Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Buzz Over the "Technical"

In all my days as an educator, I’ve never heard so much talk about “technical manuals”!  Many critics of Common Core claim that the CCSS’ emphasis on informational text will result in teachers using dry, dumbed-down technical manuals, government documents, and brochures instead of great literary works.  You can find this critique all over the anti-CCSS materials floating around on the Web, including in a well-circulated piece penned by Sandra Stostky (whom I respect greatly for her work over the years helping states, such as Indiana, craft clear and rigorous ELA standards) entitled Literature or Technical Manuals: Who Is Teaching What, Where and Why? 

Given the attention this subject has received, I think it's important to point out a couple of things:  

First, as I see it, CCSS seeks to do precisely the opposite of what critics allege.  Unless you've had your head in the sand during the past two years, you well know that CCSS sees challenging and complex text--regardless of genre--as perhaps the chief component of sound curriculum planning.  Critics are quick to point to Standard 10 which includes the words "technical texts" as proof of CCSS' subversive plot to transform classrooms into low-minded training labs.  This is silly.  Standard 10 should be viewed along with the exhaustive set of available resources for assessing text complexity as a way to emphasize the important contribution quality texts bring to the curriculum.  During the past two years, thanks to CCSS, educators have been working hard in this state and others to figure out how to select and teach appropriately challenging texts.  Prior to the adoption of Standard 10, how much discussion was there in schools and districts about this issue?

Second, with the amount of attention "technical manuals" has received in the debate over CCSS, one would expect the CCSS exemplars to be replete with these types of texts.  Well, according to my count, among the tens and tens of exemplar informational texts included in Appendix B, there are exactly two that would qualify as a technical manual: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency/U.S. Department of Energy's Recommended Levels of Insulation and the U.S. General Services Administration's Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.  I have to admit that these two text exemplars do seem a little dry and obscure.  I agree with critics on this point.  But these two texts are lumped in among a spate of interesting science and social studies-oriented texts and, in the upper grades, important speeches and seminal historical documents.  

Furthermore, if we are going to take on CCSS for its inclusion of these technical manuals, we better take a closer look at the current Indiana standards framework.  You remember, the one considered by critics to be far superior to CCSS?  The one given an "A" grade in 2006 by Sandra Stotksy, who at that time was assessing state standards frameworks for the Fordham Foundation?  Consider the long list of standards (with instructional prompts) from the Grades 4-12 Indiana ELA Standards that implicate the use of technical manuals, government documents, applications or brochures (see below).  If such technical documents are so deleterious to student learning, why are they so prevalent in our "best in the nation" ELA Standards? 

Don't get me wrong, I don't have an issue with the Indiana Standards' inclusion of such expectations if they are part of a larger effort to encourage teachers to plan and assess using a collection of varied and challenging texts (e.g. perhaps a technical document could be used as one source among many for a 7th grade opinion piece).  CCSS should be spurring lots of these types of discussions--discussions about how to plan, assess, design quality prompts, and gather and leverage rich resources.  But instead we find ourselves inundated by less substantive, more "technical" discussions.

"Technical Documents" in the Current Indiana Standards Framework

4.2.6 Follow multiple-step instructions in a basic technical manual.  Example: Follow directions to learn how to use computer commands or play a video game. 

5.2.7 Follow multiple-step instructions in a basic technical manual.

6.2.5 Follow multiple-step instructions for preparing applications.  Example: Follow directions to fill out an application for a public library card, a bank savings account, or a membership to a boys’ or girls’ club, soccer league, YMCA or YWCA, or another extra-curricular organization.

7.2.5  Understand and explain the use of a simple mechanical device by following directions in a technical manual.  Example: Follow the directions for setting a digital watch or clock.

8.2.5  Use information from a variety of consumer and public documents to explain a situation or decision and to solve a problem.  Example: Decide which is the most practical and economical wireless telephone to purchase by reading articles, brochures, Web pages, and other consumer sources, such as Consumer Reports.

