kitchen table math, the sequel: palisadesk on Direct Instruction and Whole Brain Teaching

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

palisadesk on Direct Instruction and Whole Brain Teaching

(Part 1) Coming back to Liz's question at the end of her post, How congruent is [Whole Brain Teaching] with Direct Instruction, I would have to answer: Not.

The WBT people have adapted some ideas from DI and other sources (Peer-Assisted Learning, Kagan's Cooperative Learning, Fred Jones' Positive Classroom Instruction, Precision Teaching and still more). However, they have put their own spin on all of these so their variants differ in essence as well as in details from the originals.

Take unison responding -- something that is a prominent feature of DI programs at all levels. It is never used in DI as a "management" tool, nor as a rah-rah way to "pump up" the kids or manipulate them. The script, with its unison responses, is carefully researched to ensure clear presentation -- the exact wording, examples and non-examples to ensure than 95% of students will grasp the concept or skill being taught the first time, with practice to mastery built in over a spaced continuum of lessons. Unison responses are an empirically validated way of ensuring participation of all students, instant feedback to the teacher as to hope well the students understand or remember the presentation (if there are errors it is the teacher's responsibility to loop back and re-teach an item until all students can respond correctly. Individuals who make an error are not singled out, but are monitored closely and if additional practice is required for one or two, that is arranged separately so that the dignity of the student is always preserved.)

This I found an important distinction between true DI and WBT -- Engelmann (in his writings, his presentations, and his videoed interactions with children in all settings) is extremely respectful of the dignity of the learner. While he can be funny and show a humorous side (mostly at his own expense), I cannot imagine him ever presenting a task to students and then (as in the 4th grade critical thinking video) asking them to "beg me to let you do it." Even if in jest or in a good-hearted spirit, I found asking students to plead and beg en masse to be disturbing and degrading, however well-intentioned. The kids seemed to go along with it, which is even more disturbing. Why should children have to beg their teacher to engage in a valuable learning activity?

Another fundamental difference between DI and WBT is the principle of parsimony. Engelmann is very explicit in emphasizing the need for instruction to be parsimonious--- to contain nothing extraneous, to include the minimum verbiage needed for clear communication, to require only the amount of practice needed to mastery -- no more and no less. Extraneous yakkety-yak, whether by teacher or students, is a no-go.

It would be completely alien to DI to have the teacher explain a new concept to the class, then ask the STUDENTS to explain it to each other. It's the teacher's responsibility to ensure the students grasp it, not the responsibility of the student's partner. All the scripted cheers and call-and-response stuff in WBT is totally foreign to the DI principle of parsimony, and to the concept of respect for the learner as well.

Only the instructional language in DI is scripted; the teacher is trained to give lots of positive feedback (at a ratio of 5:1 or better), and to teach in an animated and engaging manner, but how he or she does so is an individual matter. This means the teacher can adapt praise and encouragement to his/her own style and the culture of the community or classroom.

Also, DI has the scripted unison-response component to every lessons, but that is only a part of the lesson. All lessons also include individual work, sometimes partner work, sometimes small-group work, so children are not being overwhelmed by all the noise and demands to produce a response. DI makes tracking points an optional feature, but does not suggest extrinsic rewards for these (it suggests they could be tied into normal student evaluation), although teachers may use them in this way if they feel it is necessary, as is sometimes the case.

Finally, DI fundamentally differs from the example of WBT that I saw in several videos, in that it regularly monitors progress in an empirical manner so that the teacher knows what every child is learning, and ensures mastery through a research-based set of criteria at multiple points.

Although the program itself is very tightly crafted and leaves no room for "creativity," the teacher's creativity can blossom in its application and in response to the needs of the individual learners as the program moves along. In fact, it frees the teacher to be more attentive to kids' responses and to devise ways to help them overcome whatever hurdles present in their path. Not needing to re-invent the wheel in every lesson, the teacher can truly engage with and pay attention to each individual student s/he teaches.

