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C'est la Z

Let Teachers Teach

Mark Guzdial's post the other day about direct isntruction struck a chord with me. Right up front, Mark said:

The research evidence is growing that students learn better through direct instruction rather than through a discovery-based method, where we expect students to figure things out for themselves.

Quite a surprise to the teachers who have been beaten over the head with "everything must be discovery" in recent years. At the end of the post, Mark writes:

I’m a follower of the research Felienne is citing in her blog post, and agree that direct instruction is better than discovery learning for introductory courses

I found myself very much agreeing with Mark. I'm not surprised. It's true that Mark and I have traded blog comments with me saying that a teacher dominant classroom can be very effective and Mark saying lecturing is bad but after a while I realized that we were saying the same thing. To me, a teacher dominant high school class means teacher directed active learning experience and not a droning college lecture.

In any event, back to direct instruction vs discovery. It seems like the pendulum is swinging again. A few years ago it was all about discovery and now direct instruction is ok. There are two problems here. The first is that in a few years it will be something else. Before the discovery learning fad we had other fads. When I started teaching it was cooperative learning. I also went through the portfolio movement. There were other fads along the way including yet another "new math." At some point we got back to traditional direct instruction, then discovery and that brings us back up to today.

The second problem is a big one that's often ignored. Regardless of what the research says or doesn't say and what teachers know or don't know the powers that be have time and time again decided upon the one true way to teach and tried to force it upon teachers.

It doesn't work that way.

The missing piece of the puzzle is the fact that teachers bring different things to the table and that's a fact that's often ignored. When teachers are observed, at least in NY, supervisors want to see what they want to see. After Danielson was implemented in NYC I was talking to a friend who almost sheepishly told me that she was getting great evaluations because her teaching style aligned perfectly with Danielson but she knew that when something else came into vogue all of a sudden she'd no longer be "highly effective."

When I started, cooperative learning was all the rage but it didn't work for me. Since it didn't work for me, it didn't work for my students. This didn't mean that I couldn't cherry pick aspects of cooperative learning and use them to good effect nor did it mean that I couldn't run a cooperative learning experience effectively from time to time but it meant that I couldn't whole hog teach the way I was "supposed" to teach. In another case, I knew a teacher who was a very strong lecturer and I mean this in the traditional one sided lecture style. He was much weaker when using active learning techniques and in no way could he give up control to a cooperative learning experience. That was who he was. He was most effective as a lecturer for better or worse. With the right group of kids it worked pretty well. Certainly better than if he was forced to teach in a way that was contrary to who he was. I've also outright asked some great math teacher friends of mine about "the research" on how to teach and the responses I've gotten back were generally either "I don't read the research" or "it doesn't work for me so I do what I do."

All this isn't to say that research isn't important and that a teacher shouldn't master a variety of techniques and tools. A good preservice program will leave a teacher with a cabinet full of tools to draw from and the expertise to know themselves, their students, and what tools to put in the toolbelt for an any given class. Teachers should likewise be trained to maximize their inherent tendencies and talents and blend in teaching techniques as appropriate. Good professional development should bring new ideas and new techniques to teachers and should consider who they can be added in to a teacher's practice rather than to replace it.

Finally, teachers should be allowed to teach. It's horrible that there's a movement to more and more scripted lessons and to tell teachers how to teach. It was bad when I started and it's only gotten worse.

Fortunately, some supervisors do indeed get it. Back when I was a young teacher I was talking to a supervisor about this and he told me that he observed a class he started with one basic question: "is learning going on?" Everything flowed from there.

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