Sunday, November 3, 2013

Working Toward the Promises of Disciplinary Literacy

Join us Monday 11/4 at 2pm EST for the first LRA Research to Practice Video Chat with Michael Manderino, Kristy Pytash, Phil WilderPaula Di Domenico, and Catlin Dooley for a conversation about disciplinary literacy hosted by Ian O'Byrne and Greg McVerry. For resources and a place to leave comments and questions use this link: TitanPad.

Here are some initial thoughts before our conversation:

The promise of disciplinary literacy for me is grounded in the opportunities for young people to become more agentive in their knowledge construction. Disciplinary literacy is fundamentally about knowledge building instead of knowledge banking. To scaffold adolescents’ skill and agency in constructing knowledge we can attempt to approximate disciplinary inquiry through activities like Document-Based Questions (DBQ’s) in history, science labs or experiments, and critical analysis essays with literature. The rub, however, is that these approximated activities should engender disciplinary inquiry that apprentices cognitive skills (i.e., thinking like a historian, scientist, literary critic) with a range of disciplinary texts and tools rather than lay out a prescribed path to a fixed answer. Questions that may arise then, is how do we best scaffold these skills and how do these skills unfold so that students can grapple with existing disciplinary knowledge, critique extant interpretations, and generate new knowledge?

An argument I make about approximating expert skills with students is that we ask students to act like experts in multiple aspects of their school experiences.  As a former basketball coach, we used highly technical language, and expected our players to run sophisticated offensive and defensive schemes taken from college and pro teams. If we had a less proficient team, we didn't just say lets play pick up ball and hope for the best.  We still expected our players to mirror more expert practice yet acknowledging they we're not college or pro players. I think the same could be said of the speech team, the musical, the marching band, or the debate team.  We expect applications of expert behavior in every area of a student involved in extra curricular activities but not in our disciplinary classrooms when we reduce the text or summarize the content into supposedly more digestible bits.

A disciplinary literacy approach also offers the promise of apprenticing students into the communities of disciplinary inquiry that use cognitive skills and knowledge of linguistic markers. But perhaps more importantly, we avail opportunities for students to gain access to the ways knowledge is constructed and communicated.  We also give students the thinking and language to critique content and the agency to construct knowledge for their own purposes.  While reading Dr. David Kirkland’s A Search Past Silence, I was struck by his use of the African proverb, “Until the lion has his own historians, the tale of the hunt will always be glorified by the hunter”.  We need to build the capacities of young people to be able to construct instead of simply consume knowledge.

An approach for me to help build that capacity is authentic inquiry versus prescribed inquiry that seeks a single correct answer. We can scaffold and support inquiry practices but should aspire to release responsibility to our students to ask and seek meaning to their own disciplinary questions.   While that may seem lofty, I believe it is the best way we can support students learning while also valuing their interests and cultural knowledge.  Disciplinary literacy instruction then draws on the habits of thinking to interrogate the texts that are instantiated in the disciplines.  Disciplinary texts are constructed using norms, conventions, genres, and linguistic patterns that have evolved in the discipline.  Teaching isolated sets of disciplinary skills is insufficient because the disciplines are not static. They are historical, contextual, and contested sites of organized bodies of knowledge.  Therefore, students need to be apprenticed into disciplinary inquiry.

Questions that arise for me then are: What approaches are profitable for disciplinary apprenticeship?   How can we best support student learning in the disciplines?  What specific studies will uncover how to get kids to construct models in science, create defend interpretations in history, read and create arguments about literary interpretation, or communicate mathematical representations?  Are literacies in biology the same as chemistry and physics?  How do we prepare science teachers, for example, to tackle multiple subjects like earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics?

For example, model building in science may be a generalized disciplinary literacy but models constructed in biology may represent visible biological processes whereas in chemistry models are created to make the invisible' visible. I love the way Elizabeth Moje discusses youth navigation across the disciplines.  How do we conceptualize navigation within a discipline as well?

While some might argue that a disciplinary literacy approach may only reify the disciplines, I would argue that epistemic commitments to the tentative and contested nature of disciplinary knowledge through apprenticed inquiry can empower youth to critically engage with their world.  The use of literacies to develop those habits of thinking, the cultural tools, habits of practice, and ways of knowing are critical. Researching student learning, teacher practice, the design of learning environments, and use of texts are ripe with possibility.  Our young people deserve opportunities to read and write the word and the world as agentive and critical citizens.

Like Jay Bilas would say; we gotta go to work. 

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