Classroom Caffeine

A Conversation with David Pearson

September 14, 2021 Lindsay Persohn Season 2 Episode 9
Classroom Caffeine
A Conversation with David Pearson
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. David Pearson talks to us about the interconnected nature of learning, a useful view of reading that he calls the “radical middle”, and ways to think about the total experience of literacy in schools and in life.  David is known for his work in the areas of literacy history, literacy policy, and literacy practice. He has authored more than 300 books, articles, and chapters with nearly 300 co-authors. Notably, he has written and co-edited the Handbook of Reading Research, now in its fourth edition, and A History of Literacy Education: Waves of Research and Practice, written with Rob Tierney was recently released. Dr. Pearson is emeritus faculty at the University of California, Berkeley.

To cite this episode:
Persohn, L. (Host). (2021, Sept 14). A conversation with P. David Pearson. (Season 2, No. 9) [Audio podcast episode]. In Classroom Caffeine Podcast series. https://www.classroomcaffeine.com/guests. DOI: 10.5240/63F0-52DF-C942-F222-CA59-1

Lindsay Persohn:

Education research has a problem. The work of brilliant education researchers often doesn't reach the practice of brilliant teachers. But the questions and challenges from teachers' practice sometimes don't become the work of education researchers. Classroom Caffeine is here to help. In a new episode every other week, I talk with an education researcher or a classroom teacher about what they have learned from their work in education, and what questions they still pursue. In this episode, Dr. P. David Pearson talks to us about the interconnected nature of learning, a useful view of reading that he calls "the radical middle," and ways to think about the total experience of literacy in schools and in life. David is known for his work in the areas of literacy history, literacy policy, and literacy practice. He has authored more than 300 books, articles, and chapters with nearly 300 co authors. Notably, he has written and co edited the Handbook of Reading Research now in its fourth edition, and A History of Literacy Education aves of Research and Practice, ritten with Rob tyranny was ecently released. Dr. Pearson s Emeritus faculty at the niversity of California, erkeley. For more information bout our esteemed guest, stay uned to the end of this pisode. 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. David, thank you for joining me, welcome to the show.

David Pearson:

It's a pleasure to be here.

Lindsay Persohn:

So I have a couple of questions for you today. From your own experiences in education, will you share with us one or two moments that inform your thinking now?

David Pearson:

