Raising Children, Not Test Scores: Why Engel Has It Right

February 21, 2010 at 4:52 pm 9 comments

posted by Ariel Sacks ‘06, middle school teacher, Brooklyn, NY

In a blog post I wrote called What Needs to Change, I question why it is so difficult to find classrooms where students are learning from authentic experiences, when research shows that humans learn best through experience. Teacher Leaders Network member, Nancy Flanagan of Teacher In a Strange Land, left a comment pointing me towards a recent NY Times article, Playing To Learn, by Susan Engel (also referred to in last week’s Bank Street Alumni Blog post, Constructing Knowledge and Playing to Learn). In her op-ed piece, Engel describes the constructivist classrooms and curriculum she believes our children need. She calls upon the Obama administration to advocate for “a curriculum designed to raise children, rather than test scores.”

Nancy wrote…
“There’s been considerable discussion lately over Susan Engel’s piece in the NY Times over constructivist learning, with some people claiming that students don’t really learn much by free interaction with materials and texts, developing and testing their own ideas. There is often a sense that kids with privileged backgrounds, whose parents have inculcated considerable content knowledge, might benefit from applying that knowledge to real-life tasks. But kids from less advantaged homes should really be given traditional, direct-instruction lessons around core content. Since you’re in an excellent position to judge, I’m wondering what you think about that…”

And here’s my response…
Nancy, thank you for the great question. I agree wholeheartedly with Engel’s argument. To those who believe that poor kids need direct instruction on the basics before doing anything else, I would say that direct instruction is exactly the model that has been the status quo for decades and it’s not working, especially or poor kids. There are many, many disengaged children and adolescents in public schools, which I believe accounts for our nearly 50% percent national high school dropout rate. Something has to change. Also, Engel clearly states that kids need time to master computational skills. There’s nothing that says you can’t learn basic skills in a constructivist classroom. But I have students who have been taught certain basic skills over and over again every year and still don’t know them by 8th grade. Why? Most likely because they had no meaning or context. They were memorized and tested and then mentally filed under, “I don’t care anymore.”

That said, there are a few things about constructivist teaching that critics must understand:

1. It is not as simple as it may sound. Experiential learning is not giving students a classroom full of materials and telling them to go learn. On the contrary, it takes a highly skilled teacher to structure and lead this type of learning successfully. That means significant, quality training upfront, on the job, and ongoing professional development for teachers (hmm… sounds expensive, but not if we shift funds from testing, data, and text books over to teacher training and support). It is also essential that the educators who train teachers in this model have significant and relevant teaching experience themselves.

2. The learning in a constructivist classroom is deeper and more lasting than the learning of facts and formulas through direct instruction, but it takes more time. As Engel suggests, we cannot have arbitrary due dates for a list of skills or standards each year. We need to think more long term and give kids the time it takes to learn meaningfully. If we are given more time to work with students to achieve meaningful, developmentally appropriate skill and content goals, I have no doubt that experiential learning will yield, (sigh), yes, higher test scores. As I wrote about here, my highest test scores in 6 years of teaching were the scores received by groups of students after two years with me, as seventh and then eight graders. I didn’t do anything differently with those groups, I just did it for longer. Their motivation to learn and the connections they were able to make across the two years of meaningful, student-centered curriculum were incredible. But these results don’t happen to the same degree in one year’s time. (I usually spent the better part of the first year helping kids to understand how to ask questions and learn from experience and discover how powerful the process is. By the second year kids were ready to dive in right away.)

3. Public schools that serve disadvantaged children must compete fiercely with the many factors that can deter their students from academic achievement. To list a few, unstable living conditions, lack of parental attention, lack of nutrition, violence and post-traumatic stress syndrome all make it far more difficult for many students living in poverty to pay attention, put forth effort all day long, and contribute positively to group life at school.

Therefore, schools that serve poor children must have MORE compelling, NOT less compelling curricula than their middle class counterparts. The physical environment of the school should be more aesthetically appealing and comfortable rather than less so. Schools that serve disadvantaged children must help students develop social and emotional skills as well as academic ones so that they are equipped to pursue their highest goals. The scheduling of the day must be more supportive to the health and development of the child–including recess and the arts–rather than less so, where we cram hours of just reading and math into students and then lengthen the day for extra test prep. Most public schools that serve a high need population are just not offering an education that is competitive in the minds of the children they are trying to reach.  In too many cases, other forces will win out over school, unless we shift our strategy and do a better job of engaging students in a learning community and earning their trust and confidence.

