Teaching, learning can’t be scripted

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The following letter is in response to Catalyst’s December issue on Back to Basics and its Dec. 3 “City Voices” program on WNUA-FM, which dealt with the direct instruction and whole language approaches to teaching. The participants were Marie Donovan of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development and Joseph Layng, director of the Personalized Curriculum Institute at Malcolm X College. Both were encouraged to continue their conversation in Catalyst.

Among the many points that Joseph Layng and I agree upon is the critical need for the school system to provide more relevant, more truly helpful means for teachers to amend their practices. In that respect, his direct instruction (DI) program will do just that. I question, however, the depth of teacher change after undergoing such an indoctrination. I use this term purposely, in part because of my personal experience with DISTAR (which is the basis for the program Layng and his colleagues are using) and because of the changes I’ve witnessed in Chicago teachers who have adopted the whole language approach as part of their work with the Erikson Schools Project. Allow me to elaborate:

The direct instruction approach has at its heart a prescribed structure. Teachers work from a script and are trained to follow that script to the letter. (The reasons DI adherents give for such prescription range from insuring uniformity among all practitioners to providing the thoroughness and consistency that even the best teachers might be lacking.) Too, the lessons are highly sequenced—do this, then this and then this. Assessment of learning progress is incorporated in a similar fashion—that is, the manuals tell you when, what and how to measure and evaluate.

While I agree that having such a structure spelled out can help you in your lesson planning and execution—especially if you’re a new or relatively inexperienced teacher—I wonder what it does to the exchange between teacher and student. That is, when you compare the direct instruction approach to that of any whole language-based one, you quickly notice how DI diminishes opportunities for the teacher’s key role in education: Setting the stage (content and skillwise) for the learning conversations, the exchanges of ideas between and among students, parents, teachers and administrators. Learning—and teaching—aren’t scripted, neat affairs; there’s plenty of messing about, retrying and re-evaluating the outcome of the effort.

What concerns me most about the reintroduction of DI is the manner in which it is being handled, which has nothing to do with Joe Layng and everything to do with the current School Board’s handling of instructional issues. Gery Chico’s premature comment regarding “back to basics” sent a chilling message to teachers: We don’t think you’re doing your jobs correctly. Teachers of every stripe—basal textbook-based, whole language, eclectic, etc.—took great umbrage at his comment, for they’d never left the so-called basics. It was clear to all of us in the field that Mr. Chico either hadn’t spent any significant time in classrooms before making his remark, or, if he had, he didn’t pay close attention to what he saw. The next time he plans a visit to a whole language classroom, I suggest he first spend time alone with the teacher to learn in detail how a whole language curriculum works.

I am also concerned about the board’s allocation of $900,000 of taxpayer money to the Personalized Curriculum Institute so that it can get its DI program up and running at demonstration sites. Again, the board is making a political statement to teachers: This is what you should be doing. Should the board disagree with my interpretation, I implore it to issue a position statement soon. The many dedicated, competent teachers I work and speak with are waiting for clarification—and support for their efforts. We in the teacher education community are too!