Progressives vs. traditionalists

My short post on a Direct Instruction book drew an anti-DI comment by Mark Barnes, which set off a passionate debate (now up to 42 comments).

A traditional teacher for many years, Barnes developed  “results-only learning,” which works well for his students, including many “reluctant learners.” In response to the comments battle here, he asks progressives on his blog: Are we losing the fight against traditional teaching?

Here’s his description of a Results Only Learning Environment (ROLE).

About Joanne


  1. In case anyone (else) cares, Mark’s day job is “is teaching language arts at a junior high school near Cleveland, Ohio, and teaching five online courses through two accredited colleges.”

    • I think that’s actually quite relevant information, Mark. He’s dealing with middle schoolers and college students. That’s a very different student pool from K-4.
      The older students have had more experience of the world, more time to become bored with school, larger working memory, and interests that range far outside the classroom. Oh, and hormones…lots more of those.
      I would hope that if he were working with younger children he would recognize the value in some of the things–clear instruction to avoid misrules, in particular, as well as assessment of what facts and ideas have been learned thus far–that DI promotes.

    • superdestroyer says:

      I guess it makes sense that a “language” teacher would promote a system that will ensure that the students never develop adequate math skills.

      I guess a teacher who works with poor blacks would develop a system that rewards BS-ing instead of learning.

      • What a horribly racist thing to say.

        • superdestroyer says:

          Exit exams and testing got started because schools keep promoting and graduating students who were not functional. Now that test are confirming that too many students are not learning, some people want to just go back to the “good old days” of handing out diplomas to students who have not learned anything.

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    A few skilled teachers can do project-based learning well. Most do it poorly. We are never going to have enough excellent teachers to have project-based learning for all.

    A huge advantage of Direct Instruction is that it works for mediocre and poor teachers as well. The disastrous 5th grade teacher who’s nearly illiterate and gets confused by word problems with more than 2 steps? She can’t do as much damage with DI.

    • Amen to paragraph 2; that happens even in the “top” suburban schools and is especially likely in disadvantaged schools. Schools should live by the principle “First, do no harm”.

      Project-based learning is not a good overall choice since it’s inherently less efficient; it takes longer. Time is a valuable commodity and should never be wasted. Again, this is particularly true in disadvantaged schools where kids are wholly dependent on the schools for learning.

      • Are we saying we’re okay with bad teachers?

        Sure, project-based teaching takes time. Other facets of results-only learning, like narrative feedback over grades, take enormous amounts of time. I think we need to embrace this, so we can weed out the bad teachers.

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          I just don’t think there are enough GREAT teachers around to make up for the mediocre to horrible teachers who don’t know the subject matter well. DI explains things clearly even without teacher comprehension, so is a good stopgap since most districts are unwilling to fire bad teachers or unable to find suitable replacements.

          For a good teacher who knows the material, direct instruction is a waste of time– those teachers should get more leeway on curriculum (and are usually more equipped to identify GOOD curricula anyway.)

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          I don’t know about “we” and “okay with.” However, I am fairly sure that without large changes in teacher training, compensation, and retention policies, we will continue to have teachers that range from pretty bad to exceptionally good. I am also fairly sure that few of them will be exceptionally good.

          There are exceptionally good teachers who can make year-long project-based learning work. But I don’t think they will ever be more than a small minority.

        • “Are we saying we’re okay with bad teachers?”

          Now that is pretty funny.

          Say Mark, who’s the best teacher at the school in which you teach? Who’s the worst? What are the prospects of the best teacher for continued employment as a teacher? Better then the worst? Better then the average?

          Until you’ve got some answers for those questions, and similar, the answer to your question depends on who you’re asking and if you’re asking any decision-maker in the public education system – principal, central administration person or school board member – the answer isn’t just “no”, it’s “hell no”.

        • This is when I really hate Joanne’s choice of commenting add-on.

          “The answer isn’t just “yes” but “hell yes”.

  3. Project based learning is useless unless you have only one goal–getting your low ability kids vested in school. For example, I’m proposing that we take the kids who flunk algebra (which means they’ve now taken it twice) and put them in a second year of “algebra” that looks nothing like algebra. Just a year of fun math. They’ll take the algebra CST, but mainly it’s about getting them out of algebra (so their poor attitude can’t infect the next upcoming group) and giving them a year of success. We can sweeten the pot by telling them they will be given credit for their first year, too, if they pass–and barring non-attendance, they will pass.

