Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Four Questions with Jonathan Willson

Today, I am delighted to pass along some fascinating ideas related to student preference for expository nonfiction from Jonathan Willson, Director of Teaching and Learning, Moorhead Academic Center and History Department, The Taft School, Watertown, CT. Jon is a recipient of the New England History Teachers’ Association 2018 “History Teacher of the Year” award for secondary school teachers. He is also married to New York Times bestselling nonfiction author Sarah Albee.

MS: Welcome, Jon. Thank you for reading the post I recently wrote for the Nerdy Book Club blog. As a grade 9-12 teacher and administrator, why did it resonate with you?

JW: When I saw your post, I’d just finished reading a pamphlet, produced by the National Council on Teacher Quality, called “Learning About Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know” because I’m mentoring a new teacher this year. It includes six “proven practices that promote learning for all students, regardless of grade or subject.”


The first recommended teaching practice, one with mountains of research to support it as all these practices have, is pairing graphics with words. So when I saw the student reading preference data in your post, I thought, This is cool: Since expository text often includes a wider variety of visuals (photos, charts, diagrams, infographics) than narrative writing, the results of these reading preference studies reinforce the recommended teaching practice.
Why is that cool? Because often what students say they prefer is not consistent with the “mind, brain and education” (MBE) research. For instance, many of my AP U.S. History students tell me they like  to prepare for the May “APUSH” exam by re-reading as much of the text and their notes as they can. But MBE research shows that re-reading is an inefficient study technique compared to, say, retrieval practice or writing responses to sample questions.

So, back to the academic study results cited in your post: When you can teach in a manner consistent with how most students say they prefer to learn when reading, that’s a happy alignment. It’s certainly how I’ve taught History and Social Studies for thirty years: content in the form of still or moving images, maps, graphs, tables, and a mix of primary sources in addition to engagingly written, nonfiction text.  

MS: It looks like that NCTQ pamphlet breaks down the six suggested teaching strategies into three subgroups. What are they?
JW: Yes, there are three student learning categories. The first category is taking in new information, the second is connecting new information to old to deepen understanding, and the third is remembering. And each category includes two proven pedagogical practices.
MS: So “pairing graphics with words” is the first practice of the first category (taking in new information). It looks like the second practice in that category is “linking abstract concepts with concrete representations.” How is it relevant for teachers looking to incorporate expository nonfiction into their classrooms or curriculum?

JW: To answer that question, I’ll shamelessly draw from one of my wife’s books. Because chemical elements are invisible, they’re abstract to many students. But a student who reads Sarah Albee’s Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines comes across the story of the “radium girls” in both text and image form.

These young women were hired after the World War I to paint watch dials with the element radium, which everyone thought was safe. The radium made the watches glow in the dark, so people could easily see the time at night.
While working, the women inhaled and ingested lots of radium. Only after they began breaking bones and even dying, it became clear radium was poisonous. It’s a tragic story that links the abstract (a dangerous chemical element) with the concrete (the suffering of the women) via effective expository text. You might even use it to teach another abstraction: the need for government regulations.

MS: So are all six of the “proven practices” in the pamphlet applicable to expository nonfiction reading and teaching?

JW: The linking of students’ free reading preferences with evidence-based teaching strategies can get tricky when we get to the “remembering” category. Recalling content is a critically important part of learning because typically new learning builds upon old.

But how much do teachers want to hold students accountable for recalling what they’ve read independently, even if it is in school? If the answer is “highly accountable,” then teachers could certainly apply the two suggested “remembering” practices: distributing practice and assessing to boost retention. But if the point of free reading is mostly to encourage students to read books they find interesting, then the answer may be “not too accountable.” In that case, teachers might decide to apply the remembering strategies elsewhere. But they can still remain confident their students will recall the content of books they themselves chose to read.

MS: These are very interesting ideas, Jon. Thanks so much for giving educators something to think about and perhaps try out in their own classrooms.

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