Sure, actually, there, there are lots of moments, including moments when I was a kid and learning to read that are have been very influential in my thinking. But if I had to pick one experience that's really shaped how I think about reading now, it would be something that happened to me when I moved from Michigan to California, and took a job here at UC Berkeley. And one of the things that happened to me is I was just moving from a period of time, in my own research, when I was worried about early literacy, and particularly what was happening with kids. You know, and my ages four through eight and the like, to a situation here in California where I became an administrator; I became Dean of the School of Education. But I was here about two months, and some folks up at Lawrence Hall of Science, which is a museum on our campus, but also a place where they do lots and lots of curriculum work. And they invited me up to talk with them about the relationship between learning science, and learning, reading, writing, and language. And that really triggered some thinking, in my own mind, because before that time, I largely thought of literacy and you know, reading, writing and language as things we do in the language arts program. And I hadn't thought too carefully about reading, writing and language as tools for learning. And so that I came up and we started talking, and we started dreaming up a grant. And we applied to the National Science Foundation, and we got some money to do an integrated program, where the logic of the program is that we would use reading, writing and language as tools for the acquisition of knowledge and science, and also for the acquisition of the kind of inquiry dispositions that we see so commonly, a part of science curriculua. And so we developed this mantra of, you know, reading, writing and language as tools for the acquisition of knowledge and increase dispositions in science. And what it did for me, is it changed my thinking about what we were up to in teaching reading, not only for older kids, where you know, the, you know, the old distinction between learning to read and reading to learn that by the way, I don't buy into that. I think kids should always be reading to learn from the day they set, eyes on print. And conversely, if you look at kids in the intermediate grades, and even in middle school and high school, they're still learning to read and what they're learning to read is a different kind of prose than they've been exposed to before. And they're, they're learning to read in a different way. As kids get older and as we present texts that have information and there's a need to evaluate the trustworthiness and validity of the information, kids acquire new and different kinds of skills than they've had before. So my mantra, and this is an aside, but it's an important aside, you're always reading to learn, and you're always learning to rate no matter what stage you're reading, you're at. I just turned 80, I'm still learning things about reading that I didn't know when I was 79. So, you know, there are, I guess there are new tricks for old dogs, too. So we started working on this curriculum. And there were science educators, and there were literacy educators. And the people in science wanted to use reading as kind of like a way of sparking interest. So they would want to have a story about some kid doing something with science, and it would be a fictional story on the like. But they didn't want reading to be the conveyor of information, they wanted the information to come from the hands on experience. And so we went back and forth on that. And one of the things that we discovered, and one of the things that I really have liked about that project, is that we developed this distinction between first hand experiences and second hand experiences. The first hand experiences are out there in the world, you know, groveling around in that, in the mud and things like that. And secondhand experiences are when you read about other people doing the same kinds of things. And one of the things that we found in our work was that it didn't matter much what you did first, the first or the second hand experience. Whatever you did first benefited whatever you did second. So if we started off reading about snails, and then we got to some kind of experiences where we put snails in a terrarium and looked at what foods they liked best and things like that. Your experiment was all the better from having read about someone else doing that. But conversely, if you did the experiment with the snails in the terrarium first, then when you read about someone else doing that, you can say, Oh, that's just like what we did, only we did this or that or the other in the like. And so all of this said to me is that the relationship between acquiring knowledge in a set in what we call a subject matter, or a discipline, and the literacy tools can be much more synergistic rather than competitive. You know, we think this is what you do in language arts time, this is what you do in science time. Doesn't have to be that way. We can do a lot with promoting the use of reading, writing and language as as tools that help you acquire knowledge, insight, and inspiration. Right? Imagine the matrix, you know, rows and columns. And across the chart, you got science, you got social studies, and you got literature, okay. And then down the side, you have reading, writing, and oral language, okay. And now imagine that you try to put reading, writing and language into each of those subject matters. And you know, it works, and literature, it has its own subject matter. It's the stuff of human experience. It's friendship, betrayal, life, death, struggling with the environment, those are the ideas in literature and literature.... So literature is more like, if you will, a subject matter like science or social studies. And then the reading, writing and the language are more like the tools that you use to engage in learning, inquiry and knowledge acquisition. And so that really changed my thinking about how I think about what you're up to, when you're when you're becoming an evermore skilled and strategic reader.

Lindsay Persohn:

As you're describing that matrix, David, I think of myself creating a matrix like that, and then almost immediately beginning to merge cells, because of that interconnected way we think about about learning. And as you were telling that story about connecting science and literacy, I see that, right. I see that we cannot learn science without the tools of literacy. And I'm hoping that that during our conversation, you might share with teachers some ideas of how we get back to that. I think that teachers days and subject matters have become so siloed over the last couple of decades, that it becomes hard in many settings to blend those things. They're supposed to be these distinct time periods. When certain things happen, and I think many teachers feel their hands are tied when it comes to creating those actual, real connections among subject matter and in transferring, you know, what they might be learning as a reading skill into their science content. How do we get back to that interconnected nature?

David Pearson:

