D&D instead of D vs. D

Anthony Rebora, managing editor of teachermagazine.org, posted the following as a topic for a discussion forum in Education Week’s Online Teacher Magazine.  My comment follows.

Is Lecturing Back?  “In a recent, much-talked-about article, Harvard scholar Paul E. Peterson points to new research finding that, when it comes to increasing student achievement, direct instruction (i.e, the “sage on the stage” approach) is more effective than instruction that’s oriented predominantly around student inquiry or problem-solving activities. Peterson also notes that, in his own teaching, he enjoys the progressive, problem-solving approach but finds he can cover more ground when using more of a lecture format. 

What’s your view? Which approach do you prefer? Do they generate different results in terms of student achievement or motivation? Is there a place for both methods? If so, how do you balance the two?”  


Hi Anthony.  I recently faced a dilemma over which method was more effective, when the problem is posed as if they were mutually exclusive, which they are not.  Hence, my short answer is I believe a mixture of both methods, direct and discovery-based, is necessary for the most effective learning.

Before I get into my personal experience, however, I must mention that while I appreciate Mr. Peterson’s reflection about which instructional method is best to use, his article, as well as the referenced study from the University of Munich, seems to overestimate the results of the research.  To wit, Peterson states:

Direct instruction won. Students learned 3.6 percent of a standard deviation more if the teacher spent 10 percent more time on direct instruction. That’s one to two months of extra learning during the course of the year.” 

Last time I checked, an effect size of 0.036 of a standard deviation was minuscule, so much to almost be meaningless.  So, I need to revisit my statistics to see what I am missing in their claim.  As some form of assurance though, I do not seem to be the only one that feels this way, since a few similar statements exist on the comment thread to Peterson’s article.  Also, the research was written in mid 2010 so it was not that recent, at least to Peterson.

Now, on to my personal experience.  Setting aside the suspect statistical significance of the research Peterson references, the dilemma nonetheless is a valid one.  As a career changing, late forty-something teacher candidate, just about to complete a formal, “traditional” ed program filled with progressive pedagogy, which I embrace wholeheartedly as a meaningful set of instructional practices, but not exclusively, I ran headlong into a situation recently where “direct instruction” is mandated as the pedagogy of practice for a large, unified school district in the area, at which I interviewed.  Since I was also finishing my Performance Assessment for CA Teachers (PACT) Teaching Event (TE) at the time, I penned the reflection below while addressing the “reflection” task, which I then deleted from my PACT submission since the page limitations were too small to include it. Yet, your post now presents an opportunity for it to be read by someone other than me. 🙂


Reflection On Direct Instruction versus Discovery-based Instruction

In the course of writing this document, I have interviewed at a large public school district in the area.  The district is in Program Improvement (“PI”) as a result of not meeting their annual performance goals as defined for No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”).[1]   Accordingly, the district has decided to mandate an instructional model called “Explicit Direct Instruction.”  Their decision is backed by research, such as Chall (2000), that states that direct instruction “produced higher achievement than the progressive approach among all students, and its effect was even stronger for students who were less prepared; was more effective for students with learning disabilities of all social levels; and was more effective for at-risk students at all social levels.”  Other research by Adams and Engelmann (1996) showed that “explicit instruction is an effective instructional practice for all students.”  Furthermore, Sousa (1995) “presents a table showing how brain research supports the components of direct instruction” that supports “the compatibility of direct instruction strategies and the way the brain works.”[2]

The pedagogical position of this district strikes me at my core and conflicts with my pedagogical preferences, as learned in our program.  The district contains large populations of disadvantaged students of whom I hope to teach.  However, it appears that much of what I have learned in my current program, and employed in this learning segment, could be problematic at my future place of employment.

At the same time, while I embrace the methods for teaching mathematics as taught in my program, I also know that they often require students to be familiar with them via repeated application across all courses in a school to be maximally successful; otherwise, students do not experience consistent learning environments and practices, which complicates and even impedes learning.  My experience teaching this learning segment reinforced this perspective.  So, while I would hope to continue with the same approach for all future students as I elected with the students I taught in this learning segment, it appears I may have to take a softer, slower approach to doing so in select districts.”

[2] Hollingsworth, J. and Ybarra, S., 2009. Explicit Direct Instruction: The Power of the Well-Crafted, Well-Taught Lesson.  Corwin Press.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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5 Responses to D&D instead of D vs. D

  1. David Wees says:

    Yeah I was suspicious of that research as well. The question I immediately thought of was, what did they learn better through direct instruction? I mean, I’m actually willing to sacrifice a bit of content (and 3.6 of a single standard deviation seems like a small sacrifice to make) if it means my students learn other useful skills, like cooperation, communication, and collaboration.


  2. Nathan Brown says:

    I suspect that most of us confront this issue as we embark on our new careers.

    Although my credential program was very different from yours, it also placed a great emphasis on constructivism, cooperative learning, demonstrations, project-based learning, and other “progressive” approaches to presenting a lesson. Like you, I learned that these approaches have many advantages over direct instruction, especially when working with students who are English learners, have learning disabilities, or who have difficulty engaging with lessons for a variety of other reasons.

    My program provided ample opportunity to see firsthand just how effective these can be at generating student engagement. Once you’ve seen that usually sullen student’s face light up with excitement when they finally become truly engaged in a lesson, your desire to wade through endless contradictory unscientifically conducted research diminishes.

    What we do know about direct instruction, however, is that it is extremely efficient – at least if you measure teaching efficiency in concepts covered per hour. It’s also clear that this can be an incredibly effective method when you are dealing with a motivated, well-fed, undistracted, literate, native English speaking student with no disabilities and strong support at home. In other words, it works great in affluent neighborhoods. I spent two semesters student-teaching in just such an environment and saw some impressive results.

