Thought Experiment: Content vs Sense-Making

Here’s a thought experiment:

Let’s say two there are two different approaches to teaching, and you need to decide which to use.

Let’s say that one approach, we’ll call it “explicit instruction “, does a better job of teaching content. Kids learn more quickly, retain learning for longer, and are more able to transfer that learning to new contexts.

Let’s say the other approach, we’ll call it “inquiry learning”, does a better job of teaching students to make sense of math. They come to believe that they are capable of figuring out new problems, are more persistent in the face of challenges, and are better able to find creative solutions.

Which approach would you choose to use? Or, perhaps a better question, what proportion of time would you use explicit instruction, and what proportion would you use inquiry learning? What factors affect your decision?

Bonus: Which of these premises do you think are true? Which are false? Which are somewhere in the middle?

I don’t think that this is an accurate characterization of explicit instruction or inquiry learning, but I do think it highlights a challenge: there are many moments when I need to make a decision that prioritizes content or sense-making. What are the relevant variables I should be considering?

Update 12/4:

This from Kent Haines on Twitter: Which method do you wish the previous year’s teacher had used?

5 thoughts on “Thought Experiment: Content vs Sense-Making

  1. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    There are considerations here that go beyond the usual criteria raised in discussions, fights, debates, arguments over “which is THE superior instructional method?” (surely a false dichotomy to begin with). One of the key questions I almost never hear raised is that of ethics: are there pedagogical methods that are fundamentally unethical? If so, on what grounds could someone make that claim and how would we know a reasonable way to sort pedagogies on ethical grounds?

    I’m not going to try to prove that there are such grounds and that asking ethical questions about teaching and learning is essential to improving not simply education but the society in which a given approach to education exists. But rather than be coy, I’ll state flatly that a complete or predominant reliance upon “direct instruction” is unethical and inhumane. It disrespects the autonomy of individuals, the coherence of learning, the “aims of education” and “adventure of ideas,” to borrow two of Alfred North Whitehead’s titles. It reduces knowledge and learning to “mastery” of facts and students to machines for grinding thoughts and concepts down into meaningless dust.

    For well over a century, our problem has not been how to balance direct instruction with inquiry learning, but how to gain some tiny space in which direct instruction and assessment driving it is not the only game in town.

    And do not be fooled: in 2015, the direct instruction, back to basics fanatics are no more willing to give up a millimeter of ground to inquiry learning than they ever have been. They will use every trick in the book, every lie they can concoct, any means necessary to preserve their rigid, Prussian notions of education against any and all challenges. Compromise with such people is impossible. That’s not to say that we should eliminate direct instruction, but rather that we can no longer expect to be met half-way, a quarter-way or at all by such people. It is up to those of us who value other approaches to teaching and learning who must ultimately rethink education and determine where and when it makes sense to use any given method. Until direct instruction is not the default classroom approach, we’re going to continue to do harm in very fundamental ways to students and, hence, to ourselves.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      I’m interested by your response because you’re talking about reducing the amount of direct instruction, not eliminating it entirely. I think a balance is key, and I wonder if we could work to come up with some criteria for when different approaches make sense, and how to find that balance. I have had similar experiences with some folks who are adamant about direct instruction, but I’m pretty intent on finding middle ground and articulating what a balanced approach looks like.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      I really like that article (and I’m usually not a fan of edotopia!). I still don’t see the balance I’m looking for — the article really clearly articulate the value in backing off, but I disagree with some of their assertions about flipped classrooms, and they don’t seem interested in articulating the appropriate conditions for hands-off teaching. Is it 100% of the time? I don’t think so. Without a clearer articulation of when, exactly, it’s worthwhile to back off, that guidance is likely to go unused.


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