I'm happy to deal with that. I think that there are two or three ways you can do it. First of all, you can get serious about project based learning. There's really, you see two or three things-- proble based or project based. An they're very much related to on another. And the person I kno who's done, the best work fo teachers on this is m colleague, and often co author Nell Duke. And Nell, as yo know, we've written ever decade, we've written an articl on how to promote comprehension But in the interim, Nell ha done a lot of work on projec based work, particularly i social studies. And she and he colleagues in Michigan hav really promoted that. And she' also done a bunch o publications for the Luca Foundation. If you look on thei website, you'll find a bunch o stuff by now, which are lesso plans about how to do that kin of project based learning. S that's one curricular avenue t follow. And then what you do i you you just track th activities you're engaging in and you ask yourself, How am filling the requirements of m language arts curriculum, i this project based learning? An you could ask the same fo science and social studies although the tracking and in, i language arts tends to be mor serious and more have mor accountability teeth in it tha does science or social studies So that's one thing you can do The second thing you can do is there are an increasing number of curriculua, many sponsored and developed by National Science Foundation, that attempt to do this explicitly and to embed literacy within science. It's more likely to you'll find reading, writing and language embedded within science and the other way around, right. Although, you know, most basal reading programs try to do something with informational texts, but I don't think they take on the goals of the next generation science standards, for example whereas the science curricula do that. You know, if you want to pre packaged curriculum, and I'm not necessarily here just to sell them, they exist out there, I don't want to name names, because I'm, you know, I don't want to get involved in, in, you know, sales or politics, but, but they exist, they're pretty good, I would say that, in general, they're pretty good. And many of them, you know, have been developed in the digital age so they include a lot of, you know, a lot of what we used to call hands on. Now, we do simulations, where you, you interact with a, you know, a set of things that are on the screen, and you push things around and mix things together, and things happen on the screen, and you, you know, blow up your bedroom, or whatever, but but they do a lot of those great simulations. So that's the second way of doing it. And the third way of doing it is simply, you know, let's say you're wedded to a language arts curriculum, I think what you do is, is you ask yourself, what everyday experiences can I tag on to this unit that we're, let's say, you're on a unit on Discovery, I don't know, you know, language arts curricula tend to have these themes like discovery or getting to know yourself or whatever, you just look for every day, hands on experiences, or field trips, or whatever that you can couple with. And then you put some teeth into those, those kind of ancillary experiences so that there are some activities and accountability associated with them. And then you try to compare what you're reading about in your, your language arts curriculum, and compare that to what's, you know, what you're doing out there in the world. And, and I think that's a third way to do it. But, you know, there there are good resources. I don't know if they're still available, we did this great series, and, and it's, it never got picked up by one of the big publishers, but we call it Seeds of Science, Roots of Reading. And, yeah, I loved it. I thought it was exactly what an integrated, you know, subject matter literacy curriculum ought to be about. And we did all have the vocabulary, all the comprehension, all the writing activities. We were able to take virtually all the important standards that would be like in the Common Core standards and find a place for them in this science based curriculum. And you know, even do the same thing with social studies. It's a lot of work. But, but it's not impossible to do. And I think you could either do it informally, where you and your fellow teachers, maybe in your school as a, like, build up a shared portfolio of these kinds of integrated activities, or, you know, you can go out and get yourself one of these curricula, that do that. The virtue of course in building around is that you have personal ownership and, and commitment to it, and you're more likely to use it. But of course, it's a lot more work than buying one off the shelf. But you but you'll have to decide which is as with which are those ethical considerations, you're going to keep foremost in mind.

Lindsay Persohn:

Well, thank you so much for those very practical and, you know, solutions-oriented ideas about how we can begin to get back to some of that interconnected kind of learning. And certainly...

David Pearson:

Can say one more thing?

Lindsay Persohn:

Absolutely.

David Pearson:

Every kid in every school no matter how, how rigid your curriculum is, deserves some time to put ideas into action. And if you don't take up the opportunity and the responsibility and I call this the the fourth plank of comprehension, you know... There's sort of literal comprehension, and then there's the inferential stuff, and then there, then you can, there's evaluative where you make judgments about the quality of information in the like. And then the fourth leg of comprehension, is putting the ideas you've acquired to work in some kind of application. And my friend, Nell is actually, she's got a new term for it, she calls it "Compreaction." Okay, so as compre-, and then you add action on the end. I don't know that that's going to make it into the English language, but applying what you learned might.

Lindsay Persohn:

Absolutely.

David Pearson:

In fact, already has. Yeah.