8.2.8  Understand and explain the use of simple equipment by following directions in a technical manual.
    9.2.5  Demonstrate use of technology by following directions in technical manuals.
    Example: Locate and follow the directions embedded in word processing help menus for formatting text paragraphs, such as hanging indents. 

      9.2.6  Critique the logic of functional documents (such as an appeal to tradition or an appeal to force) by examining the sequence of information and procedures in anticipation of possible reader misunderstandings.  Example: Evaluate a document that gives a set of expectations and rules for behavior. This could be a school’s code of ethics, an extracurricular organization’s constitution and bylaws, or it could be a set of local, state, or federal laws. Evaluate the way the document is written and whether the expectations for readers are clear.

      10.2.1 Analyze the structure and format of various informational documents and explain how authors use the features to achieve their purposes.
      Example: Analyze an advertisement that has been made to look like the informational newspaper or magazine text around it. Explain why the advertisement would be designed this way and evaluate its effectiveness.

      10.2.3  Demonstrate use of sophisticated technology by following technical directions.  Example: Follow the directions to use a spreadsheet or database program on the computer.  Follow the directions to download informational text files or articles from a Web site. 

      11.2.3  Verify and clarify facts presented in several types of expository texts by using a variety of consumer, workplace, and public documents.  Example: Check information learned in a driver’s training course textbook with information in the printed Indiana Driver’s Manual. 

      12.2.3  Verify and clarify facts presented in several types of expository texts by using a variety of public or historical documents, such as government, consumer, or workplace documents, and others.

      Example: Verify information in state and federal work safety laws by checking with an employer about internal company policies on employee safety. 


      1. Hi Ted,
        In my process of trying to keep my head up out of the sand as regards CCSS, I ran across your column here. Because I do see subtle differences between technical manuals and informational texts I hoped to gain some general knowledge. I thought it best to follow your link to Dr. Stotsky’s article entitled Literature or Technical Manuals: Who is teaching What, Where and Why? Interestingly I found very little reference to Dr. Stotsky’s opposition to “technical manuals” as her title might suggest, and your article might imply, but gathered from her article that her concerns are altogether elsewhere. She expresses concern at the arbitrary stipulation that at every grade level reading should reflect a 50/50 split on literary vs. informational text (not technical manuals). She then points out that CCSS developers indicate that 30% of all high school reading should be literary and 70% informational and that the informational material should be taught (for the most part) in other classes. If an English teacher only comprises about 20%-25% of a given high school student’s day we must draw some conclusions. Unless we want science, history and math teachers teaching literature, for which they are not trained, then the English teacher must focus completely on literature to achieve the 70/30 split (which in itself may pose problems for the 50/50 split). Assuming the English teacher ignores the 50/50 split and focuses 100% of his/her class time on the literary text, there will still be instances when a science teacher, for example, will be selecting imaginative literature to teach science (this to account for the missing 5%-10% base upon normative student schedules). Are our math and science teachers skilled in this vein of teaching? Should, as her example expands, our science teacher delete a physics unit on gravity in order to teach students how to read a government policy report on energy, transportation and the environment? She further explores the appropriateness, for example of an English teacher selecting Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the Bill of Rights. Will these documents be fully understood if they are examined from an “informational literary” viewpoint? Is the English teacher properly schooled to explore these within their “historical and political” context as they would be in a U.S. government or history class? The examples are just a couple that she offers in her detailed paper. She further goes on to explain how some students are unable to read complex texts, not because they haven’t been exposed to informational texts, but because students (in this day of “graphic novels” and the like), are being exposed to ineffective literary text. Using the simple vocabulary and simple structure of a technical document will have no more benefit to knowledge and critical thinking than simple literature. None of the examples she gives in her paper reflect opposition to instruction of the types of “technical” related standards contained in the IAS as your column suggests. Instead, her paper focuses on the appropriateness of the literature teacher dissecting political non-fiction texts and science teachers explaining imaginative science novels from a literary standpoint. Given that colleges and universities spend a minimum of 4 years teaching students to be effective teachers in their field of study, she may be suggesting that a few CCSS seminars will not adequately prepare teachers in these areas.