(part 3) To be fair to WBT, some of the videoed activities I saw were pretty well done and are based on sound precedents. The one on the Speed Read 100 or something was a good example of peer-assisted learning under a teacher's direction, with children encouraged to help each other (within a pre-trained format), to aspire to beating their own record and to celebrate small steps forward.

If it weren't for the other accoutrements, I would have given this activity two thumbs up, but it was pretty good. I would recommend Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (see Sopris West for some examples for the primary classroom) as it has a positive effect in several areas, including achievement, student motivation, building classroom community, student self-confidence, and so forth. Similarly, some of the Kagan strategies, such as Think-Pair-Share and Turn and Talk are also well-validated empirically but do not need to be carried out in the chaotic manner we saw in the videos.

Another point: attention signals, such as Class-Yes! are a valuable tool in any classroom. What bothered me was not that they used it, but how it was used -- in a theatrical, almost buffoonish, hyperdramatic way. Learning can be fun and engaging, but it shouldn't be a joke, a circus or a day at the football stadium.

For primary kids, a good attention signal is (teacher says, in calm rhythmic voice) "1,2,3, eyes on me!" Children stop where they are, turn and face the teacher and clap. "1,2, eyes on you!" This is used in a purposeful manner, when something needs to be said to the whole group but it is not necessary for everyone to go back to their seat as if for a lesson. There's nothing manipulative about it, either. Class-Yes! in a straightforward way would be fine for older students, I think. I myself would not allow yelling and silliness to accompany it. We want to keep the focus on learning.

To that end, gestures can be very useful. A popular and effective program for K in the UK, Jolly Phonics, uses hand signals (called "actions") to teach the letter-sound correspondences. I can imagine similar applications at other levels. These have at least two positive benefits: they give the wiggly, energetic student an opportunity to engage in a physically active way, and they provide the teacher with instant formative assessment data on how well the lesson is progressing.

.....I doubt there are any videos out there that show DI and WBT and contrast the differences. WBT is a recent development and that explains why ... there isn't any longitudinal data on how effective it is in ensuring student learning. As for videos exhibiting DI, most that I have seen consist exclusively of video of the teacher presentation (the scripted part) since that is the most difficult to learn to do well. Signaling, pacing and knowing when to loop back and review are the hardest elements to master....

Since basic differences between the two lie in underlying philosophy and curriculum design, those wouldn't be apparent anyway. However, I did note that none of the WBT videos I saw consisted of a teacher presentation that appeared "scripted," i.e. specific language from the teacher, requiring a specific instruction-related response from students, over a period of several minutes. The "scripting" in the WBT videos consisted of management call-and-response practices, not scripted presentation of concepts and content.

Also, I don't know of any DI videos that include the whole lesson -- the non-teacher-directed parts. They don't depict the independent work period, student partner work, or small group/team work. These are an essential element of every lesson, as is the "work check:" students and teacher review and correct the independent work at the end of the lesson, to ensure students can clarify any misunderstanding before going on to the next step.

As for preschool, DI does offer specific programs for that level, most notably in language skills and verbal reasoning. They don't recommend moving on to reading instruction until children are proficient in the language skills, which include making comparisons, understanding and using if/then statements, applying a rule (if all birds have feathers, and Paco is a bird, what else do we know about Paco?).

(2 of 2) The early phases of the reading program for this level teach a lot of the phonological processing skills (blending and segmenting sounds, sequencing,left-right progression) needed for successful reading later on, and introduce only very regular grapheme/phoneme correspondences, in a special orthography modified to be less confusing to very young children whose visual perception and visual efficiency skills are less well-developed.

The letters are darker, bigger and "fatter," with distinct differences between the u and n, the p and q, the b and d, so as to prevent children's confusing them. Visually similar letters are not taught together, but presented one at a time, and when one of the pair is introduced, it is taught to mastery before the other is introduced. The program for 4-year-olds moves quite slowly, and many elements are taught in a playful or gamelike way, with lessons expected to take only about 15 minutes. So it is unlikely a child would be "unready" (after completing the language sequence), and s/he would not be pressured to move too fast.

