Why Constructivism and Direct Instruction will Damage Your Child’s Brain – Part 2

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In the Schools Today

2004 was my piv­otal year. My old­est was in 3rd grade and I dis­cov­ered that Alpine School Dis­trict was no longer teach­ing the times tables or long divi­sion to chil­dren and hadn’t for at least 3 straight years. What in the world was happening?

Alpine and sev­er­al oth­er dis­tricts had part­nered with BYU’s McK­ay School of Edu­ca­tion under the lead­er­ship of John Good­lad in 1983, form­ing a Pub­lic School Part­ner­ship, and they were push­ing an edu­ca­tion­al phi­los­o­phy called con­struc­tivism. The basis of this the­o­ry is that knowl­edge is social­ly con­struct­ed, or in oth­er words, a demo­c­ra­t­ic approach to knowl­edge and morals. This moral rel­a­tivism is at the heart of con­struc­tivism. Anoth­er notion is that when knowl­edge is con­struct­ed, it is retained bet­ter. That can be true, but it also means a tremen­dous loss of foun­da­tion­al knowl­edge that could have been obtained by some­one with an effi­cient algo­rithm. Con­struc­tivism is heavy on group work, deem­pha­siz­ing the indi­vid­ual and empha­siz­ing the col­lec­tive efforts of stu­dents who come up with “strate­gies” to approach prob­lems. It is also called inquiry-based learn­ing for the approach that stu­dents should inquire to learn. The process is also deemed more impor­tant than the result so stu­dents might get no right answers on an exam but still score high on the test for show­ing a lot of work.

Con­struc­tivists have a philo­soph­i­cal dif­fer­ence in oppo­si­tion to Direct Instruc­tion meth­ods of teach­ing which comes out of the stimulus/response sys­tem of behav­ioral psy­chol­o­gists like B.F. Skin­ner. At the extreme, the Direct Instruc­tion method of teach­ing can tend to not pro­duce long term reten­tion because it’s geared more toward telling a stu­dent exact­ly what must be learned, and then regur­gi­tat­ing it.

Project Follow Through Results

Sev­er­al years ago when I was pon­der­ing the luna­cy pro­mot­ed by Good­lad and embraced by seem­ing­ly intel­li­gent adults in Alpine School District’s lead­er­ship, I came across Project Fol­low-Through. This was the largest edu­ca­tion study ever per­formed. A bil­lion dol­lars spent track­ing about 170,000 stu­dents over decades of time to deter­mine which edu­ca­tion­al mod­el was most effec­tive in teach­ing chil­dren. The results were stun­ning­ly clear. Con­struc­tivist math ori­ent­ed pro­grams like Inves­ti­ga­tions, Con­nect­ed, and Inter­ac­tive math used by Alpine School Dis­trict were utter fail­ures. Any­one with a shred of com­mon sense knew that intu­itive­ly, but it was nice to see it con­firmed in a gov­ern­ment fund­ed study. Direct Instruc­tion crushed the com­pe­ti­tion. Nat­u­ral­ly, shar­ing this with the ASD school board and admin­is­tra­tion had no effect to course cor­rect their direc­tion and do what was best for the chil­dren in the dis­trict because they were steeped in John Goodlad’s phi­los­o­phy and reg­u­lar­ly taught with him at his annu­al NNER con­fer­ences. Our super­in­ten­dent even served on Goodlad’s NNER exec­u­tive committee.

What I didn’t real­ize when I jumped into the math fight was that although these results were a stun­ning indict­ment of con­struc­tivism, they were also miss­ing some­thing impor­tant about Direct Instruction.

The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America

Char­lotte Iser­byt was a senior pol­i­cy advis­er to Pres­i­dent Rea­gan on edu­ca­tion mat­ters. She went to work at the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion (DOE) and after dis­cov­er­ing what they were up to, stayed after hours to copy and doc­u­ment what these peo­ple were doing to Amer­i­can chil­dren. Her work was lat­er pub­lished as The Delib­er­ate Dumb­ing Down of Amer­i­ca. I strong­ly urge every­one read­ing this to go to her web­site and down­load and save a free copy of this PDF book to your hard dri­ve (after you fin­ish read­ing this article :)).

Deliberate Dumbing Down of AmericaWhile read­ing The Delib­er­ate Dumb­ing Down of Amer­i­ca (DDDoA), I came to real­ize that “Direct Instruc­tion” is not the same thing as “direct instruc­tion.” One is a pro­gram and the oth­er is a method.

