Why Constructivism and Direct Instruction will Damage Your Child’s Brain – Part 2

Read Part 1 of this 3 part article

In the Schools Today

2004 was my pivotal year. My oldest was in 3rd grade and I discovered that Alpine School District was no longer teaching the times tables or long division to children and hadn’t for at least 3 straight years. What in the world was happening?

Alpine and several other districts had partnered with BYU’s McKay School of Education under the leadership of John Goodlad in 1983, forming a Public School Partnership, and they were pushing an educational philosophy called constructivism. The basis of this theory is that knowledge is socially constructed, or in other words, a democratic approach to knowledge and morals. This moral relativism is at the heart of constructivism. Another notion is that when knowledge is constructed, it is retained better. That can be true, but it also means a tremendous loss of foundational knowledge that could have been obtained by someone with an efficient algorithm. Constructivism is heavy on group work, deemphasizing the individual and emphasizing the collective efforts of students who come up with “strategies” to approach problems. It is also called inquiry-based learning for the approach that students should inquire to learn. The process is also deemed more important than the result so students might get no right answers on an exam but still score high on the test for showing a lot of work.

Constructivists have a philosophical difference in opposition to Direct Instruction methods of teaching which comes out of the stimulus/response system of behavioral psychologists like B.F. Skinner. At the extreme, the Direct Instruction method of teaching can tend to not produce long term retention because it’s geared more toward telling a student exactly what must be learned, and then regurgitating it.

Project Follow Through Results
Project Follow Through Results – Click to Enlarge

Several years ago when I was pondering the lunacy promoted by Goodlad and embraced by seemingly intelligent adults in Alpine School District’s leadership, I came across Project Follow-Through. This was the largest education study ever performed. A billion dollars spent tracking about 170,000 students over decades of time to determine which educational model was most effective in teaching children. The results were stunningly clear. Constructivist math oriented programs like Investigations, Connected, and Interactive math used by Alpine School District were utter failures. Anyone with a shred of common sense knew that intuitively, but it was nice to see it confirmed in a government funded study. Direct Instruction crushed the competition. Naturally, sharing this with the ASD school board and administration had no effect to course correct their direction and do what was best for the children in the district because they were steeped in John Goodlad’s philosophy and regularly taught with him at his annual NNER conferences. Our superintendent even served on Goodlad’s NNER executive committee.

What I didn’t realize when I jumped into the math fight was that although these results were a stunning indictment of constructivism, they were also missing something important about Direct Instruction.

The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America

Charlotte Iserbyt was a senior policy adviser to President Reagan on education matters. She went to work at the Department of Education (DOE) and after discovering what they were up to, stayed after hours to copy and document what these people were doing to American children. Her work was later published as The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America. I strongly urge everyone reading this to go to her website and download and save a free copy of this PDF book to your hard drive (after you finish reading this article :)).

Deliberate Dumbing Down of AmericaWhile reading The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America (DDDoA), I came to realize that “Direct Instruction” is not the same thing as “direct instruction.” One is a program and the other is a method.

Siegfried Englemann created the DISTAR (Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading) program which followed a heavily scripted sequence where the teacher would read something to the children and get constant feedback to ensure they were on track and learning what they were supposed to. As seen in Project Follow Through, this method was vastly superior to constructivist philosophies, but it had its own drawbacks as well. Little case “direct instruction” was simply traditional educating and it was not part of the Project Follow Through study. Here’s a quote from DDDoA.

[Ed. Note: Although the evaluation of [Project] Follow Through cited some academic and self-esteem
gains at some Direct Instruction model sites, it would have been virtually impossible for these
gains not to have been made considering the models with which they were compared—the
non-academic focus of the “touchy-feely” open classroom. Had the Direct Instruction model
been in competition with a traditional phonics program which was not based on animal behavioral
psychology (“scientific, research-based”), it is most unlikely it would have been able to
point to any gains at all. Unsuspecting parents in the 1990s seeking more structured academic
education for their children than can be found in schools experimenting with constructivistic
developmental programs (whole language, etc.) are turning to DI, not realizing they are embracing
a method based on mastery learning and animal psychology.]

Charlotte’s lengthy book exposed all these educational fads and rackets. One paper she wrote concerned Reagan and the DOE contained this clip about John Goodlad. (emphasis mine)

One night, while looking for a typewriter ribbon, I noticed in the

corner of a storage room a box entitled “The Goodlad Study“. I just

about had a heart attack since I had been following this world famous

international change agent’s subversive activities for many

years, especially when I served as a local school board member

prior to going into the Department of Education. Much of the values

destroying curricula and school organizational restructuring

could be laid at his feet. This particular box held a gold mine of

information regarding the efforts of the tax-exempt foundations

and the federal government to implement the United Nations

agenda, to restructure American schools for global government. I

couldn’t believe what had landed in my lap! Four books, all published

by McGraw Hill, were commissioned for this Study. They were:

John Goodlad’s “A Place Called School”; Don Davies’ “Communities

and their Schools” which laid out the socialist/communitarian

agenda to be implemented in America through the schools, pointing

to communist countries as models; Jerome Hausman’s “Arts

and the Schools” which dealt with how to use the arts to change

students’ perceptions and values; and the worst one of all, James

Becker’s “Schooling for a Global Age” which contained the

Foreward by John Goodlad from which parents love to quote:

Parents and the general public must be reached also.

