by Laurie H. Rogers
Many of America’s public schools have incorporated “student-centered learning” models into their math programs. An adoption committee in Spokane appears poised to recommend the adoption of yet another version of a “student-centered” program for Grades 3-8 mathematics.
It’s critically important that American citizens know what that term means. Aspects of the Common Core State Standards initiatives are leading many districts to adopt new curricular materials that have “student-centered learning” as a centerpiece.
In Spokane Public Schools, student-centered learning (also known as “inquiry-based” learning or “discovery-based” learning or “standards-based” learning) has been the driver of curriculum adoptions for nearly 20 years. This approach has not produced graduates with strong skills in mathematics. Spokane now suffers from a dearth of math skills in most of its younger citizens.
Nor is Spokane alone with this problem. Student-centered learning has largely replaced direct instruction in the public-school classroom. It was pushed on the country beginning in the 1980s by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the federal government, colleges of education, and various corporations and foundations. Despite its abject failure to produce well-educated students, student-centered learning is coming back around, again pushed by the NCTM, colleges of education, the federal government and various corporations and foundations.
Despite the lack of supporting research for the approach, trillions of taxpayer dollars were spent on implementing it across the nation. Despite its grim results, trillions more will be spent on it via the Common Core initiatives. But what is student-centered learning, and why do people in public education still love it?
Student-centered learning is designed to “engage” students in discussion, debate, critical thinking, exploration and group work, all supposedly to gain “deeper conceptual understanding” and the ability to apply concepts to “real world” situations. New teachers receive instruction in student-centered learning in colleges of education, and their instruction in the approach (i.e. their indoctrination) continues non-stop at state and district levels.
The popularity of student-centered learning in the education community rests on: a) constant indoctrination, b) ego, c) money, and d) the ability to hide weak outcomes from the public.
Ask yourself this: How does one actually quantify “exploration,” “deeper conceptual understanding” and “application to real world situations”? How do we test for that? We can’t, really, which helps explain why math test scores can soar even as actual math skills deteriorate.
With student-centered learning, teachers are not to be a “sage on the stage” – they are to be a “guide on the side.” Students are to innovate and create, come up with their own methods, develop their own understanding, work in groups, talk problems out, teach each other, and depend on their classmates for help before asking the teacher. Student-centered learning is supposed to be a challenge for teachers, whereas direct instruction is considered to be too easy (basically handing information over to students on a silver platter).
Ask yourself this: How much learning can be done in a class with 28 students of different abilities and backgrounds, all talking; a teacher who guides but doesn’t teach; and classmates who must teach each other things they don’t understand? How do students get help with this approach at home? What happens to students who don’t have a textbook, don’t have proper guidance, and don’t have any help at home? Direct instruction does make learning easier; that’s a positive for it, not a negative. Learning can be efficient and easy. How is it better to purposefully make children struggle, fail and doubt themselves?
But adult egos can be stroked by the enormous challenge of making student-centered learning work, even as it utterly fails the children.
In student-centered learning, student discussion and debate precedes (and often replaces) teacher instruction. “Deeper conceptual understanding” is supposed to precede the learning of skills. But placing application before the learning puts the “why” before the “how,” thus asking students to apply something they don’t know how to do. How does that make sense?
In student-centered learning, it’s thought to be bad practice to instruct, answer student questions, provide a template for the students, teach efficient processes, insist on proper structure or correct answers, or have students practice a skill to mastery. It’s OK for a class to take all day “exploring” because exploration supposedly promotes learning, whereas efficient instruction is supposedly counterproductive. Children are supposed to “muddle” along, get it wrong and depend on classmates for advice and guidance. Struggling is seen as critical to learning. Getting correct answers in an efficient manner is seen as unhelpful.
Ask yourself this: How can “efficient” instruction be counterproductive? Math is a tool, used to get a job done. Correct answers are critical, and efficiency is prized in the workforce. Quick, correct solutions reflect a depth of understanding that slow, incorrect solutions do not. Students do not enjoy struggling and getting things wrong. For children, struggle and failure are motivation killers.
The focus of a student-centered classroom is on supposed “real-world application.” (My experience with “real-world application” is that it’s typically a very adult world rather than a child world, and that now, it’s also a political world with a heavily partisan focus.)
Ask yourself this: How does it help children to be enmeshed in an adult world of worries, prevented from learning enough academics, and basted in a politically partisan outlook? (It doesn’t help them, but it suits adults who want a certain kind of voter when the students turn 18.)
All of this is at the expense of learning sufficient skills in mathematics.
Here is one example of an adult perspective of student-centered learning. We can only guess whether students would enjoy this lesson or learn from it. The article is called “Messy monk mathematics: An NCTM-standards-inspired class session.” It’s dedicated to Stephen I. Brown, who is said to be “an inspiration for inquiry-based teaching and learning.” The author, Larry Copes, has a doctorate in mathematics education (not in mathematics). His doctoral work was on the ways math instruction can “encourage intellectual, ethical, and identity development.”
After reading Copes’ article, did you say: “Wow! I love the method! The students were so engaged!” Or, did you say: “What a waste of time! The ‘lesson’ was obviously designed to stroke the teacher’s ego and not to provide students with the math concept.”
