Good vs. Evil: Pedagogy in the Classroom

Sunday, March 27, 2016 / 14 comments
My school district has been piloting math materials for the past two years. Now that the second year is coming to a close, tensions are rising between teachers.  Differences in pedagogy are bubbling to the surface. Amongst other things, it is very apparent that inquiry-based instruction is on one side and direct instruction is on the other.  It's a battle of good versus evil, the Dark Side versus The Rebel Alliance, or is it?



Which side is evil and which side is good?  Is evil really evil, or is it misunderstood?  After all, even Darth Vader had the best interest of those he loved in mind when he went dark.  Is one side entirely correct? Is there only room for one style of teaching? Every day? For every lesson? For every part of every the lesson? Direct instruction is described as, "...the use of straightforward, explicit teaching techniques, usually to teach a specific skill. It is a teacher-directed method, meaning that the teacher stands in front of a classroom and presents the information."  In the instructional strategies portion of the California Math Framework it states that direct instruction, "... has proved to be effective for teaching information and basic skills during whole-class instruction." This has me wondering, what does it mean by information? How does it define basic skills?  (It's important to note that the framework was not suggesting which strategies are best to use exactly, it is just a list explaining 7 instructional models.) Is direct instruction necessarily better to learn those things? Reminds me of Van de Walle's advice on, "What to tell, and what not to tell." Telling things like conventions or what is needed to gain access to the math, but not over scaffolding and removing the problem solving for students.


In contrast, "Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is a method of instruction that places the student, the subject, and their interaction at the center of the learning experience. At the same time, it transforms the role of the teacher from that of dispensing knowledge to one of facilitating learning.  It repositions him or her, physically, from the front and center of the classroom to someplace in the middle or back of it, as it subtly yet significantly increases his or her involvement in the thought-processes of the students."
Another excerpt from the instructional strategies portion of the California Math Framework:

I recently listened to a teacher share something she had read about inquiry-based instruction not working and not building on conceptual understanding.  I really can't grapple with how this could be true.  The most basic idea is that the knowledge is being built by the student.  Initially, they are creating their own inventive strategies and making connections to what they already know and to the problem itself. They are problem solving. They are finding a way to work with the math in a way that they have access to and that makes sense to them. Now, if we as teachers stopped there, that would be a problem, but we don't.  We leverage students' representations and make connections to bring them to readiness, fluency, and mastery.  The images below are stolen from Phil Daro.  




When teachers look at the different levels of prior knowledge that students come in with, how can they possibly plan a lesson at the beginning of a unit using direct instruction that will meet the needs of ALL students?
CA Math Framework
What I find especially interesting here is that Universal Access means you're creating a lesson FROM THE BEGINNING that is inclusive of all students. It does not mean you need supplementary materials or a separate time to differentiate a lesson.

Does this mean that direct instruction has no place in our teaching?  Can we use direct instruction after bringing students to readiness for that instruction? What would that look like? Maybe use direct instruction when the class is transitioning to fluency in the grade level way of thinking after a solid foundation of conceptual understanding has been constructed? Then, after using the grade level way of thinking ask students to continuously spiral back to why it works and how they know???  
Would there be a benefit to teaching in this progression?  How different would it be if we began with direct instruction using the grade level math and then asked the kids why it worked? Which progression would give students greater depth?
From CA Math Framework

Then, I heard another teacher say, "Yeah, how can our kids do this? They're only 7?!"  That one struck me as well, because I remember having that exact same thought the first time someone said that "I do, we do, you do" is backwards and that he felt like he failed if they get to the "I do."  

At NCTM's annual conference I attended Phil Daro's session, "What Questions."  He shared this lessons by thirds structure:

Notice the bottom right? Yes! Direct instruction! Although, the way he describes it, it might not fit the traditional model a teacher would imagine.  Mr. Daro says that before the lesson, the teacher has prepared a summary about the math to be learned in the lesson, and then throughout the lesson he/she collects student work to cite in the summary, so it's the student work and student discourse that is providing the direct instruction through facilitation by the teacher.

