Is it Really Sensible to Teach Students to Read Like Historians and Scientists?

  • academic vocabulary
  • 17 September, 2018
  • 8 Comments

Teacher question:

I don’t get the reason for trying to make students read “like historians” or read “like scientists.” Many of my students aren’t likely to even go to college and even if they did they probably won’t be historians or scientists. I understand why it makes sense to teach students how to study a history or a science textbook so they can pass the tests on those, but “read like a…”, why?

Shanahan response:

You are definitely correct that most students will never become literary critics or English professors, mathematicians, historians, or scientists. Some will, but most will not, and even when someone does choose a discipline as the center of their life’s work, that choice usually requires rejecting the others. Thus, if someone were to become a historian, that likely means he or she will not spend much time reading—within that job—like a scientist, mathematician, or literary expert.

The idea of teaching students to read like experts might begin the process of induction into a profession for a small minority of kids, but that isn’t the real reason for teaching disciplinary literacy.

Being able to read and remember the facts from a history textbook might be sufficient for passing some high school or college classes. Teachers may even be able to convince themselves that enabling that kind of reading is all their jobs require.

But teaching students to “learn” history—by summarizing, questioning, KWL, retelling charts, four-square, and the like—can only foster a naïve understanding of history. Historians focus on the comparative reading of multiple texts on any topic with a heavy focus on author perspectives in that reading.

They engage in that kind of reading because of the nature of history and the methodology used to write history. Without an understanding of those – and reading approaches based upon them — readers won’t be able to formulate a deep understanding or appreciation of such content (or the critical hacks to keep from being misled by disciplinary experts).

The same point could be made about understanding the poetic “roughening of language” in literature or the purposes for multiple representations in scientific discourse or the nature of evidence or reasoning in any of these fields of study. There is more to reading comprehension than being able to tell back the stated information.

The reason more than 40 states have adopted disciplinary reading and writing standards—standards that require teaching students how to read disciplinary texts in a sophisticated manner—is because in our society it is important for citizens to be able to take multiple perspectives and to evaluate expert claims and evidence.

Economically we live in an age in which society rewards those who are able to cross cultural boundaries successfully. The engineer who can write a clear explanation of the new medical device, the marketing pro who can translate consumer data into a powerful algorithm, and all the others who are able to turn words into pictures into diagrams into codes into formulas and back again are the new masters of the employment universe.

The better that all readers understand the basic approaches to information inherent in each and all of the disciplines, the better their chances for being able to cross disciplinary boundaries, for being able to appreciate different perspectives, and for being able to translate from one kind of language into another.

In the course of a lifetime, we all confront a plethora of problems requiring the use of diverse sources of information to effect sound solutions. Being able to turn to a multiplicity of “literatures” that emanate from the various disciplines and specializations is essential.

A reader reminded this week of something I’d written a while back:

“I don’t believe our job is to make the science- or literature-preferers comfortable. I think we do our jobs best when the science kid discovers he can enjoy a story well told or when the math whiz is moved by poetic expression. We are most on our game when Little Miss Literature realizes that she has the chops to pick apart Algebra problems or that she can describe incisively in writing the structure of a cell.”,

Couldn’t have said it better myself (if I hadn’t already said it).

We teach disciplinary reading so that our young readers can start to read texts with an insider’s grasp of their purposes and the innate limitations inherent in their methods and evidentiary standards.

That’s good enough for me (and my children and grandchildren). I hope it will be good enough for you, too.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Lisa Gordon
Sep 17, 2018 06:40 PM

I think this response knocked it out of the ball park!
As a science educator, I might add this sentiment from the National Research Council Framework, that our wish for all students is that they might "engage in public discussions on science related issues, {&} to be critical consumers of scientific information related to their everyday lives."
Well said!

Sam Bommarito
Sep 18, 2018 03:17 AM

Taught the content area reading course for many a year. Glad to see that doing so was not a wasted effort. I agree that your comment "knocks it out of the ball park" for explaining why this needs to be done. In fact I think it was a grand slam. Thanks for your insights. Sam

Kathy Martin
Sep 18, 2018 01:44 PM

Excellent 360* view on teaching multiple aspects of literacy. Again, Dr. Tim, you explained so eloquently the "why" behind purposeful instruction. Our children deserve an excellent education that allows their minds to dream of what can be, not limited or confined to a specific role set upon them by any person or institution. As educators, it's important to teach critical thinking whether reading history, literature or even a how-to guide. Teach it all and students will find their path.

Timothy Shanahan
Sep 18, 2018 04:12 PM

Thanks everybody. Given your dedication to these principles it may surprise you that this particular question comes up with some frequency. Glad you liked the answer.

tim

Tory Callahan
Sep 24, 2018 12:13 PM

A worthy goal and a tall order. Good comments.

Do we have clear definitions on each way of thinking? Or we revert to critical thinking and how analytical thinking applies to each discipline as does synthesis? Tim's nice quote suggests this. Makes sense.

To think like scientists, for example, we need to understand the discipline's methodologies, even a degree of the evolution of the disciplinary thought, where it stands today. And probably quite a bit of math. You know the citations about the general public's misunderstanding of percentages, etc. And the media thrives on hyping results of single studies. It's hard to think like a scientist without being a scientist.

If we could think like scientists, could we spot the difference between logic and evidence rather than needing to rely on Tim for that?

Dereck jaime
Sep 27, 2018 01:46 AM


Is it Really Sensible to Teach Students to Read Like Historians and Scientists?
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academic vocabulary 17 September, 2018 5 Comments
Teacher question:

I don’t get the reason for trying to make students read “like historians” or read “like scientists.” Many of my students aren’t likely to even go to college and even if they did they probably won’t be historians or scientists. I understand why it makes sense to teach students how to study a history or a science textbook so they can pass the tests on those, but “read like a…”, why?