I see the teacher in that anecdote as egotistic, holding knowledge over the students’ head, refusing to give it to them, making them jump for it over and over. It seems selfish. The students didn’t appear to ever understand the concept. What’s the point of tossing in the name of a Theorem (the Intermediate Value Theorem) without ever explaining it? Although the students wrote down the name, they didn’t pursue it, and the anecdote ended without a resolution or proof that they learned anything. I wonder if the teacher cared whether they learned the Theorem, or if his little game and his complete focus on himself were what mattered to him.
My daughter read Copes’ article, and she wrote (as if the author were speaking): “I am an individual afflicted with an extraordinary amount of hubris, which has affected my research.”
My daughter is funny, but it does seem impossible to bridge these gaps in perception:
- Proponents of the “student-centered” approach see themselves as hard workers, suffering with opponents who are stuck in the 18th century. The “deeper conceptual understanding” that they believe they foster in students seems more important to them than building math skills that consistently lead to correct answers.
- Proponents of direct instruction see the students’ weakening self-image and poor skills, and we view the student-centered approach as limiting and even unkind. Math skills and correct answers are the point of math instruction, and we don’t believe students can have “deeper conceptual understanding” if they lack procedural skills.
Proponents of student-centered learning like to call their approach “best practices,” “research-based,” “evidence-based,” and so on, but no one has ever provided verifiable, replicable proof that student-centered learning works better than direct instruction as a method for teaching math. There is actually a wealth of solid evidence to indicate the contrary.
Unfortunately, the pushing of the Common Core on states has encouraged many districts to pursue “student-centered learning” models all over again, as if they were required to do so. Some folks are already making pots of money off the Common Core and the new, unproved materials that are supposedly aligned with the Common Core. But student-centered learning hasn’t worked for the children in the last 30 years, and it won’t work in the next 30.
Nevertheless, the stated mission of Spokane’s adoption committee is to “deeply” align to the Common Core. (Not to choose a curriculum that will – oh, I don’t know – lead students to college or career readiness?) In supporting their stated mission, committee members asserted that the Common Core was vetted by “experts,” so they believe the initiatives will produce internationally competitive graduates. They provided no data, no proof, no solid research or studies for their belief. And they can’t because there aren’t any. The Common Core initiatives are an obscenely expensive, nation-wide pilot of unproved products.
Welcome to public education: Another day, another experiment on our children, except that this time, there is strong evidence that this experiment – a rehashing of the last experiment – will again fail. Try telling that to education and political leaders. No one seems to see the evidence. When you tell leaders about it or show it to them, no one seems to care. Meanwhile, many of those leaders get tutoring or outside help for their own children. (FYI: I have never seen a professional tutor use the “student-centered” method to teach math to any child.)
The Spokane adoption committee’s mission of “deep” alignment to the Common Core has caused them to choose to pilot – you guessed it – several sets of new (and unproved) materials that are distinctly more “student-centered” in their approach, heavy on words and discovery, and light on actual math.
Kicked to the bottom of their preferences were proved and rigorous programs favored by homeschooling parents and tutors, including Saxon Mathematics and Singapore Math. Saxon got my own daughter almost all of the way through Algebra II by the end of 8th grade, most of that without a calculator. When I asked my email list and various online contacts for their preferences, the majority picked Saxon over every other math program, and by a wide margin.
But a member of the Spokane adoption committee – a district employee – told me the Saxon representative called Saxon “parochial” and that the publisher initially refused to send Saxon to Spokane because it was unlikely to be adopted. (“Parochial” means provincial, narrow-minded, or “limited in range or scope.”) Do you believe the Saxon rep would call his product narrow-minded and limited in scope? Saxon is efficient, thorough, clear and concise. If there is a stronger K-8 math program out there, I don’t know of it. Naturally, the Spokane adoption committee does not want Saxon.
One of the programs the committee did choose to pilot is Connected Mathematics, a curriculum already being used in Spokane, one of the worst programs on the planet, excoriated for decades by mathematicians from border to border and from coast to coast. The district employee assured me the committee is hiding nothing from the public, but the committee didn’t mention to the public that it is again piloting Connected Mathematics. They don’t seem to see its failure. They love its focus on student-centered learning. The devastation it wreaks on math skills appears to matter naught to them.
I know district administrators and board directors have not been good about listening to community wishes on math, and that it seems pointless to talk to them. But for the good of the children, please try. Perhaps this time, someone will listen.
Laurie H. Rogers has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication and a master’s in interpersonal communication, emphasizing the evaluation of argumentation and logic. In 2001, she founded Safer Child, Inc., a nonprofit child advocacy information resource. In 2007, she narrowed her advocacy to public education, and in 2010, she founded Focus on the Square™, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving American K-12 education.
Laurie is the author of the blog “Betrayed,” located at http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com/. Her book Betrayed: How the Education Establishment Has Betrayed America and What You Can Do about It (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011) is now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Besides serving on the executive committee for Where’s the Math?, Laurie has a background in finance, journalism and child advocacy. She has volunteered in schools – tutoring children in literacy and math, and teaching chess, argumentation and knitting. She lives in Spokane with her husband, daughter and two cats.
Contact Laurie Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org.