Saturday, November 22, 2008

Teaching to the script

City Journal is really a good magazine, and always has interesting articles. At the moment their featured story is on pre-Kindergarten curricula and whether any of it is worth the time. (Studies seem to show that it can be very important for lower-income or low-education households, but that middle to upper income/education kids don't need it.)

From the article:
By age three, the authors [ of this book ] found, children from families headed by parents who were professionals had heard, on average, over 8 million more words than children from welfare families. The kids themselves had spoken over 4 million more words than the welfare children. The oral vocabularies of the professional-family kids exceeded those not just of the children but of the parents of the welfare families. This astonishing language gap has grim consequences: follow-up studies showed that it correlates closely with large deficits in vocabulary and reading ability at age nine—which, in turn, correlate with large deficits in the reading ability, and consequent prosperity, of adults.
That's a pretty sad statistic. So, the question becomes: how do you overcome that sort of a deficit?

Apparently, teachers aren't exactly trying:
We should temper our compassion for the overwhelmed Head Start and pre-K teachers, however, by recognizing that they have not only failed to close the education gap but have done much over the years to widen it. Like those who practiced medicine 200 years ago, most early-childhood educators demonstrate little regard for scientific findings and base their classroom efforts on theories and personal preferences that empirical evidence has repeatedly contradicted.
That sounds like our experience at our school, as well. The "don't tell us the facts, we know what we are doing! (Sit down and shut up!!!)" mentality.
Central to the typical early-childhood educator’s worldview are three ideas: that it’s better for young children to learn through play than through work; that children learn best and are happiest when they can help direct the pace and content of their own learning; and that a child’s mental abilities develop at a natural pace that adults cannot do much to accelerate. If a child fails to learn something, it’s not because the teaching is faulty, in this view [emphasis mine]; it’s because the child is either “learning disabled” or not yet “developmentally ready” to learn it—a notion derived from the theories of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who believed that mental abilities developed in age-determined phases.

[...] The largest experiment ever to compare different approaches to instruction in the early grades [ which you can read about here ] , sponsored by the federal government in the 1970s and known as Project Follow Through, tracked more than 75,000 K–3 students. It found that only one of the nine methods examined—the one least in keeping with educators’ traditional views—had consistently accelerated the academic achievement of poor children. The least successful approaches all shared the prevailing ideas. And if an approach fails in kindergarten, you can bet that it will fail in pre-K, too.

But Follow Through’s results proved too unpopular for the government to act on.
What were these magical results?
The one approach that Follow Through found had worked, Direct Instruction, was created by Siegfried Engelmann, who has written more than 100 curricula for reading, spelling, math, science, and other subjects. [... the teaching program includes ] concepts like relative direction (A is north of B but south of C) and the behavior of light entering and leaving a mirror.
Here is a chart from the Washington Times from the study. DI easily does the best, especially in cognitive development, which no other method managed to improve, and in "basic skills" which did much better than all the rest. (This image is from the here):

[...] Engelmann and two colleagues, Carl Bereiter and Jean Osborn, went on to open a half-day preschool for poor children in Champaign-Urbana that dramatically accelerated learning even in the most verbally deprived four-year-olds. Children who entered the preschool not knowing the meaning of “under,” “over,” or “Stand up!” went into kindergarten reading and doing math at a second-grade level. Engelmann found (and others later confirmed) that the mean IQ for the group jumped from 96 to 121.
That is simply stunning. Early education seems to be about waiting until the kids are "ready", but according to this program, when you actually challenge the kids, they're brains respond remarkably well and their IQ jumps by an amazing 25 points!
In effect, the Bereiter-Engelmann preschool proved that efforts to close the achievement gap could begin years earlier than most educators had thought possible. The effects lasted, at a minimum, until second grade—and likely longer, though studies on the longer-term effects weren’t performed.
Direct Instruction has been proven to work, but it isn't hard to see why teachers must hate it. It is a system where teachers are literally given a script which they are instructed to follow verbatim. It requires very little teaching "expertise" on the part of the teacher, because all of the expertise was needed in writing the scripts. The system relies heavily on student involvement in class-wide question and answers. The teacher tells the students about something, then asks them questions about what she has told them, then builds from there.

Currently, there are only a handful of programs out there which use DI. However, just as the KIPP program is catching on, DI is catching on a little. For one thing, in a district which may not be able to entice high-quality teachers to join their staffs, it doesn't matter that they end up with the dregs of the teaching profession. As long as the teacher follows the script, the class moves along appropriately. Some schools have turned to DI specifically for this reason.

For some reason this finding seems to shock teachers, but I doubt it shocks many parents:
The school also found that kids enjoyed learning “hard things” from adults and gained confidence as they gained skills.

Update: From an article in the Journal-Sentinel about a Milwaukee school that adopted DI (and saw "proficient" or "advanced" kids go from 22% of the school to 57% of the school in a couple of years):
When Direct Instruction was introduced at Siefert, not all the faculty agreed with the move. Some teachers opted to leave the school rather than adopt a method they didn't like.

Now, support among teachers is strong and some say the criticism from teachers elsewhere has given way to questions about what makes it work.

Kelly Collin, a first-grade teacher who now coaches other staff members on how to use Direct Instruction, said: "Teachers resent it because it's so scripted. But is it about me being happy or them (the students) learning?"

Update II: Here's another report/study on DI from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. One of the questions they asked new teachers is whether they had studied DI in teaching school:
Direct Instruction received little emphasis in the professional training of new, first-year, regular-education elementary school teachers responding to our survey. Most of the new teachers had done no study of Direct Instruction at all, and those who reported some study of it nonetheless described themselves as poorly or slightly informed. Second, the new teachers who said they had learned something about Direct Instruction in their training programs apparently did so primarily through observation and practice in student teaching, guided by their cooperating teachers. Regarding on-campus coursework, a small subset of respondents (65 percent of fewer than half of the total sample) said that Direct Instruction had been a topic in some lectures.

These conclusions are noteworthy for several reasons. First, they call into serious question one of the claims most often made by teacher trainers about the importance of university-based teacher training. The claim is that university-based training programs are critically important since they are uniquely well-suited for imparting training based solidly on theory and research, as opposed to the homespun nostrums and expedients that new teachers might otherwise have to fall back upon. Yet the theory and research base for Direct Instruction is for the most part excluded from teacher trainers' scope of reference, despite the fact that the relevant evidence has been disseminated widely and is easily accessible. The exclusion cannot be explained by a lack of time for the study of Direct Instruction in preservice programs. University-based training programs for elementary teachers devote large portions of time to coursework in the teaching of reading and language arts. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, for example, elementary education students complete at least nine credits of coursework on the teaching of reading and language arts; in this coursework and in other required, professional courses, there would be ample opportunity for careful attention to Direct Instruction if it were deemed a priority among teacher trainers. Nor can the exclusion be explained by a lack of interest on the part of new teachers. Once they are introduced to it, new teachers do show an interest in Direct Instruction, as evidenced by the generally favorable attitudes toward it reported by our subjects.

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