Friday, September 28, 2007

The DI Debate Continues

The Direct Instruction debate continues at Marginal Revolution, via Joanne Jacobs.

The comments are worth reading.

I always find it interesting that people give such flimsy opposition as to pick on that single, widely-reported attribute - "scripted" teaching - and malign it through ridicule, or base the entire rejection of the program on that when few people have ever actually seen it in action. (Including myself, except online videos, but I have carefully examined a DI text I bought for myself, and I was, for a short time, taught with DI, way back when.)

Here are some quotes from the comments I particularly liked:

"When Meryl Streep shows up to make a movie, they hand her a script. But when a new teacher shows up to teach her first class, in many school districts they ask her to invent her own lesson plan. What gives?"

"In the Middle Ages, education was conceived as a three step process.

The first was "Grammar" which meant mastering the details, and basic facts. This is the basis for our phrase "grammar school." Next was Logic which meant piecing together the basic facts (mastered by this point) and understanding arguments. The last step was Rhetoric which was concerned with creating new arguments and expressing oneself. Each step in the chain was necessary to go to the next level.

DI looks like it works very well with the first part. Students need to learn their phonics, mathematical tables, basic historical dates and events, rudimentary science and the like. Only once they have mastered those can we expect them to be able to use them creatively. If they don't master the basic skills, they'll never be able to ascend."

This second one, in particular, made an enormous amount of sense to me. In English, we tend to want students to be able to perform at the Logic and Rhetoric level in their writing, but they haven't yet mastered basic grammar. So we end up trying to teach them grammar AS we teach them logic and rhetoric in their writing. It would be so much easier to eliminate one of the assessment categories. I don't expect that students will write perfectly all the time, even with DI, but I do expect that if they've had teaching which has resulted in mastery, communicating with them about their grammatical mistakes will be a much easier conversation. Pointing out a lack of focus in a thesis statement is much easier when you don't also have to point out subject-verb agreement, how to make a smooth transition between ideas, and how to spell "a lot." (Or, rather, how NOT to spell "alot.")

What DI has the potential to provide, in my opinion, is a common language - a language about language and how it functions. All the ridicule based on improperly represented assumptions of DI - that it is rigid, scripted teaching intended to make dullards of us all - strike me as some sort of ed-demagoguery: a word I've coined in my mind for whenever I see another report on education emerge, and the resultant hysteria it produces.

We received a survey in our boxes today which informed us that our district is considering merit pay, despite the fact that our state voted against it. This has fueled my thoughts tonight.

If we are going to pour more money into education, why don't we put it into training teachers in effective teaching practices, rather than abandoning them to the Darwinian gauntlet of graduating from sub-standard ed-schools and alternative programs? Maybe this is simplifying things a bit, but I always ask myself: when did the successful education of our students become determined by the assumed greed of teachers? The idea that we would work harder for money than for truly successful strategies?

It's ed-demagoguery at work. Teachers want more money. Make the money dependent on student success, don't use it to improve teacher effectiveness. The assumption being that teachers will work harder at the Sisyphean task of making ineffective teaching practices slightly less ineffective, on their own, with no instructive or useful training? It seems like saying, "Traditionally, we've taught you to trap a mouse with a paper bag and a piece of cheese, but we need to catch more mice. Here's some paper. Please figure out how to make a better paper bag."


Catherine Johnson said...

You MUST take a look at Kerrigan's Writing to the Point.

I think it may be the way to Directly Instruct writing at the high school & college level. (Can be used in middle school, too.)

Whimbey's Analyze, Organize, Write is fantastically useful, too. (All high school kids should have the book....)

Catherine Johnson said...

The merit pay issue is interesting around here, where we have such profoundly careless teaching, and where teachers are commanding high hourly fees to tutor students in the district.

Our tutoring fees are a form of merit pay, I think.