    Unless you are very lucky, though, your first job won’t be in this kind of environment. My first job was in a “Program Improvement” district, and it really was a rude awakening. When you accept employment with one of these organizations, you need to understand a few things. One is that the administrator’s neck is on the chopping block, and they know it. The second is that most of your students will come to you at least 2 years behind in whatever subject you teach (if they weren’t, it wouldn’t be P.I.). The third is that whatever high hopes and great potential these kids once had, most of them are now disengaged with school (which is how they got behind).

    Obviously, this is the perfect opportunity to employ all those wonderful tools they gave you in your program for engaging students and helping English learners succeed and differentiating instruction, etc. etc.! Wrong. In the current political climate, the ability of your superiors (and you!) to hold onto that job depends on the results of the standardized tests. Those tests aren’t based on the material from two years ago that your students need to understand before they can possibly grasp this years curriculum.

    When you accept a position in a P.I. district, expect to be confronted with “Mission Impossible”. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to prepare those students to regurgitate as many facts as possible from the curriculum for this year on the test. This mission will contradict everything you know about effective teaching. There will be no time to practice those wonderful techniques you learned in your program. Many of your students will remain disengaged, and you will wake in the night knowing it’s your fault.

    There will be lots and lots of direct instruction, because you must cover ALL the material at any cost, because when your students fail the test, and they will, the one thing no parent or administrator wants to hear is “we didn’t cover that”. The final irony is that you will also loose several days of instuctional time when the district sends you for more professional development, where you will learn even more about the latest progressive techniques you won’t get to use. This is because it’s a program improvement district and everyone knows that you can’t improve the program without improving the teachers.

    This tape will self destruct in 10 seconds.


  3. Cal says:

    I like direct instruction (got in trouble at your ed school for saying so). Can’t stand constructivism and cooperative learning, and think project based learning is only useful for those who aren’t already in deficit mode.

    Most people assume that these values (or lack thereof) can’t co-exist with a squishy instruction method. However, as you know, I’m pretty squishy–and believe me, by the standards of my math department and this district, I’m so touchy-feely I could be a marshmallow.

    EDI doesn’t have to mean rigid classrooms and joyless learning. But in my experience, kids who struggle with math really don’t like most “discovery”. They want to know *how* to do it. They want to understand *why*, to a small extent, but only enough to file away and think “yes, I saw why once and it makes sense”.

    And, by the way, you are all forgetting that the relatively small standard deviation was seen with an extremely small increase in DI time. It’s not like they went to all DI and saw a miniscule improvement.

    Hey, let’s do coffee–I have exciting news (I think) about the CAHSEE results.


  4. cheesemonkeysf says:

    Thanks for a really thoughtful post.

    Having, like you, just finished the credential as a late-in-life career switcher from business, the one thing I am most struck by in the math ed establishment — at both the “progressive” and the traditional ends of the spectrum, as well as everywhere in between — is how blind everybody is about their own blind spots.

    I expected dedicated teacher-educators to be a little less clueless about the fact that we ALL have our blind spots, but I have been pretty shocked by the resoluteness with which each warring faction seems to believe that its “evidence-based” methods are completely free of bias or blind spots.

    This strikes me as dangerous all around.

    Because of my own education and experience, I came into my credential program knowing that I had a bias toward direct instruction. I grew up in an affluent school district and attended some of the most elite universities in the country–universities where quality of lecture is a point of pride among the faculty. But knowing this bias, I came to the program open to learning about the benefits of cooperative learning, project-based learning, discovery learning, and constructivism. And there are many such benefits. And I’m glad I have started to learn about them.

    But the bias and blind spots against incorporating ANY direct instruction or practice activities were really glaring in the design of the PACT for the math content area. Candidates in our program got reamed for including ANY direct instruction or practice activities into their Teaching Events. The scorer comments were scathing (yes, we all shared).

    To my way of thinking, the whole point of starting from a formative assessment mindset is that teachers need the flexibility to be able to respond to learners’ successes and failures with whatever is needed. Which is why I have such a hard time with the ideological hard-liners on either side. Sometimes my students need more time marinating in a procedure in order to achieve a deep and conceptual understanding of something mathematical. What, I would like to know, is wrong with that? Sometimes students can dive into a problem-solving activity with nothing more than the knowledge, curiosity, and skills they carry with them.

    And sometimes a student needs active, compassionate coaching to help them learn HOW to persevere with a problem. A student with deep-rooted discouragement or lack of self-confidence is not simply going to do a 180-degree turnaround overnight just because we deploy a cooperative problem-solving tactic in the classroom. As Dreikurs said, our students need to develop courage to learn to handle their discouragement. That process of encouraging their courage can take many forms, and as we all agree about math problems — although we can’t seem to agree about math pedagogy — there is NEVER just one right way of conceptualizing the algorithm.

    That’s why I believe these blog-based discussions are so valuable. If we never capture, share, or challenge the various orthodoxies, we will never make progress. I don’t claim to have answers — just a set of questions and a mindset that allows me to be open to — and responsive to — what is needed in the present moment in the math classroom.

    Thanks again for starting a great discussion.

    – Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)


  5. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Elizabeth, and my apologies for taking so long to reply. I was consumed with finishing my credential program but just graduated today!! Like you, I started my credential program with a preference for direct instruction since that was the primary approach for much of my prior schooling. I did have the benefit of some group work and explaining work to the whole class at a chalkboard, so those methods were in my quiver, albeit in a not so refined manner. I am very excited to start teaching full time in the fall: three sections of algebra 1 and 2 sections of AP calculus AB. I also hope we stay in touch via twitter, blogs, etc as I hope to learn from your experiences and others over the years.



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