Ariel Sacks teaches eighth grade English and serves as a team leader at a middle school in Brooklyn, NY. She has published articles about her work in Teacher Magazine and the NY Daily News. Ariel writes a blog called On the Shoulders of Giants about her experiences teaching and learning with 8th graders, which is where this posting was originally published.

Entry filed under: classrooms, collaboration, constructivism, curriculum, diversity, equity, policy, politics, professional development, school reform, standardized testing, standards, teacher education.

Constructing Knowledge and Playing to Learn: The School Reform We Need Museums, Public Spaces, and Life-long Learning

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joshua Kilroy  |  February 22, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Among the many misstatements here that I will not take the time to address, there are a couple of points that simply need rebutting. First, it is simply not true the Direct Instruction has been the status quo in American classrooms. Although there are some elements – the emphasis on phonics, the use of drills – that were sometimes present before Direct Instruction was formalized, the synthesized whole (with group response, the careful sequencing of lessons, the immediate correction of mistakes) was not developed until the 1960s. It is Engelmann’s fearless commitment to analyzing each component of the learning experience to determine what works and what doesn’t that made DI such a leap forward for learning.

    Second, it is now beyond all doubt that good teaching can trump environmental factors. Engelmann has demonstrated this over and over with disadvantaged children throughout the country. This is why constructivists have been so ruthless about eliminating successful programs before they become entrenched. More broadly, data is now starting to come in from other sources to verify the faith that DI has in poor children. Teach for America has been carefully analyzing their teachers and their methods to determine what works and they have found that committed teachers who relentlessly look for better ways of communicating with their students can produce astonishing results no matter what the student population is.

    The excuse-mongering that constructivists have had to engage in over the last thirty years to hide their own inability to teach children is simply no longer acceptable.

  • 2. Ariel Sacks  |  February 22, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    Don’t get me wrong. There is a place for direct instruction and skills practice. But what results are you talking about? Test scores? Yes direct instruction is often the most efficient way to get children to perform on standardized tests. But these do not value critical thinking or original ideas or creative thinking or empathy or ability to collaborate with others. In the long term these results do not translate into kids being equipped with the skills they need to succeed in high school or college. (note a recent study on KIPP middle school grads who have outperformed their peers in m.s. but do not have a higher graduation rate in high school than other students; in fact many KIPP grads flounder in regular high schools.) The learning does not last. “file under I don’t care anymore”. And despite gains in test scores, high school graduation rates have remained stagnant at a shockingly low rate for our first world country. Somewhere along the way kids are opting out of school.

  • 3. Ariel Sacks  |  February 22, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    Please excuse my poor editing on this comment. Wrote it from my phone which was freezing so I sent it before I’d lose it. I want to conclude by saying that in my experience it is constructivist methods that are often not given enough time to prove their power. It takes time to train teachers to teach and students to learn in this way, and then to shift a school’s culture to be truly developmentally based. Often when the initial investment in change is starting to pay off, someone from on high, in search of a quick fix, declares a new mandate without looking and listening to what’s really going on on the ground. And the cycle continues with those who make decisions and criticize never actually walking in the shoes of those they expect to carry out their wishes: teachers.
    Joshua, are you a teacher? Do you use DI? If so, I respect your preference and would be curious if you’ve had any first hand experience with constructivist teaching methods. If you’re not a teacher, then I wonder what your position is and in what capacity you know the children for whom you advocate and the teaching methods you believe are best for them.

  • 4. Joshua Kilroy  |  February 23, 2010 at 2:00 am

    Ms. Sacks, let me state up front that I have no professional interest in or experience of teaching. I am just a progressive activist in my spare time, motivated by the sheer waste of human potential. I don’t know the study of KIPP that you cite, but it makes sense that the crushing mediocrity of urban schools would undermine even students who had received solid training in middle school.

    No learning lasts without at least occasional reinforcment, that is why DI is obsessive about constantly revisiting previous lessons. Surely you are not claiming that constructivist teaching methods are better because fifeteen (or twenty or whatever)years later, students will remember more than they would with DI or other methods that have been proven to work. I would need to see a strong citation for that claim.

