kitchen table math, the sequel: Learning vs Teaching: Part I

Friday, November 20, 2009

Learning vs Teaching: Part I

Many educators, parents and others in the educational debate continue to focus on the question "How do children learn?". We can see this in references to fMRIs showing how some people process information in different parts of the brain, and in discussions about learning styles.

This question, while interesting, leads down a blind alley when we're trying to educate children because it assumes some teaching environment that we know nothing about, or at least haven't quantified.

The more useful question when we're trying to educate is "What are the most effective ways to teach?". This question is helpful because it can be answered using applied science: we can try different methods for teaching and determine, based on our observations and data that we collect, which methods work and which don't.

The applied science method was used to develop Direct Instruction (DI). When Zig Engelmann developed DI, he tried many approaches to teaching. When methods didn't work in his field research, he tried other methods. By assuming "if they aren't learning, then we aren't teaching" he was open to finding novel ways of instructing children (e.g., ability grouping, teaching one concept at a time, focusing on flawless communications) that were proven superior in Follow Through.

And Precision Teaching is applied science for individual students. It tells the learner and instructor if the chosen teaching method is working.

And here's the crux of the issue: As parents, I believe it's critical that we keep any debate with educators focused on the proven effectiveness of educational methods, not on a particular child's learning styles or other issues.

What say ye?? Do you think this matters? Are we doing a good enough job in this area?


LynnG said...

Isn't all of the talk of implementing "best practices" sort of the same thing you are asking?

Implementing best practices is a great goal, but how do you figure out what is a best practice? From my un-scientific observations of a single school district, best practices seems to be whatever they are currently doing or planning to do. We've been implementing best practices for years.

I'm thinking that they also believe the most effective way to teach (their "best practice") is to put kids in groups more and give them problem-solving tasks.

Unless you can both define and measure what is "effective teaching" or "best practice", the rhetoric is hijacked by the education establishment.

SteveH said...

What is best for full-inclusion is not best for individual students. I don't want them to try to teach Everyday Math effectively. I want them to pick a different curriculum. Since many K-6 schools do not value content of mastery of specific skills, I don't want to talk about best practices yet.

I think you need to start with defining tangible goals that can be measured. NCLB does this, but it's at a low cut-off level. Our schools hold parent-teacher meetings about the results to figure out ways to improve. What is their criteria for improvement? It's relative improvement on the state test numbers. This completely ignores the big (absolute) picture.

The low NCLB cut-off defines their measure of effectiveness. Deep down, they know that kids have to do much more than this to get to algebra in 8th grade, but how can parents change the discussion and set higher and more tangible goals that are used to evaluate effectiveness. How do we define effectiveness with mastery skills when the school wants to define it with portfolios?

We're not even playing the same game.

RMD said...

I'm not defining "effective teaching" or "best practice".

Rather, any curriculum should be able to show that it increased achievement during some time period on independent, 3rd party measures of achievement ("endpoints" and "outcomes" in the medical world) compared to a control group. Period.

Short of a study showing statistically significant achievement vs a control, there just is no reason to use the curriculum. (and I mean curriculum, not individual techniques . . . educational techniques can be sabotaged by poor practices elsewhere in the curriculum)

Here's the surprising thing that Follow Through showed us: most curricula show absolutely no difference in academic achievement, and some (particularly the less structured curricula) show *negative* outcomes (i.e., students would be better off with the same old curriculum).

We need to think about this just like we would a medicine: let's give the new curriculum to one group, the old curriculum to another (the control) and measure the outcome.

RMD said...

SteveH said "We're not even playing the same game."


Until we define the criteria we want, we will get nowhere.

And I'm suggesting the criteria should be a statistically significant difference in 3rd party achievement scores over a control curriculum during a defined period. (think drug testing)

Until we do this, we're all shooting in the dark because there is no reference point.

("What is best for full-inclusion is not best for individual students." - I don't understand this point. Can you cite some evidence to support this?)

SteveH said...

"...let's give the new curriculum to one group, the old curriculum to another (the control) and measure the outcome."

This has been done in a few cases, but it's no guarantee that the schools will select the better methods/curricula. I always wanted to see a test where kids would get the same teacher for math from Kindergarten through 6th grade. I can't imagine any school would dare to do that. I kind of like it. No teacher would want to come out at the bottom of the heap, since it would be quite clear.