    Then they go onto Geometry as juniors with two years of credit, probably improved skills, and they can see the end. They’ve got skin in the game. that will carry them through Geometry and Algebra II.

    That’s a good use of project based learning. But to actually learn the material? Not.

    Fortunately, progressive teaching is losing the battle. Not soon enough, alas.

    • Cal, everything you say is what results-only learning eliminates. I certainly hope you’re not a teacher, because students suffer when teachers believe them to be failures and want to separate them out, so they “can’t infect” another group.

      All of my students are embraced, and they all learn. Your attitude is the kind that is embraced by China: give kids a few years to prove themselves, then shove them aside if they don’t make the grade.

      What a shame.

      • It’s kind of funny how Joanne always asks for people to be civil, when it’s okay to make comments like this, apparently.

        • Sorry, Cal, you can’t talk about eliminating students who “infect” others and not expect something in return. Sometimes spirited debate gets a little, well, spirited.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        Mark Barnes saith:
        Sorry, Cal, you can’t talk about eliminating students who “infect” others and not expect something in return.

        Perhaps she can’t expect nothing… but she could expect agreement if she’s right — which she surely is. It’s so well-known that poor attitudes spread across groups like an infection that there’s even a platitude for it: “One bad apple spoils the whole barrel.”

        It’s one thing to say that students with poor attitudes need help and attention, too. That’s a sensible position. One can reasonably think that schools and teachers shouldn’t be in the business of writing students off and abandoning them.

        But it’s quite another thing entirely to kid yourself that keeping students with poor attitudes in the same classes with the students who are engaged with their studies doesn’t hurt the academic success of the latter group. It obviously does: a group of engaged, committed students can almost always do better in the absence of those less motivated.

        Of course, it’s not necessary to be caught in self-delusion to advocate against the sort of separation that Cal is proposing. Some people, after all, really want engaged students to do more poorly than they could otherwise, because it equalizes academic outcomes across student population groups.

        • I agree with Mike Lopez’s rejoinder, but I would also point out that Matt is apparently too ignorant to realize that I did not propose “eliminating” students, but putting them in exactly the sort of project based learning class that he’s promoting.

    • I’m trying to figure out what a “project” might look like that taught long division… any way you look at it, you just have to learn how to do it, right? Or have we given up on it?

  4. The combination of project-based learning and block scheduling is particularly toxic, even though proponents cite “having enough time to do projects” as justification for block scheduling. I’m referring to HS level, but it’s probably equally awful at lower levels. One of my kids had it for his first two years of HS and none of the classes covered the material adequately. Even though all of his classes were honors level (and the school had levels below that), most of the kids could not handle 90″ (or even 60+) of lecture and that is the only way to cover a full year’s material in one semester. My son said half of each class was wasted on useless discussion and projects. Fortunately, he was willing to do the extra math and history on his own, and enough of the sciences to cover the material. It was a twofer; two awful ideas at the same time.

    • momof4, it’s unfortunate that your son had to suffer through what was likely a poorly-taught class.

      If you believe a teacher needs 60 or more minutes of lecture to cover material, you’ve never seen a good teacher. In a 90-minute block schedule, I can teach two years of material and never lecture. Plus, although tests are a poor measure of learning, my students will outperform any traditional students, suffering through lecture, on a standardized test.

      I think you haven’t seen a good workshop-style class with a well-planned project up close. Too bad.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        We covered a year of physics in a semester my first year of HS. BUT— 1. The teacher was an ASTOUNDING lecturer. (And he included great examples, derivations and demonstrations) 2. We had tons of homework, tests, and quizzes. AND 3. We were the top 100 kids in a large suburban county, we were all motivated and surrounded by motivated peers, and we all had strong math and reasoning skills.

        Looking back, there were very few projects. But the book (Conceptual Physics, home of the Fahrenheit Thermometer which was invented by J.D. Themometer!) was excellent, the teacher was a pro, and the course was appropriately leveled for our ability…..

        • Deidre, I wonder how much more passion you’d have for physics if you’d had some real chances for exploration. I’m not even a science teacher, but I’ve often imagined all of the amazing discovery activities I could teach, if I were.

          • Deirdre Mundy says:

            That’s incredibly condescending of you, especially since you have absolutely NO IDEA what my current relationship with physics is!

          • I apologize. I just assumed you were a science/physics person by what you’ve written.

            I certainly didn’t mean to be condescending.

      • Isn’t that exactly her point?
        “I think you haven’t seen a good workshop-style class with a well-planned project up close. Too bad.”