 I know it's pretty obvious where I spend a greater chunk of my instructional time. If I ever tread too far into the explicit side, it's usually a signal to me that I need to dive into the Framework and Van de Walle or other legit resources to beef up my content and pedagogical knowledge.  We as teachers need to be vigilant in reminding ourselves to stay centered on allowing students to discover the content standards through the Standards of Mathematical Practice. I have found it helpful to shift my vision of what teachers are from disseminators of information, to designers and researchers; constantly creating opportunities for discoveries and in depth learning while watching and listening to students continuously and using that information to inform instruction in the moment and in future planning. 

If we over utilize direct instruction, we deprive students of building conceptual understanding and inhibiting true fluency, not to mention how students view the roles of students and teachers in the classroom. If we only use inquiry without connecting those discoveries through student lead direct instruction, some students might not ever make the connections in student work, which means they might not reach the grade level target.
In my opinion, either side could take on the role of the "Dark Side," if strategies are not used purposefully or balanced in a way that best meets the needs of the students. So then the question changes... It's not which is right or wrong, good or evil, Dark Side or Rebel...
It's a question of when.

Jamie


14 comments:

  1. Jamie, you are my math person! Such a great blog, love how you showed another place (a better place!) for direct instruction! Xo

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    1. Thanks, Michelle! I think I enjoy it so much because I am learning so much!

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  2. Super timely post as I just wrote this post last week:

    https://tapintoteenminds.com/best-way-to-learn-math/

    As you mention, balance is key. As of late, I am trying very hard to stay away from statements that give absolutes. It is what every human wants (a "right" or "wrong" way), but I don't think a "right" answer exists.

    Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thank you, Kyle! Now that mine is done, I can read yours! I agree, I don't think uncomplicated right answers exhist, and if they did, they would likely have an expiration date!

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  3. Very good explanation. My opinion is that direct instruction I think maximizes the "amount of math explained by time" but other techniques could maximize another things (the amount of comprehension)...

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    1. Thanks, Xavier! What I wonder about that is if direct instruction maximizes the amount learned in the long run...

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  4. Restoring the balance you are, Jamie. Part of the problem is that our anatomy of instructional approaches is always less differentiated than how we teach in practice. Add to that the desire to polarise... and it's a recipe for misunderstanding.

    You know I try to begin with student questions, talk and understandings, and build from there. But I also introduce ways of doing things and ask them to try them out. For instance in building up to the grid method, I ask them to choose a multiplication sum to represent by an area model with Cuisenaire rods:
    https://picasaweb.google.com/mrsimongregg/CuisenaireMultiplicationAndGridMethod

    That said, I want to move more towards the situation where even those times of more direct instruction come from things one or some of the students have already done or said in class.

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    1. Nice going keeping with the Star Wars theme! I'm pondering on what you said about insteuctiinal differences and practice. I agree with you about starting with student questions and understandings too. When I introduce a new tool or strategy, I fake it and say I saw someone else in class doing it or a student from last year and have the class make sense of whether it works or not and why. Just trying to take more of the focus off of myself and further empowering the students as active learners. I love the work you do with the kids with the cuisenaire rods! I need to spend more time working on that. Thanks for sharing!

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  5. Jamie,
    Nice post! Love the "new place" for direct instruction. I think that's where it fits best. I also think that's a place where students can help with the direct instruction as well. Well done!

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    1. Thank you, Michael! I'm always working on progressing to a more student centered approach. It seems to be never ending... Still working on being thoughtful in word choice and how it affects mindset.

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  6. Nice blog! You know, I sometimes think that Direct Instruction could mean that a teacher is very clear (direct) in using the 5 Practices and Productive Talk Moves. Thoughtful, thorough instruction is what we really want. Are you going to be at NCSM / NCTM?

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    1. Interesting perapective. I have never thought of it that way. I will be there Tuesday through Sunday. I am presenting on Friday with Ryan and Kristian! Can't wait! I assume you will be there too?

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  7. Hey Jamie--thanks for collecting all of this great thinking in one place. Have personally been struggling with how we define direct instruction--and am confounded with the idea of "teacher directed thinking" often being the application of direct instruction in classrooms rather than where Mr. Daro places it. Appreciate the push. Looking forward to your talk in San Francisco. Please save me a seat!!

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    1. Thanks, Judy! This was one of those posts where I felt like I couldn't concentrate on anything else until I finished writing it. :) It's a hard change for all teachers, including myself, to make after spending so many years being taught and teaching this way. I look forward to seeing you in San Francisco!

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