Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Value of Instruction

Kia ora tātou – Hello EveryoneThe Value of Instruction
“A long time ago, in Newsday for November 15, 1994, Billy Tashman said with reference to a large, government-sponsored field test of different instructional approaches: ‘The good news is that after 26 years, nearly a billion dollars, and mountains of data, we now know which are the most effective instructional tools. The bad news is that the education world couldn’t care less.’
The same holds true today." James Kauffman

When I first began teaching, I bristled with the desire to instruct, inspire, coach, and enlighten. I’d just been through Moray House College of Education, Edinburgh, where my tutors and mentors truly recognised the worth of excellent instruction.

Yet for the past 30 years and more, I have felt like a disillusioned school teacher who is old fashioned, out of date and not really understanding what’s happening in education.

The other day, a good friend and colleague passed on to me a recent article from Teachers College Record, by James Kauffman. It was written as an introduction to his recently published book,

The Tragicomedy of Public Education:
Laughing and Crying Thinking and Fixing

As I read through Kauffman's article, I recalled how I felt when I read Shelley Gare’s book,

The Triumph of the Airheads and the Retreat from Common Sense.

I experienced déjà vu at every page.

James Kauffman is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

In his review article, entitled Reforming Public Education: A Tragicomedy, he explains how some people, working within education, fail to recognise the most important factor in improving learning:

“Truly ridiculous statements about reforming schools have been made by generally intelligent people who happen to botch thinking about education. Too often, their silly statements are taken seriously, making matters worse. Some would-be reformers ignore what produces most learning — instruction.”

Kauffman draws attention to all the areas of stupidity in education that I’ve complained about, for decades . . .

. . . about improving teaching:

“They might say we need better teachers without defining “better.” People aren’t necessarily better teachers because they’re smarter, know their subject better, or have taken more courses. We need standardized tests, but good teaching isn’t easily measured as “value added.” “Better teacher” doesn’t necessarily mean “higher average pupil gain score.” Good instruction is defined by what a teacher does.”

. . . about pursuing change without recognising what needs to change:

“On January 2, 2010, Kevin Huffman published in The Washington Post his heartfelt opinions about how to reform education, including suggestions that we recruit talented teachers and fire bad ones, base policies on student achievement, and get parents to demand what’s best for their children. He quotes a U.S. Senator from Colorado, who says that the education system must change, but he doesn’t say how. Any change will do? Sorry, Kevin and Senator, with all due respect, we don’t need just any kind of change. Unless it’s the right change, we’ll get nowhere.”

. . . about the
misunderstanding and misuse of statistics:

“One reason the “thinking” of so many earnest reformers is tragicomic when it’s taken seriously is that you can’t have all of the children (or teachers or any other group we measure) reaching any percentile higher than the first group any more than you can have all of the children (or teachers) above average.”

. . . about setting education goals that are absurdly unachievable:

“No Child Left Behind (. . .) set the goal of universal proficiency of students by 2014. That goal is a will-o’-the-wisp that anyone else who understands the most basic mathematical-statistical realities knows is impossible.”

. . . about teaching methods inappropriately applied to all learners:

“Direct, systematic instruction is more effective than other approaches like “discovery learning” (essentially, letting kids find out for themselves) and a lot of the other popular but failed ideas about teaching. Go to to find out more.”

. . . about using test scores to judge success.

Kauffman lists his criteria for judging success:

  1. effective instruction,
  2. students’ engagement in productive activity,
  3. homogeneous grouping for instruction,
  4. positive emotional climate,
  5. clear school-wide expectations,
  6. positive support for desired behaviour,
  7. involvement of parents and communities.

Check out:

The Tragicomedy of Public Education: Laughing and Crying Thinking and Fixing,
James M Kauffman, FULL Court Press, 2010
– ISBN 1-57861-682-4

The Tragicomedy of Public Education – DESK COPY

Ngā mihi nui – Best wishes


V Yonkers said...

Some of these I agree with, some I don't. For example, I learned using what would be called discovery learning today. The fact is, it worked for me but not others. The problem is that "instruction" takes two people for it to work, the teacher AND the student. You can't have a student learning without some teacher support (which could just be a good instructional design with little direct teaching). Likewise, the teacher just teaching and never engaging the student does not produce "learning".

I agree with all of the other points, however.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia

From what I have read of Kauffman's other writing, his main criticism is the application of a specific teaching technique (such as discovery learning, Heurism etc) to ALL learners irrespective of ability, circumstance, environment etc. It's the one-size-fits-all approach he reacts to, and I agree with his opinion on that.

I too have used discovery learning (appropriately I think) in my teaching, and I have also enjoyed being taught through its use.

On the other hand, not every lesson is best suited to that approach, even for those learners who respond well to that technique, and certainly not every learner responds appropriately to that approach either, and certainly not if class size becomes an issue.

Catchya later

Howard Johnson said...

Thanks for the post Ken;
I've been thinking on this lack of specificity for awhile . . . really! I've posted my thoughts here:
I agree with your comment on discovery learning. I see it as a continuum from teacher directed instruction to self directed learning, with the latter becoming more important as we are less sure of what the final learning outcome will look like. I think Vygotsky's zone of proximal development is also helpful in determining your pedagogical position on the continuum.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Howard!

Welcome to Middle-earth. Thank you for your comment here.

I wonder at the way Vygotsky's ZPD is interpreted and used when it comes to pedagogy. Great though I think the work of Vygotsky was, I think we read far too much into what he discovered and try (often wrongly) to apply that interpretation in extrapolated ways that take us far from a useful pedagogy.

I am especially sceptical of any use ZPD is put to when it comes to determining where a learner is on the learning continuum. My understanding of learning is that it is complex and many complex components contribute to where any learner happens to be in their own learning.

The so-called continuum is not linear either. I have spoken about the complexity of this continuum in a comment in an earlier post. Nor is its character the same for all learners. And even if it can be shown that some learners are at the same level of development, their progress from there (and this is relevant to ZPD) and the speed of that can be as varied as their height or any other human characteristic.

Catchya later

Britt Watwood said...

Just checking to see if you are okay???

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora e Britt

Thank you for your concerns.

Wellington grieves with the rest of New Zealand over the devastation wreaked by the second of two major earthquakes in central Christchurch city. Tuesday's magnitude 6.3 earthquake brought the people of that once beautiful city to their knees amid devastation accompanied by a tragic death toll that continues to rise.

Christchurch is lucky to have an heroic mayor in Bob Parker, whose grit and experience during the September earthquake in that city last year has made him the superb strategic civil defence manager that he is today. He will do everything possible for his city and its people.