Blogging the string in the labyrinth of Crete

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Skilled Teachers

Many teachers object to Direct Instruction, though few verbalize what I think is the core reason as well as Marilyn Wilson of MSU. It's rather neatly summed up in a quote here:

Teachers no longer need to plan their reading curriculum or consider the variability of their learners; the script must be followed. "Scripted curriculum" says Linda Rice, "has the effect of deskilling teachers who become simple deliverers of content and skill processes rather than those who intricately synthesize content, skills, and concepts to create sophisticated curriculum designed to meet the needs of their particular students."

The "deskilling" is the perception teachers have of following a script. They want to feel that they themselves are determining the children's needs and responding to them. Following a script will, in their minds, make their role more menial, rote, and less "professional", and turns themselves and the children into "robots".

On the schools matter blog Jim Horn points to some Direct Instruction videos, claiming that they show a "neo-eugenics system of cognitive decapitation" (neo-eugenics? I tend to wonder why Horn sees fit to bring up suggestions of racism, which has nothing to do with either side of the debate. Perhaps for dramatic effect?). I'd encourage anyone to watch them. He doesn't mention the videos are of the Baltimore City Springs school, which had been one of the worst performing schools in Baltimore. It was an urban school, with all that implies: poverty, behavioral problems, etc. Within a few years, they were within the top quarter of schools in the city. Given this, does he really see a problem with a teacher bringing the children through a reading curriculum in which both the teacher and students interact, where the teacher gives praise in an appropriate manner, and the students are learning the fundamental skills exceptionally well?

What teachers would often prefer to do is what they have been doing: creating a lesson plan, day-by-day (or, using the lesson plan they've built over past years), and including a lot of fun activities, such as reading aloud to children. They don't tend to keep good data on results, and the normal human tendency is to think one's doing a reasonably good job. So, they think taking their hands out of the curriculum is "devaluing" them.

I feel their perception is unjustified. Many people find following the DI "script" difficult, and it takes quite a bit of skill and initial training to do well. The science of behavior is not as advanced physics or chemistry, perhaps, but it is nevertheless rigorous and precise. Despite this precision, students do not respond to behavioristic techniques as if they're being "mechanized"; they respond as if they're involved in learning. Moreover, many professions follow scripts as a matter of course: police officers are rigorously taught how to behave with suspects and victims, doctors follow scripts both in performing procedures and in giving medical advice, and pilots follow scripts for everything from routine takeoffs and landings to emergency procedures. No one allows these people to learn the practice of their professions solely through on-the-job experience.

A DI teacher needs to be on top of their game constantly, and following a DI curriculum is far more difficult than reading to kids (which any parent could do). The skillset of a professional teacher is not, and should not be, in picking textbooks that reflect their ideology or inventing a curriculum. It should be in teaching -- actually conveying information and skills. A teacher who can do that, rather than being deskilled, is highly skilled, and deserves to be termed a professional.



Blogger Liz said...

It's Liz from I Speak of Dreams.

Good post.

There's also the (sometimes) unspoken subtext--whole language advocates trumpet the idea that explicit instruction in phonics is a right-wing plot. Direct Instruction includes explicit, systematic and cumulative instruction in phonics, therefore it is a right-wing plot.

As Stephen Metcalfe wrote in the Nation in 2002:

Why is the same conservative constituency that loves testing even more moonstruck by phonics? For starters, phonics is traditional and rote--the pupil begins by sounding out letters, then works through vocabulary drills, then short passages using the learned vocabulary. Furthermore, to teach phonics you need a textbook and usually a series of items--worksheets, tests, teacher's editions--that constitute an elaborate purchase for a school district and a profitable product line for a publisher. In addition, heavily scripted phonics programs are routinely marketed as compensation for bad teachers. (What's not mentioned is that they often repel, and even drive out, good teachers.) Finally, as Gerald Coles, author of Reading Lessons: The Debate Over Literacy, points out, "Phonics is a way of thinking about illiteracy that doesn't involve thinking about larger social injustices. To cure illiteracy, presumably all children need is a new set of textbooks."

Also see Language Log, The Globalization of Educational Fads and Fallacies..