        Finally, given your background as a teacher, university instructor, masters-level teacher supervisor, K-8 principal, consultant and presenter I find it hard to believe that even you believe that prior to the adoption of Standard 10 in our schools educators did not engage in conversation regarding the selection of appropriately challenging text. Now that is just silly. Having said all this, please know that while we may not see eye to eye on this subject I sincerely hold you in the highest regard. Let’s each march on with open minds.

        Kelley Faler

        1. Thanks, Kelley! There are more than subtle differences between technical manuals and informational text--that's the point. Many have presented the very misleading notion that CCSS wants to take away quality texts in favor of low-minded menus and brochures (although Stotsky doesn't make this point, others, including Jane Robbins, have). There is a big distinction between reading a menu and reading "Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis." A few additional points:

          (1) You are right that Stotsky's title is a little bit misleading, although her title reflects much of the general zeitgeist about the connection b/w CCSS and informational text which seems to be circulating around in lots of places. I wonder why she used this title if it doesn't befit her argument? In addition, I think we both agree that dissecting percentages of time teachers are teaching IT vs. lit text is silly. I'm with you and many others on this point.

          (2) You are also right that much of her critique focuses on the appropriateness of situating informational text instruction in the context of the secondary English class. Question: Is the current CCSS document different in its orientation in this regard than most ELA standards frameworks (Grades 6-12)? If you look at the current Grades 6-12 ELA IAS, you'll find a long list of recommended texts (e.g. texts, like "Black Holes", "Leonardo Da Vinci", "African Beginnings", speeches and historical docs) that would require English teachers to utilize some background knowledge of ss and sci content in teaching certain texts. So how is CCSS any different?

          (3) How far do we want to take the notion that English teachers should only be teaching literary text? Because they are not content experts, they can't provide ample context to help students with certain aspects of a text (e.g. point of view, author's supporting reasons, etc.)? I was talking to an 8th grade teacher last spring who does a comparative study of two seminal 1960s speeches. Should she scrap the unit since she doesn't have proper university training? Does this mean that b/c 4-5th teachers haven't been trained specifically on the layers of the earth or Indiana history, that they shouldn't be teaching texts on these subjects either? What about a 2nd grade unit on bees? Or a kindergarden unit on soil? Furthermore, doesn't this position imply that secondary ss and sci teachers will be teaching not only the content found in high quality informational texts, but also helping students with related aspects of the reading and writing process as well? If they are not doing it, then who is?! Further, should they be disqualified from teaching reading and writing standards b/c they haven't received proper training? In an ideal world, we would have ELA teachers and content area teachers collaborating more than we do now...English teachers tackling a piece of text from one angle while content area teachers tackle it from another.

          (4) To your last question, of course teachers have considered the rigor of the text as part of their curriculum planning, but not nearly like they are now! And textbooks are now making text complexity much more a part of how they put together their series. Isn't this a good thing? In my mind, CCSS has done a lot to put the text front and center as opposed to sets of isolated skills (i.e. cause and effect, visualization, etc.).

          Thanks for the insightful reply!

      2. Ted,

        You know me, I would be happy to continue this conversation at length, but this may not be the best venue to do that. However, I will make a couple replies. I agree that yes, “dissecting percentages of time teachers are teaching IT vs. lit text is silly” however, the percentages are right there in the CCSS standards and so, here we are discussing just that issue.

        In regards your second point, I am not personally familiar enough with the standards to say the IAS and CCSS actually provide for the same situation in English relative to informational vs. literature texts, but I am inclined to think the concerns by some have to do with the “percentages” issue outlined above. My understanding of Dr. Stotsky’s paper is that in some ways the “arbitrary” assignment of literature vs. information is something of a moot point. In my greatly simplified paraphrase of her detailed report, I believe her point is that informational text in and of itself is not the panacea to preparing students for college material.