Lindsay Persohn:

Right. And you know, what is learning without application in some way and in our lives? So yeah, thank you so much for that. And certainly the resources that you've mentioned, we will do our best to dig up a link to the Lucas foundation plans. And...

David Pearson:

You might, you might do a search for seeds of science.

Lindsay Persohn:

Yes.

David Pearson:

Seeds of Science, Roots of Reading and see, I think, because it was an NSF project, I think the units, and we did these in the late 2000s, like 2008 through 11. I think that those units had to be made available to that to anyone because they were funded by NSF, National Science Foundation.

Lindsay Persohn:

So anything you've mentioned, we will link it in your, in your biography on your page for the for the podcast. So David, what do you want listeners to know about your work?

David Pearson:

Uh, one thing that everyone should know about me, as a person who's interested in teacher education and curriculum and pedagogy is that in 1978, when I wrote a book called Teaching rReading Comprehension with Dale Johnson, we committed ourselves to what we called the "radical middle" in reading instruction. And, and by the radical middle, we meant that we listened to people who, you know, at that time, we were just getting into Whole Language, it was just becoming, you know, a kind of a movement and the like, and we would listen to the Whole Language people and we was listened to all the stuff that they had to say about, you know, reading, being natural and making it like a language process in the like and we liked a lot of what we heard, but we also listened to that people who were proponents of the systematic acquisition of foundational skills that you acquire more and more, and eventually, you know, you have a full portfolio of tools to use to make sense out of what you read. And I worked at both of those, if you will, top-down language experience being chopped down in the sense that you use the knowledge and the information in your head to go out and try to actively construct meaning versus bottom-up, and that is bottom up, meaning that you acquire all the component parts and you put those together in a skill performance, you know, akin to learning how to drive -- learning how to read learning how to drive -- you know, you, you build from the components up to a to an orchestrated performance, at any rate. And we said well, you know, both of those make sense. So when we talked about reading comprehension, we said, we want you to have kids read a lot. We want you to have rich discussions about text. Those are all important. And, and those are good ways of promoting the kind of reading that I call "Nike reading." And that is you just do it. Get on with it, do it. And you just, you do it and you monitor your comprehension along the way. And you ask yourself, "So this new idea, does that relate to something I already know, does it relate to something that I read about five minutes ago?" And you say, yeah, that's cool. And you just keep going. That's the just do it Nike reading. But we also knew that there was what we later came to call Sherlock Holmes reading. And that is, my goodness, I've just read this page for the third time, and I don't have a clue about what I read. And I certainly can't remember anything about it. I better get serious about this. And what that means is that you now look at your reading activity as a puzzle to be solved in the way that Sherlock Holmes was always trying to solve puzzles. And then you become very self conscious, deliberate, intentional, and strategic. And strategies, comprehension strategies, are the tools you invoke when the going is tough. And when the going isn't tough. When when you're reading about stuff you know a lot about and you're interested in, it's like falling off a log, you just keep saying to yourself, Oh, yeah, yeah, I get it, I get it. You're sort of updating what you know about the world. As opposed to this- Oh, my goodness, there's so much to learn here. I got to become more intentional. And so we looked at all that. And we said to ourselves, where are the radical middle. And, and how do I know if it if the, if the most progressive of whole language folks, and and the most traditional of skill acquisition, folks, if both of those groups think I'm wrong, then I'm probably in a good place. And so I have never, I have never taken up the debate of is, do we emphasize meaning or do we emphasize code. It's just never made any sense to me. Nor do I think this the evidence points that direction, nor does best practice point that direction, best best practice points to what I call, you have got to do it all mentality. And so do we teach phonics first and fast? Sure, but not at the cost of not developing his oral language when they're preschoolers and kindergarteners and first graders, and certainly not at the cost of having them read texts that actually have some meaning to be unlocked, and discussed, and the like. And so you know, you, you've got to do it all you. You acquire the skills, you focus on the language, you worry about the comprehension, and the vocabulary. And, you know, I guess we don't use the word "balanced literacy" anymore, because it's now acquired this sort of pariah status amongst the people who promote the Science of Reading. But I don't know what else you want to call it, but it's either "comprehensive," or it's well articulated, or as well orchestrated, or it's what I call, "you got to do it all," And so, so I'm a member of the radical middle, in reading pedagogy, and I just could care less about those ideological 18 wheelers driving down both sides of the highway, you know, and, and I want to resist that. And so, so that's, if you want the essence of my philosophy of what reading curriculum ought to be about. It's about that. So you know, this new Science of Reading and debate that's sweeping the country and Florida, it really big in Florida. Matter of fact, you know, not too far down the road from you is a place that that is very big on on promoting the Science of Reading. You know, I just I just said the unfortunate thing about that debate was several things. One of which is that the research that they cite, as the Science of Reading isn't about reading pedagogy. It's about the basic adult process of reading and how adults when they, when they are processing print, actually go through a stage in which the prints gets recoded in a phonemic code, and process before it goes on to a meaning kind of thing. And that's all well and good, but it doesn't follow that you should therefore teach kids that way. That's an empirical question, what the best way is to help kids acquire not only the code but the disposition to make meaning. And and and so pedagogical research needs its own day in court. It's probably going to be aligned with research about basic adult processes and making meaning but it is not necessarily going to be a one to one match. So I resent that about the current Science of Reading debate. And I also resent the persistent pushing of early code emphasis, when if you look at the evidence we have about phonics and relationship to meaning, I call it two cheers for phonics, but not three. Because if you look at you go back to Chall, you'd go back to the first grade studies in the 1960s and 70s. You go back to the National Reading Panel, you look at the National Early Literacy Panel. And all, it always ends up saying, well, phonics, what phonics buys you is a small effect on kids' ability to decode nonsense words. But there's very little evidence of a transfer directly to comprehension in all those big syntheses and the like. So sure, phonics, phonics early, yeah, but don't, don't deceive yourself into believing that if that's the only fix that you have, in your curriculum, that we're going to get rid of all the really, really difficult reading problems that that we have in our society today with so many kids not reading nearly as well as we would like them to or that they would like to be reading. So we got, we've got fixes to make. But I don't think that they're single factor fixes. I think they're, you've got to do at all fixes. So that's where I am in all this.