    You don’t cite any research that indicates DI doesn’t produce creativity or independent thinking. The fact that it actually teaches students how to read, spell, do all sorts of math would seem to indicate quite the opposite. Remember, because DI is so efficient in teaching, it leaves open time to learn to play an instrument, or to play Monopoly, or whatever.

    But your notion that constructivism can teach creativity in the absence of teaching reading and writing seems suspect at best and I would need to see a sound research project with random class assignment among teaching methods to believe it.

  • 5. Joshua Kilroy  |  February 23, 2010 at 2:06 am

    If I might just say something about testing. First, it does what it says it will do, which is to communicate in a clear manner how much a student has learned and to predict future performance.

    That being said, there are certainly difficulties in testing. For one thing, in the absense of strong national, science-based norms for educational content by grade level, it is inherently uneven.

    Secondly, there is a good deal of duplication. Some states have there own tests over and above national tests, plus the SATs or ACTs. In a better world, one set of national tests adminstered once a year would be sufficient.

    That being said, the attitude that test scores do not reflect genuine learning seems to have thin empirical support.

  • 6. Ariel Sacks  |  February 23, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    I think we have a misunderstanding. When I said in my original post that “direct instruction” has been the status quo for decades, I was referring generally to an approach where the teacher directs the learning and the student’s voice or experience of the situation is not an explicit part of the process. Wikipedia describes direct instructions as “a general term for the explicit teaching of a skill-set using lectures or demonstrations of the material, rather than exploratory models such as inquiry-based learning.”

    Later Wikipedia says, “direct instruction is not to be confused with Direct Instruction, a specific direct instructional model developed by Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley C. Becker.” I see now that you’ve been defending a specific program, with which I am not familiar.

    I believe children need to master basic skills (reading, phonics, math computation, etc). I also believe children need opportunities and guidance in developing critical thinking, creativity, and ability to work with others. Finally, I believe that it is possible to accomplish all of these goals through experiential learning. In fact, I am very skeptical as to whether critical thinking can be taught directly, with no student-experience component. In direct instruction (using the general term), the teacher transfers knowledge to the students. There is little to no room for students to think freely, to be critical, to create new things or new ways of doing things, when the teacher predetermines what exactly the child needs to learn in every lesson.

    Either way, though, it certainly takes longer to accomplish all 4 goals (basic skills, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration) than if I am concerned only with basic skills. But when tests only measure basic skills, it’s tempting to short-cut and teach just those tested skills directly and forget the rest (and get all the shine for it, because “results” look good). This is a disservice to kids, though, and ultimately our country.

  • 7. davidbcohen  |  February 23, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    Some studies that might lend credence to the constructivist view have been conducted in connection to an educational organization called Facing History and Ourselves. ( http://facinghistory.org – look under the About Us tab, and select Evaluation and Impact). There is a combination of anecdotal and research evidence to argue that students whose teachers use these materials and strategies show improved performance on a variety of measures. (Disclosure – I’ve been connected to FHAO in various ways for about 11 years). Having taught grades 6-12 in a variety of settings and contexts, I find students much more interested in practicing, applying, and improving skills when they have authentic, “constructivist” opportunities. I think the research basis favoring intrinsic over extrinsic motivation is quite solid, and both logic and personal experience suggest that intrinsic motivation is more likely to arise in a constructivist approach (used in conjunction with well-selected and judicious amounts of direct instruction).

    I am skeptical of proponents of either extreme in any honest debate over complex issues – and I don’t mean this as an insult, but Mr. Kilroy does seem to be carving out a position at the extreme end of a spectrum here, without the benefit of relevant experience that might supply some context and nuance.

  • 8. Gail Ritchie  |  February 24, 2010 at 11:35 pm

    Constructivist teaching has its roots in the work of Piaget and Vygotsky–learners construct their understanding of the world through experience (Piaget) and interactions with others (Vygotsky). This is not just some free-for-all fad. As Ms. Sacks points out, teachers carefully plan the experiences and materials that they provide and then support (scaffold, Vygotsky would say) students as they learn by doing. While this takes more time and effort than simply “depositing” knowledge into students’ heads via direct instruction, in the long run it’s worth that time and effort because we’re educating students for life, not just to regurgitate memorized information on a standardized test.