        As to whether English teachers should only teach literature and science teachers only science: Again, I am no expert, but in my relay of Dr. Stosky’s words, her concerns centered on high school teachers who will clearly need to discuss some of your sample topics in great detail. I would say that this is certainly an area for concern as students mature in their thinking and topics are explored in greater detail. There should be a conversation in that regard and it may be, with CCSS, we are putting the car before the horse. Relative to the impact on teachers of elementary students, I am not a teacher, but I would surmise elementary school teachers are trained in their collegiate schooling to teach all appropriate academic subjects for their grades.

        I do try to read a fair amount of commentary regarding CCSS but, I have not focused on the arguments that clearly hold no water. I would like to think that the people who make the final decisions on Indiana’s Standards can see through that kind of commentary as I do. Instead I try to learn more from the opinions of people like the Brebeuf Math Department Chair, Layton Elliot speaking before the Indiana Senate, or Dr. Megan Koschnick speaking at the American Principles Project and yes, Dr. Stotsky in her many venues.


        1. Kelley,

          I think it's important to note that I try to approach CCSS, IAS, and all things curricular with some sense of nuance. Thus, my aim is not to defend CCSS, but to point out how aspects of it fit my own view of what's important. Hence my skepticism about the value of curriculum planning by percentages:)

          When you say that you're "no expert" or "not personally familiar with the standards," you're probably selling yourself short. You pose some good questions here and are clearly well-researched. It's been my experience, however, that many critics are content to allow folks like Stotsky or others to do their bidding instead of digging in and trying to understand things for themselves. When you say that you don't focus on "arguments that clearly hold no water," I'm not exactly sure what you mean (should I be insulted?). There are silly arguments on both sides, but is this to say that smart people can't disagree? Have you looked at the work of Robert Marzano, Grant Wiggins, Tim Shanahan, Nell Duke, Mike Schmoker, Doug Lemov, or Carol Jago (who worked side-by-side with Stotsky at the Fordham Foundation evaluating ELA versions of state standards docs)? All of these folks are exceptional thinkers in the field are universally considered "experts" in curriculum, instruction and assessment. Stotsky is a good thinker too, and I know her good work, but I think you should expand your reading list.

          The politicization of CCSS has left the IN DOE in a quandary. At the end of the day, if they decide to keep the current IN Standards (which I've said repeatedly are good!), I'd be okay with that. But we've got to change the assessment. My concern is that folks view this debate as a fight AGAINST CCSS rather a fight FOR better standards and, more importantly, better standards implementation and state assessments.

          Further, given the outrage against CCSS, isn't it fair to point out some similarities that exist between it and IAS and ask the question: Why are folks content to offer such overwhelming support for our current standards when many of the critiques of CCSS also pertain to IAS? Where is the outrage against ISTEP+ which is costing us lots of $ and, particularly in light of the potential of SBAC and PARCC, doesn't adequately reflect some of the best of what the IN Stds have to offer (where is opinion writing or informational writing on ISTEP+?)?

          I'm always open to further discussion, particularly when it's open, honest and thoughtful like I think this one has been. We can get coffee anytime you'd like. You have my contact info.

        2. Ted,

          You are right I would do well to expand my reading list. I do what I can in the time that I have. And I would agree that if our assessments do not accurately reflect the level of learning achieved by Indiana students – then change the assessment if we must have one. However, I do take exception that it is a wise or prudent move to toss aside our very good standards to what effect? We are in the process of spending millions and millions and millions of dollars to re-create a wheel that already exists. When maybe, even in your own judgment, we would be better off spending that money elsewhere (like on assessments in your view) focusing instead on the real problems that affect the students that fail in our systems. So yes, at times I feel outrage at such wastefulness and misdirection of funds. As for a lack of outrage at poor I-Step scores - I think of it this way: Somehow I managed to graduate from high school and college without such an assessment and have some measure of productivity in life, so I see these once or twice annual tests that indicate the success or failure of a student (even though teachers already have a grading system to reflect this) as having negligible impact on my child’s preparedness for college or career. We might be better to do away with these types of assessments altogether and use those resources elsewhere. But maybe that topic should be saved for that conversation over coffee.