Dr. Judith M. Newman




(Foreword to: The Future of Whole Language by Susan Church, Heinemann, 1996)

Judith M. Newman, Ph.D.

In my graduate education class the other evening the teachers and I found ourselves confronting the term postmodernism. One of the teachers, Alf, has been delving into postmodern thought and was arguing that the ideas and analyses of the critical theorists (Simon, 1987; Smyth, 1992) we were reading were modernist; that is, based on a technical rationality which postmodern theorists reject. So he was dismissing, out of hand, critical theory ideas.

As Alf advanced his argument the faces around the table went blank; the conversation was suddenly dead. After a few moments of silence Evelyn took a deep breath and admitted her ignorance. "What do you mean by 'postmodern'? she wanted to know. "What exemplifies postmodern?"

I waited for Alf to offer some succinct explanation; he was unable to provide one. He waffled by saying that the ideas are so complex they can't easily be paraphrased. I didn't leap into the breach; instead, I proposed everyone try finding something on postmodernism to bring to our next class.

My own reading in postmodernist theory has left me exasperated-I think I understand the gist of the arguments but I'm not sure. The writing is so dense, so academic, so obscure, that I keep asking myself "So what?" Not being an architect, a literary, film, or art scholar, I have neither the patience nor the interest to wade through the weighty writing, the opaque debate, of those who call themselves postmodernists. I figure if there's real substance to these arguments someone ought to have written something I can understand easily. I haven't come across much.

A bit later in the evening, while the teachers were discussing a couple of readings in small groups, I decided to slip away and surf the World Wide Web to see what I could locate. I called up a search program, typed in 'postmodern' and requested a listing of fifty items. The search turned up two hundred and forty-three!

I discovered an electronic journal Postmodern Culture now publishing its sixth volume. I checked the latest index. There were items on cyberspace as well as Derrida and Foucault. I could select articles on social marginality, on feminism, on discourse and distortion.

I also found listings for personal home pages. I located some conversations on a variety of topics. I sampled my way through the mass of material. Fortunately, I happened upon an article that I could make sense of relatively easily so I downloaded it, then printed it out.

A postmodernist perspective, according to Brent Wilson (1994) ) is based on four key features:

  • a commitment to plurality of perspectives, meanings, methods
  • a search for an appreciation of multiple meanings and alternative interpretations
  • a critique or distrust of Big Stories meant to explain everything-including grand theories of science and myths of religion, nations, cultures, and professions that attempt to explain why things are the way they are
  • a recognition that there must be multiple 'truths.

"Postmodernists," says Wilson, "tend to reject the idealized view of truth inherited from the ancients and replace it with a dynamic, changing truth bounded by time, space, and perspective." Postmodernism, he contends, emphasizes contextual construction of meaning and the validity of multiple perspectives. It argues that all human activities are value-laden and that science, that technical rationality (Schön, 1983), is as biased, as subjective, as any other human activity.

What, you're probably wondering, does any of this have to do with language learning, with whole language, or Susan Church's book? Why begin by telling you about my foray into postmodernism? Because the class conversation made me think about the arguments of the critical theorists in light of postmodern theory. Are the shortcomings Alf was contending really inherent in the political analyses of the critical theorists? If so, how would that affect Susan Church's arguments in (insert current book title)?

But I'm really getting ahead of myself. In order for you to understand why I'm concerned about what could be considered esoteric hair-splitting I should provide some background. As you'll discover when you continue reading (insert current book title), Susan Church and I have been colleagues and friends for more than fifteen years. Recently I went back through my course grade file (it contains grade sheets dating back to 1976; that's when I taught my first university course). I located Susan's name on a graduate course list from the Fall of 1980. It wasn't our first contact. As she mentions, we first met during an institute the preceding summer. Neither of us knew at the time, though, that the graduate course would lead to a fruitful and long-lasting collaboration and friendship.

The important thing about our collaboration is that from the outset it was never one-sided. I may have been 'the teacher;' I recall, however, even in that first course, Susan asking questions that pushed me to consider my assumptions and values about literacy learning and about teaching. From the very beginning I learned as much, if not more, from her than she learned from me. Later that year, Susan joined the teacher study group I had convened a year earlier. Her contributions as a resource teacher made the rest of us realize there were many more questions we needed to be asking ourselves as we struggled to develop a classroom practice that utilized what the then new research was telling us about children's spoken and written language development.

