Monday, June 15, 2009

“Rationed Learning: …'Yes, but … ' ” Report Revisited

Dr. Bonnie Doowrite, Dr. I. T. Benn-Dunn, Ms. Donna Pahl (Wilkinson), and Dr. W. E. Doynit review the report Rationed Learning: A Conspiracy of ‘Yes, but … ' Doynit cited this report in the proposal to open the New Era School Initiative (NESI) charter school.

Tablet PC Education Blog interviewed Doowrite on April 05, 2009; reported Pahl’s Decisive Teachers’ 2010-2011 AY Prep Checklist on May 19, 2009, and has reported to date an interview and a series of eight conversations with Doynit about NESI charter school.

Pahl’s classroom instruction for Normsville, Illinois, public schools inspired the term Decisive Teacher. Doynit is Superintendent of Normsville Unified School District in California. Benn-Dunn served as a consultant to the research project and NESI developers. All four hold affiliations with Childrens’ Research Center for Mobile Learning in Landgrant University.

Tablet PC Education: Welcome again to this blog. It’s an honor to have you join our readers again. It’s important to say that we have known each other for some time.

That said, Bonnie, the title of your research report Rationed Learning: A Conspiracy of 'Yes, but … ' seems unconventional for scholarly research. It asserts at least the appearance of what some call malpractice of public school educators. It looks like your title has poured gasoline on what a few call a war against public schools.

Is that what you believe? Do you accuse educators of malpractice?

Have public school teachers and others conspired against students and the general public to offer less than the best education possible? Do teachers and others in schools really ration learning?

Doowrite: We mean the title as descriptive of study results, not as flame throwing against anyone.

No, I don’t believe that anyone has necessarily committed educational malpractice, because of measured student academic results.

Our report appears consistent with what others have reported at least since the middle 1960s. We have tried to contribute a critical test of the validity of that body of research literature.

And, yes, we have documented the empirical fact that most current public school practices result in less measured academic performance than what is possible by implementing scientific descriptions of how people learn.

Behavioral scientists have established these principles over a century of empirical, experimental behavioral studies and uses of these studies’ results.

Tablet PC Education: Why do you say that current school practices ration learning? What is the most important thing for us to know, Bonnie, about differences between conventional teaching and Decisive Teaching? What inspired you to conduct the study that resulted in your report with that provocative title, and what did you learn as a result of this study?

Doowrite: Teachers told us that they use instructional practices that they know yield less academic performance (on average) than other procedures. This awareness serves the same function in schools as public sugar and gasoline rationing boards served to limit consumption of those commodities during World War II.

Tablet PC Education: You consider learning a commodity, something to be bought and sold in schools?

Doowrite: Yes, learning is something we can monitor and manage. Teachers and other educators know how to increase and decrease it through instruction and other arrangements.

No necessary mysteries exist about how to do so promptly with whatever materials they have available.

Tablet PC Education: I wonder how many teachers agree that they can increase academic performance? Now, back to what inspired you to conduct this study.

Doowrite: I, too, wondered, but I changed the question a little: How many teachers know how to increase academic performance more than occurs in their classrooms. Several things, including that question, helped to formulate the study of why students do not learn more in schools.

First, when observing someone instruct, I compare what I see and hear against empirical, experimental research literature about how people learn. Anyone familiar with these studies can do the same thing. We see and hear learning happening.

Tablet PC Education: You can see and hear learning happening? How so? Give us an example. I thought learning occurs as cognition, something unseen happening in the brain.

Doowrite: We watch and listen to certain patterns of behavior. Our observations are to learning what a NASCAR engineer does to decide how to give a racecar more power and better handling.

Behavioral researchers have documented some of what to see and hear people do when learning. Behavioral scientists refer to these things as visual and auditory dimensions of behavior patterns.

Their descriptions exist as probabilities, not absolutes of how learners make choices of what to do. For example, learners likely respond to color before size, something larger before something smaller, both before position or location of something they see or feel on their skin, etc..

Tablet PC Education: So, a teacher who uses a colored Ink on a whiteboard will likely get a different response from students than just writing everything in black ink?

Doowrite: Yes, that’s the idea. A hierarchy of responses to colors exist, as likely do hierarchies of permutations of choice rankings across visual and auditory dimensions.

At the Childrens’ Research Center for Mobile Learning, we’re especially interested in identifying hierarchies of these permutations as well as identifying what parts of something moving contributes to observable learning patterns.

Tablet PC Education: Go on. You were saying that you compare what you see and hear with what you know about ways people learn.

Doowrite: Yes. Second, when I toured a school, by chance I saw Bonnie instructing a lesson. It took less than a minute to realize that she was doing what learning researchers have found that learners do.