        We’re never going to get to the point where even half of the teachers out there will be able to create their own good workshop-style classes with well planned projects, unless you somehow manage to create a script/method/efficiency engine that makes the one excellent teacher suddenly scale to hundreds.

        Can you scale your ROLE up to where the bottom 2/3rds of teachers can suddenly be given the tools to do it? If not, then ROLE depends on being one of the top n% of teachers out there, for whatever n it is–4, 10, doesn’t matter. It’s not enough–and it never can be, because that tiny percent can’t replace all of the rest.

        • Allison, you make a fair point for sure. I’m hoping that one day all schools will embrace the Results Only Learning Environment.

          • That’s the last thing I, or any of my kids, would want. Even as young children, they preferred teacher-centered, traditional instruction by teachers who knew their content well. Discovery and project-based instruction amounted to slow torture, and it was true of most of their friends, as well. I suspect that feeling is pretty common among kids at the upper end of the ability/preparation/motivation spectrum; present the information and let them run with it. It’s another reason to have lots of choices, even with/within public schools. Not all kids need, like, or respond to, the same type of school or instruction.

  5. not so fast says:

    The problem I have with project based learning and discovery learning is this: the last thing you want for your kids with sex ed is for them to engage in discovery learning. Most rational people (and all rigorous studies) agree that kids are better informed when they receive explicit instruction from adults who actually know more than they do about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Do you want your teen to “teach themselves” about pregnancy prevention? Much of what students discover for themselves is actually wrong. (Why do so many teens believe it is impossible to get pregnant the first time they have sex? Because they know lots of teens who had unprotected sex once and didn’t get pregnant. Does that mean it can’t happen? Of course not, but based on their own “discovery learning” many teens believe it to be true.) If discovery learning doesn’t work for sex ed, why do we think it works any better for geometry or language arts?

    • LOL. I don’t have much argument for what you say about sex education. Apples to oranges, though, I think.

      • not so fast says:

        But why is it apples to oranges? If kids are misinformed when they discover information about sex education on their own (or in collaboration with their peers), why do you believe they are better equipped to discover geometry or physical science on their own? The motivation to learn about sexuality is usually far stronger than their motivation to learn about the Krebs Cycle, yet they still get it wrong.

  6. Some posters are showing a misunderstanding of DI (or at least Direct Instruction as outlined by Engelmann and others). It takes a very intelligent teacher to master the techniques; a very perceptive one to assess how well students are learning; and it is not done all day long. There is plenty of time for using unscripted teaching methods.

  7. I don’t thing its going to be as below:

    Progressive education was a far-flung array of ideas and practices designed to enliven teaching and learning. As with other amorphous constructs, the meaning of Progressivism varied from person to person, place to place, and era to era. At its most diffuse, the word was synonymous with “new” or “good” education. Even so, there were several core ideas in this heterogeneous and influential movement that took shape in the late nineteenth century, spread rapidly and widely in the early twentieth century, and receded by the 1950s.


  8. Whenever we have “gurus” come in from the state level to tell us about how great discovery based math education is, I always ask them the same question: “Here is a problem I had in Calc A. We want our HS seniors to be able to do this problem, so can you outline how this lesson would look using the discovery method? What would the timetable be to get there?

    The number of math experts I have encountered that can’t even solve the problem on their on, let alone begin to create a discovery-based lesson about it is astounding. Too many of the supporters lack the actual math they say the students should be able to learn.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Projects in Math class do have a purpose– as an actual demonstration of what has already been learned, a sort of “hey, this works in real life, too!”

      And my high school thermo class had a huge (and headache inducing!) project where we had to design a house that was built to standard code for our area, and then calculate ALL THE HEAT LOST. BUT first we learned the equations, theories, methods, etc., THEN we had to apply them to a real world project. (What did I learn? Well, besides the extra practice with all we’d learned, I also realized that architecture and design are actually really, really hard to do WELL.)

      Those of us who are against ‘project based learning’ aren’t against PROJECTS. It’s just that a truly GOOD project requires that a student already be pretty knowledgeable in the course work– it’s a capstone, a way to apply what you’ve learned, not a magical way TO learn.

      Project-based learning seems mostly like a way to cope with ‘intentional non-learners.’ Personally, I think a better option would be vo-tech programs. When I taught math, the same kid who “couldn’t” learn in a classroom thrived at his apprenticeship to a local mechanic.