Otherwise, children and youth enrolled in globally oriented

programs may find themselves in conflict with values

assumed in the home. And then the educational institution

frequently comes under scrutiny and must pull back.

As an aside: when I returned home I called McGraw Hill to order the

books and was told they were not yet published but that they would

put me No. 1 on their list which they did. Later, when I checked

back with them, they said: “Don’t worry, Mrs. Iserbyt, we’ll get them

to you as soon as they are received; you are No. 1, even ahead of

each of the 50 Chief State School Officers.” That sure told me something

about how important these books were and exactly who would be

carrying out the radical agendas promoted in each one of them.


Continued in Part 3

12 thoughts on “Why Constructivism and Direct Instruction will Damage Your Child’s Brain – Part 2”

    1. Read the Action List page at the top of the site. That has starter articles and what to speak with your legislators about.

  1. I am new to the common core which was not what the state of Utah started out with. I was among our districts teachers who looked at the fact that what was controlling our teaching was the book publishers. In our hearts we knew that publishers did not have our children’s interest at heart. They were more interested in the money made. In fact I did research on math books and found that the biggest reason math books were chosen, was because of the pictures used. Most books were a hit and miss method of instruction. Books were written with the theory that you introduce a concept, teach it for a few days and if the student did not learn it, it would be taught again later or next year. There was no intention of mastery. Good teachers knew that they had to supplement the books to bring mastery to the children. You still had no consistent method of identifying the skills that were needed to learn a subject or how to create application of that skill to other concepts or ideas. Teachers and parents got together and identified what skills the children needed to be successful in life and began a process of writing the goals for curriculum that was not controlled by publishers. This process took parent and teachers years to develop and it used to be called the Utah core. Unfortunately some one let the Government change a very good system into a very dangerous system. I am not familiar with this Common Core but I will be checking it out. As for the Direct Instruction method I feel there is a great miss understanding of the concept. Every parent or teacher automatically uses it. When a parent starts teaching their children about cows they have a picture book or have visited a farm. They point to the cow and say this is a cow, (say cow) the cow says moo, (say moo). As children get a better use of language skills and their vocabulary the parent starts to explain more of what cows are used for, their habitat, eating needs, etc. This is just common since on how to teach. It is based on Model, (tell your child the information) , lead, (have your child repeat it), test, (check to see if your child understands it and as they get older, see if you child can apply that information to other concepts such as what other animals are similar or how are other animals are different. This is a very simple example but like all information you have to be able to have the vocabulary and understanding of the word to be able to apply it. In the school system children are engaged in learning less that five hours a day. Parents have the responsibility of their children the other nineteen hours in a day. Parents are the major instructors in a child’s life. For years I have watched politicians get elected by telling parents they will fix the system. I question the ability to fix a system that not all parents, teachers or politicians can agree upon. However, we need a system that becomes flexible to meeting parents, students and teachers needs and get the government out of directing the propaganda it wants to control society. When we see our school controlled by government representatives that lie, have no ethics or accountability how can we trust them with our children and our future.

    1. Thanks for commenting Myrna. However, your direction instruction example is precisely the lower case direct instruction I’m talking about in the article. It leaves room for the child to explore. Capital D.I. is a specific program that is highly scripted and while it is MUCH better than constructivism, it’s not everything it could be. The Primary Math series from Singapore math is one of the best programs for co-developing math skills with thinking skills. You can see some examples at http://www.utahsmathfuture.com.

  2. Just be careful and don’t for a minute let schools believe that Math in Focus actually is anywhere as good as Singapre Math…the original edition. Also, if one does adopt Singapore Math…the type Singapore actually used prior to being convinced (bribed) into educating more like the West to prepare for the global world…Singapore children chanted math facts daily and schools tracked students. Some finished 1a and 1b in the first grade while others learned only 1a and remained a half year behind to ensure that first year the basics of numbers were completely understood before moving on to bigger numbers and more complex thought. So, one, they mastered math facts before learning doubles plus one, etc. something our schools don’t understand. Doubles plus one is a math trick. You learn tricks after facts and what facts mean. Second, they didn’t lump all kids together and just pass along students who weren’t getting it. Finally, their end of year tests were exit exams. In the not too distant past, children were still being held back in highly capable countries. Studies having recently proven that holding students back in first and especially 2nd grade has very positive effects on future learning for many struggling students. That is because some children really aren’t developmentally ready before 8 years of age and when they are ready, if they are in a grade that is still going over some basics, it clicks, and they catch on quickly.

    As to the idea that we retain best by doing, new neurological studies actually show that while we are using our working memory, we are hardly able to store anything in our long term memory. Which is why many high performing countries used to just have first graders memorize all kinds of math facts like addition and multiplication and then had them learn what it means through practice and hands on applications. If you have already memorized the fact and only have to understand it, you can learn through practice and doing…doing first is actually a waste of time. Kind of like it actually does help to read the instructions before building the play set or operating your DVDR…not only are you more likely to get it right…you may even remember how to do it again later.

