Catherine Gewertz in her excellent Ed Week blog recently reported on a meeting at the Aspen Institute where school leaders from around the country got the word about how the new English standards in the Common Core place a heavy emphasis on having students do a ‘close reading’ of the text without too much teacher interference:

In contrast to common practice, in which teachers explain reading passages and supply background information before students read, “close reading” confines initial study to the text itself. Students make sense of it by probing its words and structure for information and evidence. Through questions and class exercises, teachers guide students back through the reading in a hunt for answers and deeper understanding.

Gathered for a leadership-network meeting facilitated by the Aspen Institute, the chief academic officers of the 14 participating districts expressed praise for the approach, but deep concerns as well, about providing the type of professional development necessary to deliver it well in their districts. To preserve the frank, problem-sharing nature of the meeting, the Aspen Institute asked that Education Week not quote district leaders by name.

“I’m really worried that we haven’t prepared our teachers for this,” one chief academic officer said. “The academic and cognitive demand [on teachers] is quite high.”

Moving teachers toward this way of working will require “some significant professional development” as they learn to refrain from providing quick answers, figure out instead how to formulate new kinds of questions that take them and their students back to the text repeatedly in their search for understanding.

None of the chief academic officers at the Aspen meeting criticized “close reading” as a goal, and most lauded it. But they saw a rocky road ahead in reaching it… How would teachers respond to a “sea change” that reframes their role from provider of information to facilitator of a group inquiry? And where would they get deep, focused lessons and units for such instruction?

“The percentage of my teachers who weren’t ever taught some of the skills you’re talking about here, like the ‘pivot point’ in a paragraph,” said one official, her voice trailing off in a sigh. “The teachers themselves don’t know many of those concepts.”

For some of us, we can only say – huh? This is really not new. One need only hop over to Annapolis or Santa Fe and sit in on classes at St. John’s College, the Great Books college (I am an alumnus). This is the way St. John’s has been doing it for 80 years – close reading of the Great Books, from Plato to Freud; no in-class lecturing, just students trying to figure out the meaning of the text with very deft probing by teachers (called tutors at St. John’s, not ‘profess-ors’).

This approach long-ago spawned the Junior Great Books program (and Touchstones, developed by 2 St. John’s tutors) used widely. So-called Socratic Seminar emerged out of this, trumpeted first by Mortimer Adler in the Paideia Proposal 30 years ago (which led to a large network of schools). Many teachers – me in the day, my wife, and my daughter! – have taught this way. It also has a long history in prep schools, especially Exeter where it started as the so-called Harkness method, named thusly because a Mr Harkness gave beautiful tables to Exeter 100 years ago for students and teacher to sit around and discuss.

We used the Paidiea structure in the Coalition of Essential Schools to help people understand the Coalition mantra Student as Worker, Teacher as Coach. I routinely trained people in such teaching 25 years ago, and at many of our workshops we do a mock seminar with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. UbD was an outgrowth of much of that CES work. And in UbD we explicitly distinguish between Meaning-making and Acquisition (as well as Transfer) as goals to highlight the difference between ‘teaching’ knowledge and skill and ‘facilitating’ meaning-making by students of texts, data, experiences.

So, this is hardly new stuff. What I think is really underscored by the article is that far too many folks in this field are unaware of ‘best practice’ – whether it be Socratic Seminar, Problem-Based Learning, Reciprocal teaching, UbD, or dozens of other important approaches linked to sophisticated and vital goals.

The scandal here is that many Assistant Supts. subject-area supervisors, and English Dept. Heads are ill-informed; they often don’t know this stuff first-hand or even that there are teachers right now teaching this way in their system – as outliers rather than models. So, leaders too often end up just supervising a safe adoption of textbooks or readings instead of forcing investigation and adoption of a best-practice-based local curriculum. Here, then, is a practical tip. In every curriculum, be it written or online in maps; or in individual units: there should be a column for validating, via footnotes, all instructional choices against best practice, in light of the kind of goal identified, to ensure that pedagogy matches desired outcomes. (In UbD the 3 distinct goals of transfer/meaning/acquisition have to be identified by every teacher-designer, and the essence of the design process is to force alignment of goals/assessments/instruction.)

I want to make clear, however, that my belief in this kind of pedagogy in no way sanctions an unthinking and excessive use of it in schools. There is a kind of naiveté permeating the Common Core support materials so far. (I have found David Coleman’s otherwise interesting videos on this approach very thin gruel in terms of how to actually be such a facilitator, not to mention move the change forward. He doesn’t even really model being such a facilitator; he just kind of talks you through a close read.)

We know from first-hand experience in doing model classes that when you have 7 different grade levels of reading ability in a class and a great deal of pent-up student boredom and intellectual laziness that this vital approach won’t work quickly; you can’t just plunk Socratic Seminar into conventional classrooms without hardship (hence, firm leadership). On the other hand, when my colleague Denise did a mock Seminar with 9th graders in a poor Louisiansa HS, the immediate reaction of kids was – this was way more interesting than typical class. And the Principal blurted out something that was unfortunate but revealing – wow! I had no ideas our kids could think like this!

That’s the point of academic leadership and professional development: we know it is the right thing to do, so let’s plan backward from it as a result, starting now, working to make the most seamless and happy transition possible.

PS: We stand ready, based on decades of direct use and training of teachers, to provide professional development assistance in this kind of pedagogy.