The recent poor performance on the ITBS by local schoolchildren came as a shock to many in the Cedar Rapids community. Administrators were quick to blame poverty as the cause of low scores. Although there is undeniably an association between socioeconomic status and school performance, the effects of poverty can be minimized with the use of specific teaching methods supported by research. The real barrier to high performing schools is the refusal of educators to implement teaching methods and choose curricula based on sound evidence, preferring instead to make choices based on unsubstantiated ideas, beliefs and philosophies.
Most American elementary schools are based on the idea of constructivism, the psychological theory that children must construct their own knowledge. This results in “discovery learning”, and the “child-centered classroom” where the teacher is the “facilitator” and helps children to “learn to learn”. Process is emphasized over content in an attempt to develop “higher-order thinking skills”. Constructivism is responsible for bringing us whole language reading instruction and fuzzy new-new math, which emphasizes manipulatives at the expense of computation and algorithms.
At the other end of the spectrum are instructivists, who believe that knowledge is in the possession of the teacher, whose role is to transmit information and concepts to the student through explicit instruction. Clear objectives and lesson plans are utilized in order to teach specific content.
Most educators are critical of instructivism, labeling it “rote memorization” and “mere facts”. It is scorned as “factory model” teaching, producing automatons incapable of thinking for themselves. This characterization betrays ignorance of the method. While memorization and drilling do have a minor role in instructivist classrooms, problem solving and critical thinking skills are in fact greatly valued.
Although the fundamental theory of constructivism is widely accepted by mainstream science, the interpretation that children must discover knowledge on their own is not. Instead, it is a giant leap of logic emphatically not supported by any sound psychological or educational research. Educators are quick to claim that their constructivist curricula are “research based” and that teaching methods are “consistent with what we know about how children learn”. But what is considered “research” by educational constructivists are usually hypotheses, in the form of observations, anecdotes, or beliefs. Hypotheses have value in that they provide a starting place for scientific inquiry, but they must be tested to determine their validity before being used to make decisions on how to educate children.
Meaningful, quality research does exist in education, however. And the great majority provides sound evidence that instructivism is superior to constructivist methods. Consider Project Follow Through, the largest educational study ever performed. Costing over a billion dollars and lasting over 20 years, Follow Through evaluated a number of different teaching methods. The results were unequivocal. Schools using Direct Instruction, a specific type of instructivism, outperformed all other methods on basic academic skills, problem solving (“higher-order thinking”) and even self-esteem. Follow up studies consistently show that schools gain 30 to 40 points on standardized test scores after adopting Direct Instruction. On the other hand, most of the constructivist models showed outcomes lower than the control groups, meaning they actually caused harm. Unfortunately, when the data did not support the theory of constructivism, instead of rejecting the theory, educators rejected the data.
It is time for a paradigm shift in education, where scientific research is valued and utilized. Universities and colleges responsible for training future educators must cease presenting constructivism as the only viable teaching method. Researchers must shift to undertaking quantitative, rather than qualitative studies. Teachers must begin to question what they have been taught and start to analyze the “research” with scientific skepticism. And parents must insist that administrators start requiring solid, mainstream, data-driven evidence before choosing curricula and incorporating teaching methods. The mystery is not what is wrong with our schools, but how these methods have persisted for so long in the face of overwhelming evidence of their inferiority.