Slouching Towards Progressivism


You would not likely mistake me for a Dewey eyed constructivist. I get kind of dogmatic against the teaching of skills over literary content, for example, though I’m not quite so hard line against progressive instructional precepts as some, such as Harry Webb (my favorite ed curmudgeon. Read his blog regularly). If you’re really bored, you can read some of my circuitous expositions against constructivism here or here for further confirmation of my anti-constructivism.

But I’m moving into my 6th year of teaching special education, and my thoughts on progressive instructional approaches have shifted. Let me explain why, then let’s examine three articles that might provide some corroboration of my reasoning.

Coro New York ELC: Experiential Learning at its Finest

I took part in the first cohort of Coro New York Education Leadership Collaborative last year. The Coro methodology is experiential based, and in this sense progressive. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first when I sniffed constructivist signifiers at the outset of the program in words such as “self-discovery” and “skills.”

But after experiencing how effective well structured experiential group learning could be, I shed some of my cynicism. My co-teacher and I later brought the methodology to our own students and planned what we called an “Inquiry Day” on the issue of segregation (you can see the full unit we developed here), providing our students an opportunity to learn directly from group-guided interviews with inspiring thought leaders and activists. This experience for my students was just as powerful as it had been for me as an adult on Coro ELC strategy days.

I work with students who are often so accustomed to failure that they have long given up putting forth effort. Finding methods to include and engage them are just as critical as providing them with essential domain-specific knowledge. This is why I have shifted in my thinking.

Supporting Ideas for Embracing Progressive Elements of Instruction

Idea #1: “You do, y’all do, we do”

Elizabeth Green, one of the sharpest minds in the realm of education journalism, recently published a book, “Building a Better Teacher.” In a controversial sample from the book on NY Times, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?,” Green presents a challenge to the traditional lesson format many teachers use. The “I do, we do, you do” format (something I utilize in my own lesson plan template), stems from principles of direct and explicit teaching: the teacher models and demonstrates, the students practice with guidance and feedback, and then practice is conducted independently.

How could you teach math in school that mirrors the way children learn it in the world? That was the challenge Magdalene Lampert set for herself in the 1980s, when she began teaching elementary-school math in Cambridge, Mass. She grew up in Trenton, accompanying her father on his milk deliveries around town, solving the milk-related math problems he encountered. . . .

She knew there must be a way to tap into what students already understood and then build on it. In her classroom, she replaced “I, We, You” with a structure you might call “You, Y’all, We.” Rather than starting each lesson by introducing the main idea to be learned that day, she assigned a single “problem of the day,” designed to let students struggle toward it — first on their own (You), then in peer groups (Y’all) and finally as a whole class (We). The result was a process that replaced answer-getting with what Lampert called sense-making. By pushing students to talk about math, she invited them to share the misunderstandings most American students keep quiet until the test. In the process, she gave them an opportunity to realize, on their own, why their answers were wrong. . . .

Over the years, observers who have studied Lampert’s classroom have found that students learn an unusual amount of math. Rather than forgetting algorithms, they retain and even understand them [Bold added].

Definitely constructivist elements in play here, which set alarms ringing in anti-constructivists minds. Tom Loveless wrote a scathing rebuttal to combat these constructivist implications.

But this flip from “I do, we do, you do” to “You do, y’all do, we do” is an instructional approach I find very compelling.

The idea of allowing students to process and struggle with something based on their current level of understanding, then slowly unpack those misconceptions and insights via group discussion, is something that I’ve witnessed take place very powerfully in classrooms.

Idea #2: Foster Productive Confusion

In an article by Steve Kolowich, “Confuse Students to Help Them Learn,” there’s support for Magdalene Lampert’s approach to instruction:

“It seems that, if you just present the correct information, five things happen,” he said. “One, students think they know it. Two, they don’t pay their utmost attention. Three, they don’t recognize that what was presented differs from what they were already thinking. Four, they don’t learn a thing. And five, perhaps most troublingly, they get more confident in the ideas they were thinking before.”

“Common wisdom holds that confusion should be avoided during learning and rapidly resolved if and when it arises,” wrote a team of researchers in a paper published earlier this year. While this might be true when it comes to superficial tasks such as memorizing facts and figures, “Confusion is likely to promote learning at deeper levels of comprehension under appropriate conditions.”

In other words: If teachers want students to learn the really important stuff, like comprehending difficult texts and modeling complex systems, they should put their students in confusing situations.

This is where harnessing the power of confusion becomes difficult—and risky. Some students are likely to snap sooner than others. “We still don’t know how soon to rescue them from the confusion,” Mr. Graesser told The Chronicle in an interview, and the right answer undoubtedly varies from student to student. Researchers say that confusing students works only if instructors can track and moderate the confusion.

There’s the rub: Detecting confusion is hard, especially in the moment. So is controlling it. For an instructor standing before a sea of faces, it’s virtually impossible [Bold added].

This caveat at the end is important: it suggests that to balance confusion with success is extremely difficult to achieve. This can explain in part some reluctance to adopting such an approach wholesale for classroom pedagogy. Great teaching is hard. I’ve had the honor of working with some great teachers, and I’ve seen this approach work. I’ve also seen it fail miserably—most especially when I try to implement it with my own students in a self-contained setting.

With students who struggle the most in the classroom, achieving this balance is tricky. We want to “confuse” and challenge our students to unveil their misconceptions, but we also need to engage and motivate them. This is where our next idea comes in.

Idea #3: Make Your Audience Care

In a seemingly unrelated article about making films, some advice from Pixar’s Andrew Stanton stood out to me in relation to this:

Since we’re all natural problem solvers, it brings us great satisfaction to solve problems put in front of us. Contrary to what it might seem, we actually like to work for results rather than be given them, and this goes for watching films, too. Audiences don’t tend to enjoy films with a lot of exposition and over-explanation or over-simplification of plot and character motive, because it takes the fun out of putting the pieces together themselves; it denies them the chance to engage in the story, to participate in it, which, in the end, doesn’t inspire them to care [bold added].

In other words, engaging our students—making them care—could be viewed as part and parcel of allowing them struggle through something before we provide them with any answers. This beautiful struggle occurs when we figure things out on our own. But in a classroom, such struggle must be carefully designed: “The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience.” It’s not something that just happens. “Discovery” learning must be rightly critiqued as BS. But a well-crafted problem, designed intentionally to surface deep-seated misconceptions and create productive confusion, can be simultaneously engaging and enlightening.

What do you think?


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