Lindsay Persohn:

I couldn't agree more. David, I think this idea of the "radical middle" is a very important concept for, for teachers to think about. Because as you said, it can't be one or the other. We can't just approach text, for the sake of the whole text, but we also have to have some of those tools whenever we encounter difficult texts, but not to the exclusion of simply enjoying text and learning from it as a whole. So the enjoyment, you know, once you drain that out of reading, you're you're left with some real drudgery.

David Pearson:

Exactly. And you know, on your third question, which is given the challenges of today's educational climate, what messages eo you want teachers to hear? Well, I want them to hear these first two things, right, you know, embed reading in, in the, in the process of learning an inquiry in and gaining knowledge. And the second one we want to want to hear is that, you know, this notion, I don't even want to use the word balanced, because everyone thinks that if you're balanced, you're wishy washy. But, but I don't sit in that balanced position, I don't sit in the radical middle, because I'm afraid to take sides. I sit in the radical middle, because that's where the evidence, not only of the research, but best practice, point me to. And I want to ensure that your curriculum is robust enough to take into account the needs of all the kids that you encounter, not just a few. And then the third thing of what I want people to take away.... It's something that I don't deal with. If I had my career to start over, I would probably emphasize motivation and engagement and self efficacy more than I have. And I haven't dealt with those because I always felt other people like my longtime colleague, John Guthrie, and, and Peter like Peter Johnston, and Peter Afflerbach, just friends of mine who all of whom deal with that. I've always felt that they were covering that base. And so I didn't feel the need to cover it. But, but when I talk about a complete reading program, or a complete language arts program, if you're not paying attention to those engagement and motivation and dispositions, you're, you're not going to have a complete curriculum either. And, and I worry more about those things because if reading is just drudgery, to what end are we doing it? You know, and I, I want people to know, and maybe this is my, maybe this is my mantra for the, for this curriculum. I want people to know that reading requires skill, will, and thrill. So the skill, will, and thrill curriculum, that's that's going to be my new curriculum. Yeah.

