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Neither Guide on the Side nor Sage on the Stage


Dear Diane,

I don’t want to argue about the word “constructivism” because words can, I agree, be slippery. But I urge you not to parody that viewpoint. There are few—if any—schools (in the public sector at least) where teachers are just “guides on the side.” Never were! I’ve seen hapless teachers. But not purposely. I also think that you have misread Dewey’s "The Way Out of Educational Confusion”. Or should I say “differently read”? (joke) I think he meant it in the same way as Ted Sizer did in describing a mindless Honor’s English course vs. a rigorous Shop class! In reality, few children in our science classes are learning the principles of science. The name of the course is not what interests either of us.

Neither guide on the side nor sage on the stage—let that be our bridging motto.

Two visual images have been most helpful to me. One comes from my colleague Ted Chittenden (retired researcher at ETS—the testing people) and the other from David Hawkins (the late physicist at the U of Colorado). I wish I had the technical skill to represent their diagrams visually right here.

Chittenden’s: Picture two axes crossing. One pointing east and the other north. Imagine the one pointing east is called “teacher initiative” and the one pointing north is “student initiative”. That produces four quadrants. In the high teacher/low student quadrant, he placed what we think of as traditional classrooms—with the teacher pouring forth knowledge to a fairly passive audience. In the low teacher/high student quadrant, he placed the much ballyhooed—and rarely practiced—“free school” Summerhill’ian model. In the low teacher and student quadrant, he put what once was called “mastery learning”, also “individualized instruction”, otherwise also known as “scripted learning”. Neither teacher nor student were in a position to take much initiative. Naturally, my favorite quadrant was the one in the far opposite corner in which both student and teacher were major actors, engaged in a balancing act that needed to be carefully constructed and structured, teacher by teacher and class by class (with help).

David Hawkins': Imagine a triangle. In one corner is the teacher, in another the student, and in the third was X, the object/course being studied. The relationship between teacher and student was formed in the process of “uncovering” the meaning or nature of X—the object of study. It was, I immediately recognized, a diagram that my parents had described as Talmudic study! It worked best if the X was of genuine interest to the teacher—something he felt was revealing, useful, and particularly so for the students he was teaching. But also for himself. While they were not equals in terms of knowledge or wisdom, the best lessons were those in which they were equally interested in hearing about the X and from each other. The course of study was an open road depending on how they heard each other. They might, over the course of time, discover that they agreed about baseball or Mozart—or disagreed. But the burning question was how they understood the X before them. (Keep in mind, I like this best in the context of a community of teachers and learners.)

If you read Eleanor Duckworth’s “The Having of Wonderful Ideas”—which we used as our text when we started Mission Hill—you’ll get the flavor of how this affected the relationships between the Mission Hill staff—who were after all, also of very different levels of knowledge, experience, and expertise.

These two diagrams changed my way of thinking about the difference between teaching and learning—the latter being my burning passion. It also, oddly enough, changed forever my way of thinking about politics. “Campaigning” on behalf of certain ideas and policies is a process of trying to connect with an audience—finding the bridges between their experiences and yours. In the process you hope to “convert” them to your politics, but lo and behold, they also make you reexamine your own. But it’s hard work.

The constraints you describe seem unnecessary. Worse. In fact, it is precisely the degree to which we have always had a traditional curriculum in real-life that explains our fascination with Oprah Winfrey and Marilyn Monroe. In large part, our differences are now, and always have been, over the "what is” happening in the world of schooling not “what should.”

I believe we’ve rarely encountered in our classrooms—above all those in which the least advantaged sit—teachers who exude the authenticity, curiosity, and authority that makes Oprah so fascinating to them. And surely you can’t blame Progressive Education for the age-old fascination with fame and beauty.

More seriously: The measure of my success as a teacher is not in what I taught them, but “what they picked up on their own” afterwards that wasn’t accessible or valued before. If teachers doubt the possibility of influencing the “afterwards”, Diane, I don’t know how they can stick to it. Of course, you need to be careful of what you wish for.

What the young teacher from KIPP told me last week rings in my ears—how his practices changed when he discovered what happened to his KIPP 8th graders when they went to high school. I may have my quarrels with KIPP, but I have no quarrels with his priorities. I’m intrigued, as he is, by the way schools impact on our way of thinking, writing, speaking, tackling novel dilemmas, treating others, responding to truth claims (like the ones our mutual friend Mayor Bloomberg likes to make about NYC’s schools).