Tablet PC Education: You mean, her teaching was that transparent? You didn’t need to talk with her to understand what she was doing?

Doowrite: It was transparent. I was just walking down the school hallway past her open classroom door. I could hear her and students’ voices. Their behavior patterns went right through the intellectual filters I use as I watch educators work. These filters block out words and other patterns that do not match research results that describe how people learn. These filters do for observing learning what a water filter does to block contaminants in the water.

Tablet PC Education: Give me an example of what you saw and how it matched learning research results.

Pahl: I want to answer. The first question students have is, What do I have to do? Their second question is, How do I do it?

At least, when I address these questions, students respond promptly to my instruction. In some form, spoken or inferred, learners seem to me and many other teachers to have these questions.

So, in the first 30 seconds or so of each lesson, I tell students what they have to do, how to do it, and how much time, etc. they have to complete the learning task. I also write it on my Tablet PC and project that onto a whiteboard for everyone to see. I try to leave nothing at risk for them to fail doing it.

Tablet PC Education: (Turning to Doowrite) You said that you’re familiar with research about how people learn, and that you observed Bonnie using these descriptions while instructing and students following her instruction. What’s the third thing that inspired this study titled?

Doowrite: Actually, Rationed Learning is the title of the report. The title of the study was Teacher Choices of Instruction. The report title reflects study results, not the project’s name or primary purpose.

We did not expect teachers to document that they know how to increase learning with resources they have, but choose not to do so for various reasons. We understand that such talk is an unspoken third-rail for teachers. Brutal battles that have stiffled careers exist in the education field. We appreciate the courage of those who confided their judgments about instructional styles with us.

The third thing that inspired the study was familiarity with a wide range of instructional styles, procedures and their consequences for student learning.

In general, the study describes how learning rates vary at the margin with almost all instructional styles, except for Direct Instruction, Direct Learning, Directed Learning, and what we now call Decisive Teaching.

Tablet PC Education: What are these instructional styles? Did you just make them up or are they part of accepted pedagogy?

Benn-Dunn: These four styles share two common tactics. Teachers tell learners what to do to meet learning criteria. Second, they all accept that only one correct answer exists for a problem.

A correct answer fits a defined and identified set of conditions, not necessarily, but sometimes yields a conventional result.

All other responses, even close approximations, are incorrect. And, yes, these tactics offend some teachers, including some considered good teachers.

The direct and directed styles each have different sets of priorities for what happens during instruction.

Since the middle 1960s, data have shown that students in classes with Direct Instruction learn more and faster than any of the others. Less data exists for each of the other three instructional styles as well as for conventional instructional practices teachers use.

Doowrite: We plan to increase data about all four instructional styles used with Tablet and other mobile PCs.

Doynit: At NESI charter school, teachers using any of these four styles start planning and instructing by immediately answering learners’ two questions: What do I have to do? And, How do I do it?

Doowrite: About halfway through analyzing our research data about instructional style choices, I realized that we needed to analyze more carefully reasons teachers gave for choosing their style of instruction. So, we interviewed a random subsample of teachers in and out of the first research cohort.

We asked them if they knew about the four most successful styles before they made their instructional choices. If so, then why did they choose another style?

Most teachers knew about Direct Instruction. Most knew the idea, but not necessarily the name Direct Learning. Most with more than two years of classroom teaching experience could describe some kind of Directed Learning. Most also had heard of databased teaching that we call Decisive Teaching, but did not think it practical for them to use at this time.

By the end of the study, we concluded that teachers knowingly made choices other than using one of the most successful instructional styles.

Tablet PC Education: Give me an example. It’s hard for me to accept that teachers will choose a way to teach that they know will not yield as much learning as another way.

Doowrite: Here’s a sample of the reasoning we heard and read repeatedly before, during and after our research. These come from good people, many with recognition, reading and professional development beyond their graduate degrees. Each makes a reasonable, but not a sufficient point to restrict learning. Also, on average, students in respondents classes learned less than in classes where teachers use one of the four more efficient instructional styles.

“Tests and grades cannot assess the impact my teaching has on my students.”

“Teaching’s a professional art, not an engineering exercise. Our art requires experience, not formulae. No one can write a formula that captures the art of teaching.”

“I’m a professional teacher. I make judgments about what to emphasize and how to instruct to that emphasis. That’s what I’m trained to do. I resent people giving me advice or a script and telling me to follow it to meet some instructional goal they have. That’s just not right. They should give to me and other teachers the money they spend on No Child Left Behind and other such school mandates, so we can do the job we know how to do with our students.”

