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Student Resistance

Review of “Johnny won’t read, and Susie won’t either: Reading instruction and student resistance”

In the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, Rebecca Powell, Ellen McIntyre, and Elizabeth Rightmyer published a study which evaluated literacy activities (like Jumpstart) in which students engaged in off-task behavior at least 25% of the time. In my review of their report, I will forego their own constructions of meaning from the results in favour of one which is simpler and more applicable to a setting like Jumpstart. To begin, I will define two important concepts in classroom management and curriculum development: off-task behaviour and engaged time. Then I will go into the actual findings of the study, which evaluated teaching style and qualities of instructional tasks. The purpose of this review is to provide a background of good teaching practices to those who have limited classroom experience.

Before any evaluation is done, it is important to be clear about what is being evaluated. In the case of this study, classrooms were selected for extensive review when off-task behaviour was observed for more than 25% of activity time (this does not include transition time). Off-task behavior was treated as a pre-defined term in the study and not explicitly discussed, but a brief overview and a few examples will clarify what is meant by it. Off-task behavior is behavior which interferes with learning - as will be discussed later, it can result from a variety of different circumstances. Some examples of off-task behavior cited in the article are: students talking instead of listening to the teacher, lying on the floor and rolling around, interruption with unrelated questions and comments, going to the bathroom or getting water during activity time, etc. The presence of these behaviours does not mean instruction is ineffective, but if they are taking up a significant portion of your teaching time it may be difficult to teach effectively.

One aspect of effective teaching is the amount of time students are engaged. While they are off-task, they are obviously not engaged. But just because a child looks like they are on-task, it does not necessarily mean they are engaged. Students are engaged when they are actively attending to the learning task, and the more time your students are engaged the more successful they will be. There are several obstacles to student engagement, however. First, students tend to perceive the educational process negatively. They do not see how it is relevant to their daily lives and their family values. If the instruction they receive lacks real-world validity, minimal engagement will result. Second, students may resist engagement when they have a lack of control over their own learning or when they have the perception that a task might lead to failure and/or embarrassment. Obviously there may be emotional or temperamental reasons for low engagement, but there are things that you can do as a teacher to encourage it.

At this point in time, we are moving beyond qualification of terms and into practices that will actually help you in the classroom. In the study, particular teaching styles were found to be more effective than others. Ineffective practices were: adherence to procedures, scripted models, tasks being too difficult or easy, and students being unable to self-regulate. In my opinion, these practices can partially be the result of inexperienced teachers - teachers who are new to teaching and are too reliant on procedures and models rather than relaxing into their own teaching style, teachers who are unaware of developmental appropriateness and so cannot determine whether tasks are the right difficulty, teachers who have difficulties balancing student choice with classroom chaos. Teachers are faced with a choice, too, and the study showed that some teaching choices were more effective: providing appropriately challenging tasks, encouraging peer collaboration, providing opportunities for student choice, and encouraging self-regulation (independent application of reading strategies) were all aspects of effective teaching styles. This study seemed to focus more on older students (about grade 3), but these practices can still be implemented in a preschool setting: the Jumpstart curriculum is a good starting point for keeping the teaching appropriate to your students’ abilities, you can encourage your students to tell each other their favorite parts of the book they just read, students can choose what colors to write their names in and which center stations to go to first, and you can encourage rich language when students tell stories back to you. Having an effective teaching style is as much about knowledge as it is about flexibility - you have some important tools for teaching literacy, but few people know your students better than you. It is up to you to create a classroom environment that is responsive to the unique needs and strengths of both your students and coworkers. The following table is a layout of the above information organized in a way to help clarify how you can make your teaching practices more effective:

Finally, in implementing teaching methods, the study noted two significantly different qualities of instructional tasks: closed tasks and open tasks. Closed tasks are things such as worksheets or simple questions - activities where there is only one right answer. Closed tasks such as these were found to be directly related to higher incidence of off-task behavior. The study found that where there was a high degree of off-task behavior, tasks were often found to be closed.

However, the study defined several core components of open tasks - those which allow children to complete activities in their own way and come up with answers that are unique to them. Turner and Paris (1995) found six critical features of open tasks. These ‘six Cs’ are: choice, challenge, control, collaboration, constructive comprehension, and (positive) consequences. The following table provides illustrations of these instruction qualities in the classroom:

Especially in a preschool environment, students must be encouraged in all aspects of learning. It may be counterintuitive to tell a child that every answer they give is the “right answer,” but remember that you are helping to formulate how they view education for the rest of their lives. Jumpstart students have usually been identified as students struggling with literacy skills. They often are dealing with circumstances and environments at home that can make learning difficult. This can lead to difficulties in the classroom, but the practices described above will help ANY TEACHER with ANY STUDENT. The findings of this study were based both on previous studies as well as a sample of over 70 literacy activities. Off-task behavior can inhibit learning, but engaged behavior as well as open teaching styles and utilizing the ‘six Cs’ can both address off-task behavior as well as increase student performance.


Watch your perspective

Okay, so I see this movie about a severed corpus callosum (okay, I didn’t actually watch it - I simply saw the web page title and started thinking willy-nilly with no thought for decorum), and it makes me think about how with genes, for example, we define their effects by what the organism is like withOUT them - that is how we define their functionality. And I think "Wow, it's so damaging, that this is science's approach to discovering things. Why can't they just observe whatever it is?" But obviously you can't (or, we don't know how to) observe a gene, for example. so then I thought "Well, you can observe an arm."

Imagine if someone wanted to figure out what an arm did, and to do so they cut it off and watched the behavior of the organism afterwards. The interesting thing is that the organism would begin to compensate immediately - by perhaps a redistribution of weight, by simply "making do" with their whole arm instead. To make an equation of their behavior, it would be: Body & Behavior with 2 arms - 1 arm = Body & Behavior with 1 arm + Compensation. There is something NEW in this equation: Compensation. So, the question is: How do you separate function from compensation when you are practicing this science-by-deletion?

On top of that, you STILL need the observational component - a lot of compensation behavior of course is directly related to the missing component and you need a control to compare.

This, in turn, makes me think of the Behaviorist/Holist debate - do we learn about the world around us by breaking it up or by looking in great detail (at one thing at a time) or in a wider-perspective kind of observational way?

Of course the answer is: a little of both. It really pretty much always is, but people get so caught up in what their training is that they find it difficult to switch their perspective back and forth.

So here’s a friendly public reminder: don’t be an extremist.