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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Don’t let Johnny drive the bus

Putting students in charge of their own learning is a harmful fad, argues Richard Ullman, who has taught high school in New York for 29 years, in Education Week.

Progressive classrooms are busy, social places. But are kids learning?

“In many schools, Johnny can’t read or demonstrate basic proficiency in other essential skill areas, in part, because his teacher is being told not to teach,” he writes. Instead, Johnny is supposed to “be the driver of his own bus.”

“Content-focused, direct instruction by subject matter experts in a structured, disruption-free classroom” has been out of style for a long time now, writes Ullman. It’s seen as “drill and kill.” (I think it’s been 35 years since I first heard that teachers should be a “guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.”)

Yet, progressive strategies “prioritize fun over function, and mistakenly equate cosmetic engagement with actual learning,” he believes.

. . . many of these strategies tend to put the critical-thinking-and-creativity cart before the fundamental content-and-skill-acquisition horse. Try composing on a musical instrument without learning the sequential basics first, and you’ll quickly discover that your creation stinks. Try participating in a class discussion without a rich knowledge base and contextual framework, and your input will lack substance.

“Many students, especially those most at risk of academic failure, . . .  require the direct, focused instruction that a truly effective master teacher should be encouraged and empowered to provide,” Ullman believes.

A meta-analysis published in 2018 by Stockard, Wood, Coughlin, and Khoury, including more than 300 studies conducted during the period from 1966 through 2016, indicates that teacher-centered, explicit instruction produces positive results—and in some cases, better results than student-led inquiry or group-based project models. 

Yet those results are ignored, he writes. “Meanwhile, even though the classroom looks dynamic, students appear to be busy, and the right boxes get checked during classroom observations, achievement gaps don’t close.”

He’d like to see teachers trained to use traditional instruction when appropriate, not exclusively.

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