I agree that the tools are there. There are ways to get better, but there has to be the desire and willpower. And we have to agree on the measures of effectiveness.

SteveH said...

"Can you cite some evidence to support this?"


I don't know how many times teachers have told me that private schools can do more because the kids are "pre-selected". I don't buy this, but it's clear that our schools buy it. They don't allow acceleration in K-6. Everything has to be done within the context of differentiated instruction. I have been told that my son could not move ahead to new material in math. He had to do enrichment. By definition, they are saying that enrichment is always better than acceleration.

SteveH said...

"Until we do this, we're all shooting in the dark because there is no reference point."

The top end reference point in high school is the AP calculus track. This reference point is well defined and extends back to pre-algebra in our 7th grade. The first problem is that many educators see this as some sort of elite math brain track.

The second problem is that the reference point in K-6 is the low state cut-off standard. These two standards do not meet properly at pre-algebra in 7th grade. Professor Wu talks about this nonlinear jump required from K-6 to algebra in 8th grade.

With NCLB, I can't imagine that any school would define effectiveness based on any sort of top level track. Any discussion of how more kids should be on this top track will fall on deaf ears. They are having enough problems trying to get ALL kids over the low cut-off point. That is what they are required to do by law.

I could argue that our schools should provide a separate accelerated math track for willing and capable kids in K-6, but that goes against their fundamental desire for full-inclusion. It will NOT happen.

I really would like to know what goes on in their heads. They know that differentiated instruction does not work well for many students. They know that acceleration is better. However, because enough kids make it to the top math track, perhaps they cling to the hope that all they need to do is to just find the right differentiated instruction technique. That seems to be what is driving our K-8 school at this time.

Allison said...

--any curriculum should be able to show that it increased achievement during some time period on independent, 3rd party measures of achievement ("endpoints" and "outcomes" in the medical world) compared to a control group.

There is no control group in education. (and increasingly, there's no control group in medicine.)

There isn't a cohort of "untaught" children left to do whatever without books. There isn't a possibility of this as a baseline. No one is going to support claims of "Evidence based" methods that require a control group.

And practically, there's not even a way to control the effects of afterschooling/homeschooling/tutoring. No school is going to admit that their students succeed because they are in Kumon. The parents may or may not want to help this to become a fact, as they may prefer their kid to have an advantage over other kids.

The issue of 3rd party measurement is its own problem. Right now, schools do their own testing for nearly everything and then give you the credential. This is why there's social promotion--because schools can make up their own mind on how to give you the credential. Schools are not going to advocate real 3rd party testing that has real effects. State tests are gamed, just as the high school grad tests are gamed. Colleges are doing everything they can to eradicate 3rd party measurements from admissions decisions because the 3rd party measurements show certain ethnic groups do better than others.

I've thought about this several times, and wondered if parents want independent testing or not. I think they don't know why they would, because they don't understand the situation to be one where they can't trust the school--or no one wants to admit that's the situation they are in.

SteveH said...

I think that many parents only look at the choices in front of them, not at any sort of big picture. Perhaps that's because there is and has never been a process for parental input. They know it's hopeless.

In our town, the basic conflict would be in K-8 over full inclusion; over acceleration versus enrichment. The basic fallacy is that somehow a school can widen the range of abilities in a classroom, but still claim that they can better support individual learning. If we had a strong academic metric to guide the schools, this might be more clear, but the only metric we have is a low state NCLB test.

In fact, in my son's report card that came home yesterday, they included a sheet that talks about how well our school is doing compared with the state average in ELA and math. What we see are "Index Proficiency Scores" that are based on the percent of kids that test over the state's minimum cut-off. This is an incredibly low cut-off point. For a high SES town, this should be easy. Our town has a score of 96%! Many have translated this into "quality education".

Imagine if I wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper to show some example problems and how low a raw percent-correct score you need to achieve proficiency? Would a negative reaction mean that parents don't want high standards? No. The problem is the underlying conflict over the full-inclusion model. I'm sure that the reaction would be that the school does so much more than what is shown on the state tests; that differentiated instruction works. Just look at how well many of our kids do in high school. That appears to be their metric.

They have adopted this model of education and now they are trying to make it work. This model is in direct conflict with a proper, mastery based, approach to math. They will not change it.