Jeanne Chall's Last Book

The Academic Achievement Challenge is 185 pages long. Written in a clear, even-tempered style, it can be read in one or two sittings. It deserves to become as important to teachers as the best-selling anxiety-soother by Harry K. Wong, The First Days of School. Chall's book is even more valuable to teachers, because it tells us what to do on the days that follow.

Chall's book puts to rest—or should—some age-old debates. Is direct teaching more effective on balance than indirect teaching? Is small-group instruction better on balance than whole-class instruction? Is there a difference between what works for disadvantaged and for advantaged children? Among historians, who is right, those who say that "progressive" child-centered education has taken over our elementary schools or those who deny that it ever really displaced "traditional" teacher-centered education? And no matter which school of historical thought has that answer right, which modes of teaching are in fact best for reaching all children?

In answering each of these questions, Jeanne Chall preserves what one of my student-teachers calls a "cool head." She does not assume that the researchers on either side of these heated controversies are fools or knaves. But she does recognize the role that ideology has played and continues to play in these debates, and she quotes a telling passage from John Dewey's teacher, the child-centered advocate, G. Stanley Hall: "The guardians of the young should strive first of all to keep out of nature's way.... They should feel profoundly that childhood as it comes fresh from the hands of God, is not corrupt, but illustrates the survival of the most consummate thing in the world" (1901). This idea of education as promoting natural growth, never pressing the children before they are "ready," took various forms through the century, ending in the stage theory of Piaget. The teacher is a hands-off gardener who does not get in nature's way. The rival tradition sees teachers as more hands-on gardeners, like those in Shakespeare's Richard II who "give supportance to the bending twigs," and "root away/The noisome weeds which without profit suck/The soil's fertility from wholesome flowers." It's an old debate, which Chall labels "student-centered" versus "teacher-centered" education, and the weight of evidence, Chall shows, favors the more active, Shakespearian sort of gardener—if our aim is to educate all children.

That democratic aim lies at the heart of Chall's review of research into methods of teaching. During her lifetime of scholarship, she produced a number of books and reports focused on the problem of reaching all children, including those from educationally deprived backgrounds. One of the hidden passions behind all of her dispassionate scholarship, including her great book of 1967, Learning to Read: The Great Debate, is her earnest concern that while the more romantic traditions of student-centered teaching, such as the "whole word" or "whole language" approach, can succeed with many middle-class students, they do not succeed with those who need instruction the most.

The reason for this disparity is fundamental. Middle-class students often have support systems outside of school that enable them to progress even when instructional time is not used effectively in school. Disadvantaged students, by contrast, need direct and effective teacher-centered methods, because they lack that outside support system, and cannot afford the time-inefficiencies of "discovery" modes of teaching. Discovery methods do work with some students, Chall concedes, even if not efficiently. But she cites overwhelming research that shows that implicit, student-centered methods do not reach all students. With some poignancy, she reports that this fact has been known, and widely ignored, for over a hundred years.

In making a distinction between student-centered and teacher-centered education, and in showing that an ocean of research favors teacher-centered methods, Chall might seem to polarize the issue. But that would be to read this powerful little book with insufficient care. Research does support some advantages in discovery, student-centered methods of teaching, when they are used judiciously, and when all children in a class have been primed to make the desired discovery. In general, explicit teacher-centered instruction needs to precede implicit discovery instruction. The teacher who asks students to discover "Which time of year is hotter at the equator, fall or summer?" is well advised not to raise that interesting question out of nowhere, without having directly provided to all the children enough relevant knowledge to think productively about the question.

That is just common sense, and common sense has been Chall's hallmark. But common sense and punctilious scholarship did not always shield Jeanne Chall against ideological fervor. It did not prevent her from being vilified as a "phonicator" during the long-lasting reading wars, which have only recently concluded with a vindication of her careful scholarship in The Great Debate. Chall lived to see that vindication, but died just before this new book was published. I hope that other teachers will respond to it as my student-teachers did. One of them said that the story of the research into student-centered teaching at the Gary, Ind., public schools in the early 1900s "blew her away." I asked her why. "Well it seems like we still keep doing and saying the same things even after we find out they don't work."

My student had understood. Chall would have been pleased.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr., is University Professor of Education and Humanities at the University of Virginia, author of The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Related Articles

A Tribute to Jeanne Chall

Jeanne Chall's Last Book
By E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

American Educator, Spring 2001