      BUT the mechanic didn’t teach him the math for the job by saying “Here’s a car and some really expensive machines – have fun learning!” He taught him by “Watch me do this a few times. (while he explained) OK, now tell me what I’m doing. Now you do it while I watch. Now you can do it on your own.”

      The difference wasn’t instruction method. It was that the kid CARED about ‘Math for fixing cars” and so he was willing to learn it. He wasn’t going to care about ‘college prep’ courses no matter what ANYONE did. He was 16 and he knew that he wanted to be a mechanic, and school was just what ‘the adults” were forcing him to do to keep him from getting a job.

      Project based learning might have made school more entertaining for him, but it wouldn’t have helped him achieve his goals…

    • I really wonder how much the field of study people have influences their responses. I agree with you 100%, Paul.

      If it took the brightest minds hundreds of years to discover the math we’re teaching, why would we expect that an average student should be able to rediscover it independently in 12, or even 16?

      Many subtopics will work well with discovery learning when guided by a skilled teacher who knows their field inside and out. Far fewer of them will work well when guided by a teacher who understands how to do a procedure, but not when or why. This mindset (I know how, why do I need to know why?) is particularly endemic in mathematics.

      By the time the students get to the remedial classes at the university, they particularly appreciate clear instruction, a few examples with commentary, and in-class practice time. I hear statements like “This is the first time math ever made sense to me in my whole life” and “I think imma take another math class, are you teaching it?” And yet I’m not doing project-based learning. But by any objective standard, the hard-working students are learning well.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        The same goes for science– a lot of innovation comes from one person’s AHA! moment which then gets tested and accepted. It seems odd to expect students to replicate the AHA! moments of scientists past, when not even all scientists had the same insight.

        BUT a prerequisite for these insights is usually a vast body of background knowledge in the subject, both deep and broad.

        An example– computing the speed of light– there were lots of experiments, errors and misjudgements leading up to the technique that finally allowed scientists to measure it. (The big problem was creating a pathway long enough that the speed would be actually be measurable.)— While the demonstration of how this was accomplished is really fascinating, expecting kids to come up with ‘c’ on their own is madness.

        Meanwhile, a lot of the ‘project-based’ science learning seems to focus on fairly low-level skills. For instance, the ‘having high school students plan a community garden’ trope. OK, so they need to be able to compute area, read seed packets, dig, mix compost, etc. This is not “high school level’ science– it’s late elementary school at best! Sure, it’s fun and some people might discover that they like gardening, but it’s not really rigorous coursework.

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          Also, there’s the added racial issue–why are we training low-income, URM students to become LANDSCAPERS?

  9. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Mom of 4 – (posting down here b/c nesting is starting to hit its limit) – When I was teaching, it wasn’t only the kids who were good at school who wanted clear lecture and demonstration, practice, and concrete feedback. It was also the mediocre and poor students who cared about doing well in school. (Usually for extrinsic reasons, like “I need to past the I-steps to play basketball, but still—is that any worse than ‘I need good grades to get into Notre Dame?) The poor students took more time, feedback and practice and often came in at lunch or before and after school for more help, but they still wanted help from the teachers. The kids who DIDN’T want the help offered were usually the ones who just didn’t want to be in school, and who were hoping that if they did poorly enough their folks would let them drop out and get a job. (fat chance, but teenagers often have unrealistic ideas of what they can achieve! 🙂 ) Project-based learning would have appealed to them, not because they WANTED to learn, but because they saw school as ‘a place I go to screw around with my friends until I can get a job and an apartment.’

    Which is back to– why are we FORCING these kids to be in school when they’d be happier AND more productive as apprentices somewhere?

    • As Dickens would say, “Are there no prisons? Are there more workhouses?”

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        An apprenticeship program in a field that a kid finds interesting is a far cry from a workhouse, Mark. For instance, there have been articles on the shortage of pipefitters– a high paying, skilled trade. Why should we force a kid into a college prep curriculum (which feels, to the student LIKE a prison) when he can start on the path to a good career and gain a feeling of accomplishment and a measure of independence? Why are we forcing kids to submit to what amounts to a form of state-mandated babysitting, when at least some of them would be happier and learn more if the lessons were framed as “learning a skilled trade?”

        You seem to think having an option to leave high school is a punishment– for many of the more unmotivated kids, it would be a dream come true,

        • Deirdre, I think what you’re talking about are what we call “encore” classes — industrial arts, auto mechanics, cosmetology, technology, art, etc. These are elective courses. Many kids who don’t aspire to go to college choose these courses. They aren’t placed there because they can’t cut it in other courses. It’s their choice. Many forgo college, so they can pursue careers in these vocations.

