An Alternative to Teacher-Generated “Lesson Plans”
Our garage is full of saved teacher materials. They were lesson plans devised by Lynne, my partner, for her elementary school core French classes. There are lessons, games, tests; all manner of instructional materials. When Madame, as she was lovingly known by her students, retired, a new French program was being introduced and no-one was interested in her files. There are indubitably thousands of such hoards of material on almost any subject mouldering away in attics and garages across the country. Their usefulness, despite the gazillion hours poured into their creation, is at best questionable. They have never been subjected to empirical testing except by their creators. They may be the mother lode or they may be fool’s gold or more likely a measure of both. We will never know until they have been adequately tested to see if they actually lay the groundwork for effective teaching.
You may wish to begin by reading my previous blog post, Why Teacher-Generated “Lesson Plans” are Dangerous.
The Problem: A Lack of Training in Instructional Lesson Design
Teaching is a strange profession in that regard. We do not ask a pilot to build and service an aircraft any more than we expect a surgeon to build, equip and manage an operating theatre. We expect them to arrive and deliver their services and then to turn the environment back to its managers to prepare it for the next event. But in education, we expect a teacher to create, produce and manage every aspect of the educational process from initial concept to the final mark and its timely reporting. All of this without benefit of any specialized training in the instructional design of lessons.
The Solution: Direct Instruction
Fortunately, there is a body of work for many core subjects at the elementary level that provides carefully designed, empirically tested programs. These programs cover reading (both decoding and comprehension), language, writing, spelling and math up to and including algebra. They are Direct Instruction programs.
Direct Instruction Provides an Empirically-Tested Roadmap
The programs begin with a scope and sequence chart. This chart outlines the scope of concepts and operations to be taught and the specific sequence of the order in which they will be introduced and practiced. Each of the available courses is in a series from introductory to advanced. Within each strand, each course is divided into lessons and each lesson is subdivided into tasks. The system is sufficiently detailed that each of the tasks is completely scripted so that any teacher could take over any lesson and know exactly what had been taught, what is being taught in this lesson and what will be taught in any future lesson. Like a pilot preparing to fly or a surgeon about to operate, there is a precise set of steps that are to be followed to produce a specific outcome. Pilots do not do a lot of creative flying and surgeons are not noted for on-the-spot experimental surgery. They are trained to do things in specific ways based on the best science available in order to achieve known outcomes as effectively as humanly possible.
Strangely, unlike many other professions (accounting, engineering, computer science, etc.), we do not train teachers in such an orderly manner. The underlying assumption is that the teacher is the creative heart of learning. They are not meant simply to deliver a proven method in a particular way to produce a specific result. They are expected to be creative to meet the needs of the children. Let’s try that approach with a pediatric surgeon at a Sick Children’s Hospital. He wouldn’t last a week.
This fallacy is compounded by the unsupported notion that each child learns differently so by definition there is no possibility of establishing and implementing a standard method of instruction for anyone in anything. On that basis, the entire concept of employing standard procedures like those used in medicine are uniformly rejected by the huge majority of public school districts.
Direct Instruction is Becoming More Popular
Despite these widely held beliefs about learning (and they are beliefs, not scientific proofs), Direct Instruction, this carefully devised method is finally gaining a toe hold in schools, usually in charter schools or in the special education departments of public schools. Interestingly enough, it is consistently teaching groups of children a wide range of skills such as reading, math, reading comprehension, spelling and writing. Direct Instruction was devised by Siegfreid Engelmann and his colleagues at the University of Oregon. It is the model that accounted for the lion’s share of results in Project Follow Through, the study mentioned in my second blog post.
It seems that after all, there is a system that can deliver learning in a standardized way. If you have any ability or compunction to look at empirical data, the conclusion is inescapable.
Next Week: Comparing Direct Instruction with Teacher-Generated “Lesson Plans”
So now we need to choose between untested teacher-generated “lesson plans” and empirically tested courses that teach all but the most challenged students. In the future, I will report on studies and case studies with their appropriate research publications so that you can be well informed on how we could quickly and easily provide teachers with effective tools with which to meet and exceed the standards demanded by their districts and states.