v31#4 Little Red Herrings — Missing Piece of the Puzzle?

by | Oct 4, 2019 | 0 comments

by Mark Y. Herring  (Dean of Library Services, Dacus Library, Winthrop University) 

Ever since Sven BirkertsThe Gutenberg Elegies, more than one writer has sought to unravel the mystery of the decline in reading skills.  Clearly, online access has not helped. It has made us less attentive, more snatch-and-grab in our pursuit of answers, less willing to read closely, and more.  But we cannot place all the blame on the decline in reading solely on the advent of the Web. NAEP reading scores have been falling or flat for decades, and that decline began before online reading was a “thing” or a “meme.”  Granted, none of these things have helped. We also cannot discount the glaring fact that there were more than a million births to women 24 and younger, and of that group, seventy-one percent were to unmarried women.  Almost 50% of them already had a child.

That reading skills have declined cannot be denied.  From anecdotal evidence to NAEP scores, we find students everywhere unable to sit still long enough to read much of anything longer than a paragraph.  My most dismaying experience with this occurred about a decade ago with an honors class of students. In a class of 25, only two of them read the class assignments.  While everyone wanted to participate, the majority did not want to do the work to gain a ticket to participation.

All of these things — the Web, the scores of children from homes that do not value reading, and the process of reading itself — militate against effective reading, writing and math scores, of course, but perhaps there is yet one other piece to the puzzle of poor reading skills:  enter Jigsaw Reading.

Jigsaw Reading, or rather the Jigsaw Method or technique, is a classroom activity that makes students dependent on others to succeed.  Already you can see where this is going. We are so wedded to our modern biases that we cannot fathom that group learning can possibly be inferior to independent learning.  Surely coming together as a group and dividing up the labor is far superior to that elitist method of each person doing his or her own work. That may or may not be the case, but the growing popularity of this approach is beginning to have weak dividends.

The Jigsaw Method comes to us from the mind of Elliot Arsonson, developed by him and his University of Texas students in or around 1971.  Aronson is a masterful researcher.  He graduated from Brandeis (BA), Wesleyan (MA) and Stanford (PhD, Psychology).  He has won all three of the APA’s highest awards in writing, teaching and research.  I mention all this because I do not think the method itself may be inherently flawed but the execution of so many using a method they do not fully understand may be contributing to results.  Those results range from fine to lackluster. In any event, my complaint is more about the unintended consequences, not the method itself.

With respect to reading, the Jigsaw Method often manifests itself in the form of groups of students who parcel out the work.  So, for a 15-page reading assignment, each student in a group of five may have three pages to read. On the face of it, this appears to make sense.  After all, isn’t this similar to what soon-to-be hotshot attorneys do when trying to master a course like Contracts that often requires hundreds of pages of reading between classes?

Ah, there’s the rub.  In a class of budding attorneys, one is likely to find most if not all of them at or above the 95th percentile.  The idea of cooperative learning here is not necessarily an inherently bad one. Granted, group-learning when I was going through school failed miserably on every attempt.  Too many in the group did not do their portion of it, and all too often the lion’s share of the work fell to one or two of the more motivated students. This version of it strikes me as more politically motivated than strategic, but that may just be me.  I always bristle when approaches rely too much on Kumbaya and not enough on substance. The Jigsaw Method focuses on mixing together students of varying abilities, making certain, it would seem, that some are going to be less motivated to do the work. As teachers in my state have pointed out, Jigsaw Reading means that no one student reads the entire work.  Each student is responsible for his or her assignment and reports back to the group. But grouping students of varying abilities means that some of those reports will be weak, and some may be worse than weak, even addlepated.

Jigsaw Reading appears on the face of it to encourage not careful reading, but short snatches of reading, while also encouraging “just enough” to get by.  In our modern age, it is apparently too facile to point out that what makes reading stronger is, well, reading more and more, and more and more difficult texts.  Reading is like a muscle that develops with practice. The more you do the better you become at it. Reading short parts of an article would, it appears, only encourage you to avoid longer and more complicated texts.

This is certainly what I have encountered and what teachers in the area tell me as well.  Obviously, teaching reading in the early grades is also to blame. Some elementary teachers apply too many experimental reading techniques rather than known successful methods, thereby doing more harm than good.  But as students get older, teaching them to read less and less does not strike me as something that will improve the skill. If you exercise your left arm with increasing lighter weights and fewer repetitions, it is likely that muscle will not improve.  My honors students often found that 25 pages assigned on Monday for Wednesday was simply far too much to ask. I may as well have asked for 250.

But why should we in librarianship care?  Libraries are just about reading, right? Yes and no.  Libraries are about a lot of things these days, but they are foremost about reading.  If we lose more and more of our clientele to poor reading skills, we are surely to find a rising generation that simply doesn’t “get” what all the books are about.

Jigsaw Reading isn’t the cherchez la femme of poor reading skills, but it does strike me as one more nail in the coffin of libraries.  Reading used to be fundamental. If it ceases to be so, we may find libraries as anything but extraneous.  

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