“I’m a good teacher. I leave it to others to explain what I do. I know its good.”

“I’ll never agree with anyone who does not consider my teaching good. I try my best. Teaching’s hard work.”

“I don’t believe research conducted anywhere other than with my students. It’s all just numbers to support someone’s opinion. Researchers can’t possibly understand what transpires in my classroom, so they can say nothing to assist me to meet my goals for my students.”

“Efficiency and effectiveness are business ideas and have no place in education. I work with people, not widgets on an assembly line. I don’t shove my students to learn only certain things in a certain way by a certain time.”

“There’s more to life than getting something done efficiently. I ignore what outside experts say about their ideas for increasing learning. Those not teaching in public schools today can’t know and don’t understand what my students need from me in my school.”

“I have different priorities for my students besides tested academic achievement. I want them to know that learning is fun and for them to learn to be good people, satisfied with themselves, not threatened by state tests and comparisons with accomplishments of others.”

“If students don’t know how to learn or don’t learn in my classes, it’s because they did not have good teachers before they came to me.”

“I can’t possibly cover what I think important in class and also prepare my students for taking mandated state tests. They should get rid of those time consuming tests. They’re just not fair to my students, who have so many more important needs than mandated academics, such as food, protection from neighborhood predators, and peaceful homes.”

Doowrite: We also asked a sample of students from the teacher cohort, if they think they learned as much as possible in classes.

Students said, “No" in various ways. They could and wanted to learn more, but didn’t think their teachers could help them do so.

In general, sampled students earned standardized test scores consistent with mean and range scores of students of the teacher cohort, but were lower than standardized means and ranges on the same tests.

We will include student views of learning in a supplement to Rationed Learning. Perhaps we can discuss student views at another time.

Tablet PC Education: Yes, let’s discuss them later.

So, you concluded that teachers limit, or as you said, ration learning.

Doowrite: Yes, reluctantly that’s our conclusion.

And, our center’s research advisory board members reviewed our data and individually, independently concluded that teachers knowingly choose procedures other than identified instructional styles based on objective, databased descriptions of how people learn and that yield the most academic achievement.

Tablet PC Education: Who serves on this advisory board?

Benn-Dunn: The Center’s advisory board includes a practicing public school teacher, a public school superintendent, university based behavioral and social scientists, and a professor of social welfare who served as a White House administrator also as the elected president of a national professional organization.

All have public sector policy implementation experience. Each has earned third party recognition for exceptional professional performance.

Tablet PC Education: What do you think will happen with your reports? How will they result in increased student learning?

Pahl: Nothing in this report is new to teachers, except seeing our instructional choices presented publically between two covers.

Based on our research data and my experience with teachers, many public school teachers will hear school lunch room gossip and read secondary and tertiary blog excerpts and comments of the report.

A relatively few teachers will read the report and will try teaching styles that lead to more efficient learning. As a result, some unknown small percentage of students will increase measured academic performance.

Mostly, some education faculty members on university campuses will include the report on supplementary reading lists for classes such as foundations of education. Not many of their students will read beyond the titles on that list.

Tablet PC Education: So, none of you see this study having much impact on teacher instructional style choices and student learning rates?

Benn-Dunn: I think the most potential for changing teaching styles sooner than later will come through parents, not through educators.

Parents can use these data to ask state and local school board members and school administrators why teachers of their children do not use instructional styles consistent with their children’s most efficient learning.

Or, stated another way, and this will not likely happen, ask teachers and administrators individually and publically to account for their instructional methods with objective data that compares results against what’s possible for students to learn.

And, yes, some teachers routinely have such information and gladly share it with parents.

Parents also can leverage their inquiries by sending copies of their letters to their Federal and state legislative representatives.

However, realistically, these inquiries will have little impact against the political influence of teacher unions on legislative and policy implementing bodies.

Doynit: I’d like to add that I have asked our board of education members to read and discuss Rationed Learning publically. I’m trying to get the Normsville newspaper to report that discussion.

We also require all candidates for our New Era School Initiative (NESI) charter school to have read the report and to expect to discuss it during job interviews. That expectation goes for all teachers and support staff.

Doowrite: And I ask students in my classes and prospective faculty and research members to compare and contrast their current practices with those described in the report.

Tablet PC Education: I want to thank all of you for taking part in this blog. You have given readers a lot to think about. I look forward to continuing our conversation in the near future. Perhaps comments from blog readers will prompt subjects for our next Qs and As.


Accelerated K12 Mobile Learning: Press Release

Decisive Teachers’ 2010-2011 AY Prep Checklist

New Era School Initiative (NESI) (See Keyword list in the right hand column.)

Rationed Learning Interview