          Dropping out of school, though, should never be an acceptable option. I know from experience that all students, when taught properly, may come to enjoy school. Seating them in rows, piling on homework and testing them to death is not the way.

          • Deirdre Mundy says:

            Most schools have cut vo-tech classes, so kids see no point in being there. I’m not talking about classes at school, anyway. I think we need to offer the option of apprenticeships– 4 hours (minimum) a day where the kids can be on a job and learning. The school I taught at had this in the form of “school-to work”- the kids could get course credit, but THEY had to do the legwork to find someone to take them on and teach them.

            And these weren’t kids who ‘couldn’t’ cut it in high school. They were just kids who resented being FORCED to attend school, because they wanted to be out in the world doing something REAL. Staged ‘projects’ wouldn’t have appealed to them either. Some kids aren’t going to enjoy school. You can’t coerce enjoyment. It’s not a matter of proper training, it’s a matter of free will.

            And while dropping out to hang on the corner all day should NOT be an option, if a 16 year old has found an alternative training path that will culminate in the career of his choice, why are we holding him back?? Why not let him take the GED exam and LEAVE instead of forcing him to ‘serve time?’

            Like I said, this option isn’t for kids who CAN’T learn at school. But some kids are bright and just uninterested–so why force them down a path they wouldn’t choose?

            Sure, when I was 16, my life goal was to stay in school forever. But why should a kid who’d rather be learning how to do plumbing be forced to stay? He can always take CC classes or teach himself other things later in life, when he wants to. You can’t trick, force, or coerce kids into loving learning. And why should we insist on treating 16 year olds just as we would a recalcitrant 4 year old. Some kids actually DO know what they want to do at 16, so why not let them do it?

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            I know from experience that all students, when taught properly, may come to enjoy school.

            It’s generally accepted (though there are objectors, to be sure) that something has to be true in order for someone to be able to “know” it.

            I can’t tell if this sentence is a case of hubris, self-delusion, dishonesty, or just another iteration of your typical jargony-platitudinal style.

          • Michael chimes in with “jargony-platitudinal.” Nice.

      • I really think you’re misinterpreting Dickens. If she were saying “Throw these kids out of school and put them on the streets,” then the comment might be apt. But that’s not at all what she’s saying.

        What she’s saying (I believe) is that kids who don’t WANT to do academics should have the option to train for a skilled trade instead, rather than being told “Tough, you need to study a pre-college curriculum and we will only give high school diplomas for pre-college curricula.” This choice ought to be strictly up to the student and the family.

        I knew a lot of students who were just marking time until they could quit high school and sign up for auto mechanics, plumbing, or something similar at the community college. Why should they have to wait until they’re 18? Why shouldn’t they be able to start making (reversible, with a bit of extra study) choices about the direction of their education a bit younger? Increasing VALID choices towards a high school diploma would go a long way towards increasing buy-in in the first place.

        • Kiana, I didn’t misinterpret Dickens. It was hyperbole.

          I get your point, though.

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          Kiana — here, here! Look, I know vo-tech comes with a lot of baggage from generations past, which is why it needs to be FREELY CHOSEN. And it should be obvious that a real apprenticeship is not an ‘easy’ or ‘lazy’ way out– it involves a lot of hard work and focus. But the kids who CHOOSE such a path are usually willing to work hard FOR THE THINGS THEY CARE ABOUT. They just don’t care about academics.

  10. Since I currently live in a city with two large hospital systems, many kids go into jobs in the health-care fields, such as medical/nursing assistants, OR techs, lab techs etc., but they have to pay for post-HS training at a local CC. (I was told $10k for a 10-month medical assistant course) Fifty or 60 years ago, these kids would have left HS already certified in such fields. My FIL was the principal of a tech HS that did just that, as well as auto mechanics, tool-and-die makers, sheet metal workers, cosmetology, office/secretarial, LPN and many other fields. Also, I go to a local cosmetology school for haircuts and almost every student has told me that they would have taken it in HS if it had been offered – as it was in my FIL’s school.

    • I am a big supporter of a dual track education system. One heavy academic track, to prepare those students who will go to college, and one track lighter on academics, but teaching basic lifeskills, literacy, numeracy and a trade. My school is lucky enough to have Masonry and Auto Shop during the school day, and a healthy ROP Health Services program begining right after school.

