Education, learning, Literacy, reading

When We Want to Believe So Badly…

Many of you have likely seen, read, and/or shared this recent attention-grabbing headline from Time magazine that has dominated our social media feeds over the last 48 hours: “Boys Who Sit Still Have a Harder Time Learning to Read.” If you haven’t, you may want to take a few minutes to peruse it before you read on. (I’ll wait.)

*sips coffee*

Here’s the problem with “articles” such as these (this widely-shared piece from a Huffington Post blog is another example). We want to believe the headlines so badly that we recklessly spread their truthiness like a bad stomach virus to our friends, families, and colleagues. We carelessly toss their seeds around like a feckless Miss Rumphius.

In this particular case, who among us doesn’t want to believe that our schools’ collective dearth of physical activity for students might contribute to a lack of academic growth? We can all point to schools that have reduced (or in many cases, altogether eliminated) time for unstructured, outdoor play, to negative effect. Many others can offer first-hand accounts of how classrooms that once provided time for students to explore, play, and make informed choices about their time in the classroom have abandoned this in favor of longer literacy or math blocks**–again, leading to terrible outcomes. But in an age when truth and “facts” are being fundamentally ignored in favor of emotion and personal beliefs, we–especially those of us who are educators–must be hyper-aware of truthiness and its ugly cousins, baloney, hogwash, and straight-up bullshit.

Allow me to elaborate.

In the Time article, author Belinda Luscombe appeals to our anecdotal sense of familiarity by opening her piece with, “Anybody who has watched little boys for even five seconds knows that they are exhausting.” (RED FLAG #1: using the phrase “anybody who…” should immediately activate your Wary Anntenae™. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in the presence of a boy who is not “exhausting.” See how she’s trying to make you feel like an “other” right away for not agreeing 100% with this premise?) She then evokes a Finnish study (RED FLAG #2) in a move that is designed to bestow her with Instant Educational Credibility™, much like quoting John Dewey might. (SIDE NOTE: She incorrectly calls the journal that published this study the Journal of Medicine and Sport, which should be RED FLAG #3.) However, upon reviewing the actual journal article, the discerning reader would note that the criteria for determining reading “fluency” and “comprehension” (I guess reading accuracy isn’t a concern?) in the children assessed for the study was determined using a standardized test with questionable standards for what constitutes “reading”:

Reading fluency was assessed using a group-administered subtest of the nationally normed reading achievement test battery for primary schools called Ala-asteen lukutesti (ALLU) in Finnish. The test score was the number of correct answers, ranging from 0 to 80, during a 2-min time limit for items that involved identifying the correct word from four phonologically similar alternatives linked to an adjoining picture.

Reading comprehension was assessed with a group-administered subtest from the ALLU test battery. After reading a short text, children were asked to answer to 12 multiple-choice questions relating to facts, causal relationships, interpretations, or conclusions drawn from the text. The test score was the number of correct answers, ranging from 0 to 12, during the 30-min test period when children were allowed to refer to the original text.

In addition, the authors of the study make no mention of any effort to ensure that the children involved experienced similar home lives (e.g., extent of parental involvement, level of parental education, socio-economic status, etc.), nor was a control group utilized to further determine a link between physical activity and reading achievement. (This quite possibly is due to the unethical nature of using control groups in studies like this, as who wants to be the person who places children in the group they hypothesize will underachieve?)

But again–we want to believe that a correlation exists between physical activity and reading so badly that we are unwilling to do the work it takes to determine if articles like these are even worth sharing with others. This is a problem.

Please understand that I am not arguing that there is no correlation between physical activity and learning. (I am one of the believers, I swear!) However, I am also working very hard to ensure that I am only providing my family, friends, and colleagues with information that meets my newly-heightened level of credibility and accuracy.

For those of you who would like to do the same, there is help available! Julie Smith, a college professor, speaker, and author, has a wonderful blog that offers resources for helping increase media literacy. This piece by Josh Stearns, “How to Find and Support Trustworthy Journalism,” offers some great ideas for strengthening your “media diet.” And Kelly Gallagher just recently announced his intent to create a unit designed to help his students recognize “fake” news, which he is sure to tweet about as it develops.

It’s natural to seek out the voices and the words of those who believe as we do. But in an increasingly untrustworthy media environment, we have no one to blame but ourselves if the world (or the country) we once believed exists turns out to be as phony and as illusive as a billionaire racist masquerading as the next President of our United States.


**I won’t even get into how play,” “choice time,” and longer literacy and math blocks need not be mutually exclusive…that’s another post for another time.

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