Why Constructivism and Direct Instruction will Damage Your Child’s Brain – Part 3

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A Couple Loose Analogies

Picture totalitarianism on one end of a scale and anarchy on the other. Both have issues but for different reasons. Totalitarianism is like Capital “D.I.” Direct Instruction where they attempt Prussian style education of forcing knowledge into heads. Here’s your task, repeat it. Constructivism is akin to anarchy. Anarchy always always leads to a Democracy (moral relativism as the group makes decisions) and always ends with an oligarchy of power at the top (ie. totalitarianism) where a few excel and the rest are drones. If these are the extremes, then what’s in the middle? Traditional education. I guess you could say it’s like a republic between these two extremes.

Lets try another. How should we answer a child if they asked, “how can I know God is really there?” Under a Capital DI (Direct Instruction) model we might see people saying “memorize this prayer and say it 10 times and know that God is there because it’s so.” Under constructivism you might have a teacher say, “Well why don’t you get together with a few friends and come up with a strategy to pray?” Under traditional education we might say, “prayer is communication with God. He wants to communicate with you. Let me teach you about prayer and then you try it out. I would like to show you what others have experienced with prayer in the scriptures so you have some concrete examples. Look at their experiences. You can experience this too if you learn the principles of prayer.”

Wrapping the End to the Beginning

Remember in part 1 of this article where I talked about Daniel Pink’s work on motivation? Motivation is driven by 3 things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Under capital D.I., you do move toward mastery, but even though you have individualistic learning, your autonomy is hampered by the rigid straight jacket of the curriculum. There is no exploring outside the path set for you. You are told what to do, and you do it, and you’re tested on it, and you stick to the programmed schedule. The education system hinders true education. John Taylor Gatto said schools are good at schooling but not very good at educating and extreme D.I. fits that like a glove. Schooling is all about obedience, while educating is about learning. You can have purpose as you realize you are learning math with a future goal in mind, but it’s not the kind of purpose born of deep intrinsic desires when you have autonomy to pursue your dreams and educational desires.

Under constructivism, you don’t have mastery because it’s so dumbed down you can’t even build a foundation. You don’t even have as much autonomy as D.I. because now you have an emphasis on work that is socially oriented, or assignments so far below your capabilities that you become bored out of your mind. You may have some purpose if you have a goal, but without mastery your purpose will fade and the light of your dreams will go out (as has happened for tens of thousands of graduates just in Alpine School District who graduated with A’s and didn’t know their times tables or long division). These poor students went to college with shattered dreams only taking them to remedial math.

Under traditional direct instruction education, also known as classical education, you should have all 3 elements with intrinsic motivation and rewards and not extrinsic ones that can sap your motivation by making you do it for the reward. It’s not animal conditioning, and it’s not socialistic learning. What does this look like? Homeschooling can do this. Many classrooms in schools with good teachers who are well educated in their subject matter might also qualify. There are tons of good teachers, but they are shackled by red tape nonsense and dumbed down by professional development that indoctrinates them in constructivism instead of content knowledge they can impart to students. Schools of education are by far, doing the most damage in this area telling students that “all the studies show this is the best way to teach math” and pushing constructivism on those students. The truth is there are no studies that support constructivism. Unfortunately the structure of schools interrupting learning every 50 minutes or so to send students on to the next subject is also a barrier to learning, but great for schooling them in obedience and being on the clock.

For years I’ve advocated against Investigations math (constructivist type program) and in favor of Singapore math and Saxon math. Singapore math (only the Primary Math series from www.singaporemath.com) is in my opinion, perhaps the very best program available. It lays a great foundation for children in elementary levels and there is solid material in the upper grades once you’re done with Primary Math. Singapore is direct instruction (lower case “d.i.”, ie. traditional math) where children truly think through things and arrive at answers. Saxon math is heavily scripted. It definitely falls toward the capital D.I. side from where Singapore is, though it has “softened” a bit over the years. I’ve had children in all 3 of these programs. Investigations is a nightmare for everyone involved. Saxon and Singapore are great programs and I’ve seen some impressive assignments in Saxon math that made me really glad my children were in it instead of other alternatives (though I would still prefer Singapore Primary Math).

Both DI and constructivism have some techniques which can help some students, but when we just stick to the extremes (like Investigations math), we are going to dumb down our children and actually reduce their drive to excel. We’re reprogramming children from being intrinsically motivated to extrinsically which leads to a loss of “flow” or “focused motivation” by taking away autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Charlotte Iserbyt criticizes computer software education programs for this very reason that the reward mechanism in the program meant to give a student a success cue, actually damages the intrinsic motivation as well. Digital learning is excellent in some areas, but can be harmful when it steps into rewards because then children come to expect rewards. Video games are designed to be addictive because they introduce rewards to players in such a way that they want to continue for the next reward. Bill Gates has declared that he wants learning to be game-based because winning can be a motivator. This is exactly what Daniel Pink said will turn into a demotivator. What happens when those children graduate and find life isn’t a game and the best things in life come from intrinsic motivations?

Unfortunately in Utah, our state office of education is pushing the failed constructivist approach to education. Schools of education like the McKay School of Education at BYU push this nonsense. The Math Education Department at BYU proved constructivism is an utter failure when they took honors freshmen calculus students and in the name of giving them a “deeper understanding of math,” had them score at the bottom of all 17 regular calculus sections that semester. Why does this persist? John Goodlad’s philosophies are set in the hearts and minds of educators and change is hard.

Is this tied to Common Core? Absolutely! The Utah State Office of Education (USOE) had the opportunity to implement Common Core in different ways. They chose to have Utah implement it in the “integrated” fashion for upper math along with Vermont, instead of discrete years of math like every other state. Dr. David Wright at BYU’s Math Department warned them this was a bad idea because there were no textbooks available written with this integration, but they told him they had it under control. They hired 5 constructivist educators from around Utah and wrote their own horrible curriculum for districts to use with Common Core. They are constructivist dreams. No content, just problem sets. They can’t even be called textbooks. They told us we needed Common Core so that we would have portability of students across state lines, when in reality, we have no ties to other states schedules of learning in upper grades because of this integrated approach. The USOE has also chosen to push the constructivist method in their professional development to districts. Utah could have so much better, but for our state office of education.

Where should we go from here? Full local control of education. Close the USOE, decentralize education, and let parents in the local schools determine their own high standards and what goals they want for their children. I believe the philosophy should be an Agency-Based Education which maximizes freedom to learn, is individualized (and if done right, intrinsic) for each student, and puts parents back in the driver’s seat. Parents who are responsible for their children’s education instead of relying on the state to set what their children need to know, will pay closer attention to detail and figure out what really works and what doesn’t. We don’t need state educrats determining the best philosophy for hundreds of thousands of unique children and pushing it down on them without parental input and guidance. Especially when those philosophies are proven to demotivate and damage our children’s brains.

Additional Resources:

The Leipzig Connection (On Amazon – excellent book on the history of education)

Charlotte Iserbyt’s Deliberate Dumbing Down of America (free online book – get the PDF now)

Tracy Hayes, an education researcher in Massachusetts wrote a helpful article further explaining the difference between Direct Instruction and traditional education.