In those days, what has come to be called constructivist theories of learning (Mayher, 1990) were just being fleshed out. My own academic journey had begun with graduate work at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in the early 1970s. Later I would recognize that my journey had actually begun much earlier-as a child, in fact, who resisted in a variety of subtle ways, the constraints of school. Today, I would identify the episode in grade four, when Miss Wright turned me over her knee and spanked me in front of the class for having cut out the Hallowe'en lantern incorrectly, as the start of my challenging the structures and authority of school. But it was more than thirty years before I was able to name my resistance.

In that 1980 graduate class the teachers and I were exploring what were then new ideas about children's literacy development. Kenneth Goodman's miscue research (Goodman, 1973) had recently shown how readers of all ages used a combination of pragmatic, semantic, syntactic, as well as graphophonic cues to make sense of print. Frank Smith's ground-breaking comprehensive synopsis of reading research-Understanding Reading (Smith, 1971)-made a strong case for reading being only incidentally visual (Kolers, 1969). These psycholinguists were making it very clear that reading was considerably more complex than merely transcribing print to sound. Meaning, we now understood, was at the heart of any literacy activity-readers needed to bring more to the page than they received from the print.

A component of our class work involved working with at-risk children. Each teacher worked with one or more students in a "clinic" setting. We were exploring how to implement literacy instruction that was more comprehensive than the phonics-based, workbook-controlled reading programs prevalent at that time. We were attempting to find ways of building on students' strengths.

Up till that point, remedial reading instruction had been operating from a medical model-find the 'disease' and offer a 'cure.' A psycholinguistic analysis offered an alternative: examine children's strategies, support those that are functional, provide experiences which permit children to experiment with new strategies. Instead of 'fixing kids,' we were trying to learn ways of following their lead.

The teachers and I were working to build instructional contexts, which we would subsequently call whole language, that focused on meaning and helping students become strategic about reading. We also believed writing to be an essential part of literacy instruction; we were experimenting with a variety of writing activities as part of our reading instruction.

Our particular interest, then, was in developing literacy instruction which would allow, students at-risk, students from low income backgrounds, students with learning difficulties, to discover how to make sense of written language. While we were interested in literacy instruction generally, we were particularly concerned about helping children who were already, or were in danger of becoming, non-readers.

It's true our efforts to change our instructional practices led to resistance from other teachers and administrators. By challenging the prevailing views about literacy instruction the teachers and I were placing ourselves outside of the mainstream. The teachers certainly experienced alienation, but we were so intent on discovering ways of inviting students into literacy that we didn't really consider the political ramifications of our work. We simply carried on. In hindsight I admit that was a serious shortcoming of our work; but at the time none of us had much political savvy-although we had a tacit understanding of the political dimension of what we were doing, we didn't recognize the importance of articulating our political agenda and making it explicit.

Over the next several years, Susan and I, as members of a growing collective of Nova Scotia teachers, worked to develop and implement literacy instruction based on a different but solid theoretical framework. Some of the underlying assumptions included:

  • knowledge is dynamic
  • learning is social and a natural consequence of performance
  • learning/teaching is a negotiated construction of meaning
  • problem solving is an inherent aspect of literacy development
  • writing and reading are inextricably linked.

We wrote about our work (Newman, 1985; 1987); we gave workshops, we taught courses. The circle of teachers grew. Susan played a key role in the development of a new provincial language arts guidelines document (Language Arts in the Elementary School, 1986). She and I worked closely with Patricia Barnes, the language arts consultant at the time, to develop teacher networks and plan the next province-wide curriculum implementation steps.

However, something unexpected happened. With the adoption of the new provincial guidelines came an expectation and a need for teacher inservice. Up to that point, teachers had been exploring literacy largely voluntarily. Now literacy inservices were being mandated. As Susan describes in several places in (insert current book title), those of us involved in inservice efforts were being placed in a position which violated one of our fundamental beliefs: learning/ teaching is a negotiated construction of meaning.

Many inservice sessions consisted largely in the transmission of information-there was neither the time nor the funds to do much more. While we attempted to engage groups of teachers in reading and writing experiences, there was no way for people to assimilate the complex ideas and arguments underpinning a whole language theoretical framework. Our best efforts were reduced by the teachers to "nifty tips."

In fact, these inservices likely did more harm than good because they polarized teachers-there were those who attempted to buy into the new instruction and those who felt they were being blamed for students' literacy deficiencies. So a good deal of resentment was generated. Nevertheless, many teachers did go along with the various inservice efforts, they complied, they incorporated some of the recommended instruction activities into their teaching. But there were few supports to permit them to integrate the theoretical framework, to make it their own. Consequently, classroom literacy instruction changed relatively little. Oh, there were superficial changes, children were given trade books, or basal readers that were more like trade books, to read. They were provided opportunities to write much more freely. However, the complex orchestration of cueing systems and strategies required for proficient reading and writing were never fully understood or appreciated by the majority of teachers who came to call themselves whole language teachers.

