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.