The Debate within the Classroom

At Stanford, education policy holds a revered place among political science and public policy students. Many envision themselves correcting the social injustices of society through eliminating the achievement gap, while many plan to equalize the field of opportunity which they themselves mastered in order to acquire admission to Stanford. But while the debate over federal and state education policy, characterized by words like achievement, school-choice, charter, and performance pay, ensues, another debate, considered equally if not more important, greatly affects the performance of the American K-12 education system.

This other debate revolves around the development of the best method of instructing students, or more simply, the art of teaching. Most prominent within this field exists a debate concerning the teacher’s role in the classroom: whether the teacher should be center stage directly instructing the students, or whether the students should discover the material through their own process. The latter approach can be called constructivism, the former, direct instruction. The approach chosen can affect achievement just as much as state and federal policies.

Dr. Bill Evers, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, explained his understanding of constructivist theory, stating, “The teacher should enlist and follow the interests of the child and should assist the child in exploring those interests.” He continued: “You’re constantly constructing reality, living on the knowledge that we have.”

In their book Constructivism in Education, Leslie Steffe and Jerry Gale echo this idea. To them, constructivism challenges the views of logical empiricist philosophers. It is a theory in which “the customary conception of truth as the correct representation of states or events of an external world is replaced by the notion of viability.”

They explain this notion: “Viability – quite unlike truth – is relative to a context of goals and purposes…. The introduction of the concept of viability does away with the notion that there will be only one ultimate truth that describes the world.”

The general theory behind constructivism then motivates teaching methods.  Constructivists believe that with self-esteem and desire to learn, students can become better learners by exploring and discovering knowledge on their own.

Dr. George Cunningham at the Pope Center for Higher Education policy cited Jeanne Chall’s description of constructivist teaching, “[I]n the ideal student-centered school, the teacher remains in the background, the child’s learning mainly arising from natural curiosity and desire to learn…the teacher is advised to be a facilitator, a leader, or a coach—as opposed to one who talks at length in front of the whole room.”

Practitioners of this theory hope that their students become creative critical thinkers, well-rounded students who can synthesize knowledge, rather than simply recall facts learned through rote memorization.

Cunningham points to constructivist teaching methods in the famous “math wars.”  In 1989, a new set of national math standards “decoupled advanced math performance from the mastery of math fundamentals. They did this by eliminating traditional algorithms.” For example, one traditional algorithm from which the standards eschewed was the typical method for solving long division. Students could be expected, according to Cunningham, to develop their own method for dividing numbers.  “[Students] were given the opportunity to ‘discover’ creative ways of finding the answers,” he wrote. While this method could take longer, constructivists would argue that the value gained from developing that method by him or herself, the student gained experience in solving similar problems.

These methods are intended for students to improve their problem-solving abilities and organically discover a solution to problems, so that they can apply those same critical thinking skills in future problems of a similar nature.

But an alternative to the constructivist method of instruction does exist. Critics of the method often espouse “direct instruction” as a more effective method of teaching. Direct instruction assumes the teacher will take a central role in the instruction process.

Cunningham lists several assumptions that must be applied to direct instruction: “Students need direction and close supervision in order to maximize their learning, the amount of instructional and engaged time should be maximized, classrooms should be structured in such a way that the teacher is in control, and appropriate questioning techniques should be employed.”

While the proponents of constructivism argue that it creates creative critical thinkers, the proponents of direct instruction point to the lack of empirical evidence that constructivism leads to higher achievement.

In the math wars, the direct instruction proponents support teaching students how to perform the traditional algorithms necessary for basic math, and teaching all of the alternative methods as well.

A major criticism and even inhibition to constructivist methods arises in the amount of time the method requires. Dr. Evers explains that it is difficult with constructivist methods to cover an entire year of achievement that could otherwise be covered with direct instruction. He explained that “it took human beings several thousand years to learn what we know today…to try to figure out all the things that mankind has learned takes a long time.”

Evers explained that on the constructivist side, supporters desire creating a better individual, a more creative individual.

But some critics of constructivism claim that an ideological drive underlies the theory. Jay Schalin, research fellow at the Pope Center for Higher Education, said, “Educators—particularly those at the prestigious schools such as Stanford that focus on research and theory—are increasingly taught that the intent is not just to develop skills and to pass the existing culture on to a new generation, but that they are to ‘transform’ society.”

This “transformation” refers to teachers’ efforts at correcting the ills of society through their teaching. Evers explained that constructivist methods might be best suited for students who come with a great amount of background knowledge already, someone like a Palo Alto student whose parents are a computer scientist and a professor. “If you don’t have the background knowledge, you don’t have time to waste,” Evers explained.

Michelle Kerr completed Stanford School of Education’s STEP program a few years ago. Kerr was involved in a public dispute with the school itself over her enrollment and views. She recounted, “Teachers were expected to enforce Social Justice—and social justice meant supporting affirmative action, the Dream Act, opposing immigration enforcement, opposing Prop 8, and so on.”

Some claim that the idea behind heterogeneous grouping, that is, putting students at various levels into group or classroom units and then having the teacher teach to all of their levels, stems from a desire to correct these social injustices.

Schalin voiced his opinion concerning heterogeneous grouping vs. homogeneous grouping. He stated, “The more homogenous the classroom, the easier it is for the instructor to teach at the proper pace, and the more students in the classroom who are being taught at the proper pace for their ability level.” Critics claim that when teachers spend too much time teaching to homogeneous groups with many different levels, then some students might be left behind or might not achieve their full potential, because their level is mismatched with the level being taught.

Dean of Stanford School of Education Deborah Stipek, speaking on her personal views and not for the School of Education, shared her opinion about grouping students, “It really depends on the kids and where they are…probably the best strategy is to group them for skills some part of the day, some part of the time, and to do whole group, whole class projects, other parts of the day.”

When asked his opinion in the constructivism vs. direct instruction debate, Evers replied, “I want to be led by the evidence. My thinking is that the evidence tends to support teacher-led classrooms… this is not like some kind of exclusive ideology viewpoint of mine.”

Cunningham told the Review that constructive or a “progressive” teaching method “dominates” education academia. NCATE is the accepted accrediting body for schools of education, and Cunningham stated that their “standards are infused with progressive education standards.”

Schalin came to a similar conclusion. “Progressive, child-centered theories have been around a long time…” he stated. “They have come to either dominate or strongly influence most ed schools.”

However for some, the debates between constructivism and direct instruction and homogeneous vs. heterogeneous classrooms do little more than distract from what they believe are the real issues. Speaking about the debates between direct instruction and constructivism, Dean Stipek stated, “They don’t really capture the complexity of the process…or the issues that teachers face in deciding how to teach…The debates are oversimplified, it doesn’t even make sense to have an opinion on them.”

Stipek focuses on something else. “I want to know what kind of instruction works for what kind of kids,” she stated.

“These are critically important debates in education,” Cunningham said. “Those who oppose them are the ones who are content with maintaining the status quo having education schools espouse ineffective instructional theory.”

The debate, or the debate over whether or not the debate should exist at all, remains less prominent than the higher-level debates even though the influences on achievement and equality seem to be equally as important.

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