Siegfried Engle­mann cre­at­ed the DISTAR (Direct Instruc­tion Sys­tem for Teach­ing Arith­metic and Read­ing) pro­gram which fol­lowed a heav­i­ly script­ed sequence where the teacher would read some­thing to the chil­dren and get con­stant feed­back to ensure they were on track and learn­ing what they were sup­posed to. As seen in Project Fol­low Through, this method was vast­ly supe­ri­or to con­struc­tivist philoso­phies, but it had its own draw­backs as well. Lit­tle case “direct instruc­tion” was sim­ply tra­di­tion­al edu­cat­ing and it was not part of the Project Fol­low Through study. Here’s a quote from DDDoA.

[Ed. Note: Although the eval­u­a­tion of [Project] Fol­low Through cit­ed some aca­d­e­m­ic and self-esteem
gains at some Direct Instruc­tion mod­el sites, it would have been vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble for these
gains not to have been made con­sid­er­ing the mod­els with which they were compared—the
non-aca­d­e­m­ic focus of the “touchy-feely” open class­room. Had the Direct Instruc­tion model
been in com­pe­ti­tion with a tra­di­tion­al phon­ics pro­gram which was not based on ani­mal behavioral
psy­chol­o­gy (“sci­en­tif­ic, research-based”), it is most unlike­ly it would have been able to
point to any gains at all. Unsus­pect­ing par­ents in the 1990s seek­ing more struc­tured academic
edu­ca­tion for their chil­dren than can be found in schools exper­i­ment­ing with constructivistic
devel­op­men­tal pro­grams (whole lan­guage, etc.) are turn­ing to DI, not real­iz­ing they are embracing
a method based on mas­tery learn­ing and ani­mal psychology.] 

Charlotte’s lengthy book exposed all these edu­ca­tion­al fads and rack­ets. One paper she wrote con­cerned Rea­gan and the DOE con­tained this clip about John Good­lad. (empha­sis mine)

One night, while look­ing for a type­writer rib­bon, I noticed in the

cor­ner of a stor­age room a box enti­tled “The Good­lad Study“. I just

about had a heart attack since I had been fol­low­ing this world famous

inter­na­tion­al change agent’s sub­ver­sive activ­i­ties for many

years, espe­cial­ly when I served as a local school board member

pri­or to going into the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion. Much of the values

destroy­ing cur­ric­u­la and school orga­ni­za­tion­al restructuring

could be laid at his feet. This par­tic­u­lar box held a gold mine of

infor­ma­tion regard­ing the efforts of the tax-exempt foundations

and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to imple­ment the Unit­ed Nations

agen­da, to restruc­ture Amer­i­can schools for glob­al gov­ern­ment. I

couldn’t believe what had land­ed in my lap! Four books, all published

by McGraw Hill, were com­mis­sioned for this Study. They were:

John Goodlad’s “A Place Called School”; Don Davies’ “Com­mu­ni­ties

and their Schools” which laid out the socialist/communitarian

agen­da to be imple­ment­ed in Amer­i­ca through the schools, pointing

to com­mu­nist coun­tries as mod­els; Jerome Hausman’s “Arts

and the Schools” which dealt with how to use the arts to change

stu­dents’ per­cep­tions and val­ues; and the worst one of all, James

Becker’s “School­ing for a Glob­al Age” which con­tained the

Fore­ward by John Good­lad from which par­ents love to quote:

Par­ents and the gen­er­al pub­lic must be reached also.

Oth­er­wise, chil­dren and youth enrolled in glob­al­ly oriented

pro­grams may find them­selves in con­flict with values

assumed in the home. And then the edu­ca­tion­al institution

fre­quent­ly comes under scruti­ny and must pull back.

As an aside: when I returned home I called McGraw Hill to order the

books and was told they were not yet pub­lished but that they would

put me No. 1 on their list which they did. Lat­er, when I checked

back with them, they said: “Don’t wor­ry, Mrs. Iser­byt, we’ll get them

to you as soon as they are received; you are No. 1, even ahead of

each of the 50 Chief State School Offi­cers.” That sure told me something

about how impor­tant these books were and exact­ly who would be

car­ry­ing out the rad­i­cal agen­das pro­mot­ed in each one of them.


Con­tin­ued in Part 3