The debate is often cast as "whole language" vs. "phonics". I'd like to start a movement to recast the debate:

constructivism vs. effective, efficient education.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I think you probably have a point, but I really do believe part of the problem is that a lot of teachers just don't know about DI. I've talked to elementary teachers in different states who knew even less about it than I did, and none of the high school teachers that I know knew anything about it. As I think you know, this is not something that is taught in most education schools.

I really believe that most teachers are like me, and the number one thing we want is to be successful at what we're doing. Show me evidence that a teaching method will work better than what I'm doing, and I'll be happy to give it a shot. There are few things that feel better than knowing you have taught something effectively--no matter what method you've used, and there are few things that feel worse than knowing you are beating your head against the wall in the classroom.

Another problem is that there are some teachers who are true believers in the philosophies that are being sold by the colleges of education. Maybe some of them are so skilled that they are actually able to exclusively use "progressive" methods that leave me rolling my eyes and be effective. And maybe some others are simply divorced from reality.

2:52 PM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

Thank you! As teacher who is using DI for the first time this year, I'm getting very tired of colleagues suggesting that I'm not actually teaching.

I also think that as a teacher becomes more familiar with the script, the more that they can bring other more creative things into it. It's only stifling if teachers want it to be.

4:47 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Wow -- great points all around.

Liz, I've seen the association of phonics with conservative politics as well, and it concerns me. Unfortunately, someone had to champion it, and as soon as someone did it was bound to get political opposition from the other side. I just hope people can start to look beyond that.

I kind of wonder, if Metcalfe feels phonics is a way of dealing with illiteracy without solving all the "larger social injustices" first why he wouldn't support it. After all, it's considerably harder to address every social injustice than to just address one, even considering multiple causes.

Dennis, I'm sure you're right that a lot of people don't know about it, and there's some inertia. Frankly, I'm not sure that DI is right for the high school level anyway. One thing that behaviorist treatments need is a clearly defined goal. At the elementary level this isn't too difficult, but at the high school level it is harder to define academic performance.

Despite this, I think behavioral methods could be used for those things which can be easily identified as appropriate behaviors in high school; no-brainers like getting kids to get to class and sit, to take notes, and to do homework (though this really is best done with reinforcers outside of school, i.e., parents).

There may be teachers that are using the progressive methods successfully, but I'm willing to bet they're doing a lot of things they haven't put into their methods which are actually what make them successful. WL teachers do "read-alouds", for example. I'm sure the competent ones among them would tell you that a read-aloud can be done incorrectly -- without "engaging the students". I'm willing to bet they engage the students through regular praise and interaction, providing reinforcement. It might be interesting to see what their criticisms of bad WL teachers (for example) are rather than their criticisms of DI.

The constructivist math curriculum, however, redefines much of the goals of learning mathematics. To the extent that one can compare fields, I suspect WL works better than constructivist math.

And yes, I think most teachers are probably more like you than being standards-bearers for a particular educational philosophy.

I think you're right about being able to bring other things in to the script, ms-teacher. The script really should be one that liberates rather than confines -- if the teacher learns it well enough, he or she doesn't have to think about the material or discipline as much and can focus on how well the kids are understanding the material.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Dickey45 said...

Right wing plot. I'm still laughing on that one. I've been a lefty since I was in fifth grade. When I became naturalized at 21 I registered as a dem and have voted pretty much straight party line since (it is easy to do in Oregon, trust me).

But that's where I draw the line. In ed, I tend to vote for folks that aren't paid for by the teacher's union. I'm a union person myself, even was part of a classification reorganization effort. But I don't understand how the teacher's union works - and how they gained their power hold.

Sorry, back on track, my local university (in my back yard) had professors that actually teach students that DI is bad and ineffective. Another school down the road used to be a normal school and is now just a teacher's college - same thing. How do I know? I hired ed students from both colleges to work with my son. I had them working every week for 6-8 hours each for 5 years. We had team meetings and they would tell me what the schools were teaching them about DI because we were implementing a DI home program. All of us, the therapists, me (mom) and dad were trained. We all were taught by a verbal behavior therapist from Texas (they aren't available in Oregon, much to my chagrin). One therapist told her ed buddies that the professor was wrong. The other ed student went on to grad school (same school) and ended up using DI and my son as part of her master's thesis.

All I have to say is boy do we have a lot of work in this state to at least make DI a word educators can say, let alone use.

10:25 AM  

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