How to read (part six). What is the greatest problem in reading philosophy?

“Dutch students display the lowest levels of reading motivation in the world, and feel less involved in reading instruction than students in other OECD countries …”

You might think that the problems in “reading skills” originate from poor habits or social media or whatever. However, I have found that the greatest problem is owing to what I call dogmatic expectations: Many students seem to assume that there is one and no more than one correct interpretation of a text. How do I know? I am often confronted with the expectation of providing that interpretation. I have not been alone in wondering again and again how to deal with this expectation. To address it effectively, I submit, we need to to understand how it arises in the first place. Recently, I have had a conversation with some students about this problem. They suggested a straightforward answer: It is the way reading comprehension is taught, in many Dutch schools at least. In what follows, then, I’ll try to explain how this assumption might be baked into certain teaching practices. Before looking at the issue of “comprehensive reading” (begrijpend lezen) that seems particularly pressing in the Dutch context, I’ll first explain what’s wrong with the assumption as such.

Why is the assumption problematic? – Imagine you’ve read a piece of text, say Hänsel and Gretel and someone asks you: “What is the text about?” A seeminly harmless question. But now imagine someone corrects your first answer by saying “No, it’s not really about the two children but about cruelty.” “Well”, you might retort, “isn’t it rather …?” But at that point you’re interrupted with “No, wrong, the topic of the text is cruelty.” Philosophers have such disagreements all the time. And even slight reformulations of a known issue might actually inspire progress and have enormous impact on the state of discussion. Just take Aristotle’s De anima III.5 and look at the variety of medieval commentaries on this text, not much longer than a page, received. If you prefer a modern example, take Edmund Gettier’s famous paper “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, not longer than two and a half pages, and look at the amount of ways his argument has been reconstructed. So even saying what a text is about or what is most important in it is always contestable. The idea to deny contestability and end such disagreements by with the claim that there is one reading only strikes me as dogmatism – and if no further reasons are given, such dogmatism is outright irrational. Let’s call the denial of contestability dogmatic expectation.  

Encounters with dogmatic expectations. – A dogmatic expectation is the assumption that there is one and only one true reading of a text. It is crucial to see how this cashes out as an expectation in how individual question should be answered. In teaching and learning situations, this expectation trickles down to open questions about a text, such that all individual questions that concern the understanding of a text admit of only one true answer. If you’re not used to it, you might brush this off lightly. But I noticed a number of students saying something like this: “Yes, I know you want to foster discussion, but what is the right answer to this question?” Perhaps, I thought to myself initially, they simply try to see what I think, so they can use my answer in the exam. Although I try not to encourage this kind of behaviour, it is understandable, as some instructors might actually encourage students to parrot their views in exams. However, after a while I noticed that students often weren’t looking for my interpretation or a good formulation of a point, but for the correct reading. Accordingly, the expectation was that there is one correct answer to all sorts of questions: What is the text about? What is the main point? What is the main argument? How can we reconstruct it? What does the concept of X mean today? What does the concept of X presuppose? Etc. – It’s true, such question are often asked and left alone after one satisfactory answer. We move on. But all answers are contestable. And if an answer is claimed to be “authoritative”, reasons ought to be given. So teaching situations might suggest that there is one right answer. But, at least by my lights, what is actually meant in such situations is that that one answer might be satisfactory for the purpose at hand. To make this clear, I often offer alternative readings or answers and say why they might be equally satisfactory. At some point, I noticed that a couple of students found such alternatives “confusing”. Looking at such reactions, I began to wonder whether I was encountering a pragmatic stance (“I just need a sharp formulation for the exam!”) or a dogmatic expectation (“I want to know the correct answer”). Only in-depth conversations could reveal what was actually at stake. But I was shocked when I began to see into the background of some of my students’ reading education.

Dogmatic reading through “compehensive reading”? – When asking students where they thought dogmatic expectations might come from, I received an unfailingly unanimous answer: comprehensive reading (begrijpend lezen). Apart from these conversations,* I looked at some recent papers and rely mostly on “What Textbooks Offer and What Teachers Teach: An Analysis of the Dutch Reading Comprehension Curriculum” ( = WTO). Comprehensive reading is taught early on, as early as in primary school, and often separated from other aspects of reading. Irrespectively of the details of the curriculum, a crucial ingredient of the classes is that children have to answer questions about the text:

“For example, some studies suggest that too much emphasis is put on question answering, at the expense of improving students’ reading process (Bonset & Hoogeveen, 2009 ; Rooijackers et al., 2020 ), and that both teachers and students often seem to consider reading comprehension as ‘answering questions about texts’ …” (WTO)

While such a strategy might help with some aspects of reading, at least when embedded in other forms of teaching, the most problematic feature of such exercises is that the questions are taken as admitting of one correct answer only. One teacher is quoted as saying to a child:

“Even if you have to read the text and the question ten times, you just have to do it. You read the text over and over again, until you know the right answer.” (WTO)

Now you might argue that such impatience might not reflect the possibly open nature of the pertinent questions. So even if some teachers discourage answers deviating from the textbook standard, others might still foster more open approaches to the texts. However, the children’s reading comprehension is ultimately tested through questions in multiple-choice exams admitting of one correct answer only. Worse still, many of the observed teachers did either not see the undesired effects of this method or, even if they did, they often could do nothing to prevent them:

Unfortunately, the observed teachers seemed to copy the lack of alignment in their classrooms: they often did not explicate the learning goals—even though their textbooks provided these—and strongly focused on text content and right answers. This makes it questionable if students actually internalize the intended reading strategies. Although some of the interviewed teachers criticize the text-question–answer model, it still dominates reading comprehension lessons. This problem might be amplified by a negative backwash effect of the testing culture in the Netherlands where much value is attached to standardized reading tests (Bartels et al., 2002). Instead of such tests being designed at the service of learning and teaching, teaching has become at the service of testing (Hamp-Lyons, 1997), thereby undermining the instructional time devoted to higher-order thinking skills (Cheng & Curtis, 2004).” (WTO)

Given this emphasis on correct answers, teaching and learning are often a mere means to prepare for exams that reflect this dogmatic spirit. While students might (later) learn to question such strategies, they will also learn to suppress their second thoughts, unless they find an environment that encourages doubts and cultivates ways of thinking about alternatives. If philosophy faculties aim at providing such an environment, we should counter such dogmatism most explicitly and start a conversation involving primary and secondary education, too.

Here is part seven of this series.

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* I’m particularly grateful to Antonnie Aué and Bente Oost for a helpful conversation on reading education in the Netherlands. They also directed me to Sunday with Lubach comprising a succinct portrayal of reading comprehension as it was taught in recent years (with English subtitles).

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