Laurie Rogers: In Defense of Direct Instruction

by Laurie H. Rogers

Many educators believe children should learn math by struggling and failing, inventing their own methods, drawing pictures and boxes, counting on fingers, play-acting, continually working in groups, and asking several classmates for help before asking the teacher. This process of learning is called constructivism (also known as "discovery" or "student-centered learning"). Developed in the early 1900s, it was foisted on the country about 30 years ago, along with reform math curricula.

Proponents call constructivism "best practices" (as if calling it that can make it so). The supposed value of heavy constructivism is one of the most pernicious lies told today about education. Having listened now to students, parents, teachers and proponents of reform, I've come to see heavy constructivism as abusive to children. I don't choose the word lightly.

I've heard proponents say outrageous things rather than acknowledge that children don't prefer constant discovery and group work. At a 2010 math conference, a presenter said that children must learn in groups ("We know that," she said), and that students who don't want to do that fall into one of four categories: Bad apple, jerk, slacker or depressive. I was the only one in the room to challenge this; everyone else got into their little groups and prepared stupid skits about bad-apple children.

Welcome to the arrogance of public education. In the midst of "It's all for the kids" and "We really care about those little kiddoes," math class has become brutal and cruel.

My teenager said: "Educators talk as though students refuse to be taught, like we're a dog that can't be potty trained to use the outdoors. I mean, it's not like we want to remain uneducated. It's not like we want to be stuck in high school forever. We want to escape. We want to learn. When we say that we want something, we're not trying to keep ourselves uneducated. So if we don't want to work in a group, there's probably a good reason. Maybe one of us has had a bad day, and we just don't want to deal with other people. I mean, we all have those days. Maybe two of the people in the group are having a fight and you know that the whole day is going to be more about the fight than it is about the homework. There are so many reasons to not work in groups, besides issues with concentration and work level."

Younger children don't necessarily know why they don't like something. Games can be fun, and reform classes are full of games. Some games are fun for a while; others are confusing; none leads to math proficiency. But students must play games, work in groups, explain things in several different ways, invent and discover, write paragraphs about math, draw boxes and circles, discuss math at length with classmates, play-act, use manipulatives, and take all day to get practically nowhere. The process can be excruciating, not just for natural leaders and quick learners, but also for children who are slower to learn; who feel sad, angry, shy or troubled; who are autistic, English-language learners or newer readers; who have behavioral issues; or who just don't enjoy working in groups.

When did it stop being OK to be an individual?

Children who learn an efficient method at home and who pass it on to classmates also can find themselves being reprimanded. In today's constructivist class, children must not deny their classmates the chance to struggle and fail. Students often aren't even allowed to use the efficient methods their parents taught them, not even if those methods work better for them. They must suffer and fail along with everyone else. Naturally, they can come to resist the constructivist approach, whereupon they will be blamed for lacking motivation. Parents who resist it are seen as problems.

Parents know about connections between student frustration and deteriorating motivation, but proponents of reform are trained to not listen to parents. They say to parents: "You want those methods because they're what you had as a child, but please don't teach them to your children. It will confuse them." Later, those parents will be blamed for their lack of involvement.

After a few years of reform math, many children decide they hate math. I've seen this attitude in second graders, third graders, fourth graders, and students from fifth grade on up. They've forgotten that they used to like math, that math is cool, that they used to be good at it. Suddenly, math is a huge problem. They need special help, intervention, a special ed program, counseling, drop-out prevention programs, and meetings with parents, teachers, a tutor or a mentor. Their life is spiraling out of control in front of their eyes, but in constructivist classrooms, there is nowhere to hide. Any problems are in plain sight, in front of every classmate.

I asked my daughter what effect it can have on students, to be failing a basic math class. She said:

"It can either have the effect of ‘I'm not good enough.' You know, ‘The teacher's spending all of this time on me, and I'm still not good enough.' And kind of a depressing effect. Or it can be ‘Well, I'm bad at this, so who cares. I might as well skip school.' Either way, very few students would thrive under that."

About the idea that students must struggle and fail in order to learn math, she said:

"If 99% of the adults who said that were reversed back in time and put in a discovery classroom, they would have the same opinion that 99% of the kids do. …Saying that kids need to learn in groups and saying that kids need to struggle is so absolutely ridiculous and cruel to kids. School is supposed to be a refuge. It's supposed to be the place where dreams come true and you can do anything. And it's the start of your dreams. If you're going to be an astronaut, if you're going to be a lawyer, or change the world, school is where it starts. And you're crushed before you even get half-way in the door."

Children won't typically say to adults, "I don't like reform math" or "I don't like constructivism." Children tend to internalize problems and to blame themselves. They take their cues from the adults around them. So, they might say, "I'm not very good in math." "I've never understood math." "Math is hard." "Math isn't my thing." And I have heard that repeatedly, from an alarming number of students of all ages. What's actually a failure in K-12 education has turned into a self-esteem problem for the children, to a point at which they literally panic over simple calculations. Their self-doubt and lack of skills can follow them forever, limiting them in innumerable ways – dark shadows on their life.

"I don't get it" can quickly turn into "I hate math," which can turn into "I hate school" which can turn into "I don't want to go to school today," which can turn into illness, dropping out, or behavioral or emotional issues. You've heard of "early warning signals" for dropping out? A known warning signal is failed math classes. But many schools gloss over that fact, while obstinately refusing to do the one thing that needs to be done: Allow the teachers to directly teach sufficient math to the students.

You don't have to take my word for it. Ask the children. Take their difficulties to the district and listen to those adults blame everything on you, your children, your children's teachers, social issues, money, evolving standards, or some other stray-dog excuse. Then, fume just as I do, as those adults turn a blind eye to your children's misery.

