Why Engel has it right

In my last post, 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. TLN 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. In it, 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…”

I thought I’d post 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-needs 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.

[image credits:

boy with telescope: weblo.com

Jackon Pollock painting: peculiarvelocity.files.wordpress.com

a child’s attention: skelliewag.org

more time: explodingdog.com]