reaction to Barak Rosenshine’s “Principles of Instruction”

The Spring 2012 issue of American Educator (available here until the next issue displaces it) led off with two articles that have caused some consternation among my local twitterverse. At first glance, the articles seem to make a frontal assault on a broad swath of “reformed” teaching approaches — i.e., the things that educational researchers like myself have been developing, researching, and extolling for decades — arguing, instead, that a close read of the research strongly supports the superiority of traditional, transmissionist, “the teacher explains what to do” pedagogy. I must admit to dismay and apprehension based on the articles’ titles and summaries.

As to the first article, by Clark, Kirschner & Sweller: My dismay was largely unfounded. A thorough read of the article itself reveals that the authors are not promulgated transmission over active engagement, but rather “guided instruction” over “discovery learning”. I have no problems with that. Guiding instruction, after all, is what teachers are supposed to do.

The second article, by Barak Rosenshine, is more interesting. I find it well argued and very reasonable-sounding, and have made some notes about changes to make to my own teaching. However, it also makes me very uncomfortable, and I fear that the article is framed in such a way as to bury something critical.

One source of my unease comes from my sense that Rosenshine’s arguments are pushing me inexorably towards a “drill and practice” model of instruction: small chunks of teaching at a time, explicit modeling, heavily scaffolded and guided practice, extensive rehearsal, etc. These things all make sense for teaching very specific, well-defined skills and performance tasks, like training students how to solve stock physics problems. However, I don’t see physics as about training students to solve stock physics problems.

To put it another way: What learning goals are Rosenshime’s best practices the best practices for? Do they really help students develop both dimensions of “adaptive expertise”, or only the “efficiency of problem solving” dimension? Maybe they do, or maybe they *can* depending on the implementation. If so, this is a very critical point to make explicit. Rosenshine’s article never uses the word “transfer.” (The Clark et al. article does, but with no discussion of exactly what kind and degree of transfer they mean.)

A second source of unease for me is the fear that although the kind of instruction Rosenshine advocates may be effective for developing specific, well-defined knowledge and skills, it may be very ineffective at developing students’ motivation, their developing identity as “the sort of person who does physics” (or whatever the discipline in question is), and other aspects of what Joe Redish calls the “hidden curriculum” and David Perkins calls “playing the whole game”. I’m afraid that this is exactly the kind of reductionistic thinking — getting better and better at teaching more and more decontextualized, fine-grained, formalized “knowledge” pieces at the expense of the really big picture of “why students are in this class in the first place, from their own perspectives rather than ours”.

A third, related source of unease is that it seems to push us way from student ownership of and initiative within the learning design, instead further entrenching the synchronous factory model of instruction. I wonder what Alfie Kohn would have to say.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into Rosenshine’s article. I would, at the very least, like to see some discussion about how to implement his best practices in the service of whole-game learning, the fostering of intrinsic motivation and self-regulated learning, the development of adaptive expertise, and so on.

About Ian

Physics professor... science education researcher and evangelist... foodie and occasionally-ambitious cook... avid traveler... outdoorsy type (hiking, camping, whitewater kayaking, teaching wilderness survival skills to high school students, etc.)... amateur photographer... computer programmer and amateur web designer... and WAAY too busy!
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8 Responses to reaction to Barak Rosenshine’s “Principles of Instruction”

  1. Brian Frank says:

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to just drop links and run, but I didn’t want to forget to share and I was in a rush. The article I linked Kuhn is called, “Is direct instruction an answer to the wrong question?” and it is a response to the original article published in 2006. In the response, she discusses a lot of your concerns–educational goals, motivation, learning how to learn. Their original article sparked a lot of responses then, without of comment and responses flying back and forth.

  2. Aaron says:

    Hi, Ian,

    When I switched over from high school teaching to college teaching, and no longer had classes five days a week plus a mandatory study hall after the last class, I found I only had a fraction of the time to which I was accustomed for “guided practice,” quizzes, and discussions. With slightly less than 3 hours per week for lecture and with a lab calendar stuffed with experiments, providing the kind of ideal instruction described by Professor Rosenshine seems very challenging, if not impossible, for college teaching.

    After reading your thoughtful comments in response to Rosenshine’s recent AFT article, I began to understand that it’s possible that my apparent dilemma (between following the best principles and having enough time to give proper attention to all the important concepts) may only derive from an unfortunate misapplication of good ideas. Your philosophy seems to be advocating some special balance between “relevance” (regarding student needs and perception) and “efficiency” in problem solving.

    My question, posed to myself as well as to you and others who may be reading this, is how can I resolve this dilemma (if it really is a dilemma)?

