Following my previous post, I have been engaged in a discussion on Twitter with Dan Meyer. I like Dan. He comes across as a nice guy and has the rare ability to stick to the issues without making things personal. There are a few people out there who could learn from that.
Dan has taken issue with me about a few points on Twitter and so I thought that I would take this opportunity to expand on my thoughts a little.
I do not generally describe explicit instruction as ‘lecturing’ so why not? Well, lecturing implies a lack of interaction. It is clear to me that effective instruction involves ensuring students’ attention. In my own teaching, I attempt to achieve this by peppering any ‘lecturing’ with questions. I decide which student will answer which question (I rarely ask volunteers) and so all of my students know that they could be called upon at any time. I find that this concentrates the mind. If I am presenting something new then I will ask students to tell me how to do the non-new bits e.g. the linear algebra that drops out of the end of a transformations problem.
This looks very different from a classical university lecture where the size of the audience militates against this kind of interaction. The problem with describing explicit instruction as ‘lecturing’ is that I find people then quote studies to me that show that university-level lecturing with interactive clickers or with short review breaks is more effective than straight lecturing, thus demonstrating that explicit instruction is flawed (See papers here, here, here and here that have been forwarded to me periodically by Doug Holton – note that a common problem in interpreting these studies is trying to figure out what the “interactive” condition actually means). Clearly, explicit instruction can be a highly interactive approach and so this evidence tells us little of relevance.
“Lecturing” also does not seem to capture the phases of a lesson where students are practicing independently whereas the way that explicit instruction is defined does cover this. Explicit instruction has a long track history and is often also referred to as ‘direct instruction’. However, the latter term tends to be confused with the highly-scripted programs developed by Siegfried Engelmann and others which are basically one particular type of explicit instruction. This is why I avoid this term.
Barak Rosenshine is something of an expert in explicit instruction. He was involved in analysing the process-product research of the 1950s to 1970s that aimed to uncover the differences between more and less effective teaching. His concept of explicit instruction / direct instruction was drawn upon my Engelmann in developing his own approach. Rosenshine provides an excellent description of explicit instruction in this AFT article although he doesn’t name it as such, preferring to simply discuss ‘principles of instruction’. He goes into more detail here, this time referring to ‘direct instruction’ (paywalled).
Why do teachers seek alternatives to explicit instruction?
If explicit instruction is as effective as I claim then why do teachers seek out alternatives?
I spent 13 years feeling guilty about the way that I taught; that I should be making greater use of whistles and bells. This is because the dominant view in education asserts this. Of course, in reality, many teachers will use forms of explicit instruction because the alternatives are often unworkable. I rapidly figured-out that if I taught in certain ways then I’d have to teach the stuff again later. But I thought this was a flaw in me.
Universities and teacher training materials instruct teachers that ‘constructivist’ teaching practices are more effective, even though the evidence does not really support this. Consultants, school leaders and Dan Meyer himself are all resources that teachers could be expected to consult if they want to improve their practice and they will get a broadly similar message from each. Where could a teacher even find out about explicit instruction and its effectiveness? Well, I am trying to do my bit in a small way but it hardly compares.
The sadness is that this means that teachers often miss out on training in how to make their default explicit instruction much more effective. One light in the darkness is the work of Dylan Wiliam around formative assessment (which was basically my route into a different way of thinking).
Indeed, teaching seems to suffer from the “How Obvious” problem that Greg Yates points to in his classic paper. When presented with the findings of research, teachers tend to declare them obvious. However, when student teachers are asked to identify the attributes of effective teaching that comes from this research they generally cannot. “Not a single student cited the effective teacher’s ability to articulate clearly, or to get students to maintain time engagement.”
I have briefly mentioned that the alternative to explicit instruction may be described as ‘constructivist’ teaching. I don’t want to become bogged-down in this – I am aware that constructivism is actually theory of learning and not of teaching and I have no problem with it in this regard; we link new knowledge to old etc. If it is true then, no matter how we teach, our students will learn constructively. However, some educationalists clearly do see implications for how we should teach.
Over the years, similar approaches have been described in many ways; discovery learning, guided discovery, problem-based learning, project-based learning (see William Heard Kilpatrick for an early description), inquiry learning and so on. Many of these date from a time before the constructivist theory of learning and so reflect a broader current in educational thought, epitomised by the progressive education movement of the early 20th century. Constructivism should really be seen as part of this tradition.
As every age invents a new name for it, so a new enthusiasm develops and, without much in the way of supporting evidence, armies of evangelists go out into the world and proclaim the new ‘effective practices’. A recent example can be seen in Canada. Around the year 2000, constructivist maths was pushed heavily in schools via public policy (see the WNCP) and consultants. Since this time, Canadian results in international maths tests such as PISA and TIMSS have generally declined (and I don’t mean relative to other countries, I mean in absolute terms). It is only a correlation but if this new approach was so effective then should we not have seen the reverse trend?
I am generally cautious about comparing different countries on these measures but I do think it significant when a single participant such as Canada or Finland declines relative to itself.
On the basis of quite thin evidence (see Kamii and Dominick and a nice replication from Stephen Norton which finds the precise opposite result or look at this poorly controlled study), teachers have been urged to abandon standard algorithms or to avoid drilling students in multiplication tables and number bonds. Cognitive load theory – of which I am a student – would predict this to be a disastrous move (see my slides from prior to starting my PhD).
So, if there is a lack of evidence then what justification is there for people to continue to support constructivist approaches? One example can be seen in the various reactions to Project Follow Through and goes something like this, “OK so Direct Instruction may be good for rote memorisation of basic facts but our kind of instruction does more intangible things over a greater period of time that cannot be measured”. Or, “Direct Instruction causes criminality”. Neither of these is true (see here and here).
Another approach is to say that people who favour explicit instruction neglect motivation; that motivation is key to learning and explicit instruction is just like really boring man!
Firstly, if motivation really is so important to learning and if explicit instruction is so demotivating then surely this would render explicit instruction ineffective. The evidence suggests otherwise.
For my second point, I need to be careful. The constructivists have set a rhetorical trap here that I might fall in. I will freely admit that entertainment is not my top priority when planning lessons. My top priority is that students should learn. However, this does not mean that I want my students to be bored. If they can learn something and I can make it interesting then I would always want to do both.
It is not clear to me why explicit instruction is intrinsically more boring than any other method. Yes, it can be boring but so can problem-based learning or anything else. I’ve observed students completing one of Dan’s activities who were not particularly turned-on by it. However, I would not conclude that it was therefore intrinsically boring. Perhaps it was pitched at the wrong level or the teacher hadn’t introduced it correctly. Motivation is a complicated thing.
I have written before in the context of science and asked which activity is more boring; completing an investigation to test the strength of different wet paper towels or a whole-class discussion of whether aliens exist? Advocates of alternative methods often make life harder for themselves by also insisting that all learning be nailed to mundane aspects of everyday life. For instance, I have noted that in David Perkins’ recent book he suggests, “students plan for their town’s future water needs or model its traffic flow.” Yawn! Boring! (see, I can do it too).
I have this little proof that I like to demonstrate to show that 0.999.. = 1. Every year, it provokes heated debate. What do I do? I show the students the proof, on the board, at the front of the room and then we discuss it. I suppose that I could ask the students to get into groups and try to come up with their own proof. I suspect that most would not and would also find the activity a bit boring.
The point is that nobody owns motivation. If your explicit instruction is boring then why not make it more interesting? Why does this problem have to imply a change of method? If that’s all constructivism’s got then it’s time for a rethink.