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The Instruction War

The debate pitting supporters of discovery learning against supporters of fully guided instruction seems finally settled. "Decades of research clearly demonstrate that for novices (comprising virtually all students), direct, explicit instruction is more effective and more efficient than partial guidance" ("Putting Students on the Path to Learning," American Educator, Spring 2012).

I agree with the conclusion. But I hasten to point out that there will always be students who, for one reason or another, possess advanced knowledge or are self-directed. Teachers who happen to inherit a class of these students will post impressive results in spite of - not because of - their instruction. They then can claim credit for what they don't deserve. At the start of my career in the classroom, I happened to be given a 10th grade English class that was composed of students whose parents were professors, doctors, lawyers or corporate executives. They made me look good because of their backgrounds. In today's parlance, I demonstrated value-added. Yet I didn't deserve the kudos.

Therein lies one of the problems of the accountability movement. Teachers are understandably reluctant to teach in schools where most students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It's not because they're lazy or incompetent. It's that they will not likely have students like the ones I had. Therefore, they'll be saddled with the Sisyphean task of bringing their students up to proficiency. Let's not forget that no matter how dedicated these teachers are, they have their students for only a small part of the day. The rest of their students' waking hours are spent in the home and neighborhood.

That's why fully guided instruction is particularly valuable for students who come to school with deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development. Time in school is limited. Allowing students to discover what they believe is the correct solution and then find out that it is wrong does them a disservice because research has shown they tend to remember their solution - not the correction. I realize that some of the most important lessons we retain come from failure, but I think confusion and frustration should be avoided as much as possible in learning.

In short, laissez-faire education, whereby students design their own education, is a gamble unlikely to pay off. Nevertheless, schools established along this line exist even in today's accountability era. Their appeal is to parents who want their children to escape the stress caused by regimentation in traditional schools. That is their right. But I doubt that students by themselves can ever learn as much by discovery as they can from inspired teachers.

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

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