Math Nerd

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 23 2012

Direct Instruction FTW

I just read a great article in The Atlantic about how New Dorp High School in Staten Island turned itself around by implementing a great writing curriculum. Teachers in every subject began incorporating intensive writing instruction into their classes, and student performance went up.

In 2008-09, the year before the new curriculum went into effect, students who had been among the city’s lowest-performing eighth-graders before they entered New Dorp passed New York’s Regents exams at abysmal rates: 6.0% earned a 75 or higher on the ELA test, and 3.8% earned a 75 or higher on the math test.  In 2010-11, the comparable numbers were 43.0% in ELA and 6.3% in math (The NYC DOE posted these results in New Dorp’s progress reports).

When New Dorp’s principal began pushing writing across the curriculum, teachers investigated together to figure out why their students couldn’t write well. (The collaborative environment sounded like so much fun!). They realized that many of their students lacked basic skills:

“Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively.”

Students prompted to write sentences beginning with ‘Although’ wrote things like, “Although George and Lenny were friends.”

With the help of Judith Hochman, a writing curriculum guru from an expensive private school for students with language-based learning disabilities, the teachers began explicitly teaching students how to write simple and complex sentences.

“[Hochman's method] is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. ‘I prefer recipe,’ Hochman says, ‘but formula? Yes! Okay!’”

Often teachers are not into teaching kids formulas because they think doing so suppresses creativity and critical thinking. This drives me bonkers. Let me explain.

I experienced this type of teaching a lot in college. I went to engineering school, and many professors purposely wouldn’t give you step-by-step instructions for solving problems because they expected you to figure out how to derive them from first principle. If you went to office hours, they would engage in Socratic-style questioning rather than answer you directly. I understand that critical thinking is important, but when you have no f*ing clue what’s going on, this type of treatment just makes you feel like a complete idiot. In the best-case scenario, you do eventually learn the subject, but it takes a lot longer than it might have and your understanding is a lot more muddled than it might have been. In many cases, though, students conclude that the subject itself is too hard and they’ll never be able to do it. Witness the high numbers of people who drop out of engineering majors.

There are a lot of really hard problems out there that do require creativity and critical thinking. But they also require skills. I’d much rather make learning skills into an easy task so that students can use the bulk of their brainpower to solve the truly difficult problems (curing cancer, ending poverty…).

One summer, I taught a remedial chemistry class at an urban high school. Huge numbers of students had failed chemistry the previous year. The abilities of the students varied widely, but many of them were extremely intelligent (one was going to Dartmouth). When I talked to both them and the teacher, it became clear why so many of them had failed. The teacher had used an investigation-based curriculum where kids were expected to figure everything out on their own through experiments and peer discussions. Now, this approach can work out GREAT in the hands of an expert teacher, but so, so often, it is not done well. Kids need to have foundational knowledge. When scientists figured these laws out, it often took them years. It’s ridiculous to expect kids to come up with them on their own in a single class period.

My course covered an entire year’s worth of material in just a month, so by necessity, there was a lot of direct instruction. When I surveyed my students on how the class compared to their regular chemistry class, the students wrote things like, “I’m learning more than I did during the year” and “This class was way better, and we did it in like four weeks!”

As teachers, we need to tell kids the things we really want them to learn. We can’t just expect them to absorb things through osmosis.

There are so many things that were great about the New Dorp story – teachers collaborating across subjects and across schools, people who got down and dirty with meaningful curriculum improvement rather than relying on outside reforms to increase their students’ achievement – but my favorite is that it shows the power of high-quality direct instruction. As the student profiled in the article put it:

“‘There are phrases—specifically, for instance, for example—that help you add detail to a paragraph,’ Monica explains. She reflects for a moment. ‘Who could have known that, unless someone taught them?’”

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