Shanahan response:

You are definitely correct that most students will never become literary critics or English professors, mathematicians, historians, or scientists. Some will, but most will not, and even when someone does choose a discipline as the center of their life’s work, that choice usually requires rejecting the others. Thus, if someone were to become a historian, that likely means he or she will not spend much time reading—within that job—like a scientist, mathematician, or literary expert.

The idea of teaching students to read like experts might begin the process of induction into a profession for a small minority of kids, but that isn’t the real reason for teaching disciplinary literacy.

Being able to read and remember the facts from a history textbook might be sufficient for passing some high school or college classes. Teachers may even be able to convince themselves that enabling that kind of reading is all their jobs require.

But teaching students to “learn” history—by summarizing, questioning, KWL, retelling charts, four-square, and the like—can only foster a naïve understanding of history. Historians focus on the comparative reading of multiple texts on any topic with a heavy focus on author perspectives in that reading.

They engage in that kind of reading because of the nature of history and the methodology used to write history. Without an understanding of those – and reading approaches based upon them — readers won’t be able to formulate a deep understanding or appreciation of such content (or the critical hacks to keep from being misled by disciplinary experts).

The same point could be made about understanding the poetic “roughening of language” in literature or the purposes for multiple representations in scientific discourse or the nature of evidence or reasoning in any of these fields of study. There is more to reading comprehension than being able to tell back the stated information.

The reason more than 40 states have adopted disciplinary reading and writing standards—standards that require teaching students how to read disciplinary texts in a sophisticated manner—is because in our society it is important for citizens to be able to take multiple perspectives and to evaluate expert claims and evidence.

Economically we live in an age in which society rewards those who are able to cross cultural boundaries successfully. The engineer who can write a clear explanation of the new medical device, the marketing pro who can translate consumer data into a powerful algorithm, and all the others who are able to turn words into pictures into diagrams into codes into formulas and back again are the new masters of the employment universe.

The better that all readers understand the basic approaches to information inherent in each and all of the disciplines, the better their chances for being able to cross disciplinary boundaries, for being able to appreciate different perspectives, and for being able to translate from one kind of language into another.

In the course of a lifetime, we all confront a plethora of problems requiring the use of diverse sources of information to effect sound solutions. Being able to turn to a multiplicity of “literatures” that emanate from the various disciplines and specializations is essential.

A reader reminded this week of something I’d written a while back:

“I don’t believe our job is to make the science- or literature-preferers comfortable. I think we do our jobs best when the science kid discovers he can enjoy a story well told or when the math whiz is moved by poetic expression. We are most on our game when Little Miss Literature realizes that she has the chops to pick apart Algebra problems or that she can describe incisively in writing the structure of a cell.”,

Couldn’t have said it better myself (if I hadn’t already said it).

We teach disciplinary reading so that our young readers can start to read texts with an insider’s grasp of their purposes and the innate limitations inherent in their methods and evidentiary standards.

That’s good enough for me (and my children and grandchildren). I hope it will be good enough for you, too.

Comments
See what others have to say about this topic.



Lisa Gordon Sep 17, 2018 06:40 PM
I think this response knocked it out of the ball park!
As a science educator, I might add this sentiment from the National Research Council Framework, that our wish for all students is that they might "engage in public discussions on science related issues, {&} to be critical consumers of scientific information related to their everyday lives."
Well said!


Sam Bommarito Sep 18, 2018 03:17 AM
Taught the content area reading course for many a year. Glad to see that doing so was not a wasted effort. I agree that your comment "knocks it out of the ball park" for explaining why this needs to be done. In fact I think it was a grand slam. Thanks for your insights. Sam


Kathy Martin Sep 18, 2018 01:44 PM
Excellent 360* view on teaching multiple aspects of literacy. Again, Dr. Tim, you explained so eloquently the "why" behind purposeful instruction. Our children deserve an excellent education that allows their minds to dream of what can be, not limited or confined to a specific role set upon them by any person or institution. As educators, it's important to teach critical thinking whether reading history, literature or even a how-to guide. Teach it all and students will find their path.

Dereck jaime
Sep 27, 2018 02:06 AM


Is it Really Sensible to Teach Students to Read Like Historians and Scientists? BLOG

I don’t get the reason for trying to make students read “like historians” or read “like scientists.” Many of my students aren’t likely to even go to college and even if they did they probably won’t be historians or scientists. I understand why it makes sense to teach students how to study a history or a science textbook so they can pass the tests on those, but “read

Rachel P.
Oct 05, 2018 09:34 PM

The initial question reminds me a lot of what students ask, "Why do I have to do this? When am I going to use this?" I teach elementary school and I often use this phrase as a motivational tool. They might not want to read a story; however, if I tell them that they are going to learn to use evidence to create and defend arguments, like lawyers, they become very excited.
I completely agree that each of those disciplines requires its own type of literacy. Although a person can know dates in history, to have an understanding of the actual stories taking place and the validity of those stories takes an understanding of author's purpose. That type of literacy can also be applied to today's world, particularly with unlimited access to technology. When students, or adults, read articles concerning current events, politics, etc. yes they need to understand the words and what the article is saying, but, they also need to have a more in depth understanding. They need to be able to think critically about what is being said and why. Although we are saying, you are reading like a scientist or historian, really those skills are useful in far more ways than just for those whose occupations are in those fields.

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Is it Really Sensible to Teach Students to Read Like Historians and Scientists?

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