  • 9. R M  |  March 6, 2010 at 11:35 am

    I am a Ph.D. sociologist and have, for over 20 years, taught students from 5th grade through upper division undergraduate specialty studies (theory, etc.). I also spent quite a bit of time in school myself and that has perhaps been the best “teacher” of all in regard to what I do and how I do it. Simply put, I learned precious little of value, save for basic skills learned by 6th grade or earlier, in high school or undergraduate studies.

    I distinctly recall realizing that I was learning both rapidly and with great depth when my professors first gave me the tools to learn how to learn. To a 21-year-old, every day was an adventure. I never felt that this student-centered, inquiry approach left me without all the skills I needed to become a professor {and a computer programmer, after years of suffering through high school math, and not connecting at all}. In fact, once the professors showed me both respect for my intellect and gave me the tools to use it, I began not only to learn what I had missed, but to crave the joy it gave to me. I am now on a break from teaching so I can finish a book on ethnomusicology.

    I felt and feel great sorrow for those who totally missed out. I know about all the “dueling research” and I’m not about to argue those points, for it usually turns out fruitless. Test scores rule the roost these days, and all I can do is to take some time to let students DISCUSS the standards for history, work together with those standards in mind, and develop critiques of their own! This is the only solution I have ever found that works. Bring *students* into the controversy: they’ll learn what they must for the sake of their school and/or community. Significantly, though, they’ll still have plenty of time to use the tools I have shown them {and authentically tested on} to learn the history and social science that they both want and need to learn. They are required to demonstrate this knowledge using multiple media and methods.

    I have found that students will either tune it all out if one allows it, and thus leave ASAP, or becoming excited by their own learning process. The latter group usually finds ways of going on to a higher level of education, be it finishing high school with distinction, earning college scholarships, or working hard for grad school fellowship programs. You may call my experience “anecdotal,” but I have taught thousands of students, and I gain greater clarity the more students with whom I am able to work.

    Students want to not only “own” their own learning, but they want to learn about history, even ancient history, that is a living part of their own lives. True, some “well-drilled” students want to be “handed” their educations without having to ever enter a library. All they want is a text and and a test from a test bank. And they can be quite good at this! All while not retaining a thing. Prepping such students for State Standards is not all that hard. There is also the vital issue of cultural bias in these “State Content Standards.” I find it more than alarming when politically-oriented bureaucrats with all sorts of “certifications” are the ones to decide what history students “should” learn, when they should and shouldn’t learn it, and with testing as both carrot and stick, how they will learn it {though this is denied}. The pressure is enormous, and it matters not whether the school is public, charter, independent non-profit, parochial, or private {especially the newer “chain-schools” which, like successful hamburger chains, advertise their scores as the main attraction}. Every school needs the money that scores bring.

    This whole situation is becoming increasingly depressing for teachers, profs., and administrators at all levels. Most disturbing of all is that by a student’s late teens, they often come to expect a “quid-pro-quo” learning approach: “you pour the text-info into me from your ‘surplus of knowledge’ {one student actually used this term!}, and I will hand the information back to you on a test.” With such students, any request that they engage in the hard work of learning is often met with frustration and scorn. They feel entitled to a limited “amount” of “knowledge” and that this information be “given to them.” These students do not wish to work at their own learning. The 5-year-old who always asked “why” had been replaced by a “customer” standing before a vending machine {me}.

    I have worked extensively with inner-city youth, and because so many have often been shortchanged in this “give me my learning” process, they often become enthused when given the tools, with constant interaction and guidance, to explore the history they have so often been denied – and that may or may not be on the “high stakes” tests. And you’d be stunned at how hard such students are willing to work.
    Students will watch a film, in a theater {a field trip to ‘the movies’ is taken very seriously in this context}, and all of a sudden, they are reading and critiquing The {Complete} Diary of Anne Frank. And all because the film acknowledged their own significance and intelligence, and capabilities. Will that book be on ‘this’ test? Not necessarily as it may already have been “covered.” The students do not let it stop them.

    We must change, and quickly.