      I’d support a system that allowed a 16 year old to leave school and become an apprentice.

      • Gahrie, I’d support the system you suggest, as long as a legitimate effort to properly educate all children is made from ages 5-16. The problem is we don’t do this. We track, separate, measure, drill, punish, test, grade and bore kids into hating school and learning. When this happens, we push aside those who haven’t learned, and these are the kids designated as vocational.

        When the system is properly reformed and all kids are treated equally and given a fair chance to demonstrate a real love for learning, if they then decide at 16 to pursue an apprenticeship, so be it.

  11. I’ve taught both DI and problem-based learning. Right now I teach middle school students with learning disabilities and emotional disorders. In the past I’ve taught all varieties of Special Ed and Elementary and High School Regular Ed (English and Math).

    Here’s my opinion, for what it’s worth. A well-run PBL classroom is worth its weight in gold. It can engage the most difficult learners, and is an extremely efficient use of time (yes, you heard me right, efficient). I’ve made gains of several years worth in Reading and Math within one year using well-planned PBL.

    I needed a tremendous amount of help and time to do PBL well. I had a lucky couple of years, where I had a brilliant coach work with me and a fantastic mentor take his personal time to help me get started. I also had an unusually light caseload.

    Now that I’m back to a more typical teacher schedule, with an average caseload and no brilliant people offering me their time and assistance for free, I can’t to PBL. No time, no ability to delve into it.

    I can do DI well, and DI done well is pretty effective at certain things. I don’t think it’s as effective as high quality PBL, but it teaches the bare minimum adequately with the limited resources I currently have.

    DI was a godsend when I was a new teacher.

    Most of the PBL I have seen in practice is a confusing, chaotic disgrace. I fully empathize with Dierdre, momof4, and others who describe bad experiences with inquiry based learning. It sounds exactly like the dreck that I’ve seen pushed on my kids. Just throwing workshops and materials at kids and asking them to come up with ideas is NOT inquiry based learning. Real inquiry based learning is laser focused and doesn’t waste a minute of a kid’s time, and achieves real and measurable results. But see above re: time. I can’t do it, at least not now in my typical teacher day.

    I would challenge those who have had bad experiences with PBL to consider that they might have just had a really badly run PBL experience, rather than assuming that PBL in and of itself is a terrible methodology.

    • J. D. Salinger says:

      I would imagine that PBL done well is a combination of scaffolding, guidance, and direct instruction (lower case, as opposed to DI, which is a different animal). Japanese lessons, touted by Stevenson, start with a problem to engage students. But students have the necessary prior knowledge and tools to at least try to solve it. The teacher provides subtle guidance. For more on Japanese lessons (and how they have been misinterpreted to construe that they are constructivist, and that students make remarkable cognitive leaps) see:

    • Anna:

      I’d actually agree with you. I think problem-based learning, with a well-designed scope and sequence and a teacher who thoroughly knows his topic and has TIME to teach it well will be superior.

      I just don’t think these conditions hold in most schools.

      I absolutely think that a teacher who is achieving good results should be left alone to do whatever he’s doing since it’s clearly working.

      I also think that teachers should have the freedom to experiment and teach in ways that work for them and their students. A passionate teacher shouldn’t be handicapped by programs that are designed to help weaker teachers.

      BUT … I also strongly believe that scripted instruction to mimic a knowledgable teacher can be a Godsend to a teacher who’s weak in the subject area. And like it or not, we do not have young teaching candidates beating down the doors of the Ed schools so that we could fire anyone who’s weak in a subject area. Most teachers who are weak in a subject area know it. Many WANT to teach well, but don’t know HOW.

      If I were told to teach a subject where I have little background knowledge — let’s say Art — you can bet your bottom dollar I’d be looking for the most scripted program available, because I stink at art and I wouldn’t want to infect children with my weaknesses. I’d be willing to bet, though, that after teaching it a time or two with a scripted program I’d start to feel out what was and wasn’t working with the students I had and deviating from the program as my own knowledge increased.

  12. Barry Garelick says:

    I would challenge those who have had bad experiences with PBL to consider that they might have just had a really badly run PBL experience, rather than assuming that PBL in and of itself is a terrible methodology.

    And I would advise those who have had bad experiences with traditional math (or other subjects) taught badly that we ignore the benefits of it being taught properly.

