Teachers and the scientific method

As I read posts on various listservs for language teachers, what I encounter seems to be a sort of faith-based approach to evidence. There is more effort put into taking stands than in examining the stands. There is more focus on maintaining standards than on understanding the basis for the standards. No rationale is given for a practice other than tradition in the academic life of the writer.

Often accompanying these flag-plantings are warnings against deviations, against heterodoxy, as if the classroom is no place for experimentation. It reminds me of the generals who felt that wartime was no time to switch tactics: massed charges continued to be used in the face of a new weapon, the machine gun. Can we compare the loss of troops in such encounters with the drop-outs from our educational system? Well, we ought to at least look at what we are doing in our classrooms through a prism of scientific method.

All this was brought to mind when I read the following passage in Lisa Green’s “African-American English”:

“Although sentences with the verbal marker ’be’ adhere to rules of AAE [African-American English], they are not acceptable as school or professional language. This is one of the reasons why it is important to get themeaning, use and syntactic environment of the verbal marker right. For instance, if a teacher is concerned with providing accurate mainstream English correspondences for sentences in which AAE speakers use ’be’, then it is useful to know the correct properties of the verbal marker. Specific rules govern the sysematic occurrence of words and phrases in AAE as they do in other languages and dialects. (p. 35)

How much grief would have been avoided had teachers and the public at large, esp the press, understood this basic concept. Instead, we got insane denunciations of the speech of millions of Americans. Bill Cosby started it all up again a couple of years ago with his mocking of the speech of some African-Americans he encountered. Because it was embedded in a larger exhortation to examine the pathologies in Black life, most people, I would guess, enfolded the language issue into the other supposed pathologies. (I don’t deny the pathologies or even question Cosby’s take on the topic, just his characterization of certain Black speech patterns).

This is unfortunate because a good deal of the difficulties many African-American children experience in their early years of education revolve around the mismatch between their speech and that of the readers they are given to read and that of their teachers. I recently read someone who was holding up to ridicule the notion that Black children have some problems in math because of the way they use prepositions. Shortly thereafter, a speaker of Af-Am English and myself had a moment of confusion over just such a matter.

And my overall impression of how this issue is addressed is that most of the discussion falls into the realm of ridicule. There is little appreciation of the science involved in understanding the role of speech in learning. In my school, the issue is the large number of Hispanic children whose home language is Spanish; in some cases, the children do not speak English. The resistance on the part of teachers to learning about language and its role in education was ludicrous.

Here is where the science comes in: teachers are educated and are educators. It is their job to examine their work in light of science, not their own personal prejudices. The fact that their fifth grade teacher stressed the importance of ’talking proper’ is immaterial. If I hear one more story about how some teacher taught a person the value of Good English, I am going to throw up. Why? Because the “good English” so often turns out not to be expressive English but rather a tiny number of shibboleths and a focus on getting the past tense forms of verbs into the SE paradigm.

A scientific approach would look at our goal: The Student Will Be Able To Use Standard English. Now, how do we go about that? First, we must know what SE is. Next, we must see if there is a discrepancy between what

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