I’ve been reading a lot of assignments of late to do with literacy generally and the “literacy wars” in particular. Perhaps predictably the students fall comfortably into the “phonics” or “whole language” camps – few have made the accurate observation that both approaches co-exist in the classrooms of effective teachers. Some have stretched a little further to include the impact of certain teaching philosophies on student achievement while others have made similar observations about the impact of the “home environment” on reading achievement. While reading it struck me as a curious that, almost alone one out of all the professions, teachers are held accountable in ways that other professions are not.
I’d like to pose a question – do we blame dentists for tooth decay? After all, dental hygiene is their job isn’t it? Isn’t their job to ensure that our kids have their teeth in good shape? Or do we say that dentists may be the experts and have a major role to play - but that each individual has to consider their dietary choices and do some basic things like clean their teeth on a regular basis? If I choose to drink carbonated sugar water with colouring, lollies with enough sugar to make a diabetic spin-out and then choose not to clean my teeth then I have to take the consequences of that – don’t I? I suspect that most would agree with the latter view. Is it my dentist’s fault if I get decay?
We would also have reasonable expectations that dentists would use the latest techniques as established by research and technological advances – even if they were at odds with the techniques used in our parent’s day. So, higher speed drills and good quality pain medication is something most would vote for. Would we really want the dentist to use slow spin drills just because that was what we were used to in our childhood? Would we even go to a dentist who refused to use modern equipment and techniques, or that used the same knowledge base that existed say two generations ago? (We could also extend the metaphor and ask if we would prefer modern magazines in the waiting room or a range of recent publications – torn and tatty copies of the Readers Digest may not suit us all. )
Rhetorical questions only as I think I can predict the answers.
Relating this to literacy - what is the equivalent of a “good diet”? What is the equivalent of “cleaning our teeth”? What new methods are now possible thanks to advances in technology?
This is in no way intended to shift responsibility for literacy “failure” to parents – but it is to remind us that sometimes what goes on outside of school has a significant bearing on what schools can actually achieve. This metaphor also helps hold a mirror up to our expectations of literacy and schools in general - they seem at stark odds to our expectations for most other aspects of modern life.