May 18, 2006

Tying up Loose Ends

Differentiated instruction is all the rage. In theory at least. In the comments to the last post, we learned that in practice often what passes for differentiated instruction is only superficially differentiated. I'm not surprised. Real differentiated instruction is a terrible hassle for teachers.

And remember, the only reason why educators are doing differentiated instruction is because they think it'll somehow improve student achievement. In reality, there is little evidence to support the theory.

I think I know what the problem is. The concept behind differentiated instruction is partially right. Kids need to be instructed at their skill level and some kids learn faster than others. Instruction should take these two factors into account. However, learning styles and other individual differences are a bunch of hooey. And, it's easy to show that they are.

One way to prove this is to design a highly refined teaching sequence that clearly teaches concepts. Ideally, the teaching sequence would teach the exact same thing to each student.

This is where the DI laserdiscs (the precursor to DVDs) come in. The laserdisc programs were designed to provide a minute or two of instruction during which the narrator shows how to work a particular operation or discrimination. (See some examples of the video presentations from a new DVD-based programs, which are most likely similar, here.) Then the live segment stops and a problem appears on the screen, with instructions. After the kids work the still-frame problem, the teacher simply proceeds with the program and the correct work for the problem appears on the screen.

Quizzes and test are incorporated into the program. After a test, the teacher assesses the number of kids who missed items in a part of a test and determines what remedy is needed. If a remedy is needed, the teacher determines it by choosing from a simple menu that indicates various remedies. The rules for managing the kids were simple. Here they are for the math videodisc program:
  1. Do not present from the front of the room. Use your remote and circulate among the students as the video presentation is going on and when students are working the still-frame problems.
  2. Model responses you expect from the students. When the narrator asks a question, answer it. Reinforce students who answer.
  3. When students are working still-frame problems, direct them to follow the instructions on the screen. Do not "reteach" or explain things that were presented during the live segment of the video.
  4. Reinforce students who work quickly and accurately.
  5. During the early parts of the program, be very strict about mechanics. Students are to write the problems exactly as specified. Don't permit them to omit signs, omit specified steps, or deviate from solutions that are shown on the screen.
So the laserdisc program teaches all the kids in a classroom the same exact presentation of material. All kids work out the same problems and their performance is evaluated. If the students did not learn the material, the appropriate lesson is re-presented to them until it is mastered. Then, the program picks up at the next lesson in the sequence.

So now if Brophy is correct, the videodisc program should prevail in studies and even lower performers should do well, regardless of their learning style. Several such studies were, in fact, conducted using the DI videodisc programs. Engelmann describes one study that compared the performance of "learning disability" high school students and "remedial students" who had failed previous science courses to the performance of advanced-placement students who were in their second year of chemistry.
This study was done as part of the initial field-testing of our videodisc program on Chemistry and Energy. The learning-disability kids and remedial kids went through the laserdisc sequence, after which they and the advanced-placement kids were tested on bonding, equilibrium, energy of activation, catalysts, atomic structure, and basic properties of organic compounds. Although the advanced-placement students were light-years ahead of the video group in achievement (close to the 90th percentile in math and science), the remedial students outperformed them on every topic, and even the learning-disability students outperformed them on bonding and equilibrium. The mean post-test scores for the video group was 75, compared to 71 for the advanced-placement students.
No doubt, if the AP kids went through the video sequence, they would have outperformed the LD and remedial kids. But the laserdisc studies show that all kids can learn what they are supposed to learn if the instruction effectively communicates to the kids, teaches the kids exactly what to do, and provides adequate practice. The only stipulation is that the kids have the requisite skills assumed at the beginning of the program.

There is no need to monkey around with learning styles, multiple intelligences, individual differences, or any other faddish excuses educators use to excuse substandard teaching.

6 comments:

Catherine Johnson said...

fantastic post!

thank you

Kate said...

The problem I see is that the study as you describe it did not include instructing so-called "normal" and "gifted" students via this method. To get a valid conclusion about learning styles, etc., you would need to include students at every level of the spectrum, from the "learning disabled" through the "remedial" to the "average" all the way up to the "gifted".

What this study proves is that this is a valid way to teach the category of students studied--but it may or may not apply to all students.

Additionally, I would be interested in seeing how well all the students (the entire range) performed using this approach when tested a year later; in other words, what is the long-term retention of the subject?

If you truly believed what you are saying, wouldn't you be purchasing these programs for your own students? And your children? (This is a serious question, not trolling--if the results are as good as indicated, why wouldn't you want to use these tools?)