There is very little written component at this stage; the seatwork consists often of coloring, tracing or making discriminations, such as crossing out an item that doesn't belong. These provide short, frequent opportunities to develop graphomotor skills, but not to the point of frustration.

DI is most valuable at the preschool level for children with a less-advantaged language background, though in Engelmann's early work his comparison group of "middle class" kids took off like a rocket with DI and were able to do very advanced work in reading and math by age 6, as well as verbal reasoning skills that Piaget thought impossible before age 11 or 12. He talks about that in one of his books; I'll see about finding an appropriate link....


Anonymous said...

Direct instruction is, of course, different from Direct Instruction. I've used scripted courses in teaching and have found all of them to be unable to anticipate the difficulties of individual students or to contain confusion phraseology or insufficient explanation. If an inflexible Direct Instruction were the way to go, then learning via DVDs with limited outside support would be the very best method. It is not. The interaction between teacher and student is crucial, for only a skilled teacher can sense confusion as it begins to arise and head it off. Also, individualized instruction is crucial for the wellbeing of multiple student populations. It would be to the detriment of the LD and gifted alike to have all children learn the same lesson at the same time.

I'm all for no-nonsense approaches with proven methods, but Direct Instruction isn't really one of them. Their excellent scores in Houston came from outrageous cheating. It's a nice idea, but it's got several flaws.

Now direct instruction (with no capitals) combined with student-driven problem solving is another. Thinking students are learning students. And constructivism, too, has its place--to make an important point here and there that will provide a memory anchor for the rest of the learning to hang upon.

It's been several years since you've been here. I'm glad you've gotten over Saxon math. It may be an improvement over TERC and Everyday Mathematics for most students, but it promotes rote memorization of algorithms without comprehension and causes many students to fail in the upper levels of mathematics because they cannot think mathematically.

Anonymous said...

"It's been several years since I'VE been here," I meant to write. Sorry. Way too little sleep.

RMD said...

Anonymous . . . do you have any proof for your statement?

"I'm all for no-nonsense approaches with proven methods, but Direct Instruction isn't really one of them. Their excellent scores in Houston came from outrageous cheating. It's a nice idea, but it's got several flaws."

I know of a number of examples where Direct Instruction works very well. Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy (Colorado Spring, CO), Franklin Academy (Wake Forrest, NC), Baltimore Curriculum Project, Arthur Academy (Portland, OR) . . . to name a few.

Cheyenne Mountain, for example, routinely scores in the upper echelons of schools. Their high school has been rated number 1 for the past few years.

And Franklin Academy averages 1 year and 4 months of achievement for every academic year for all 12 years (they max out at grade 13 plus in a number of categories by grade 10) across the core subject areas in the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

And Franklin Academy is opening a number of smaller private schools (Thales Academy) to continue their success.

So, please, enlighten us with your proof about how DI doesn't work . . .

Anonymous said...

Sorry anon,

I have no idea what you're talking about regarding Saxon, but you are wrong. It does not promote memorization without comprehension. If you were more familiar with it you would know that.

Liz Ditz said...

Dear Catherine, Thanks for promoting Palisadesk's comment to its own post.

Palisadesk, thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response to my question. I particularly appreciated: the emphasis on DI's parsimony and respect for the learner.

An anecdote about the "1-2-3, eyes on me" attention signal: I was at an educational meeting with about 900 attendees. We had been given 20 minutes to discuss a case study in small groups. At the end of the time period, the presenter used "1-2-3" to call the group back to listening mode. It only took 3 iterations for all the attendees to cease talking among themselves & facing the presenter.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hey Liz --- You inspired palisadesk!

palisadesk said...

>Hey Liz --- You inspired palisadesk!

