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John Thompson: Neither Teacher-Less nor Teacher-proof: Constructivism Meets Guided Instruction

Guest post by John Thompson.

The cover story in the American Educator "Putting Students on the Path to Learning," by Richard Clark, Paul Kirschner, and John Swelter should prompt a dialogue between teachers as well as with school "reformers." So, I want to preface my opinions with a request for the professional judgments of fellow teachers.

Twenty years ago, I was a true believer in progressive, experiential, "student-centric" instruction when it was done well enough to bring focus to the learning objective. I embraced the conventional wisdom that a teacher should be "a guide on the side, but not a sage on the stage." I later learned that the cooperative, hands-on learning that I aspired to was known as "partial or minimal instructional guidance."

The realities of the inner city convinced me, however, that teachers must take control of the classroom. I developed a hybrid pedagogy incorporating many constructivist methods, while insisting on "Old School" standards of behavior and "breaking it down" for high school students with elementary skills. In classes of thirty or more where reading skills ranged from 3rd to 12th grade, and where many students thought "real work" is doing worksheets, I first had to teach students to unlearn the "read the Section and answer the questions" mentality and guide them towards "creative insubordination." In my case, progressive methods were used to achieve progressive ends, as I also adopted more conservative methods to "teach students to be students." I imposed more structure than I would have liked to teach the fundamentals of "thinking like a historian," not so students would think like me, but so they could rethink history from their generation's perspective. Also, in a building that was continually spinning out of control, often into extreme violence, students had to know that they had an authoritative (though not authoritarian) leader. I essentially adopted a football coach's organization and, often, demeanor to become a critical thinking coach.

"Putting Students on the Path to Learning" places my evolution into an unabashed "teacher-centric" instructor into perspective. The "it" that I led my students through is known as "fully guided instruction," where teachers preview the main idea of the lesson, use a variety of media to show students how to work through the problem they are studying, and give step-by-step explanations. Research by Clark et. al documents the need for teachers to work their students through carefully planned lessons. Clark and other advocates of fully guided instruction support small group learning for practicing, as oppose to discovering new skills. They also recommend lectures, modeling, videos, realistic presentations, digital presentations, and class discussions.

Research supporting fully guided instruction makes sense to me, but I would like to hear from readers about the argument of Clark et. al that controlled experiments dating back to the 1950s "have established a solid research-based case against the use of instruction with minimal guidance." Is it an overstatement to argue that, "advocates of unguided instruction have been unaware, or uninterested, in previous evidence?"

Clark's implication is that contemporary "reform" grew in response to the idealism of progressive educators who did not heed evidence against their preferred methods. Data-driven accountability could thus be seen as a corrective to the political correctness of the progressive "status quo."

Even if it were a simple case where Clark et. al were demonstrably correct and advocates of partial guidance were wrong, the accountability hawks of the last generation were too quick to judge. They committed tens of billions of dollars of new money that came with NCLB and other test-driven "reforms" to failed test prep and curriculum narrowing. I have to believe that the best outcome would have been a full-throated debate over the best ways to spend the new billions. My suspicion is that if we had fully funded schools that employed both methods, fully guided instruction would have been more effective in the inner city. On the other hand, both pedagogies would have been far preferable to the soul-killing scripted instruction that has been dumped on too many urban students.

Moreover, the implications of Clark et. al cuts both ways. Their research also shows why teacher-less and teacher-proof quick fixes won't work. If urban schools had failed because students need more than partial guidance by instructors, the solution would have been to guide students more fully, but not to do the opposite and narrow teaching even more. Novice learners need more guidance than can be provided by "credit recovery" tutorials, paced instructional regimes, after-school remediation, and virtual learning.

It is a shame that classroom teachers and "reformers" could not have learned from non-ideological conversations about the scientific findings of the last generation. It is also a shame that data-driven instruction has driven multi-media instruction from so many classrooms. Like many or most teachers, I still respect progressive ideals as I heed the cognitive research which explains the flaws of displacing the central role played by teachers.

In my experience, advocates of constructivist learning have open minds, and I expect that most are willing to adjust their techniques based on emerging cognitive science.

What do you think? Were advocates of discovery learning too dismissive of teacher-centric instruction? Or, have many or most teachers who would like to provide the minimum of guidance found ways to reach a balance while incorporating as much student-centric learning as possible? And, am I naive in hoping that test-driven reformers might learn from the case for fully guided instruction and reconsider their teacher-less silver bullets?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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