Tuesday, June 10, 2003

The Underground Grammarian describes crackpot schemes to improve readings scores:
Like all cockeyed social notions, the plain English movement invites us to look around and see who's going to make a profit from it. A paranoid observer might think to detect a massive conspiracy. And here's how it goes: First we start providing the schools with lots of taxpayers' money to support research into quaint and curious innovations in teaching children how to read. This results in some extraordinary gimmick, and a very profitable one, not only for some professionals of education who are paid to cook it up but especially for that massive educational-industrial complex that makes and sells at high prices books and flash cards and sets of gadgets to go with every new fad. These people, of course, would like to see as many new fads as possible, because each one makes all the old stuff obsolete. What the gimmick is, is not important; for a while, and in some schools still, it was the weird notion that reading would be better taught without reference to the sounds of letters but rather through identifying whole words as symbols of something. The latest gimmick seems to be speed reading, which will make it possible, at a stiff price, to read a complete gothic romance in three minutes and forty seconds, thus ensuring a steady market for gothic romances. A well-trained keypunch operator could go through sixteen of them on her lunch hour, provided of course that she ate something like a sandwich or a slice of pizza. Speed reading does require the use of at least one hand.

Let the gimmick be whatever it is. Think of your own, if you need an example, something like printing vowels in different colors or providing new and tricky shapes for certain letters. These, of course, have been done, so you’ll have to stretch a bit; and, when you do come up with something that seems unspeakably zany, keep your mouth shut. If you mention it in public, it won't be long before someone offers to fund it. It's best to avoid offering the occasion for sin. But enough. Let's say we have a gimmick.

Now we experiment, being careful to use methods and controls that would make a first-year chemistry student blush and stating the problems and the expected results (those we call "outcomes") in the silliest possible jargon. Don't worry, we'll "prove" the efficacy of our gimmick (remember the new math?). As a result, or outcome, although we'd rather not use that word in the singular, more and more students in the public schools will read less and less.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that this means that our gimmick has failed. Pay attention. This means that the gimmick has succeeded. Remember, we have taken the role of dentists handing out lollipops to ensure that there will be no falling off of customers. Now that things are worse than ever, we view with alarm the "reading problem" in the schools. It's time for a new round of grants, projects, experimental proposals, expensive consultants, packets of materials, instruction booklets, sets of visual aids, more teachers, carpeted classrooms, air conditioning, just about anything you can imagine. It's all good for the education business, and if it seems to have been exaggerated, just you go footing around yourself and find anybody anywhere who proposes that we can teach reading (or anything else) better by spending less money.

The problem is not only researchers doing silly studies with negative results. The real problem is that any zany reading-improvement scheme is likely to work initially. The teachers who pick up a new scheme are the most likely to be dedicated, caring teachers who want to find a way to make their students read better. The extra attention from the teacher is likely to improve the students reading skills. The student is likely to be aware that something unusual is going on and may try harder. At least, the student will benefit from a temporary increase in attention because something new, wierd, different is being tried.

This extends to other learning of course (math, writing, history or whatever) and beyond. Zany schemes arise frequently in software management to improve software quality or programmer productivity. After discussing "Extreme Programming. one day, Ekr suggested "Butthole Programming". A practitioner of Butthole Programming (BP) may only write code when one thumb is shoved up his butthole. BP improves code quality because with only one hand on the keyboard, the BP practitioner can't write as much code. As we know, more code means more bugs. Therefore, BP means less bugs.

I wish I could recall where I read recently that many productivity studies in many industries suffer from the problem that the productivity increase is often the result of the study being done, not the new technique. Workers who are in the midst of being studied while performing a new technique just tend to do better overall, unless the new technique is truly a bad idea.

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