The disconnect 

I’m quite a fan of the enlightenment but it appears that others are not. I don’t want to create schisms so I’ll step away from that metaphor and focus on another issue.

One question that I get asked is this: most teachers still teach in a fairly explicit way, despite my claims about ‘educationalists’, so what’s the problem?

The problem is the disconnect.

There are some notable exceptions but, by and large, schools of education, education consultants and state education bureaucracies tend to promote inquiry learning and its variants. They do so for philosophical reasons more than empirical ones because there isn’t much empirical evidence to support such methods. The establishment is also aware of the disconnect between what they promote and what most teachers actually do. This is why there is a research literature on trying to change teachers’ practice (eg here and here).

Why is this a problem? There are two main ways in which the disconnect between the educational establishment and ordinary teachers causes problems for teachers. 

Firstly, not all explicit instruction is the same. The model that emerged from teacher effectiveness research is highly interactive but default explicit instruction might not be. There are a number of ways in which such teaching can be improved but these don’t generally get communicated to teachers because explicit instruction is demonised as ‘transmission teaching’. I felt guilty about the way I taught for much of my career because it conflicted with messages I had received from my school of education, consultants and government initiatives, all of which I thought were backed by empirical evidence. Many teachers want to become better at what they do but they are offered the wrong solutions and may become disillusioned when they can’t make these ideas work.

The other problem is that inquiry methods get promoted through curricula. This can happen at different scales. For instance, as part of the VCE maths and physics courses, students have to complete coursework that gets moderated against the school’s exam grades. There used to be some flexibility in how to conduct this and many schools effectively ran tests. The VCAA who administer these exams didn’t like this and so, in the newly revised study designs, they have gone to great lengths to specify these tasks in such a way that they can only be completed through an inquiry learning model. So they have decided to override a practice that teachers found effective.

The 2007 national curriculum in England is another example of an attempt to influence teachers through curriculum. Knowledge was downgraded and thinking skills were promoted. And pity the poor teachers in British Columbia who will have to teach a new curriculum that will, “emphasize higher-order concepts over facts to enable deeper learning and understanding.” They will probably make it work as best they can but it’s not ideal. And important things can go missing from curricula altogether. I was never taught grammar at school, for instance.

So there is a serious problem here and it won’t go away without challenge. Teachers will need to become more familiar with the research (or lack of it) and they will need to argue their case. I am optimistic about this. One day, we will be a profession that controls its own destiny but the first step is to ask some difficult questions. Of course, this development will not be welcomed by those people who currently tell teachers what to do.


9 thoughts on “The disconnect 

  1. Tara Houle says:

    Thanks Greg. This article seems to be making the rounds, as it was on my checklist to send off to you today – you have beat me to it! 🙂 The common refrain I have heard regarding BC’s new plan (I call it the BCBad plan), is that it is left to the teachers to decide how to teach their kids. My response to that, is when a curriculum is created by those who believe in inquiry based pedagogy, and the very Ed Ministry only utilizes discovery/inquiry based rhetoric to create this new plan, it’s not too much of a stretch to connect the dots.

    I am pleased that this university professor took the time to write this editorial. Similar in tone was the one I wrote last September The only ones who can stop this madness from descending upon our children, are the parents. We need them to pay close attention to what’s happening in our schools and speak out against implementing this failed experiment on their children. I hope that will be the case.

  2. In the US, the inquiry-based/student-centered approaches to teaching seem to be focused in the primary grades and much of this is a function of various curricula that encourage such methods (Everyday Math, Investigations in Number, Data and Space; Math Trailblazers; to name a few.)

    To a lesser extent the methods are used in Grades 7 and 8. By high school, however, the teaching is more on the traditional side. Such traditional modes are bemoaned in the manner you have described so that teachers often feel guilty for teaching in the traditional manner and which for most such teachers is quite effective. Nevertheless, the traditional manner takes precedence given the high stakes nature of those who are on the AP calc track, and who wish to pursue STEM majors in college.

