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Dueling Views on Instructional Strategies

So much of the debate today about improving public schools concerns the curriculum. It's certainly important, but what about instruction? How teachers teach (instruction) warrants as much attention as what they teach (curriculum).

An essay by Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University in the Summer 2011 issue of Education Next addresses the issue ("Eighth-Grade Students Learn More Through Direct Instruction"). Peterson starts out on the right foot by framing the debate about instruction as one of "the sage on the stage" versus "the guide on the side." In other words, should teachers stand and deliver material, or should they allow students on their own to solve problems?

Peterson cites a study by Guido Schwerdt and Amelie Wuppermann of the University of Munich as the answer. They looked at 8th graders with the same classmates but different teachers in math and science who took the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS). They focused on TIMSS because the test also asked teachers about the percentage of class time they devoted to lecture-style presentation of material and what percentage of class time they allowed students to work on problems with or without the teacher's guidance.

The study found that students learned 3.6 percent of a standard deviation more if the teacher spent 10 percent more time on direct instruction. Peterson concluded that the evidence clearly showed the benefit of direct instruction.

I'm perfectly willing to consider evidence that shows one kind of instruction is superior to another in terms of student learning. But Peterson's essay is unconvincing. First, 3.6 percent of a standard deviation hardly qualifies as compelling. Second, most teachers in K-12 use a mixture of instructional practices. Larry Cuban, professor of education emeritus at Stanford University, says that opposite poles of teaching take place in "only a tiny percentage" of the nation's schools (" 'Hugging The Middle,' " Education Week, Apr. 27, 2009). Third, what works for classes with certain students doesn't work for others. Fourth, some topics lend themselves more naturally to lecture and demonstration than others. Peterson fails to consider any of these factors.

Perhaps worst of all, Peterson uses his experience teaching students at Harvard University as being applicable to K-12, and then compounds his error by writing that problem-solving classes "require less preparation and are easier to teach." In fact, designing an effective lesson plan that relies on problem-solving is infinitely more difficult because student behavior under these conditions is more unpredictable than when they listen passively to a lecture.

I've never understood why the views of professors who have never taught in K-12 public schools are given such weight. They are theoreticians - not clinicians. That doesn't mean they have nothing to offer. On the contrary. But their comments have to be taken with a grain of salt. (Cuban is an exception, having taught in ghetto schools for 14 years.) Instead, we need to pay far more attention to what K-12 classroom teachers have to say. They're the ones who deal with students on a day-to-day basis.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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