Finally, getting into the mind of the foundation leaders is beyond me. Small schools are still high on my agenda, although I worry more about the trade-offs necessitated by our rush to mandate smallness. Possibly they just see it as easier to do than changing what really goes on in that Triangle that Hawkins described. I’m fearful that the “curriculum reformers” are making a similar mistake.



I don't want you to betray any confidence, but I'd like to hear more about the KIPP teacher's lessons, and the patterns of what happens to his students (or the students of any other 8th grade teacher who keeps up with their kids in high school)in high school.

Also, I loved your comparison to Talmudic education. The metaphor works in multiple ways. It is a reminder that we are accountable to more than recent developments. We are also accountable to educational princples that even predate American Democracy.

[I don’t want to argue about the word “constructivism” because words can, I agree, be slippery.]

It's precisely this slippery that necessitates discussion in an attempt to gain some precision.

I would argue that this slippery is the source of much mischief, even absurdity. One absurdity is to slip from construction with raw materials and supplies to construction ex nihilo.

Arrrgh! I meant slipperiness. Brain short-circuit. Please correct.

I would have to disagree that scripted teaching is low engagement with teacher and student. In fact, I would say it is the opposite. You have to know the script, punch it up, and actual understand what you are teaching and why you are teaching it in that way. Plus you have to understand all that has been taught and what will be taught in the future (good examples are the math and writing lessons).

Students have to be engaged. Almost all lessons have extra activities that require further thought. The writing assignments get pretty creative. The logic lessons are hilarious and thought provoking.

Have you actually taught any scripted lessons? If so, has it been long enough to really get a feel for and understanding of what it is? (like at least a year of two or more products) If not, then I think you are seriously misrepresenting them and that is why professors, such as ones at Oregon State University, say they are simply bad. And that does NOT help our kids as the option of scripted curriculum has been essentially removed.

Instructivist: Yes, precisely. I like words that necessitate discussion.

John. If I learn more re KIPP I'll pas it on.

Dickey! Actually Chittenden used the word "initiative" not "engagement,." An actor (and his or her audience) can be highly engaged, but he/she is not the author of the language, the decision-maker, the initiator. Of course, some people are better script readers and actors--and part of teaching indeed is acting. But I am curious about your comments. No, you are right I have not ever tried to "teach" by script, although I have enjoyed reading scripts, especially by great dramatists, and I've been engaged by good actors reading good lines.

Tell me more about it--and what the nature of the engagement between teacher and learner is like in this situation? Is it, in fact, have the feel of a good play? Are you an advocate of a particular script? Or scripts in general? Could this be another example of "scripted" having different meanings--another slippery word?

Who chooses the script?

I've actually not met a teacher who likes them--assuming we are talking about the same thing-- but we all live in our own little bubble, so I want to understand it better from someone who thinks it works well, and who likes following it.

My best,



Your point hit home in an unexpected way. I have never taught a scripted lesson, and I don't doubt that there are teachers who do so in the way you describe. And I've often made the same complaint about theorists and policy-makers who have never taught in high poverty secondary schools, but who are so confident that they know how to turn them around. (and I read Slavin's work and of course I have no personal experience that allows me to judge.)

But my point is somewhat different. I would never teach with a script. And there are a lot of teachers like me. Even if we are only 1/5th or 1/4th or 1/3rd of the profession, education can not afford to drive us out. I'm not trying to impose my approach on anyone. In fact, my intensely personal approach can not be mandated or systematically replicated.

And instructivist, if your point is that contructivist approaches when done poorly are ineffective, I agree. But let's just say you have a better approach. But how much better would it have to be before we could profitably impose it on everyone?

I'll admit that I prefer the "let a thousand flowers bloom" approach to education. Like democracy, it has plenty of flaws, but it is better than the alternatives.

Usually people talk about SRA's Direct Instruction curriculum (with Engelmann) when they talk about scripts - although there are more out there. I've used Reading Mastery, Connecting Math Concepts (not to be confused with Connected Concepts), Reasoning and Writing, and Spelling Mastery. There are other products out there not by SRA but under Direct Instruction.

I can see why teachers would not like them - it is difficult to do at first and can take 6 months to 1 year to be proficient. In addition, the teacher needs to read over the script in order to know what will be taught, why, and how. It's a lot of work.

I know of 2 people that used it on my son. Those 2 people plus myself and my son's dad were all his teachers. It was hard at first - a little like the blind leading the blind. But he started to learn to read. His math went from non-existent (he could count to 20) to almost grade level within 1 year. We are all believers now - even the 2 people that were students at OSU and WOU where professors said DI is bad. One of the people that worked with my son went behind the professors back and told some of her classmates that DI actually works!

