Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Is direct instruction a better approach to teaching math?

I received the following in my email today:
An intriguing question that I often wonder about myself. Cambourne's research found that learning requires engagement, which means it depends on how engaging the lecture is to the learner. I clicked on the link hoping for some clarity. I was disappointed.

Here is a sampling from Paul E. Peterson’s article, Eighth-Grade Students Learn More Through Direct Instruction, reviewing the research:
As an instructor myself, I’ve had trouble making up my mind. I can cover a lot of ground in classes where lectures consume about two-thirds of the time. But those classes get less enthusiastic student evaluations than some smaller classes where students are encouraged to solve problems through discussion. I, too, like those problem-solving classes. They require less preparation and are easier to teach.
Before we more on, here are my reactions to this portion of the article. The first is nit-picky, but when Peterson says, “I can cover a lot of ground” it is a red flag for me. I, too, cover more material through lecture, but research shows that many students fail to cover the same ground or retain any memory of the landscape. Second, there is the statement, “I, too, like those problem-solving classes. They require less preparation and are easier to teach.” All I can say is that if planning a problem-solving lesson requires less preparation, then it is not really a problem-solving lesson.

Peterson continues:
So when Guido Schwerdt and Amelie Wuppermann of the University of Munich figured out a way to test empirically the relative value of the two teaching styles (see “Sage on the Stage,” research), it is worth trumpeting the findings. These analysts took advantage of the fact that the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMMS) not only tested a nationally representative sample of U.S. 8th graders in math and science, but also asked their teachers what percentage of class time was taken up by students “listening to lecture-style presentations” rather than either “working on problems with the teacher’s guidance” or “working on problems without guidance.” Teachers reported that they spent twice as much time on problem-solving activities as on direct instruction. In other words, U.S. middle-school teachers have drunk deep from the progressive pedagogical well.
It is important to note that the results are based on teachers' reporting instructional approaches and not direct observation. This is important because Stigler and Hiebert (1999) found that: “Although most U.S. teachers report trying to improve their teaching with current reform recommendations in mind, the videos show little evidence that change is occurring. Furthermore, when teachers do change their practice, it is often in only superficial ways.” (The Teaching Gap p. 12) This also comes from TIMSS data. However, there is no corroborating evidence in Schwerdt and Wuppermann’s study that supports teachers’ claims that they are using problem-solving approaches.

Furthermore, as the Learning Pyramid shows, not all direct-instruction methods are equal in their effectiveness. A demonstration (think aloud) would be a superior method to simply “covering content” through a traditional lecture. Again, Cambourne has shown that demonstrations are a necessary condition for learning but not sufficient. Learners must be given the opportunity to take responsibility for their learning and “give it a go.”

None of this seems to matter to Peterson who ends his review with, “Sadly, U.S. middle-school pedagogy is weighted heavily toward problem-solving.” In my opinion, what’s sad is that he would try to pass this research off as settling what is clearly a complex issue.

My reading of the Schwerdt and Wuppermann study suggests that it tries to answer the question, “Is traditional teaching really all that bad?” without considering how their methodology might misinterpret the data. I already discussed the problem with associating teacher reporting with using observable data. I am also concerned that they combined, “working on problems with the teacher’s guidance and working on problems without guidance” into the single problem-solving category.

Watch this lesson of a U.S. classroom where students are "working on problems with the teacher’s guidance" (from the original 1995 TIMSS research) and decide for yourself whether this teacher “drunk deep from the progressive pedagogical well.” (You will need to sign up for a password but it is free.) My answer is, “No,” but this would be categorized as problem-solving time in the Schwerdt and Wuppermann study.

Is traditional teaching really all that bad?” – based on this research, the jury is still out.


  1. What a quote:

    "I, too, like those problem-solving classes. They require less preparation and are easier to teach."

    The guy has no clue what he is tlaking about

  2. I think it's like anything in life - you need a balance of approaches. Too much of one thing isn't good.

  3. @lisak, my sentiments exactly.

    I too am insulted by the implication that a teacher who chooses an alternative to direct instruction would be motivated solely by the appeal of less preparation or an "easier" lesson, as if such a thing exists. It always comes down to the material for me. I'm not pro or anti lecture, but were I to leave students to decode Shakespeare completely on their own, I'd be acting irresponsibly. Not to mention that I'm still trying to shake off the habit of doing things the way they were taught to me, and it's a difficult habit to break.
    Thanks for the post David- I figured that if nothing else, tweeting the link to that ASCD article would start a conversation like this one.

  4. The teacher needs to be willing to accept the role of "content ambassador" in the classroom. I do not want my learners developing their own vocabulary or rules for geometric figures; this would make communicating with others outside our classroom difficult. Consequently, some "direct instruction" is needed to make this shared knowledge available.

    As the Teaching-Learning Cycle suggests, instruction requires determining the "amount of support needed for new learning to occur." Only research done in our own classrooms through formative assessment can answer the question, "What should instruction look like today?"

    Thanks for your thoughts. Keep them coming.

  5. Anybody who thinks that "problem solving classes" are easier to teach than those taught solely by direct instruction has clearly never taught one of those classes, or at least has never done so with a serious view toward student learning.

    It takes no trouble at all for someone with a modicum of content expertise to make a direct instruction lesson, and in most cases there is little to no chance of the class going in any direction other than the one the prof has planned out. By contrast, preparing rich learning environments for a diverse classroom so that *everyone* learns something through active work is very hard indeed -- even if things go according to plan. And there is the possibility (probability?) that your plans are going to go out the window when the class clearly needs something you didn't prepare for.

    Also, "problem-solving classes" as opposed to.... what?

  6. As you pointed out, there is a basic confusion in the article around the words "problem solving". Helping students work out textbook problems to make sure they follow the steps is not an example of "progressive" education, it's just the follow up to direct instruction.

  7. Awesome information .really i impresses from this. Thanks for sharing this information with as.

    direct superior approach