    Robin Mark

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

An Online Conversation

Join the conversation among Bank Street College alumni blogging on education policy, practice, and point of view. Explore issues, ask questions, share what's actually happening in our classrooms, schools, museums, and communities. To submit a post, please send it to: alumni@bankstreet.edu.

Your Voice

Post your own opinions about teaching, learning, children, politics, special education, school reform, play, the standards movement, student teaching, museum education, leadership, block building, morning meeting, curriculum mapping, collaboration, isolation, benchmarks, bilingual classrooms, social-emotional development, the arts...right here on The Bank Street Blog!

To leave a comment on a posting, please click on the "comment" link beside the posting date. Comments will be reviewed before they appear.



Some of Our Past Bloggers

Alisa Algava ‘08, leader of a small Hudson Valley progressive school
Gloria Arenson ’58, psychotherapist
Bill Ayers ‘84, UIC professor, Chicago
Fred Baumgarten ‘84, writer/musician/naturalist/father
Keith Berman '03, founder/president of Options for College and Bank Street’s LinkedIn moderator
David Bowles ’08 (SFC ’93), museum educator at the Rubin Museum of Art
Elena Canaras ‘07, Special Education teacher, Hawaii
Virginia Casper, Bank Street faculty member
Jim Clay ‘88, director of a Washington DC Quaker preschool
Mary DeCamp Cotterall ‘87, Reading Specialist, Michigan
Judy Coven ’77, retired public school teacher and former Antioch University faculty member
Leslie Day '93, adjunct instructor at Bank Street and author of Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City
Mary Louise (Molly) Day ‘76, Lab School teacher, Chicago
Liezel de La Isla ‘99, Prague International School teacher
Diane Trister Dodge '70, founder and president of Teaching Strategies, Inc.
Meghan Dunn ’08, 3rd grade teacher, Brooklyn
Steven Evangelista ’01, co-director Harlem Link Charter School, NYC
Janine Fetters ‘02, Senior Associate of Parent Engagement at NACCRRA
Dena Florczyk '88, middle school teacher and founder/director of The Nigerian School Project
Hollee Freeman '94, writes about parenting issues for the alumni blog and was featured on BSCAA's April 2012 Career Panel
Ellen Galinsky '70, is President and Co-Founder of Families and Work Institute and author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs
Joanne Ruvolo Gannett ‘84, Columbia College art history professor, Chicago
Joan Goldstein ‘67, sociologist and educator
Margot Hammond, Director of the Center for Early Childhood Professionals
Carol Hillman ‘67, early childhood educator, author, and Long Trip co-leader
Pam Jones ‘05, Bank Street advisor and instructor
Lee Klinger Lesser ‘87, trainer for the Parent Services Project
Preminda Langer ‘97, teacher trainer
Claire Milam ’97, life coach, Austin, Texas
Rabin Nickens ‘03, Speaker, Trainer and Educational Consultant
Beth Norford ‘89, consultant and former School for Children teacher
Susy Ogden ‘97
Marion Palm ‘95, Leadership in the Arts alum, writing tutor, poet and singer
Jessica Poser, assistant professor of art education at UIC, Chicago
Jesse Pugh '76, BSCAA President
Meg Rauen ‘06, former Chicago elementary school teacher, NY
Linda Reing, Bank Street Director of Alumni Relations
Rosalind Rothman '62, retired NYC teacher and guidance counselor
Kyla Ryman '92/'97, educational coach and consultant
Ariel Sacks ‘06, middle school teacher, Brooklyn, NY
Linda Appleman (Guidall) Shapiro ‘81, psychotherapist and author
Barbara Silver ‘80, literacy consultant and former NYC first grade teacher
Andrea Penny Spencer, former Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Bank Street
Debbie Stone ‘84, former teacher/co-director of High Valley School
Rachel Theilheimer ‘74, chair of teacher education at BMCC/CUNY
Theodore Timpson ’05, founder/president of Young Spirit Foundation
Eleanor Traubman '95, is Editor in Chief of Creative Times, a blog which promotes NYC's performing, visual and literary arts
Allison Warren '08, new mom, recent grad, and early childhood teacher
Max Weinberg ‘03, Francis Parker School teacher, Chicago
Ted Wells ‘07, 4th grade teacher at The Park School, Brookline, MA
Tracy Wiessbrod ’03, kindergarten teacher and stay-at-home mom

%d bloggers like this: