Traditional teaching methods supported by research

Originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, June 1, 2011. Original Link

If there’s one thing drilled into the heads of prospective teachers, it is that traditional teaching approaches are hopelessly outdated. Our future educators are told that it is wrong to think of classrooms as places where students acquire knowledge from teachers.

Instead, prospective teachers are immersed in a philosophy known as constructivism. In essence, constructivism encourages students to construct their own understanding of the world around them, and reduces teachers to mere learning facilitators.

While this philosophy finds its roots in the writings of 17th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there are many modern proponents as well. Paulo Freire, a well-known educational theorist, criticized the “banking” theory of schooling in his classic book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire and his disciples saw education as an inherently political act of liberation rather than as the transmission of essential knowledge and skills to students.

This stands in stark contrast to the traditional view that schools exist for the purpose of ensuring students acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to function effectively in society. Unfortunately, the constructivist approach disavows this belief and minimizes the importance of academic content.

It was this philosophy that inspired the replacement of phonics with the whole language approach for reading instruction. Phonics reflects the traditional approach of teaching children letters and sounds while whole language encourages children to construct their own meaning from what they read. Although most current reading programs incorporate aspects of phonics, significant components of whole language remain prevalent in elementary classrooms.

Constructivism has made its presence felt in other subject areas as well. Math teachers are often encouraged to do less direct instruction of specific number concepts and more real life application of math principles. Some textbooks and curriculum materials even recommend that teachers turn their math classes into social justice indoctrination sessions.

One example of this is Math That Matters by David Stocker. This teacher resource written by a Toronto educator contains 50 suggested math lessons for teachers. The lessons address controversial topics from a decidedly left-wing perspective. Students learn to promote the union movement, challenge the dominance of evil corporations, and blame industrialized countries for the world’s hunger problems.

It should come as little surprise that this propagandistic piece was published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a self-styled “progressive” think tank. Math That Matters forms part of the CCPA’s education project which was designed as a response to concerns about the influence of corporations over public education. The political inclination in this type of resource should be obvious.

Advocates of constructivism assert that research proves their methods are superior to more traditional approaches. However, a new book written by New Zealand education professor John Hattie challenges this claim.

Visible Learning was born out of Hattie’s fifteen-year synthesis of thousands of research studies about what makes the biggest difference to student achievement. He found that constructivist approaches did not produce the promised results.

“The role of the constructivist teacher is claimed to be more of facilitation to provide opportunities for individual students to acquire knowledge and construct meaning through their own activities… These kinds of statements are almost directly opposite to the successful recipe for teaching and learning…” states Hattie.

In contrast, traditional methods made a significant positive impact on student learning. As an example of this, Hattie found that phonics outperformed whole language by a huge margin. Hattie concluded that phonics was “powerful in the process of learning to read” while the effects of whole language on reading instruction were “negligible.”

One of the largest studies cited by Hattie was Project Follow Through, a long-term study involving more 72,000 students over 10 years. This study contrasted direct instruction (a traditional methodology) with constructivist approaches such as whole language and open education. Even though researchers found direct instruction was the only approach to have significant positive effects for student learning, the study simply led to more money being spent on failed constructivist approaches.

Hattie is right when he describes education as an immature profession that often places ideology ahead of evidence. Even though the actual research evidence supports traditional teaching methods, constructivist ideology remains dominant in teacher training institutions.

It’s time we place evidence ahead of ideology and adopt teaching methods that actually enhance student learning.


Real brain-based learning

Originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, December 15, 2010. Original Link

Many education gurus are renowned for promoting theories that have limited empirical support.

One of the best examples is the work of “brain-based” education guru Eric Jensen. His promotional website proudly trumpets his specialty as the “integration of cutting-edge neuroscience with practical, user-friendly brain-based learning classroom strategies.” That’s a rather bold statement for someone with only a B.A. in English and no public school teaching experience.

Like many other education gurus, Jensen downplays the importance of factual knowledge and academic content, and makes it clear that he is not a fan of requiring students to do a lot of rote memorization. Fortunately, there are some people with real cognitive expertise who are challenging the misguided approach of armchair neuroscientists like Jensen.

Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, has written an informative book for educators called Why Don’t Students Like School. Willingham, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Harvard University, is an expert in how the human mind works. In his book, Willingham uses several widely accepted principles of cognitive psychology to make his case for more traditional methods of instruction.

For example, Willingham notes that there is good reason for requiring students to practice their multiplication tables and memorize the spelling of commonly used words. This is because lack of space in working memory is the key bottleneck in human cognition. In other words, students who do not know their math facts by heart find it very difficult to perform more advanced problems since they end up wasting valuable mental capacity on something which should be automatic.

Although education gurus often deride repetitive practice as “drill and kill”, the fact is that it provides the foundation for deeper learning. We do our brains a significant favour when we commit basic skills to memory since it frees up our working memory for other things. It may not be very exciting to practice doing the same thing over and over, but it pays off over the long-term.

Willingham also dissects the claim by education gurus that schools need to spend less time teaching students about science and history and more time helping students think like scientists and historians. These gurus argue that reading about scientific discoveries in the textbook or hearing a lecture about major historical events are far removed from the work that scientists and historians actually do. As a result, they propose that schools should decrease the amount of emphasis placed on the acquisition of factual knowledge.

However, Willingham points out that this advice is hopelessly misguided. Scientists and historians became experts in their field through many years of study and practice. Students need to have a broad-based understanding of the academic basics before they can even begin to think like experts. It is impossible to think deeply about something you know little about. After all, it would be foolish to expect a detailed historical analysis of the root causes of World War I from a student who didn’t know, by memory, the names of the major countries involved in that conflict.

In addition, since students with the broadest knowledge-base are the ones best able to make sense of the world around them, schools should focus on giving them solid academic content from as early an age as possible. Education gurus do our students a grave disservice when they minimize the importance of content.

Willingham also effectively debunks the multiple intelligences theory of educational psychologist Howard Gardner. According to Gardner, traditional IQ tests are not an accurate measure of intelligence since they do not measure other so-called intelligences such as musical ability and interpersonal skills.

While it is true that students have many different talents and skills, most cognitive psychologists reject the way in which Gardner redefines the very nature of intelligence. In fact, there is little empirical data supporting the broad sweeping claims that Gardner makes.

It is ironic that the theory of multiple intelligences is widely rejected by psychological experts while enthusiastically embraced within the school system. One can only hope that educators pay more attention to where the evidence really points.

Everyone who wants to know what real brain-based learning looks like should take the time to read Willingham’s book. It certainly exposes the flaws in the progressive ideology promoted by many education gurus.