A mom wrote to me last week: "The reform math is tearing my child's self confidence, and her second-grade teacher told me last week that she sees the instant terror or fear on my daughter's face when she asks them to bring their math materials up for their lesson. I can't imagine feeling this way in school. … I never have felt so fearful of a subject as I see in my daughter's face when I say let's do math homework. Math to her is like a plague and she very easily starts crying because it is so puzzling in her mind. She is a very bright girl and makes straight As in every other subject."

In constructivist classes, group work is the name of the game. Some math classes are taught entirely through group work. My daughter explained the problem she had with constant group work:

"The leader of the group has the responsibility of keeping everyone in line and on task, and making sure everyone in the group learns. And generally, the leader is going to be someone who cares about whether everyone learns. But the leader has no ability to make the end result happen, and no authority, and everybody knows it. You're trying to teach people who know they're not going to remember it or understand it, so they don't see a point. And when people get frustrated with it, it feels like a personal failure. And through all this, you're still not getting the math concept down.

"If you're in the middle, then you're just trying to get by. You're just trying to survive around the mix of the two extremes. It's more of a busywork, and if you're asked in three or four days what you were working on, then you probably won't remember.

"And if you're on the lower end, then it just sucks. You're so embarrassed that somebody has to teach you, you're probably not paying attention at all. And you're going to pass off your ‘not paying attention' as you being deliberately so. You'll just write down what you're told, depending on how many problems and how short of a time you have.

"I mean, I love how the schools keep saying, ‘Don't plagiarize, don't cheat,' but they practically force half the kids in their classes to do it, to get something down before the time to turn in worksheets is up. If they were going to give us a terrible method of solving stuff, they could have at least told us how to use that terrible method. And they never taught us how to work in a group."

Where is the teacher in all of this, I asked her? Teachers are to be a "guide on the side," she said, not a "sage on the stage." Many pro-reform teachers have rules like "Ask three (classmates) before you ask me." This means children must always admit to several classmates that they don't understand. It can change the nature of relationships and cause children to become resentful or dependent on others.

I've heard adults call children who are having trouble in math "the low group," "unmotivated," "selfish," "dummies," "typical teens," "lazy," "problems for teachers," or students of "low cognitive ability." I've known children who were assessed as special ed, but when their parents got them direct instruction from someone, the children suddenly stopped being special ed.

I've known Honors students who didn't know basic arithmetic. Last year, I called every middle school and high school in my city to find out how to help a specific student who was in that position. Only one person in 12 schools criticized the curriculum — but just lightly and only after first suggesting that the student be tested for a disability. Instead, I was told that the student couldn't be real, probably should be tested for learning disabilities, likely forgot what she was taught, must have lied or cheated, or perhaps fell on her head and developed brain damage.

Ponder that for a moment. Brain damage. Are you angry yet? Are you seeing the abusive nature of this? I have long thought that proponents of reform would truly say and do anything rather than criticize their precious program.

I've seen high school graduates panic when asked what 6×8 is. I've seen children cry over math, and heard many students say that their math-inclined parents can't help with math homework. In 2010, just 38.9% (later "scrubbed" to 41.7%) of Spokane's 10th graders passed a simple state math test that required just 56.9% to pass. Local administrators dismissed what was obviously their failure with: "That number is irrelevant." And to them, student outcomes are irrelevant. The real priorities in reform aren't testable: Group work, struggling, failing, discovering and "deeper conceptual understanding."

You'd think administrators would want to know the truth about the children's math ability, and that they'd want us to know. You'd think when children are struggling and failing – they wouldn't say, "Yes, that's what's supposed to happen." You'd think they'd do everything in their power to kick out failed approaches and to buy a good curriculum RIGHT NOW. You would be wrong.

School districts love committees, so whenever there's a change, they form a committee. It needs 60 people who aren't you, plus sticky notes, Power Point presentations, butcher paper, highlighter pens and taxpayer-funded food. The committee takes six months to come to fake consensus, plus another six before a new curriculum arrives. Much professional development is required, and the new curriculum is reform and constructivist because that's "best practices." They just know that it works. (Well, not for your child, but that's probably because your child's in the "low" group.)

I asked my daughter how she thinks students learn math best. She said:

"I think we all have an individual way of learning best. I think that, in trying to create an individual way of learning, the schools have created an even smaller box. But I think kids want to be told what we're supposed to do. We want to be given a set of parameters and a set of rules. I believe we want to be heard, because that's the biggest thing. Whether or not we learn best with this format, we should be able to say that and tell that to our teacher or the principal or whoever would listen. But if nobody listens, then whatever way actually works, educators will never know."

I asked her if groups of K-12 students really can "discover" good process and efficient methods. She said:

"I'm sure that at some point, some adult discovered good process because otherwise, we wouldn't have it, but asking a child to do that, especially in a group, especially when we're tired, and we don't really care that much about it because we have homework, and it's a sunny day outside, and it's lunch, and especially if we're only 10 or 11… You're asking a child to essentially create a nuclear bomb with a marshmallow and a set of pliers and no instructions. It's never going to happen."

I asked what she would say about this approach to a room of educators, if she had the chance. My daughter was quiet for several seconds. Then she said softly and carefully:

"I would say that they have taken people who are my equal or better in how smart they are and how well they learn, and how nice they are and not as sarcastic. And they have screwed them over. And they have taken their futures and stomped them into the dust. It makes me really, really mad."

Thank you for speaking up, daughter. It makes me mad, too.

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 Squareâ„¢, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving American K-12 education.

Laurie is the author of the blog "Betrayed," located at 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 [email protected].

Laurie Rogers
Laurie is the author of the blog “Betrayed,” located at 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. She and colleagues in Spokane, WA, have begun a new informational Web site called Partnership for Kids, located at 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 [email protected]
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