Indeed. A thoughtful question from Liz deserves a thoughtful response. I viewed the K video and was not horrified, like Beth, but was not thrilled either, and I couldn't readily figure out exactly why not. After all, the kids were engaged, seemed to be upbeat, and were probably learning.

Liz's question led me to look at more videos and read a number of the documents on the WBT website. After more careful scrutiny, the differences (at least some of them) were apparent. I think the WBT people are using a number of valid tools and techniques, but the over-the-top "style" (if that's the right word) is very off-putting to me. It's designed to engage "challenging" students, but I prefer (and so far have been at least modestly successful) to do that in a more honest way. Even challenging students usually want to be successful, and a contract with the student (aided and abetted by the parent, if possible) is a more mature way to get students to engage IMO. However, I don't feel I can cast too many stones at people who do things differently, so if WBT is effective I say good on 'em -- let's see the evidence, as soon as there is any.

There are always DI naysayers (that rumor about Houston cheating has been around since forever), but most either are unfamiliar with the research database or with successful implementations, or both. Interestingly, in all the years I've been on the Internet, many have thrown out that "they cheated in Houston!" shibboleth but not a single one has been able to back it up with any data or details. Most recently it was the late Gerry Bracey, on another list I participate in, but when he was challenged -- who investigated? What did they find?> What year? What was the outcome? -- he backed right down, because it was all puffery.

Of course cheating goes on in all kinds of schools, and it would not surprise me if there was a DI school somewhere that cheated. It doesn't affect the general case -- that DI produces results regularly, and sometimes spectacularly, with low-achieving students. It works just as well with gifted kids, as I found out when I taught a gifted program. My fifth grade gifted kids ended up at a secondary level in critical reasoning, writing and reading, thanks to several DI programs.

Another thing to remember, and this may be true of WBT, is that DI occupies only a small part of the instructional day. Why don't we ever hear people organized and shouting that children shouldn't be copying the date from the board, because that is a low-level skill? Anyone who made an issue of it would look stupid -- how bleeping long does that take? In the context of an instructional day of 300-360 minutes, 20 minutes even twice or three times for DI instruction is hardly crowding out important independent work, even "discovery" learning and creative arts.

Morningside Academy is a good example. They use a lot of DI in the early stages, transitioning the learners into becoming self-directed problems solvers and independent researchers by middle school. I always combined DI with a lot of project-based learning when I taught an LD class. It was great to give the kids the skills to DO the projects, rather than leave them forced to copy from the encyclopedia.

A false dichotomy -- that you can't combine X (the curriculum or technology under discussion) with Y (other valuable learning experiences you encourage) is rarely a valid argument.

I wish Blogger had an "edit" function. I always see some typo that I missed when I "previewed" a post.

Beth said...

Palisadesk, I'm glad to see your comments re-posted. I thought they were a real high point in a discussion that was not always wonderful.

I'm very interested in Daniel Willingham. He wrote an article here:

including this statement, which is something I have tried to say many times:

Done right, progressive methods are terrific. All the benefits — student engagement, understanding that is more closely tied to out-of-school contexts — do accrue. Done wrong, progressive methods turn in to fluff, into kids horsing around a greenhouse.

This is why I would like to see a progressive-ed school that was done well. I'd like to see a well-done DI school, too.

Anonymous said...

Saxon has a brief explanation followed by enormous amounts of algorithmic repetition in which absolutely no understanding necessary--just the blind application of the technique just (one hopes) taught. And, thanks, but I have a Saxon book within 15 feet as I'm writing this, and I've seen the sad failure of Saxon students in dealing with ANY level of sophisticated problem. I tried to run a math club, but most of the student who joined were taught using Saxon, and they failed so miserably that I spent all my time teaching them basic ways of thinking about numbers so that they could begin to approach the problems in a halfway intelligent manner. (I was using Primary Problem Solving as my text. Just try it--give a few pages to an average Saxon kid of the appropriate level.) Meanwhile, my child, who was the youngest by several years, was sitting there bored to death and getting absolutely nothing from the club I'd set up for his benefit.