As someone who has grown with and through whole language, Susan describes her building sense of frustration as the whole language movement began developing. She tells how she watched as whole language grew "from a loosely-coupled network of small groups of teachers and teacher-educators scattered across North America to a full-scale, sometimes disturbingly messianic, worldwide movement." She points out how as "more and more individual teachers, and sometimes whole districts, embraced whole language it became increasingly ill-defined and diverse."

As Susan points out, the problem with this spreading of whole language ideas was that a host of orthodoxies was spawned leaving teachers with a very limited understanding of the complex issues integral to this theoretical framework. Even more serious, was the fact that with the spread of the movement, the social issues were lost. When textbook publishers entered the arena the movement became more and more focused on white, middle-class mainstream students. The materials offered to students and teachers became homogenized, and concern for students in trouble dissipated. A spirit of inquiry turned into instructional certainty; "it depends" became "you should." Instead of instruction being contextually bound, prescriptions (this time whole language prescriptions) became the norm.

As well, the spread of whole language occurred, at least in Canada, at the same time as the economy was beginning to be forced to downsize and the country took on more and more conservative political values. A literacy perspective which argued for inclusive education, for providing engaging opportunities for all students, for learning as a collaborative endeavour, flew in the face of the political shift to the right. The championing of alternative forms of assessment, of creating inviting learning environments for special needs, ethnically diverse, economically disadvantaged students, of teacher as well as student empowerment, was perceived by business, by government, by parents to be too radical. Whole language became an easy target for anyone wanting tighter control of schools.

The attacks began with pronouncements of a decline in standards-in literacy standards. As Maude Barlow and Heather-Jane Robertson (1994) point out, the media (with the help of both government and business) asserted so forcefully and often that "25% of Canadian's are illiterate" that the public, including many teachers, could hardly help but believe something must be seriously wrong with literacy education in Canada. Much of the fuss had to do with spelling and the apparent absence of explicit phonics instruction in the curriculum.

The financial and other resource cutbacks began taking their toll. Class sizes began increasing. Money for diverse instructional materials began disappearing. The Council of Ministers of Education of Canada (CMEC) took control of the literacy instruction agenda by commissioning a national testing program for 13 and 16 year-olds, the School Achievement Indicators Project (SAIP), literacy being one of the initial testing focuses. Following on the heels of the testing has come quasi-national curricula. Currently, separate consortia of both the western provinces and the Atlantic provinces have developed learning outcomes and standards documents for several curricular areas, language arts being prominent among them. The purpose of these documents is to limit collaborative teacher curriculum decision-making, to force a uniformity of instruction across the country.

While the content of these new curriculum policy papers is current and up to date, the tone is clearly one of regulation, of control-these are the desired outcomes, here's how we're going to make certain you're teaching to achieve them. There's no recognition of the enormous diversity within the student population, that increasing numbers of students have severe problems both in school and in their lives, that in the new large amalgamated school divisions supports for classroom teachers have largely been eroded, that student growth is contextually bound. These new policy documents would have us believe that schooling and curriculum preparation are apolitical.

In (insert current book title) Susan Church details her personal experiences as a whole language teacher and administrator. She shares with us her beginnings as an educator and takes us through her growing understanding of the need for a political analysis of schooling. She recounts critical incidents which helped her understand the tensions of teaching and the political realities of schools. She shows how she came to realize that silence, that compliance, has political consequences and how that understanding has affected her work with teachers.

Through critical incidents, both personal and of other teachers/educators, Susan makes clear that the world of school, of classrooms, is a political arena. In today's climate of shrinking resources, the competition among social groups for their share of those limited resources is becoming fierce. Yet, she makes a strong case for reinventing whole language-for not abandoning the fundamental values of this theoretical perspective. She argues that whole language, in a more politically aware form, could continue to provide a vehicle for helping disadvantaged students to position themselves competitively.

As the reform agenda moves forward with the force of a runaway train, many of us have a strong sense that there is a pre-ordained agenda which will unfold in spite of our efforts to redirect it. There are many days I'm convinced nobody is listening. Susan ends, however, by encouraging us not to despair. She points out that she is encouraged personally by the increasing politicization of teachers, by the growing number of people writing explicitly and critically about the conservative political agenda and challenging the myths perpetrated by government, business and the media, by the alliances beginning to be built between teachers and teacher educators, and by teachers who have taken on an explicit political agenda in their teaching, who understand the need for inclusive education and know something about how to achieve it in their classroom.