    There has been talk by various bloggers of high school math being “zombie math”, which to use a more familiar term: “Rote math”. They claim that students learn enough to get them through the course and into the next one, but that they lack sufficient understanding to think flexibly and do anything beyond the initial worked example. Part of the problem is that many of the algebra textbooks do not contain the same level of challenge and scaffolded problem sets as others (such as Dolciani’s series, and others from previous eras).

    Word problems are tossed into problem sets helter skelter except for the few chapters the concentrate specifically on certain types of word problems. For those chapters, students are taught basic distance/rate, mixture, coin and number problems (usually in conjunction with systems of equations with two variables) and the problems given rarely vary in structure from the initial worked examples, so that students are doing the same problems over and over.

    In other chapters, students are given so-called “real world” problems that are in large part tedious, very wordy, and not challenging.

    Teachers seeking “true understanding” from their students, can test understanding in a number of ways via discussions in class, and challenging questions given outside of the book. But others rely on class discussions aimed at fostering “schemas” of thinking (aka “habits of mind”) with the idea that teaching students to “think like mathematicians” will result in acquisition of mathematical habits and problem-solving schema, understanding, and flexibility.

    It is not that unusual for students to have some lack of depth of understanding beyond procedural, but with subsequent courses, it does tend to deepen. I’ve heard from people that when they took algebra, many of the conceptual bases in arithmetic from their early grades, now made sense since they had a more elevated/general view via algebraic symbology. Similarly some of the ideas in algebra 1 start to bubble through in algebra 2, and so forth. I have had this experience as well. This phenomena followed me in college as well with my college math courses.

    Dave Labaree of Stanford’s ed school has an interesting paper about constructivism in schools. Found here:

    • Tara Houle says:

      Except now that it is also being pushed at the university level as well. And high schools are getting in on the act, as Honour Rolls are disappearing, and report card reform are starting to appear in more and more schools. There’s no two ways around it. This reform based, constructivist type of education, is all about dumbing down our kids. I have yet to see one proven successful illustration involving inquiry based education which is better than a more conventional one. Perhaps this ties into a broader question of what our society has become: more entitled, expecting A’s without really earning it, or doing the work, and expecting a 5 figure salary upon university graduation. And wherever you go, or whomever you speak to, it seems to be a common refrain: kids don’t know how to really work anymore, they don’t want to work past 5 etc. etc….I am not an old fuddy duddy, but it is discouraging knowing that my children’s generation might not be as well equipped as my own when it comes to the workforce. They’re the ones who will be taking care of me!! I’d like to think the opportunities and education investments we’ve given this generation might actually pay off! But i’m afraid that overall, unless common sense might actually take hold again of all things sensible, our kids will suffer a serious blow, not only to their self esteem, but also to their careers, and future relationships.

    • Chester Draws says:

      In other chapters, students are given so-called “real world” problems that are in large part tedious, very wordy, and not challenging.

      You left out slow, which is one of my big bug bears.

      I’ve seen quite interesting inquiry based learning activities, but they often involve 20 minutes work to solve one actual Maths problem. In the meantime the “rote” teacher has worked through 10 problems and now has students at a point where they can try something harder.

      Inquiry based problems should be what we finish classes with, Instead it is sold as what we should introduce our classes with (in particular the dreadful “starter” which wastes the time when they are most receptive to learning on thinking about material that is mostly not mathematical).

  3. Tunya Audain says:

    Demise of Constructivism Or Just a Name Change ?

    It was brought forward by Greg that BC is experiencing some excitement in our education scenario. See link above where a professor dared break rank and expose many weaknesses, contradictions and outright blind impositions by our system in the name of 21st Century Learning.

    Recent statements by our teacher union president forecast that funding will definitely be needed this time (that is, apart from the constant, repetitive, demand over the last decades) because of the “new curriculum”.

