In yesterday’s post, I wrote about the fact I use both constructivist and direct instruction approaches to teaching in my school, and referred to the Dylan Wiliams quote:
‘… in education, “What works?” is rarely the right question, because everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere, which is why in education, the right question is, “Under what conditions does this work?” ‘
In today’s post, I’m going to explain a little more about a new Direct Instruction strategy I’m using at my school, and why I chose it to suit our particular conditions.
In this post, when I refer to Direct Instruction, I’m referring to that extreme end of the continuum: a commercially created program, where lessons are scripted so that all students are taught in the same way at the same time.
It’s an approach I’ve been wary about.
I’m wary of scripts for teachers – they can be de-professionalising, reducing our job to something that is almost robotic, programmable, unskilled. I’m wary of commercial programs that make big claims backed by research that is funded and conducted by the people who are profiting from selling the programs. I’m wary of anything that is a one-size fits all approach, and I’m wary of entirely teacher centred approaches to teaching mathematics especially those which don’t include hands on work with manipulatives.
So why, in-spite of those reservations, would I choose to use a commercially produced. highly scripted Direct Instruction program to teach mathematics at my school?
Simple: I have a group of 5 students in Year 5 and 6 who are working several years below grade expectations and who struggle with just about every aspect of numeracy. We’ve tried many interventions over years, but none have had the impact we would like. It’s time to try something new. JEMM is a fast paced intervention that takes just 15-20 minutes per day so the students are still able to participate in their regular Stage 3 maths lessons. It is published by the Australian Council for Educational Research, and supported by a body of evidence which includes the PHD thesis of the program’s author, Dr Rhonda Farkota. For my school, it was a low cost and low risk strategy, which, if it achieves what the publishers promise, will help these struggling students to make significant gains. If not, we lose very little.
Our first lesson went well. It felt odd following a script, but my students were highly engaged. The brisk pace held their attention, and for these students, that in itself was a great achievement. The lesson followed a pattern in which I would begin by demonstrating a concept on the board. This would be followed with a simple question requiring them to apply what had been demonstrated, which they would answer in their workbooks. Each question covered a different strand of mathematics, and this variety may also have helped keep their attention.
Following the instructional period, which was meant to take 15 minutes, but in our case was closer to 10, we had 2 minutes to mark our work (it took less than one minute) and 3 minutes to ‘debug’ or go over problems.
I hadn’t expected to encounter any problems for ‘debugging’ in our first lesson. In fact, this was one of my concerns before starting the program. The instructions are very clear about starting all children at the first lesson, but the content appeared far below their ability. However, they surprised me with two errors.
The first was the question ‘How many digits in the number 10′. One of my students wrote ’10’. When we ‘debugged’, it turned out that he did not understand the term ‘digit’ even though it had been explained in the demonstration part of the lesson. We spent some time reviewing that term and by the end of our debugging session, he was able to confidently tell me the number of digits in any number up to 5 digits long.
A second error was made when I asked the students to write how many squares were shaded in an array. The answer was ‘2’. One of my students wrote ’10’ because he was thinking about how many squares the array had in total, rather than just the shaded squares. In this case we reflected on the importance of listening and thinking about the whole question. He’d jumped out of the blocks too soon, answering after just the first few words: ‘How many squares…”
Both of these errors were important. They showed me that my students had some gaps in their mathematical language, and also had some issues in listening to and interpreting questions. We were able to start filling those gaps and addressing those issues in our first lesson. And, as the following 4 lessons cover exactly the same concepts, the daily, repeated practice should help students retain knowledge and develop better learning habits.
So it turned out working to a script was not de-professionalising at all. I drew upon my professional expertise to recognise indicators of engagement and learning, as well as areas that my students struggled with and in which they need continued support. I used my professional judgement in deciding to use a script, and I’m using my professional judgment in deciding to continue with it for the time being, at least.
It’s impossible to evaluate a program after just one session, but the initial experience was very positive. And best of all, the students loved it. They are looking forward to lesson 2, on Monday.