    • Amen to that. The argument that PBL is better than traditional seems almost always to involve comparisons of idealized PBL (great teachers, “enormous amounts of time”, small classrooms, classroom volunteers, great resources, students who don’t have organizational impairments or other learning disabilties or social/emotional disorders) with Dickensian caricatures of traditional classrooms.

      But if we let parents and students choose between the actual traditional and PBL classrooms that actually exist in most schools, would the majority opt for traditional or PBL?

    • Well, like I said, I’ve done both (and seen both done well by others), and there’s a significant difference between PBL and direct instruction. It’s not a case of either one works just as well.

      PBL is the only thing I’ve seen that effectively educates an entire class when you have kids with wildly different ability levels and behavioral issues. It works with everyone, every day, regardless of their attitude or ability. It is effective if it’s done right. I’ve seen it done where the gifted kids and learning disabled kids are both making huge leaps in learning, at their levels, as measured by norm-referenced tests.

      Direct Instruction cannot handle a single class of varying abilities, unless the kids are grouped by skill mastery and behavioral problems are removed from the class. Direct Instruction with a class ranging several grade levels of ability in one group is a complete nightmare. I’ve seen it done – i.e. in a Kindergarten using Reading Mastery with groups ranging from total non-English speakers to Levels 4 and 5 – and it works, but it is not efficient. There is a lot of wasted time as groups are shuffled and kids do seatwork while the teacher works in small groups. A well run PBL environment is a lot more efficient.

      For instance, lots of you are talking about the value of lectures. There’s a significant subset of kids with auditory processing issues or receptive language weaknesses who won’t learn efficiently from lecture. (At least 5 in every class, from my informal estimate).

      Do we just say those kids won’t learn what we’re lecturing about today, and that’s OK? Or do we provide a different kind of environment, where everyone has multiple means of accessing information and the teacher can choose what will be most efficient for different kids? That’s the PBL model.

      • Anna, please describe HOW your project=based classroom solved these problems.

        • Anna is doing very well here, but I’d like to respond to EB, if you don’t mind. Let me begin by saying that a project-based class doesn’t mean a teacher never provides a mini lesson or direct instruction — there’s just much less of it and it’s not scripted.

          My projects give students a menu of choices for how they can demonstrate learning. For example, they might write a paper, a blog or create a podcast. They might use Google docs to collaborate on a project or create a video presentation. Any and all of these can meet multiple learning outcomes.

          If I want writing, collaboration and oral presentation, a group video production that includes a written interview can handle all of these.

          For my part, I deliver a mini lesson on use of various web tools, narrative writing and interview techniques. Then I allow the students to work. In a 45-minute class, this might include a couple of brief how-to videos, sample narratives, with brief Q & A after. There might be 15-20 minutes of planning in small groups, followed by brief conferencing with me or other groups about what the plan is. Then production would begin.

          In a traditional class, all of these lessons would be separate and would require essay writing and structured public address. Many students will shut down with this type of instruction.

          Does this type of class take time and energy? Yes. It’s well worth it, though.

  13. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Last night I did some research on what it takes to enter a skilled trade that pays more than most ‘college degree’ jobs. (i.e. pipe fitter) The apprenticeships take about 4 years, and they prefer you have a few years of work history first.

    But the biggest hurdle, at least for the poor white kids in my area, is the following:

    In order to be accepted as an apprentice, you have to pass a follicle-level drug test.

    This jives with what machine-shop owners around here said a few years back when they were trying to hire and couldn’t find candidates– they were willing to train any kid who was basically intelligent and willing to work hard, but they couldn’t have druggies in the shop– too dangerous!

    To me, this seems to be a reason to get kids involved in the trades EARLIER. Why wait until they tune out and become a stoner? Give them something to aim for earlier, so they don’t get into trouble in the first place!

    (And, before Mark complains, this is not just something I want for ‘other people’s children.’ If one of my kids would rather go into a trade than academia, or heck, if any of my kids are even curious about what the trades entail, you can BET I’m going to be trying to find someone to work with them, at least a few hours a week! Heck, given how incompetent their parents are at anything practical, they’ll need all the help they can get! The difference is that, as a home-schooler, I can afford to be flexible and tailor the curriculum to each child’s needs. But what kid WOULDN’T rather be doing something ‘real’ instead of jumping through hoops on a contrived project?)

  14. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Oh! One last thing. I think a really GOOD example of project-based learning is the 4-H program. The projects build on each other, teach the skills before the kids use the skills, and result in learning. The “you people hate projects” meme is really a straw man. It’s just that the ‘Traditionalists’ tend to think projects are one of MANY tools, not the one, magical solution that will coerce children into a ‘love of learning.’