I can tell you as a person who believes in teachers teaching and students learning fractions and phonics and basic practice in music, etc.--and as a "gifted" student in school--that first I would have whizzed right through these programs; that I probably wouldn't have had very long-term retention; and that if all my instruction was via these programs that I would have been bored to tears.

In graduate school, my husband flunked his official statistics class. But when he was taught the exact same concepts and equations in the context of an extremely hard graduate course where those concepts and techniques made sense--a class that used statistics as a tool but focused in-depth on a totally different subject (soil science)--he not only passed that class, but learned enough statistics that all his coworkers 10 years later go to him for all their statistics questions. Whereas I, a computer science person, aced my theoretical math classes (with hard work!) and loved the logic and beauty behind them. Two different people, two different--dare I say it?--learning styles. ;-)

Music students must study scales. But scales are dreadfully boring. This is why there are so many different "etudes" by so many different composers (including modern composers)--because each of those composers knew that they and their students needed to study the scales, and knew that straight rote scale practicing would be deadly dull and not likely to induce a love of music in students.

Now, "love" of learning is difficult to quantify, and the ability to nurture or convey "love" of learning is equally difficult to dissect. But while learning the basics is important, so is learning that "love" of learning.

Does this make sense?

KDeRosa said...

Good questions, Kate. I answered most of them in a new post.

I do use the programs with my own children even though I think they'd succeed with other instructional programs that seem superficially more fun because 1. I like mastery learning, 2. I don't like knowledge gaps, 3. I like the efficiency of the program (meaning I can teach more in less time), and 4. the kids like the ease at which they are learning, so they like the program.

and as a "gifted" student in school--that first I would have whizzed right through these programs; that I probably wouldn't have had very long-term retention; and that if all my instruction was via these programs that I would have been bored to tears.

That's what gifted students are supposed to do, whiz through the program as fast as their ability permits while learning the material. Gifted students need less practice to master and retain. Retention isn't an issue in DI due to the distributed practice. And, you wouldn't be bored because you'd be continually learning at a fast pace.

In graduate school, my husband flunked his official statistics class. But when he was taught the exact same concepts and equations in the context of an extremely hard graduate course ... he ...learned enough statistics that all his coworkers 10 years later go to him for all their statistics questions.

This is one possible explanation. At least one other possible explantion is that the original stat course wasn't taught very well in the first place.

... because each of those composers knew that they and their students needed to study the scales, and knew that straight rote scale practicing would be deadly dull and not likely to induce a love of music in students.

DI is not rote learning; a common misunderstanding. Rote learning is not efficient. Rote learning doesn't generalize. DI is designed to teach efficiently. DI teaching is designed carfefully so the student can generalize from what he's been taught.

But while learning the basics is important, so is learning that "love" of learning.

When students learn they develop a love for learning. DI is designed to make learning easy, so kids stay engaged and motivated. When kids stay engaged and motivated they will learn. When kids are frustrated and confused, they will disengage and become unmotivated and learning will stop.

Does this make sense?

Yes, based on your assumptions. But I think many of your assumptions aren't accurate.

SteveH said...

"Music students must study scales. But scales are dreadfully boring. This is why there are so many different "etudes" by so many different composers (including modern composers)--because each of those composers knew that they and their students needed to study the scales, and knew that straight rote scale practicing would be deadly dull and not likely to induce a love of music in students."

Piano students must learn the scales and fingering. It has to be rote and automatic. Starting out using a book like Hanon is very efficient. The fingerings are difficult and are best learned directly, rather than in context, using etudes. Once the student has been exposed to fingerings and had some practice, then etudes may be appropriate and one can reduce the need to practice scales directly. Etudes can be extremely difficult and can kill any love of music if the student does not have some experience with the basics. You don't start with etudes. You don't learn fractions in context.

My son's piano teacher uses a combination of tools, like Hanon, Czerny, Bartok, and real pieces. He is not a pedagogue and slave to 9 level teaching programs. There are good and bad points about each approach, but I would say that I am not a big fan of strict adherence to programmed (Alfred, Bastien) approaches. However, programmed approaches do ensure a certain level of quality. For advanced students, a programmed approach can work if the student can proceed at his/her own pace, accompanied by challenging and interesting pieces. I don't think it is an either/or question. I will say that because my son "dropped out" of the Bastien prgram after the first book level, that we have to do extra work making sure that he gets all of the theory that is clearly covered in the program.

Modern progressive education wants to have kids learn everything in context, top down. The problem is that the basics never get mastered and they even do a poor job with the overall picture. In many cases, these progressive approaches are quite programmed in their own way.

