Direct Instruction & Political Polarisation

Real EducationThe shadow of E D Hirsch  loomed large this week. The founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, and advocate of Direct Instruction, was featured in a  New York Times blog, and credited with winning the pedagogical battle in the United States. Meanwhile in Australia, new education minister Christopher Pyne called for a  ‘back to basics’ approach in Australian schools, having kids recite facts delivered by teachers. Pyne wants to see more direct instruction in class. We know this view is also shared by UK Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove –  a big fan of Hirsch’s.

These kinds of political interventions are inherently, and deliberately, polarising. Pyne observes that ‘the left’ will find his views galling, Gove labels opponents of his policies as leftie ‘enemies of promise’. This the week the UK government’s Chief Inspector For Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, castigated  a speech made earlier by Tim Hands. Hands, Head of the privately-run Magdalen College, complained about political interference:

“The story of the last 50 years is, I suggest, the intrusion of government and the disappearance of the child. More radically put, it is the intrusion of the state, and the disappearance of love….The post-1980s drive on academic standards was based on the mistaken belief that you do not need to make a child happy as your first priority. Indeed it believed that if you make a child academically successful then happiness will follow.”

Wilshaw’s response made concern for the whole child – not just their exam results – a class issue:

“These heads in inner-city London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds haven’t got the time to worry whether their children are climbing trees proficiently,They would feel particularly insulted if this criticism was coming from some educationalists who have the luxury of teaching children from aspirant and often well-heeled homes – homes that would make damn sure that their children passed their exams, even though the school afforded them the time to climb trees and gaze upon the beauties of life.”

Discussions about teaching and learning shouldn’t be about left vs right, rich vs poor. In fact, it shouldn’t be about either/or. Most teachers understand that there’s a time for direct instruction, a time for enquiry-driven learning, a time for phonics, etc. The don’t give pedagogies political labels, and they know that sometimes you need a hammer, at other times, a screwdriver. For a more reasoned response to the direct instruction debate, I read a blog from an actual teacher, Anne Knock. Anne argued that there were times when DI was useful, but concluded, “In 2013 direct instruction still has a place, within the context of the broader learning. But… It’s not everything, it’s not nothing, but it does explain some things.”

Anne tried to stress that teaching is a complex art, taking into account learning context and motivation, not simply telling kids things. Not absolute enough, apparently, Anne. She was subsequently taken to task by a DI devotee. Karin Litzcke commented:

“Talking about context and motivation …is an insult to the kids who come to school trusting that their time will not be wasted, which is what school has done ever since the silent learning fad swept the school system circa 1921.”

Ms Lizcke argued that we all need to understand what DI is all about by listening to the teachers that do it. So, I did just that.  I followed her link to a video of Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy. I’d urge you to watch it too:

The school is Hirsch-inspired. One of the teachers interviewed said she ‘wouldn’t want to teach any other way’, stating that Abraham Lincoln had attended a ‘blab schooll’ that all the students “would answer with one voice, and it made me chuckle because that is what a direct instruction classroom sounds like – it’s a blab classroom.”

In case you’re not familiar with 19th century blab schools, they adopted a call-and-response methodology, chiefly because they couldn’t afford books and materials. To praise a methodology for taking us back to Abe Lincoln’s experience, in a post-internet world seems bizarre. The demands made upon kids in the future are very different to those educated in the 19th century. We know this because employers constantly remind us of the varied skill-set needed. Critical thinking, creativity, literacy, numeracy, collaboration, resilience will not be developed in our kids unless we have an equally diverse set of pedagogies, personalised to each child’s needs and context. If all you have is a hammer, every child starts to look like a nail.

Surely what’s really insulting to kids (and certainly teachers) is playing political, absolutist, games over pedagogy and not trusting educators  to exercise their professional judgement?

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