    Also, I find it odd that the so-called ‘Progressives’ are addicted to college-prep for everyone, when high student loans and poor job prospects mean that 4 years at a bad to mediocre college may only serve to keep a poor student DOWN.

    (And, one final note on the trades– my husband (the classics nerd librarian) said, “heck, if *I’d* known how much a pipefitter made, I would have finished high school early, gone into that, and then WORKED my way through college!)

  15. “When I was teaching, it wasn’t only the kids who were good at school who wanted clear lecture… It was also the mediocre and poor students who cared about doing well in school.”

    To this I would add adults. Cf the enormous popularity of the recorded lectures of The Teaching Company. Or the continued popularity of written versions of the lecture format, otherwise known as books and articles.

    • No offense, Katharine, but this just isn’t realistic today. I’ve been teaching for 19 years. Ten years ago, 80 percent of my students were engaged in whatever I was doing. Five years ago, it dropped to about 60 percent.

      Two years ago, before I changed how I teach, if I lectured and used worksheets, I’d get about 30 percent of my students involved. The rest put their heads down or became disruptive.

      To engage today’s reluctant learner, you have to change instruction. If you don’t provide projects that interest students, they simply shut down.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:


    Where I used to live–near a dying, rust-belt city, top three for most dangerous per capita–even the big-box stores were having trouble getting drug-free employees. Most retail ops aren’t that dangerous, unless you are stocking shelves with giant economy size jars of mayo, or walking in front of a fork lift. In other words, even at Wal Mart there are ways to screw yourself or somebody else up if you’re not paying attention.
    To be fair, they’re trying to hire adults, not juvenile apprentices, so the candidates have more time to choose a lifestyle than the kids do.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Local employers have also offered to come into our HS and help develop programs that would turn out high school students who’d be making 30K a year at graduation, but they haven’t been able to get the schools on board. Of course, we also have a strong cohort of unemployed recent grads who think that 15$ an hour is beneath them…

      Part of the problem, I think, is that a lot of HS kids have an unrealistic idea of how much COLLEGE graduates make right out of school. They expect to be making ‘at least 50’ to start out, and turn their noses up at anything less, even though, in our area, 30K+benefits is actually enough to support a family! (provided you don’t buy the expensive cable or eat out more than occasionally)

  17. What’s missing from this thread is an outline of what Mark’s project-based course looks like, what it aims to teach, and how it documents that it does teach that content. The ROLE website does not give that — Mark, can you reply?

  18. And of course, data proving that Mark has closed the achievement gap.

    • The data is also available in my book, but as I say in the book, even though the data will impress administrators and likely many people commenting here, I put very little stock in it. My students outperform their peers in traditional classes in my building by considerable margins on our state-mandated achievement test. The impact of results-only learning on the at-risk population is also impressive, if you use the test as a barometer of success.

      I do not.

      I know my students learn, because I see their volume of independent reading increase exponentially from September to June (my average student will read more than 25 books this year). They become writers, confident speakers and they create projects that make a difference to them and, in many cases, to large populations. (One group created an anti-bullying campaign that impacted our whole school last year, and they didn’t do it for a grade or to pass an achievement test.)

      These are the only results that matter to me. My administrators are happy, though, because students who want to learn do learn and it shows up on the test.

    • Thanks for the article link, Kiana, but I stopped reading at the first sentence, when I saw that the data is based on success on an achievement test, which has nothing to do with achievement.

      • Now who’s close-minded?

        They had some good points in there, including “Thus, while problem-solving activities may be very effective if implemented in the correct way, simply inducing the average teacher employed today to shift time in class from lecture style presentations to problem solving, without concern for how this is implemented, contains little potential to increase student achievement. On the contrary, the study’s results indicate that there might even be adverse effects on student learning.”

        Furthermore, although standardized tests may not have everything to do with achievement, I utterly disagree with you that they have nothing at all to do with achievement, especially in math which was one of the focuses of the study. I will agree that English (your specialty, right?) is far less conducive to standardized testing.

      • Additionally:

        Admitting that you ignore entire articles based on a sentence at the beginning does very little to convince anyone that you are interested in an honest evaluation of your own methods in various settings by other teachers. Rather, it seems that you’re more interested in selling your book and in promoting your own ideology without any evaluation (because of course, all evaluations are bad except your own.)