Friday, August 13, 2010

So many theories, so little time: Direct Instruction

Action research, systematically investigating different teaching strategies, is an important part of my work - and one I enjoy very much. Usually, I find inspiration for teaching ideas in the different psychological theories of education - be they about cognitive development, motivation, or behavior management.
The problem I face right now, at the beginning of a new term when opportunities seem limitless, is to decide which theories to experiment with this year. This post if the first of several, each of which will focus on one theory or strategy of teaching.

Vygotsky and Direct Instruction

Among teachers, the best-known theory of learning is perhaps Vygotsky's theory of the proximal zone and teaching through "scaffolding". In essence, we're helping students reach slightly higher than they are able to, by initially offering them a lot of support and then gradually diminishing the support until they are able to confidently reach these new heights on their own.

In class, I believe this approach is well-illustrated by the direct instruction way of teaching. I interpret direct instruction in this way:
  • Teacher-centered - lesson proceeds through alternating segments of lecturing and guided practice
  • Procedure-oriented (understanding takes at best a supportive role)
  • Scaffolding through three steps: 
    • Teacher shows a problem and solution
    • Students solve a problem together in groups
    • Students solve a problem independently 
    • Depending on progress, any of these steps can be repeated at any time.
What this method of teaching has in it's favor is the following: 
  • Lessons are very quickly and easily designed and usually require few props
  • Students gain skills and confidence quickly
  • Students enjoy the alternation between listening/taking notes, working in groups and independent work
  • It is easy to monitor progress by observing students' performance during their independent work
  • It is easy to differentiate by giving different problems to different students or even repeating a scaffolded step for some students while other students work on their own. 
  • It provides a predictable and, for many students, comfortable and safe framework for math class
I like this method, and used it extensively in my first year of teaching. It helped me achieve an intimidating goal: to have all my students work effectively on meaningful tasks almost every minute of almost every class. However, during my second year I started looking elsewhere for inspiration - for a few important reasons: 
  • Direct instruction does not foster understanding of the underlying logic behind the procedures
  • It is too structured to allow students to perform their own explorations and experience the joy of arriving, on their own, to those "aha!" experiences that make mathematics worthwhile
  • It is, plainly, boring. At least if done all class every class. 
I'd be very interested to hear about other teachers' experiences with similar ways of teaching. I'm hoping there is a way to alter this strategy to address the short-comings and keep the strengths.

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