The average Saxon kid can do any grade-level exercise placed before them and can skillfully find key words to step through an easy word problem--but the average Saxon student is an ignoramus when it comes to a basic comprehension of what he or she is doing and why. "I'm subtracting because it says 'Less than'!" isn't understanding. What's understanding is realizing that $17/4 is 4 and 1/4, and 1/4 of a dollar is a quarter, so $17/4 is $4.25--something not ONE of my Saxon elementary students could do, not even with pencil and paper. Instead, they laboriously (and thoughtlessly) wrote out the division problem and either got stuck at "remainder 1" or divided it out with excruciating slowness--at BEST. My son, at six, could do it in his head in seconds. The kids weren't stupid, but their math education sure was.

The dismal results of Direct Instruction in poverty-stricken areas in Houston and Dallas was well documented in the newspapers some years ago. Any search will find MANY quotes.

You always have to ask WHY students are succeeding. WHY is Irving such a great school district, scores-wise, if it's using Everyday Mathematics and teachers who obviously don't understand it? It's because of demographics.

If you're looking at a specially selected population, due to wealth or parental support or whatever, you get the same condition. Almost nothing fails in such a situation, no matter how bad.

DI's apparent success stories are also a question on how scripted the scripted parts of the day really are. Good teachers are flexible and might say they're DI but really alter it as necessary. Why does Morningside move away from DI in the later grades? Maybe because other things WORK BETTER.

If true, scripted DI were the most effective method, we'd have taped instructors with teacher's aides maintaining order in the classroom--or DI-by-mail for homeschoolers. This doesn't exist because it doesn't work like that. The closest we have are upper-level math with DVDs of recorded teachers--simply because upper-level math is hard for many homeschoolers to teach. DI just isn't adequate on its own, ESPECIALLY with at-risk kids.

Anonymous said...

I was in Texas during one of the biggest explosions of cheating exposure. Either 1) the schools cheated outrageously and DI was a dismal failure there, or 2) students forgot everything they knew between the end of elementary and the beginning of middle school, and DI was a dismal failure there. Teachers came forward with admissions that they had been threatened with job loss if they didn't kelp their kids cheat on the TAAS (and later TAKS)--this isn't some "vague rumor" by mean people but the actual shocking truth that a group of students supposedly doing great had demonstrably regressed by several years within the space of a single summer.

"Puffery"? I think not!

Among others....

As I said before, I've used scripted materials, and I've used DI scripted materials. The scripted math program I used was WONDERFUL--RightStart math. It still needed modification--I would have modified it for ANY student as I taught to make for maximum understanding, but for a particularly fast or slow learner, it needed a lot more. The DI(tm) material I used was a complete and utter failure for us. (Teach Your Child to Read....) Flames-and-collapsing-building failure for my child.

Yes, I taught him with phonics--but NOT with the DI(tm!) materials. It DID NOT WORK because it is NOT a one-sizes-fits-all solution. No program is. That's why we still need skilled teachers--way more skilled than what we're getting now.

If DI takes up a tiny percentage of the day, then how could you credit a schools success to DI and not something else? The argument is spurious. If DI is so good, why use other methods, too? Why only use it a small part of the day? If it's the best, why spend most of your time doing second-best?

Scripted instruction is better than lousy unscripted instruction, but it's not as good as loosely scripted or unscripted instruction by a good teacher. It's an attempt at teacher-proofing learning. If that were possible, I'd be all for it. We could have every kid learning from his own computerized instructional delivery system at his own personal ideal rate! That would be AWESOME! But we're nowhere near that, and having a teacher pretend to be a VCR isn't going to get us there.

What gets me here is the absolute certainty of people whose self-employed educational methods not led to great success in the real world. In contrast, I've had VERY good success in the real world with a variety of students. Even those taught by Saxon that math isn't about thinking.