  3. I wonder why no one has taken up the challenge that Siegfried Engelmann put on the table forty years ago: He would give $100,000 to anybody who could get better results from a different reading program than the D.I. program. Charlotte Iserbyt seems pretty sure that virtually any other phonics program would out-perform him. Such easy money! Where are the takers?

    Also: To characterize D.I. as simple regurgitation is completely incorrect. D.I. lesson plans are an exercise in applied logic. All this is laid out in Engelmann’s Theory of Instruction. They involve not only mastery of the rule but its logical application, and most significantly, its generalization, a process of induction as well as of deductive logic. The hackneyed and suspicious goal of “teaching students how to think” is actually realized in D.I. programs. Engelmann raised the IQs of inner-city preschoolers by an average of 24 points over two years in the 1960s. Check out the video of his teaching; what he does with those kids is unbelievable.

    Next: Rewards are used primarily to achieve the order and focus necessary for students to be able to learn in the classroom; only secondarily are they used for academic goals. And it should be obvious that the ultimate goal is for external reinforcement to become internalized. The most powerful reinforcer of D.I., of course, is the students’ growing awareness of what they can learn and what they can achieve. Success is the most potent reinforcer of all.

    Finally: I have observed 20 years of D.I. students in two schools. The Prussians would be very disappointed in them. They are smart, well informed, independent minded, highly developed individuals. There is a definite disconnect between the negative portrayal of Direct Instruction and the reality. Open-minded people should investigate further.

    1. Deborah, thanks for commenting. Let me try to boil down my article even further. Constructivism as a program (and not just the occasional tool) is your brain on drugs. Direct Instruction is vastly superior but is by design a cause/effect or stimulus/response system which is a form of behavioral conditioning. Most effective is the person who gains intrinsic motivation to learn of his own free will and absorbs that knowledge like a sponge. In my opinion, I believe that last category is the best problem solver and entrepreneur. The Sudbury schools turn out entrepreneurs at a rate of something like 14 times the public school rate by students directing their own learning and becoming accountable for it. D.I. certainly has it’s place and my own children have successfully used direct instruction programs like Saxon and I love them. But the article was to point out a third segment that rarely gets discussed.

      1. “Direct Instruction is vastly superior but is by design a cause/effect or stimulus/response system which is a form of behavioral conditioning.”

        Yes — there is a “cause,” which is the communication of the teacher, and there is an “effect,” which is the communication of the student; to repeat, there is a “stimulus,” which is the communication of the teacher, and there is a “response,” which is the communication of the student. Therefore, there is no “behavioral conditioning” because contrary to uninformed characterizations of D.I., the student’s mind is fully engaged, not conditioned in its learning, except when it comes to learning things by rote that should be learned by rote, like math algorithms. Simply repeating the expression “behavioral conditioning” as a put-down of D.I. betrays, shall we say, “behavioral conditioning” in those who use the phrase. Reflexively, without really researching what D.I. is all about. A tremendous injustice has been done to D.I. and its creators because this kind of knee-jerk reaction gets passed around without responsible examination.

        Saxon math is not Direct Instruction. But the skillful teacher trained in principles of D.I. lesson design can make Saxon much more effective. I know this because our teachers do it every day at our D.I. schools.

        1. Did you actually read all 3 parts of my article? If so, you would know that I delineate between Direct Instruction the program, and direct instruction (lower case) the method of giving children the information they need in a way that is vastly superior to constructivism.

  4. Yes, I did read all three before responding. I obviously misunderstood this sentence — “D.I. certainly has it’s place and my own children have successfully used direct instruction programs like Saxon and I love them” — in your last reply, understanding you to say that Saxon was one of those D.I. programs you love, even though you did not capitalize “direct instruction.” My mistake.

    Did you read the first part of my last response? Can you point to a section of any D.I. curriculum that demonstrates “behavioral conditioning?” What specific D.I. curricula are you familiar with?

  5. Deborah, I don’t think I’m qualified to properly identify behavioral attributes in a curricula. Dr. Gary Thompson has posted several things about the behavioral testing company AIR that Utah has contracted with and how a 15-parent panel will review the questions under an NDA. They aren’t trained to look for behavioral attributes in the questions. Gary stated it requires psychologists to review those questions to make that determination.
    What I would point you at is Charlotte Iserbyt’s book, The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America, and a small book called The Leipzig Connection which detail the people who got involved in education were behavioral psychologists and they had a specified purpose in creating obedient pupils for workforce training, not creating independent thinkers. It was standardization, not diversity of thought.

    1. I am aware of Charlotte Iserbyt’s work, although I have read only a few excerpts. What I have read has significant errors of fact concerning D.I. She makes extremely valuable observations about OBE and the social engineering intentions of others — and then unjustifiably — and unjustly — throws Siegfried Engelmann and D.I. into that group. And that is precisely my objection.

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