Schools focus too much on individuals and not enough on groups

January 23, 2014

Published in The Chronicle Herald

“Every student deserves a personalized learning experience that matches his or her unique learning style.” This summarizes the obsession many schools have with individualized instruction. Heaven forbid that a teacher should prepare a lesson without considering the needs of each student.

As a result, instead of standing in front of the classroom and giving one explanation to all students, teachers often divide their classes into smaller groups and repeat the same lesson multiple times. In fact, teachers are often evaluated based on the degree to which they make use of “differentiated instruction” techniques. Unsurprisingly, this places enormous stress on teachers as they strive to meet the impossible goal of providing personalized instruction for each of the 25 or more students in their classrooms.

Not only is this obsession with individualized instruction stressful on teachers, it isn’t particularly effective at improving student achievement. In her comprehensive analysis of the research literature published in the International Guide to Student Achievement (2013), Catherine Scott noted that tailoring instruction to students’ so-called learning styles is “…a waste of precious teaching and learning time.” Other experts, such as cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, have come to the same conclusion.

Much of the problem stems from an excessive focus on educational psychology in teacher training and professional development. Teachers learn all about the psychological needs of individual students, but precious little about how to effectively manage a classroom with 25 or more students. What teachers really need is a little less psychology and a lot more sociology.

Teachers aren’t hired as private tutors; their job is to teach groups of students. The best way for teachers to meet their needs is to engage the entire group with effective, whole-class lessons. Of course, this is easier said than done because it is not easy to manage the behaviour of 25 students while simultaneously providing engaging lessons. Unfortunately, despite the obvious importance of this skill, prospective teachers learn precious little in university about how to effectively teach large groups of students.

As Mike Schmoker points out in Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (2011), a great deal of research has been conducted on what effective lessons look like. Teachers need to clearly explain new concepts, model how to solve problems, give students multiple opportunities to practice, and make sure students have mastered a new skill before moving on to the next level. In other words, they should make regular use of traditional, large-group, teacher-centred, teaching methods.

Jeanne Chall was a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the Harvard Reading Laboratory for more than 30 years. In her final book, The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom (2000), Chall examined the research evidence and compared the effectiveness of progressive student-centred education with traditional teacher-centred education. Her conclusion was clear. “Traditional, teacher-centred schools, according to research and practice, are more effective than progressive, student-centred schools for the academic achievement of most children.” Not only that, teacher-centred education was especially beneficial for “children of less educated families, inner-city children, and those with learning difficulties at all social levels.”

According to Chall, one of the advantages of teacher-centred classrooms is that they focus more “…on preventing learning difficulties than on treating them with special procedures when found.” Because teacher-centred instructors make regular use of whole-class instruction, they seek out methods and materials that are optimal for the entire group. When problems arise, these teachers can spend more time with the relatively few students experiencing difficulty while the other students work independently on their assignments.

In contrast, teachers in student-centred classrooms are expected at the outset to adapt their instruction to the individual learning styles of each student. As Chall points out, this is a highly inefficient way to teach because each student only receives a small amount of direct instruction time each day. In addition, it is difficult to give additional time to academically weak students while also providing individualized instruction to all the other students.

Thus, schools should focus less on individualized instruction and more on teachers delivering effective, whole-class lessons. This will help teachers truly meet the needs of all students in their classrooms, especially those who are having difficulties with the lessons.

More education courses are not the solution

Originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, September 15, 2011. Original Link

Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty thinks teachers don’t spend enough time in education faculties. That much is apparent from his recent pledge to double the length of teacher training programs in Ontario.

Currently, prospective teachers in Ontario need to complete a bachelor’s degree and then apply for admission to a faculty of education at any major university. The teacher training program consists of eight months of classes along with at least 40 days of a classroom teaching practicum. Anyone who successfully completes this program can then apply for a teaching certificate from the Ontario College of Teachers.

At first glance, it’s not clear why the government feels teachers need more education courses. John Milroy, Ontario’s education minister, admitted the length of the practicum appeared to be sufficient already. When pressed for evidence that a longer program would be beneficial, he pointed to Finland’s intensive teacher training in which all teachers are required to earn master’s degrees.

However, while it is true that Finland has higher training requirements for its teachers, most of that training takes place in a specialized subject area such as math or history. In Finland, most teachers complete a bachelor’s and master’s degree in their subject area, and then apply for admission to a faculty of education. This bears virtually no resemblance to Premier McGuinty’s proposal that prospective teachers spend more time taking education courses.

In addition, there is very little evidence that more time spent in a faculty of education results in better teachers. John Hattie, a professor of education at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, analyzed the results of hundreds of studies about effective teaching in his 2009 book, Visible Learning. Hattie found that additional years of teacher training in education faculties produced only a minimal impact on student achievement.

When asked about the most useful part of their training, many teachers cite their subject area courses or their teaching practicum. They rarely mention their education courses. The usual comment made by teachers is that these courses were impractical, outdated, and useless. Education faculties are not held in high repute by many members of the teaching profession.

In addition, education faculties often provide training that runs directly counter to the research evidence. For example, John Hattie’s synthesis of research studies about student achievement found that traditional methods such as teacher-directed instruction significantly outperformed progressive methods such as inquiry-based learning (where students decide for themselves what they wish to explore). However, students in education faculties regularly learn the exact opposite and are encouraged to be a “guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.”

After months or even years of indoctrination in failed teaching strategies and outmoded ideologies, prospective teachers can actually emerge as less effective and discerning teachers than they were prior to their enrolment in the program.

Considering the minimal impact teacher training in education faculties actually has on teacher effectiveness, it makes little sense arbitrarily to double the length of their programs. A better approach is to focus on enhancing something virtually all teachers agree forms a critical part of their education—the teaching practicum.

Instead of making teachers take more education courses, university graduates with a solid academic background should be eligible to move directly into the classroom. There are many people with solid academic training in hard-to-staff subject areas such as math, science, and French immersion. Someone with a master’s or doctorate in math should be eligible to teach high school mathematics without taking a bunch of useless education classes.

These types of individuals could be matched up with experienced mentor teachers and apprentice with them for a full year before being given sole responsibility for a classroom. This extended practicum would be an excellent way of identifying who really belongs in the classroom.

A program in the United States known as Teach for America has attracted a great deal of attention. Teach for America recruits college and university graduates to teach for at least two years in some schools that are most difficult to staff. These teachers receive on the job training and extensive mentorship. Although the program is controversial among teachers’ unions, it has seen enormous success and many of its alumni have gone on to become excellent teachers.

Prospective teachers should spend less time in education faculties, not more.

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.