Susan's plea for remaining hopeful brings me back to my beginning and my questions about critical theory (Shannon, 1992). The latest theoretical direction seems to be a postmodernist perspective. Yet, reading Brent Wilson's key features of postmodern thought I say to myself "those feel familiar." I perceive a convergence with constructivist theorists (Polanyi, 1962; Neisser, 1967; Vygotsky, 1962) when I read "a commitment to plurality of perspectives, meaning, methods." I sense a resonance with the reader response arguments of Louise Rosenblatt (1938, rev. 1968) and Stanley Fish (1980) when I read about "a search for an appreciation of multiple meanings and alternative interpretations." Postmodernism contends that knowledge cannot exist independent of a knower, but in 1980 we already believed that meaning is constructed in communities.

A whole language perspective has always argued for and valued alternate perceptions of the world. My response to any instructional question has always been "It depends." That's because each learning situation is unique and what I might do to assist a student or group of students is affected by what strategies they have at their disposal, their instructional history, the cultural context, and so on. Whole language has been built on the search for an appreciation of multiple meanings and alternative interpretations. It has always contended that instructional decisions are complex and context dependent; there are no simple, quick, standard fixes.

But not everyone buys into a formulation of knowledge as both an individual and a social construction. Not everyone accepts that there may be multiple and conflicting truths. It's not surprising, therefore, that we find a strong political dimension to current literacy debates. Differing world views are in competition; hence we have questions about whose views ought to carry more weight, whose have more power, who benefits from a particular perspective, who becomes disenfranchised?

The critical theorists whom Susan refers to, writers such as Edelsky (1991), Gee (1987), Giroux and McLaren (1986), and Shannon (1992), have contributed to my understanding of the issues facing teachers and teacher educators by helping me name the tensions and constraints we're facing in education today. Those of us who helped shape the whole language movement aren't swayed by the rhetoric of the conservative right-we still firmly believe it is not only possible but necessary for students who score below the mean on the new national standardized tests to be helped to become literate, indeed to learn that they are not illiterate, and that literacy itself is an arbitrary construction.

What Susan Church articulates so clearly is the impact on teachers of our current political world, the personal choice we all must make-whether to succumb to the conservative political agenda or to continue battling on behalf of children and students.

Susan lets us know what her choice is. She invites us to "determine if we will be among the significant people who 'think and do the best things' in these difficult and challenging times."

Barlow, Maude and Heather-Jane Robertson 1994 Class Warfare: The Assault on Canada's Schools. Toronto: Kay Porter Books.

Edelsky, Carole 1991 With Literacy and Justice for All. New York: Falmer.

Fish, Stanley 1980 Is There a Text in this Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gee, James Paul 1987 What is Literacy? The Journal of Natural Inquiry, 2(1): 3-11.

Giroux, Henry and Peter McLaren 1986 Teacher Education and the Politics of Engagement: The Case for Democratic Schooling. Harvard Educational Review, 56(3): 213-238.

Goodman, Kenneth 1973 Theoretically based studies of patterns of miscues in oral reading performance. Report to the U.S. Office of Education. Project No. 9-0375. Detroit: Wayne State University.

Kolers, Paul 1969 Reading is only incidentally visual. In: Kenneth Goodman and James Flemming (Eds) Psycholinguistics And The Teaching Of Reading. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

Language Arts in the Elementary School (Curriculum Development Teaching Guide No. 86) 1986 Halifax, NS: Nova Scotia Department of Education.

Mayher, John 1990 Uncommon Sense: Theoretical Practice in Language Education. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Newman, Judith (Ed) 1985 Whole Language: Theory in Use. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Neisser, Uhlrich 1967 Cognitive Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Newman, Judith (Ed) 1987 Finding Our Own Way: Teachers Exploring Their Assumptions. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Polanyi, Michael 1962 Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Postmodern Culture pmc@jefferson.village.virginia.edu

Rosenblatt, Louise 1938, rev. 1968 Literature as Exploration. New York: Appleton Century.

Schön, Donald 1983 The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Shannon, Patrick 1992 Becoming Political: Readings and Writings in the Politics of Literacy Education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Simon, Roger 1987 Empowerment as a Pedagogy of Possibility. Language Arts, 64 (4): 370-382.

Smith, Frank 1971 Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Smyth, John 1992 Teachers' Work and the Politics of Reflection. American Educational Research Journal, 29 (2): 267-300.

Wilson, Brent 1994 "The Postmodern Paradigm." Gopher://ccnucd.cundenver.edu/ 00/ECD/dept/edu/IT/wilson/postmodern.txt

Vygotsky, Lev 1962 thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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