    While I am pondering this question, I hope you would be able to find some time to respond to it.

    • Ian says:

      Hi, Aaron.

      Sorry to be slow in responding. I’m on research leave this semester, and have been largely unplugging from distractions like the ‘net (or at least trying to) in order to get some writing done.

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head by observing that the university teaching structure gives us much less face-to-face time with students, requiring a course design where students do more of the low-level work outside of class and leave us to do more “putting it all together” in class. Frankly, students need to step up to the plate and take more of the learning responsibility, such as studying worked examples from books rather than expecting us to talk through them in class.

      Of course, they very often don’t step up to that plate. Which leaves us with a problem. I haven’t yet figured out a good solution to that problem, though I still believe that teaching students how to think about the topic is ultimately more important than teaching them to execute vector algebra. For that to succeed, though, we need better assessments of how well students get the “big picture” and can transfer to novel circumstances. As long as we frame physics as “solving stylized, decontextualized word problems of a common sort”, we might as well just teach to that.

      In that vein, I wonder whether the Modeling Instruction or ISLE people might be onto something deep.


  3. Greg Ashman says:

    Hi Ian

    I think that you may have slightly missed the point of the Clark, Kirschner and Sweller article. They are actually arguing for fully guided instruction over partially guided instruction. They do refer to full discovery learning but only to make certain points. For instance, fewer students learn by discovery learning but, when they do, they are no better at transfer than those who have had the concept explained to them. This seems to undermine the intuitive idea that a element of discovery leads to deeper understanding. I refer you to Klahr & Nigam (2004) for a discussion of this It’s a paper that Clark et. al. reference.



    • Ian says:

      Hmm, thanks for the pushback! I don’t have the bandwidth to look into that discussion right now, but I want to and I will. I’ve downloaded that paper and put it into my To Read stack.

      BTW, I don’t consider my self an advocate of “discovery” learning. Nor of direct instruction, either. My inclination is to provide scaffolding (which includes both challenges to wrestle with and tidbits of “direct instruction”) that helps students actively construct their understanding. I think this falls somewhere between the two extremes.

  4. Douglas Hainline says:

    I think the problem here is that we have some very broad phrases — “discovery learning”, “fully guided instruction”, “direct instruction”, “constructivism” — to try to describe a horribly-complex set of behaviors which probably vary greatly from one teacher to another.

    I suspect that the actual behavior of a teacher is only very poorly captured in these phrases. Two teachers who both describe themselves as “constructivists” having their pupils engage in “discovery learning” may in fact be acting very differently. And the same for teachers at the other end of the spectrum. And this may explain why educational ‘experiments’ are so hard to reproduce. We shouldn’t underestimate the effect on pupil’s learning of an intelligent, sympathetic, well-educated, fully-engaged teacher, whatever the formal method the teacher claims to be using.

    This may also explain why those of us who are not committed partisans in these ‘Education Wars’ feel uneasy about the claims of both sides. If you have ever tried to teach difficult material, you KNOW you have to a fair amount of helping, explaining, guiding, correcting. It took the best minds in the world about 2000 years to make the transition from Aristotle to Galileo. But you also KNOW that there is a difference between students who can only parrot the formulas and definitions [who can forget Feynman’s description of his year in Brazil?], and those who have really ‘got it’, who have understood the concepts, and that the latter have come to this state not just through absorbing instruction the way you memorize a poem.

    More than this we cannot at present say. We are still in the Dark Ages with respect to how the brain/mind system works — what has changed when you ‘get it’? — so all we can do is to speculate using very high-level constructs that are probably very distant from and only a poor match to the actual neurological changes that must be occurring in the brain/mind of someone who has suddenly understood the implications of, say, the fact that the speed of light is a constant for all observers.

    Having said all that, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If someone has a wonderful new system for advancing the learning process, let’s see the evidence for its efficacy.

    • Ian says:

      Hi, Douglas.

      Physics Education Research has gotten a little farther than the “dark ages” you refer to, even if we don’t have a theory that connects macroscopic learning to the neurological micro-level yet. (Though Joe Redish is definitely barking up that tree…)

      I agree about the fuzziness of terms like “constructivist” and “discovery learning”, and with the obvious truth that neither pure unsupported discovery nor pure passive lecture-absorption is particularly effective. Good teaching requires us to design environments that will get students to engage with challenging tasks that will make them wrestle with the understandings we wish them to form, and then to support them (but not too much) during that wrestling. The details of the environments, tasks, and support can vary greatly. In fact, I argue that they must, to adjust to different learners, different learning objectives, and different contexts.


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