One has to be careful about assumptions when evaluating a program like Direct Instruction. The most important one is whether you believe in a bottom-up approach that emphasizes mastery of the basics, or a top-down approach that emphasizes real world applications. In theory, neither approach is right or wrong. In practice, however, I'll put all my bets on bottom-up approaches - programmed or otherwise. Some of the most gifted international musicians were taught by pedagogues, and I guarantee that they did not start with etudes.

A lot of this comes down to the "love of learning" issue. The premise is that direct mastery of the basics kills any love of learning. They usually call it "rote" learning. However, rote implies that the student doesn't understand what he/she is doing. This is not necessarily the case. No understanding implies bad teaching and is not equivalent to mastery of the basics. Besides, my son "loved" the math worksheets I gave him when he was in Kindergarten.

For these people, the solution is a top-down approach that emphasizes real world applications. It may be more fun for the kids and they may seem to like the learning process, but what happens in a few years when mastery of the basics is needed the most? They will find that they really don't like learning so much.

The fallacy is that there is some magic road to learning that doesn't require a lot of hard, tedious work; that doesn't require the determination to work on something even they really, really don't like it. Some, apparently, don't even see much linkage between mastery and true understanding.

This doesn't mean that you try to make things difficult. It means that there are no shortcuts. Students have to know that they cannot expect to "like" learning every step of the way.

Jendojen said...

I guess I see some of the same problems that Kate does.

If, as you say, gifted students can move at their own, faster pace wouldn't you have to have tracked classes? Or are you saying that everyone will be able to copy the problems down and get some sort of understanding of what they are copying at the same pace from a video, when they can't from a teacher?

This is basically how I was taught algebra in 8th grade. About 20 of us were moved ahead and took algebra in 8th grade. Our (pretty respected) suburban district had a year's worth of algebra on tape with worksheet packets for visuals. We went to the library in small groups and listened to the tapes, while looking at the pictures and writing out the problems for ourselves.

Some kids got it, sometimes, some didn't. Fortunately, every Friday our teacher (who stayed in the classroom with the 5 or 6 slowest kids in the grade Monday through Friday, teaching them) did a "questions" class. Not very far in, we realized that we understood things a lot better if we just watched and asked questions of a real live person. So, we'd keep track of the topics of the week and be sure to ask a question about each of them and learn the week's work in that one day.

After we realized the trick to it, we all *loved* the way this worked out. We went to the library and as long as we weren't too noisy in the "small group instruction rooms" in the back and didn't attract any visual attention through the windows, we basically sat around and told jokes and laughed and occasionally wrote something down.

Yes, anecdotal. Yes, probably would have been different if a "proctor" had been with us. But, if there'd been a "teacher" in there, I bet we'd have managed to turn off the tape within the first 10 minutes every time and gotten the teacher to...well, teach!

Suffice it to say that it was good we were pretty quick kids, because our understanding of algebra based on one class a week, wasn't as strong as it could have been.

When used in a classroom, how do you deal with a kid just putting his head down? A kid that keeps raising her hand and saying, "I don't get it?" Wouldn't these still be as or more disruptive?

Now on the other hand, I'm all for basic skills and bottom up work. I think that memorizing has gotten a bad rap and that it's good for all kids.

KDeRosa said...

If, as you say, gifted students can move at their own, faster pace wouldn't you have to have tracked classes?

Yes, they'd have to be grouped by ability in order to accelerate them. Otherwise, they'd have to move as slowly as the slowest student learns.

Or are you saying that everyone will be able to copy the problems down and get some sort of understanding of what they are copying at the same pace from a video, when they can't from a teacher?

The video presentation can be duplicated by a teacher. In fact a study was conducted in which they did just that and the kids performed the same.

Our (pretty respected) suburban district had a year's worth of algebra on tape with worksheet packets for visuals.

It sounds like what you got was a taped version of traditional instruction. The problem with that is that ...

Some kids got it, sometimes, some didn't.

This videodisc course is based on DI instruction in which most kids will get it.

But, if there'd been a "teacher" in there, I bet we'd have managed to turn off the tape within the first 10 minutes every time and gotten the teacher to...well, teach!

A teacher is still needed in the videodisc course. It is the teacher's job to make sure the kids are paying attention and following directions. More importnatly, the teacher is assessing errors and providing remedies. This is the critical part.

When used in a classroom, how do you deal with a kid just putting his head down?

The same way you'd deal with the problem in a normal classroom. The teacher has to manage the class. The benefit to this course, is that since it teaches effectivelt, it'll be easier to motivate the kids and keep their attention.

A kid that keeps raising her hand and saying, "I don't get it?"

The teacher's instructions ae to simply tell the kids to follow the instructions. The DI programs are field tested extensively with low performers, to avoid the problem of students not getting it.