NCTE and dead white males

Had you been following the #ncte11 twitter feed on Friday morning, you would have seen a number of messages coming out of the session I was in. Convened by Jim Burke, and following a rousing call-to-arms from Linda Darling-Hammond in the General Session, the panel boasted some big names in the field: Carol Jago, Sandra Stotsky, Judith Langer, and Arthur Applebee.  An NCTE Featured Session, it was entitled “Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow: Reports, Reflections, and Recommendations from Recent National Studies.”

Carol Jago presented on a more well-rounded approach to the idea of text complexity: focusing not only on the quantitative pronouncements of “grade level” (beyond the Fry Readability test of counting syllables).  She suggested that there is a qualitative understanding of a text that we intuitively understand: the amount of figurative language, allusions, and the like. She also discussed the relationship of the reader with the text and stressed the importance of providing books that were in the zone of proximal development for a young reader. “Kids should be reading two books at once: one that they devour and one that is in their ZPD,” was the message from Carol Jago.

Next up was Sandra Stotsky, the only name on the panel that was unfamiliar to me. I now know why. Conservative in the extreme, she rose to the podium to begin with a study that examined how the number of English teachers using canonical texts (The Scarlet Letter, The Odyssey, MacBeth, etc) has decreased since 1989. My bias was such that I didn’t at first understand that this was a bad thing. Her other studies showed that Readability of texts (presumably determined by the very Readability formula that Jago had stated not moments before was not sufficient to determine text complexity, but let’s go with it) was between a 3rd and a 10th grade level, some folks were only assigning one text in a High School grade and they certainly aren’t teaching New Criticism.  Of course, those of us in schools know that part of this is due to the unyielding pressure of the standardization movement, where English teachers feel as if they have no choice but to abandon longer works in favor of succinct readings that can be read in 6 minutes, followed by 4 minutes of answering questions (ACT allows only 8 minutes for reading a passage and answering questions, so maybe I’ve been generous). No matter: the point stands that the English curriculum could use some coherence. I am totally on board with that. I just know that I, along with many folks I know, struggle with what coherence looks like. Especially when you are developing READERS, readers who may need remediation for a whole host of reasons, often associated with the fact that we do a really bad job of supporting the 1 in 4 children living in poverty in this country. But I digress. What Stotsky then presented was what made my blood boil. Two sterling examples of the most dry, inappropriate curriculum that featured Grade 6 reading the Book of Genesis and the Odyssey and culminating  with Grade 9 reading Sonnets (I’m guessing Shakespeare), Chaucer, MacBeth, Pride & Prejudice, and more. I found two female authors on one list, one of whom was Zora Neale Hurston, who also represents the only minority voice on the list (unless you count Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which was assigned for summer reading). The other comprehensive curriculum sample she presented did a better job of more women and minority authors, until one hit High School where it dead-white-male-ville.

I fail to see how this develops readers, represents complexity, or prepares students for increasingly global workplace wherein our students will have to negotiate different cultural norms. How does reading The Scarlet Letter (sorry to pick on this, but it is a representative example) help students negotiate this world better than say a slew of other even 20th century authors and voices? Why the crowding out of women and minority authors? Does a comprehensive curriculum mean that the only voices we hear are those that replicate the power structures of oppression so shameful in our history? This is troubling in the extreme.

In the end, it is up to us to make sure that voices like this don’t prevail. It already feels like a struggle to do what is best for our learners. If we select a non-dead-white-male text, we have to explain its complexity, advocate for it. If we select a dead-white-male text, we have to understand that it must hold value beyond its canonical significance and use it in a way that still empowers the voices of our students.


Badges as gold stars: The Behavioral View of Motivation and Learning

scout merit badges

Image by Flickr user zen and used under Creative Commons License

This is part of a series of posts that will build into my final paper for the Motivation course I am taking this semester. I want to emphasize that this a rough draft and welcome comments, especially ones that point out flaws in my logic or understanding of the motivational theory under consideration. I’m going to try and use my “blogging” voice here rather than my “boring academic voice” that I use in my official paper, but I apologize in advance if I don’t entirely succeed.

In this case, let’s consider that badges here are operationalized as a reward system instead of an assessment system. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to rely on existing learning sites with badge systems that I’ve seen in use, namely the Khan Academy, which is largely an automatic reward system based on levels of interaction with the site’s content, such as viewing tutorials or taking quizzes.

Under Skinner’s (1950) model of operant conditioning, the observed behavior of the student viewing a tutorial or taking a quiz is the behavior that we would like to encourage.  We want  the student to persist in that behavior, and therefore learn more from viewing more tutorials and taking more practice quizzes. In this model, the behavior of interacting with the site leads to a consequence, or reinforcer, of earning a badge. This positive reinforcer of the earned badge, in turn, leads to the strengthened or repeated behavior of the student’s continued interaction with the site’s content. Behavioral theorists have also identified that the timing of the reinforcer has a great deal to do with how effective it is at encouraging the desired behavior–an idea known as the reinforcement schedule.   Reinforcers can be on a continuous reinforcement schedule, for example, and be presented every time the desired response is demonstrated.  The Khan Academy largely employs a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule in which badges are awarded after a set number of responses. This type of reinforcement schedule predicts that there will be a drop in persistence, especially once the set number of responses occurs and no reinforcer appears (i.e. I already earned the badge for watching tutorials five days in a row, so I am very unlikely to watch five days in a row again since I’ve now earned my badge for that behavior). The schedule that results in the most persistence is called a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule in which the reinforcer is presented at intermittent times after the behavior is demonstrated (think slot machines). While Khan Academy  has largely a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule, they also advertise that some very “rare” badges can be earned in ways that are not clear, thus employing the variable-ratio schedule. By also awarding these rare badges, the intermittent nature of the reward would predict an increase in persistence because it is unclear which action will lead to the jackpot (perhaps overcoming the problem with the fixed-ratio schedule of the other badges? Not really sure on that one.).  While this would predict the more persistence than the other reinforcement schedules, it still predicts that gradually response will drop off.

There is one important assumption that is made in predicting how badges might impact learning behavior–that the reward of the badge is actually a positive reinforcer. For some, a digital badge may mean very little and therefore not function as a reinforcer at all.  In this case, a behavioral view would predict a lower rate of persistence than for individuals for whom the badge was seen a positive reward.

Additionally, if we assume that the awarding of a badge functions as a positive reinforcement, there is an additional prediction to me made about whether or not the potential harm of using a reward system outweighs the potential learning benefits. The use of rewards has been shown to be highly detrimental for intrinsic motivation especially (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999), and considering that the majority of users in these open course systems are there voluntarily (or are intrinsically motivated to visit the site and engage with the content), is it worth using badges to possible decrease the motivation that brought the learner to the Khan Academy in the first place?  This is the typical argument leveled against behavioral learning techniques: those gold stars may not only be motivating in the short-term, but harmful in the long-term.

But would different outcomes be predicted based on different theories of motivation and learning? More on that soon!


Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668.

Skinner, B. F. (1950). Are theories of learning necessary? Psychological Review, 57, 193-216.



More on Motivation: CEP 910

I blogged earlier today about my Current Issues in Motivation and Learning course. So far this semester we are on Week 9, and each week has been a new set of motivational theories. As a newbie psychologist, this has been a bit overwhelming. I felt confused about the ways the theories built on each other and the sometimes subtle differences between them (Dear Psychologists: self-concept, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. This is maddening.). At any rate, I made a giant map of all the things we’ve read so far and I’ll be updating it as we finish up. I’ve embedded it below. Also (for my classmates), if you have your own account, I’ve made this able to be copied so that you can take it and make it your own.