Saturday, December 22, 2007

Is Scripting for Teachers a Denial of Their Professionalism

Via Joanne Jacobs comes the question of whether or not teaching using a script is actually worth the effort. Linking to a post by Education Gadfly's Liam Julian, Jacobs wonders if Julian's analogy holds up. Julian writes,
The popular value of ___________ creativity and autonomy as high priorities must give way to a willingness to follow certain carefully prescribed ________ practices."

Replace the first blank with the word "doctor," the second with the word "medical," and you've constructed a commonsense sentence that will garner nods of agreement. Replace the first with "teacher" and the second with "instructional," however, and you've got on your hands a 40-year-old dogfight.

The above sentence is originally found--with the words "teacher" and "instructional"--on the Direct Instruction website. One also finds out on the website "that 32 of 34 qualifying studies demonstrated a positive effect of Direct Instruction on student achievement" and that the practice, which provides teachers with scripted classroom-lessons, is effective in improving academic performance in a bevy of subjects and has a positive effect on students' social skills.

Direct Instruction is not promoted only by its own website, either. Others think highly of the practice (see here, here, here, and here, for example).

Yet, despite the reams of data showing Direct Instruction's effectiveness, the approach remains controversial, in large part because of educators who find its methods stultifying. The practice is being attacked nationally and locally. After administrators in Providence began this year using Direct Instruction in seven of the city's lowest performing elementary schools, Roger Eldridge, a dean at Rhode Island's Feinstein School of Education, told the Providence Journal that teachers would be "jumping through hoops." Others lamented that teachers would lose their ability to be creative in the classroom.

But when doctors use specific, scripted methods, nobody suggests they are "jumping through hoops" or despairs because surgeons can't be "creative" in the OR. It's worth asking: Why do we want our public-school teachers to be "creative"?

Medical training is scientifically-based and prizes results over creativity. Would that this were so in education. A 2006 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality found that, out of 72 randomly selected education schools, only 11 taught all elements of the science of reading. The report's authors wrote, "The decision about how best to teach reading is repeatedly cast as a personal one, to be decided by the aspiring teacher." Reid Lyon, former chief of child development at the National Institutes of Health, has compared such teacher-centered practices to child neglect.

It is foolish to believe that big-hearted 22-year-olds will know, intrinsically, the best way to teach reading to a class of second graders, just as it is foolish to think that newly minted doctors can on their own derive the best way for treating a particular pathology. Surely, though, veteran teachers can teach without rigid, Direct Instruction curricula? Not necessarily. A comparison to the medical profession suggests that even the most grizzled teachers (and their students) may benefit greatly from scripted procedures.
I have often linked the medical and legal professions practices and continuing education as a model for the teaching profession. There is a certain symmetry to the matter and a certain dissonance as well.

For the most part, to answer Joanne Jacobs' question, I think the analogy holds up well. There is a one big caveat. Doctors are treating one patient at a time, often in isolation from other patients. While a series of patients may present with the same symptoms and require the same treatment, often responding in the same manner, a teacher is not dealing with one child at a time in isolation, but with a classroom.

But to be honest, I am not sure that is a reason to completely ignore the success of Direct Instruction as a methodology. Clearly, just like doctors, most students will resond to the standard presentation and instruction. It is only the outliers, those students whose performance is clearly not the norm, that would require a different intervention. Doctors have the same sort of procedures as well. If the standard treatment is not working, that is when doctors have to get creative.

Clearly in medicine results matter, more so than we may want to admit. We pay doctors to know the standard treatments and then we pay to address the non-standard presentations.

One of the most common criticisms I recieve about supporting things like Direct Instruction is that it does not treat each student as an individual and medicine treats each individual separately. But think back to what was just written, doctors can treat patients with the same symptoms in the same way. Yes, each individual is respected but the doctor categorizes them by treatment methodology.

Teachers and schools do the same thing. No offense to all the teachers out there, but you do. I am not passing judgment, it is simply a matter of human nature. Go to any kindergarten classroom (and yes, I have been in more than a couple) and children are grouped by ability for certain activities, like reading or writing instruction. It makes instruction easier and allows the teacher to make the most of their limited time. While the concpet of tracking is looked upon with disfavor, it is nonetheless happening on a de facto basis if not in actuality.

Grouping students is not necessarily a bad thing so long as those groupings are not fixed or long term. What Direct Instruction allows, just like treating patients with the same symptoms in the same manner, is for the professional to find the outlier faster and then tailor a "treatment" plan quicker.

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