the program their district has selected. But thinking back to what you said in the beginning about teaching kids to think I think it's important for for us as teachers to realize that we also still have, we can find that latitude in order to put programs together that makes sense and to, to work with information from research that makes sense for the children we serve.

Norman Stahl:

Yeah, I would agree with that. 100%. There's the old line, that once the teacher closes her classroom door or his classroom door, he can do almost or she can do almost anything she wants. And there's some truth to that. I mean, there's a lot of folks who talk about the deprofessionalization of teaching at this particular time in our history. And that is when the control comes down from the state or the the Feds with Common Core type of things. But there's still a lot of wiggle room in that classroom with those particular kids. And a teacher has to have the freedom to try to move forward. As long as the kids are moving down the line, are growing, are maturing our learning, but every teacher is going to be slightly different there. And you may argue with somebody down the hall for the young teachers, that's a bit difficult to take a few years to get your your feet truly wet and doing the right things. And that's where having a good mentor comes in line. And you're gonna learn so much more probably in your first few years of teaching, other than how not to catch a common cold, then you can possibly imagine, and it's not all going to come from professional development.

Lindsay Persohn:

A lot of it is experience and trying new techniques and keeping up with the research.

Norman Stahl:

Right.

Lindsay Persohn:

So so my third and final question for you today Norm is given the challenges of today's educational climate, what message do you want teachers to hear?

Norman Stahl:

Well, first of all, I think the pandemic is actually doing something good because so many parents are now coming to appreciate teachers. I mean, as they're having to deal with their, their kids in a teaching role and wanting to strangle those kids and the teachers are there day by day handling 30 of them, 20, 30 whatever have you it is possible that we are going to be seen in a more positive of light than we had been before, but we're gonna have to work that and have the type of results we all would like to have. The the message I want teachers to have as tough as a job as it is, and it is a tough job, the country would be nowhere without the individuals who are taking this particular task on and doing their very best to succeed every day. Although there are some days you want to just shake your head and say, Why? Why the heck am I not flying at 30,000 feet being a stewardess or steward? You're valued, you're needed. And you're are appreciated. And I think that's the fundamental line. And yes, we do have a very rough educational climate at this moment. I don't see that changing with this upcoming election to a huge degree. So much of it is done locally. And we do know that there is more and more demand more and more accountability than there has been in the past. That kind of gets that point, I think.

Lindsay Persohn:

But I think to your point about accountability also ties back to what you were saying about different vantage points in different viewpoints. Because certainly accountability is in the eye of the beholder. And and I think in some areas, they are beholden to methods that are maybe less valuable than others. So I think that makes accountability and even more difficult situation for teachers to navigate.

Norman Stahl:

Yeah, I would agree. There's some truth to that. Um, the interesting thing, though, is that each method in each teacher's hands will have different levels of success or failure.

Lindsay Persohn:

And those nuances aren't always captured in the the formulas they use for accountability.

Norman Stahl:

No, absolutely not. I mean, do I wish the Stull bill, S-T-U-L-L, not Stahl.

Lindsay Persohn:

Oh, you didn't write this one, huh?

Norman Stahl:

No, I didn't. But people kept asking me if I was related to this person came in into play. And it's what really started accountability in the country. And this was some 50 years ago or so. And it you can see how it's grown. It's moved all the way up into higher education, this type of accountability, and now it's really hitting higher ed, of course, to the nth degree. Do I wish that had never come into play? No, I don't actually, I kind of think it's an important thing to have some degree of accountability, that we look to see that the taxpayer is getting something worth for their money. And the parents can expect certain types of things, particularly for those situations where the families and the kids are not as powerful as they might be in some, some schools such as the one that I went to. And so I think accountability is important. It's just that it is not the easiest thing. And it brings along a lot of baggage with it, and requirements that are difficult at point, and we have to live with that. So but again, I think the bottom line is that we need teachers, we need to see them have the types of supports that are necessary, both from the administration. We need support from the families, we need support from the community, and we need to support one another. And that really is what it all comes down to and support the new kids coming up the line has teachers.

Lindsay Persohn:

Well, I thank you so much for your time today.

Norman Stahl:

You're welcome.

Lindsay Persohn:

And I thank you for your contributions to education research. I hope you have a great day.

Norman Stahl:

Thank you. Appreciate it.

Lindsay Persohn:

Dr. Norman Stahl has had a long career as a researcher in college reading and learning, the history of reading, and qualitative methodologies in education research. He is a 2016 inductee into the Reading Hall of Fame, the recipient of the 2009 A B Herr Award for Outstanding Contributions to Reading Education, and he has received many awards for his service to professional organizations in education. He has published his work in the Journal of Developmental Education, Reading Psychology, Journal of Literacy Research, the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Journal of College Reading and Learning, Literacy Research and Practice, Narrative Inquiry, Qualitative Inquiry, The Reading Teacher and many edited books and newsletters. He has served education research in many capacities, most notably as the President of the Association of Literacy Education and Researchers, the Literacy Research Association, and the College Reading and Learning Association. Norm has enjoyed a long career at Northern Illinois University where he is now Professor Emeritus. For the good of all students good research should inform good practice and vice versa. listeners are invited to respond to our guests, learn more about our guests research, and suggest a topic for an upcoming episode through this podcast website at ClassroomCaffeine.com. If you've learned something today or just enjoyed listening, please subscribe to this podcast. I raised my mug to you teachers. Thanks for joining me.