Schneider's From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse, Chapter 4: Direct Instruction

The fourth chapter of Jack Schneider's From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education represents a needed turn in the overall narrative of the book. As a bonus, this chapter will likely keep me from throwing around the phrase "direct instruction" in unintended ways.

Schneider's previous three chapters focused on Bloom's Taxonomy, multiple intelligences, and the project method. Each of those cases seemed to rely heavily on Schneider's constructs of philosophical compatibility and transportability. In other words, fidelity of implementation didn't seem to matter much: teachers adoption of the research seemed tied to their freedom to interpret and implement the research in whatever way they saw fit. In more than a few instances, Schneider leaves the reader to question if the research has been implemented with any fidelity at all, or if teachers are adopting it in name only.
In this chapter, titled Lessons of Last Resort, Schneider tells the story of Direct Instruction. I've heard and used the term direct instruction (little "d" little "i") to simply describe teaching as telling, but it has a more specific research heritage exending back 50+ years. The researcher there from the beginning is Siegfried Engelmann, seen here:


Unlike Bloom's Taxonomy, multiple intelligences, and the project method, Englemann's Direct Instruction works (with the research to show it) when teachers are philosophically compatible with the method and they implement it with fidelity. The actual effectiveness of research wasn't addressed in Schneider's first three chapters, but it is here because it's one of the big reasons for Direct Instruction's success.

This success isn't something that makes some progressive educators very comfortable, as they resist the scripted nature of the curriculum. These progressive educators are usually in schools where illiteracy and innumeracy isn't a persistent problem, and they're given autonomy to choose other, more philosophically compatible curriculum and methods. (To be clear, just because Direct Instruction has been shown to be effective, that doesn't mean it's the only effective thing, or the most effective. Also, it should go without saying, showing something to be "effective" is a tricky business, even when we agree what "effective" means.) But in schools where illiteracy and innumeracy persists, often in low-income schools with underrepresented populations and difficulties finding skilled teachers, Direct Instruction is more popular. Schneider addresses the issue of philosophical compatibility:
In addition to its effect on teacher authority, scripting also promised to reduce the responsibilities of those in classrooms. Working with a program like Direct Instruction, teachers would no longer be responsible for lesson design, for expertise about children, or for the task of dealing with the uncertainty of classroom life. As Direct Instruction promoters put it on their Web site: "The popular valuing of teacher creativity and autonomy as high priorities must give way to a willingness to follow certain carefully prescribed instructional practices." And as Englemann put it: "The teacher is a teacher—not a genius, an instructional designer, or a counselor. The teacher must be viewed as a consumer of instructional material." Engelmann saw this aspect of Direct Instruction as occupationally realistic, and he may have been right. But reducing teacher responsibility also raised serious philosophical compatibility issues insofar as it threatened teacher professionalism. (p. 122)
You might be reading this right now and saying to yourself, "No way. I'd never use this stuff." That's the philosophical incompatibility talking. There's reasearch for that, too: reform curricula might be good, but the results aren't nearly as good when placed in the hands of a traditional teacher. I believe vice-versa has been found to be better, but still not as good as reform curriculua with reform teachers. But where do we draw the line between philosophical compatibility and the need for teachers to be open minded? To be learners? As professionals, when should our philosophies give way to what we can gain from research, regardless of compatibility?

I don't have an answer for this question, but perhaps Michael Pershan (@mpershan) will have some thoughts in his reply. If you haven't been following along, we've been reading the book together and here are our posts so far:

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