Lindsay Persohn:

I love that. I absolutely love that-- skill, will, and thrill. Absolutely.

David Pearson:

Yeah. And isn't that what we want for our kids to be thrilled at what they're, what books have in store for them? Yeah.

Lindsay Persohn:

Well, and if you think about how being thrilled about learning how that would change the whole landscape of education, you know, what if kids came to school excited to learn? What if kids came to school with questions that they wanted to find answers to? It changes the trajectory for not just everyone involved in schools, but you think about what that could potentially do for us as a society now and in the future.

David Pearson:

Right?

Lindsay Persohn:

Yeah.

David Pearson:

I'm with ya. Yeah, yeah, sign me up.

Lindsay Persohn:

Well, David, I thank you so much for your time today. And thank you so much for your contributions to the field of education.

David Pearson:

It's a pleasure to be with you Lindsay. And good luck to you and all the teachers who who get their morning caffeine from you.

Lindsay Persohn:

Thank you so much. Dr. P. David Pearson is known for his work in the areas of literacy history, literacy policy, and literacy practice. He has authored more than 300 books, articles and chapters with almost 300 co authors. Notably, he has written and co edited the Handbook of Reading Research, now in its fourth edition, and his newest book, a History of Literacy Education aves of Research and Practice, ritten with Rob Tierney was ecently released. He has served n the boards for Reading esearch Quarterly, Science, ournal of Literacy Research, ournal of Educational sychology, Cognition and nstruction, Research in the eaching of English and Review f Educational Research. He has erved multiple terms as editor f three major research ublications, Reading Research uarterly, National Reading onference Yearbook, and Review f Research in Education. David as received numerous awards hroughout his career, including he 1989 Oscar Causey award from he National Reading Conference now the Literacy Research ssociation) for outstanding ontributions to reading esearch and in 1990, the illiam S Gray Citation of Merit ward from the International eading Association (now the nternational Literacy ssociation) for his ontributions to theory, esearch, and practice. In 1990, e was also inducted into the eading Hall of Fame. He became member of the National Academy f Education in 2003. And in 004, he received the Alan urves award from National ouncil of Teachers of English or the Research in the Teaching f English article most likely o influence practice. In 2005, e received the Albert J. Harris ward from the IRA for cholarship on reading ifficulties. In 2006, the niversity of Minnesota honored im with the alumni Outstanding chievement Award, the highest on academic award given at the niversity for his contributions o educational research and ractice. In 2009, he was lected to membership as a ellow of the AERA. In 2010, he eceived the American ducational Research Association istinguished contributions to esearch and education award. In 012, the Literacy Research ssociation created the P. David earson Scholarly Influence ward to honor scholarship that mpacts literacy practice. He erved as an advisor for the ational Academy of Science, the hildren's Television Workshop now the Sesame Workshop), many chool districts and state gencies, as well as public and rivate educational nterprises,. He has been a eading program author for ublishers such as Ginn and ompany, Silver Burdett and inn, National Geographic, and earson Scott Foresman. After raduating from University of innesota, completing ostdoctoral studies at the niversity of Texas, Austin and t Stanford University, David as enjoyed a long career in ositions as a faculty member, a ean, and a center director at our universities, University of innesota, Minneapolis, niversity of Illinois, Urbana hampaign, Michigan State, and niversity of California, erkeley. Dr. Pearson is now meritus faculty at the niversity of California, erkeley. For the good of all students, good research should inform good practice and vice versa. Listeners are invited to respond to an episode, learn more about our guests, search past episodes, or request a topic or conversation with a specific person through our website at classroomcaffeine.com. If you've learned something today, or just enjoyed listening, please be encouraged to talk about what you heard with your colleagues, and subscribe and review this podcast through your podcast provider. As always, I raise my mug to you teachers. Thanks for joining me.