Traditional teaching methods supported by research
By Michael Zwaagstra
If there's one thing drilled into the heads of prospective teachers, it is that traditional teaching approaches are hopelessly outdated. Our future educators are told that it is wrong to think of classrooms as places where students acquire knowledge from teachers.
Instead, prospective teachers are immersed in a philosophy known as constructivism. In essence, constructivism encourages students to construct their own understanding of the world around them, and reduces teachers to mere learning facilitators.
While this philosophy finds its roots in the writings of 17th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there are many modern proponents as well. Paulo Freire, a well-known educational theorist, criticized the "banking" theory of schooling in his classic book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire and his disciples saw education as an inherently political act of liberation rather than as the transmission of essential knowledge and skills to students.
This stands in stark contrast to the traditional view that schools exist for the purpose of ensuring students acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to function effectively in society. Unfortunately, the constructivist approach disavows this belief and minimizes the importance of academic content.
It was this philosophy that inspired the replacement of phonics with the whole language approach for reading instruction. Phonics reflects the traditional approach of teaching children letters and sounds while whole language encourages children to construct their own meaning from what they read. Although most current reading programs incorporate aspects of phonics, significant components of whole language remain prevalent in elementary classrooms.
Constructivism has made its presence felt in other subject areas as well. Math teachers are often encouraged to do less direct instruction of specific number concepts and more real life application of math principles. Some textbooks and curriculum materials even recommend that teachers turn their math classes into social justice indoctrination sessions.
One example of this is Math That Matters by David Stocker. This teacher resource written by a Toronto educator contains 50 suggested math lessons for teachers. The lessons address controversial topics from a decidedly left-wing perspective. Students learn to promote the union movement, challenge the dominance of evil corporations, and blame industrialized countries for the world's hunger problems.
It should come as little surprise that this propagandistic piece was published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a self-styled "progressive" think tank. Math That Matters forms part of the CCPA's education project which was designed as a response to concerns about the influence of corporations over public education. The political inclination in this type of resource should be obvious.
Advocates of constructivism assert that research proves their methods are superior to more traditional approaches. However, a new book written by New Zealand education professor John Hattie challenges this claim.
Visible Learning was born out of Hattie's fifteen-year synthesis of thousands of research studies about what makes the biggest difference to student achievement. He found that constructivist approaches did not produce the promised results.
"The role of the constructivist teacher is claimed to be more of facilitation to provide opportunities for individual students to acquire knowledge and construct meaning through their own activities… These kinds of statements are almost directly opposite to the successful recipe for teaching and learning…" states Hattie.
In contrast, traditional methods made a significant positive impact on student learning. As an example of this, Hattie found that phonics outperformed whole language by a huge margin. Hattie concluded that phonics was "powerful in the process of learning to read" while the effects of whole language on reading instruction were "negligible."
One of the largest studies cited by Hattie was Project Follow Through, a long-term study involving more 72,000 students over 10 years. This study contrasted direct instruction (a traditional methodology) with constructivist approaches such as whole language and open education. Even though researchers found direct instruction was the only approach to have significant positive effects for student learning, the study simply led to more money being spent on failed constructivist approaches.
Hattie is right when he describes education as an immature profession that often places ideology ahead of evidence. Even though the actual research evidence supports traditional teaching methods, constructivist ideology remains dominant in teacher training institutions.
It's time we place evidence ahead of ideology and adopt teaching methods that actually enhance student learning.
Michael Zwaagstra, M.Ed., is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Manitoba high school teacher, and co-author of What's Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.