    In January last year we had a public show with gurus in attendance regarding our “transformation”. This was the concluding statement by David Albury of GELP:

    Regarding the 21st Century personalized learning model: “This is a pivotal moment for BC . . . if we can continue to work together in this way we can build on how far we’ve got and really accelerate and sustain this — we’ll achieve what nobody else has yet achieved and that is to transform the system across the whole province . . . to enable all young people to have the skills and knowledge to be successful in the 21st Century.” We’d be a first? I thought this was going on in many places. Maybe we’re getting a total immersion. (?)

    Earlier versions of the BC Ed Plan had references to “constructivism”, which is not in any current literature. The plan is still the same, just the name changes. Constructivism is generally discredited elsewhere, but seems like there is an urgency in the air to expedite as quickly as possible. We’ll see what the next budget will allow for this push.

    Thanks for the Labaree article. Definitely enlightening.

    Here is another incredibly thrilling tale by a scientist who has watched his beloved commitment — the teaching of science in schools — turned into a self-doubting creature by steady attacks by constructivism on the science of science teaching. He says all disciplines that depend on truth-seeking and research to help support good teaching have been affected — reading and math especially. Please read the 25 year Odyssey of Michael R Matthews — Reflections on 25 years of Journal Editorship — includes sections on enlightenment tradition in science education, theory, practice and efficacy of constructivism.

    So Sorry, I seem unable to send a link that works. A month ago I had a # of links that provided the full 56 pages free. Academics no doubt can source this freely. Very insightful and “painful” because I feel for the author. He says: “The worry for science education is that current cultural studies enthusiasm will turn out to be a three decade delayed rerun of constructivist enthusiasm, with all the latter’s now well-documented philosophical and pedagogical failures. “

    As a consumer and grandparent of youngsters I simply cannot understand how educators can play these parlor games on the backs of the young and jeopardize future generations. Ethics? Morality? Where art thou? Just give parents the money and choices so they can find the education services that fit their kids’ needs — in their lifetime!

  4. The persistent ineptitude of the edschools is explained by a single variable that differentiates it from all other disciplines: it has, for over 100 years, boasted a captive audience. Teaching is not and will never be a profession, nor will edschools become rational, until practitioners are motivated on some level to pursue best practice. Paradoxical that this may require allowing clients (parents, students) to patronize worst practice if they prefer, isn’t it. But it is the fact that the captive clientele creates territory to fight over that enables the fight between the progressives and their opponents to persist. If all the children could leave the schools, and take the money with them, everyone in education would be so busy trying to sell their product to clients and adapt it to the market that they would not have the leisure for their great theological debates. At least, not on the public dime.

    Because you’ll notice that for all the vehemence of the child-centred pedagogues, it was they who first proposed making schooling compulsory, and you’ll never hear a word from them in support of letting the children go. Where there are escape valves, as in the Education Savings Accounts states of the US, it is the progressives who are fighting in court to keep the children captive.

    The problem starts like this: Here we have x children who are conscripted for 13 years, 200 days per year. What shall we do with that time? Cue the eternal tragicomedy of education dialogue.

    Imagine instead: I have a child. I want to equip the child with useful experiences that will support the process of growing up. What shall I do with the child’s time? Cue a process of inquiry (ironic, eh), trial and correction, dialogue between child and parent, and self-determining decision making. Critical thinking, you know, in real life.

    But if you have no choice but to send that child to government schools, and no decisions to make about what is done there, you become…
    … and then completely inept not only at parenting your child, but also at evaluating which side of the education tragicomedy makes the most sense. Because you never get to try out one offering or the other, you never find out which is gold and which is dross.
    Which gives as much reason as most educrats, government decision-makers, and courts need to believe that schooling must remain compulsory.

    We need a motto: something like “Let us out, let us learn.”

  5. Pingback: The Uncanny Progressive versus Traditional Debate – Research Blog

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