If you read around the internet, you will find teachers that believe in DI and it works for them. I suspect the ones that it does not work for are (1)initiated into teaching via teacher schools - I'm in a teaching program at WGU and there are things I have read that are directly against DI (2)lazy in learning DI (3)have group think against DI. How else would teachers that have NEVER used it say it is bad? (4) Did not receive enough or correct training in how to use it to be effective (5) Have poor classroom management skills which is absolutely critical to effective DI instruction.

I've asked dozens of teachers what they think and all of them say it doesn't work or is bad - yet they've never used it - they just heard from someone else.

I don't like SRA because they are a large corporation and a rip off. We can make our own scripts (and summaries for those that don't like scripts) under wikibooks, wikiversity, or wikied.

By placing curriculum into an electronic media format and making available for free you gain the following benefits:

* Adaptable - if a set of instructions is weak, a teacher using the curriculum or a field testing teacher might login and either add to the discussion for the module (see tabs) or make a change in the module for the section. Furthermore, a teacher can make their own copy and customize it for his or her own use.

* Portable - curriculum and scripted teacher instruction can be placed on a laptop and/or printed out. No more lugging books around. Student booklets can be easily printed in black and white or color and easily replaced.

* Reduced costs - Student books can currently cost $50-$80 each. Workbooks can currently cost $10 to $20 each. Printed teacher editions can cost $80 on up.

* Durable - electronic media can often be put into various types of formats such as a database, web page, or even printed in sections. Currently, teacher editions are spiral bound which can compress and become difficult to turn pages.

* Expandable - the use of hyperlinks to get more information on an idea or item can assist teachers in learning the curriculum more completely and quickly.

* Format/media - using electronic media allows curriculum to be developed in a way that is quicker for the teacher to learn to efficacy, thereby, allowing the teacher more time to work on student errors or more time to "punch up" the curriculum to make more fun. The use of small icons as cues can assist teachers in learning the curriculum more quickly.

* Multimedia - the ability for a teacher to use pictures and short videos to make a point. Also allows the multimedia to include current events thus making the lessons more timely and linked to the students point of view.

* Helpful for parents - parents of students (especially students with disabilities) can help pre-teach or firm areas for students that need extra practice. A teacher can print the information/workbooks or direct the parent to the wikiversity website.

John, I would never presume all teachers should use scripted material. No way Jose!

What I am fighting right now is the fact that there are thousands of schools in my state and only a few (handful?) use it. It is not really an option because teacher schools, teachers, unions, and other are vehemently against it for reasons I stated above. So in my state Direct Instruction curriculum it is not an option unless your school is near U of O or a charter, your students are disabled, or you are trying to catch kids up (Corrective Math, Reading).

Let me just throw in my two cents regarding scripted material. I have worked with scripted lessons in a non-school (church) setting where they were one way to shore up volunteer teachers with a wide array of experience. I personally read them, took the key points and restated in my own words, etc. Others followed more closely.

I have also written (what I would consider to be good) scripted lessons in the same environment for the same reason. It facilitated a greater degree of collaboration than we really had time for, if that makes sense--everyone plugged into their part.

I have also observed the Direct Instruction (commercial) reading product, complete with finger snaps and all that. My creative sensibility recoils at the automaticity of the whole routine. But at the same time, I am curious about what specific elements account for some documented success. It does successfully incorporate some elements of different senses than are normally associated with the teaching of reading. If repetition is a part of building sight recognition and phonemic awareness, it does have repetition, it does stress student engagement, the finger-snaps provide both auditory and kinesthetic elements.

Is scripting the only or best way to accomplish this? Well, one would hope not. But I also recall a couple of years ago a PBS special on school reform that interviewed teachers who were coerced into a scripted approach to the teaching of reading (it was not DI). What it did was provide a scaffolding to move them into a new methodology with a greater emphasis on phonemic awareness. The script provided a rapid pace to questions and answers that provided this emphasis. Certainly there are other, likely better ways, to teach pedagogy effectively. They would include observation of master teachers, coaching, reflection, all that. I hope we get there. But when we are faced with a critical mass of mid-career teachers whose learned practice is not meeting the needs of their students, scripting (as one of the interviewed teachers pointed out), is one effective/efficient tool to produce change.

As the KIPP teacher to whom Deborah was referring to in the post, I would be glad to tell you more about my lessons. I'm not sure exactly what you're looking for, so a little clarification would help. To get it started, though, I am a 6th grade writing teacher within KIPP DC, and my focus is on vocabulary, public speaking and, of course, writing. I use a version of writers' workshop daily as well. But as I said, I'd be glad to provide more once I know what you're looking for.

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