Teaching and the Trichotomy of Control

Epictetus said;

Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.

There are things we can control, such as our opinions and desires and choices. There are things we cannot control, among which Epictetus includes our bodies and our reputations. Some more obvious examples would be time, the weather, gas prices, or cats. Basically anything except our own mind.

Will Irvine expands on this dichotomy by splitting the category of things that are not up to us into two; things over which we have no control, and things over which we have some but not complete control.

When it comes to our students’ learning we have very little control.

Stoic philosophers often used the metaphor of an archer to describe our attachment to external outcomes. An archer’s job is to line up the shot to the best of their ability. Of course they would like to hit their target, but they also have no control over the wind and many other variables that will effect the arrow’s flight. So, having shot their best, a Stoic archer is satisfied even if they do not hit their mark.

Like the archer, as teachers all we can do is perform our duties well and then hope for fortune’s favor.

It has been difficult for me to work in a profession where there is so little actual control over the results, especially when accountability measures want to judge teachers by something as probabilistic as their students’ standardized test scores. Try to extend the metaphor of the archer to a teacher and her students’ test scores. Much like the flight of an arrow, despite how well prepared the student is leading up to the test, how well that teacher lines up the shot, the teacher has no control over the other variables that can effect the student’s performance in that particular moment. Did the student eat breakfast that morning? Were the police called to their house the night before? Does the student care to do well on this test, today? And let’s not forget that it’s the teacher’s responsibility to line up over a dozen shots all at the same time!

It’s frustrating to think that we can only lead students toward learning, as a horse to water, and only hope that eventually, fortunately, they will drink. It’s also strangely liberating. If I choose and act rightly, I have done my duty as a teacher, regardless of any external outcomes. But as we can see this is at odds with current accountability measures, which assume that the classroom teacher has nearly complete control, and that would judge us by our students’ single performance on a standardized test.

Would we honestly accept the idea that any teacher, having inordinate control over their students’ learning, would nevertheless allow them to underachieve?

A perfect accountability system would somehow weigh the rationality of the thousands of choices a teacher makes because this is the sole element of education that is completely within their control.

And likewise I believe the best measure of the effectiveness of an education system is not the results of standardized tests of achievement but the quality of the choices its students make. If we changed our focus, we might even find that one follows from the other. Although we have no control over our students, I am suggesting that we can measure our impact by the amount of control students leave schools with over their selves.

What did Greg Graffin say? Oh right. “We have no controooooooooooooooooool“. Stay virtuous everybody!


Materials Review: Test of Orthographic Competence

We’ve added the Test of Orthographic Competence (TOC) to our assessment closet as a way to more accurately understand students’ reading difficulties.

Steven Feifer, author of the recent Feifer Assessment of Reading (FAR), tells us that the research points to seven areas to consider when assessing students who struggle with print;

  1. phonemic/phonological awareness
  2. rapid naming
  3. verbal memory
  4. reading fluency
  5. orthographic skills
  6. attention
  7. executive function

Chances are you have measures for most of these between the comprehensive batteries like the  Woodcock-Johnson and other common cognitive and achievement tests, but assessing orthographic skills was a new idea to me and we needed something to fill the gap, so we went with the TOC.

The TOC is very easy to administer. All you need is a protocol and the manual, and a way to keep time. I say manual because it includes all the scripts for each subtest, and I’m sure after several administrations you won’t even need it. The TOC can also be given to a group of students, and although I think it’s a bit long to be used as a screening (I keep clocking in over 30 minutes), that’s still a handy feature. I think, like the WIST, I’ll start using it as a pre- and post- assessment of small group interventions.

The test is made up of nine subtests, and which ones you administer vary by the age of the examinee. Those subtests include;

  1. Signs and Symbols
  2. Grapheme Matching
  3. Homophone Choice
  4. Punctuation
  5. Abbreviations
  6. Letter Choice
  7. Word Scramble
  8. Sight Spelling
  9. Word Choice

So far I can only speak to the subtests for ages 13-17, which do not include the first three subtests listed. I will say that the main difference between the 8-12 form and the 13-17 form appears to be that the subtest Homophone Choice is administered instead of Word Choice.

So what are the implications of some of these subtests. Word Choice and especially Homophone Choice, I think, gives a good indication of which students will benefit from the use of computer spell check, because they require that we identify the correct spelling of a target word. Letter Choice pretty clearly shows how well a student visually processes letters and words; in this timed subtest, students add one of four letter (p, d, b, q) to a few other letters to make real words. The same is true about Word Scramble, which is exactly what it sounds like; unscramble letters to make real words. When I look at the subtests, I’m reminded of some of the word scrambles, word searches, and other puzzles I was asked to do in elementary school that I thought were a waste of time, and that I occasionally see getting a bad rap and requests for opt-out on Twitter. Could it be that, intentionally or unintentionally, my teachers were improving my orthographic ability?

Ultimately you won’t learn much that you didn’t already know from observing a student’s writing. You will get norm referenced scores though.

Reading teachers have known for a long time that for some students, especially older struggling readers, phonics instruction is not sufficient to make them independent readers. This has been a bit of a revelation for me, where I’ve been using an explicit phonics program for every student with basic reading skills deficits because it’s all I had and I didn’t know any better. More on that in future posts.

So the TOC is a useful little tool when it comes to comprehensive evaluation. We can do a better job matching students to interventions if we do not ignore orthography. I think we all have experience with students who receive years and years of phonics instruction but make little progress with word recognition, and the TOC can provide an early indication that an alternative approach is necessary.

What kinds of interventions would you consider based on results of the Test of Orthographic Competence? According to the Dyslexia Training Institute, the focus should be on the structure of written language. Students with orthographic deficits will access reading by studying spelling. I’ve been criticized by general education teachers in the past for teaching struggling readers spelling, but if a student can spell a word, they can read that word. And what’s the general approach to teaching spelling? A strategy for dissecting multiple syllable words and systematic teaching of syllable types and morphographs.

Hit me up with questions or concerns about this post. And stay virtuous!