Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Old School Instruction At A New School

A woman didn't like her kids' school so she started one of her own.  Her philosophy of education makes sense to me:
When her family moved to Utah in 2001, Sharette decided the kids needed to have “a school that made sense.” So she got to work creating one. She is now the executive director of six American Preparatory Academy campuses—five in the Salt Lake City area and one in Zambia.

“I took everything I had learned and created the APA model based on classical education; we do everything, including music, art, humanities, English, STEM [science, technology, engineering and math], and we do all of it to a high level of excellence.”

The school’s philosophy, Sharette says, is based on classical education, the roots of which go back to the Ancient Greek trivium of knowledge—grammar, logic, rhetoric. Each third of the trivium represents a different phase of learning. In the grammar phase, students develop fundamental knowledge in the form of discrete facts (think multiplication tables, spelling, sentence diagramming). Next comes the logic phase, when they develop the ability to make linkages between those discrete facts. Finally, there’s the rhetoric stage—the ability to create new ideas and arguments based on those facts and linkages.

Children in kindergarten through second grade spend roughly 70 percent of their time in the grammar, or fundamental knowledge, phase, Sharette says. By the time they are seniors in high school, this basic knowledge instruction will take just 40 percent of their time. Synthetic and creative work becomes more important and is given more emphasis as students progress.

To deliver this curriculum, APA uses a rigidly structured, teacher-directed instructional model loosely grouped under the umbrella term “direct instruction” that emphasizes clearly defined roles. Teachers deliver standardized lessons using finely scripted plans constructed for them by an in-house curriculum development team that uses Saxon Math, Core Knowledge and Shurley English, all widely marketed programs that emphasize drill and repetition. The structure is further enforced through a classroom management system that explicitly states that during instruction, students will “look at the teacher or book,” “follow instructions immediately,” and will not converse, ask questions or move.
OK, that last part seems a bit extreme, but if it works I'm not going to question it.

Here's the school's idea of direct instruction:
Modern direct instruction is a classroom defined by constant teacher-student interaction, calling out for group and individual responses, and repetition. “Our classrooms are lively, and a little bit noisy, but it is all managed noise and they are giving cheers when good things happen, which is probably every few minutes"...

As you might expect, not everybody is on board with direct instruction. Public schools tend to emphasize “constructivist,” inquiry-based educational theory, which argues that students learn best when they are free to explore ideas. Teachers are facilitators and provide a general framework for student inquiry. Students work in groups, often using the “social seating” that Sharette rejects, and explore how best to approach problems. Students also often teach each other in peer groups, another nonstarter for APA. Supporters of inquiry-based pedagogy—perhaps most famously and broadly articulated and championed by Maria Montessori—argue that it produces innovators and fosters creativity.

One of the difficulties direct instruction encounters is the impression that it is synonymous with lecture instruction. Critics often refer to it as “drill and kill” linked to “teaching to the test” and intimate that students are just memorizing and regurgitating facts rather than truly engaging the material.

Advocates of direct instruction agree that peer-group problem-solving is important at the appropriate developmental level, but criticize its inclusion in the early stages of development. Sharette says that critical thinking and group problem-solving are important, but “if you miss [the grammar and logic] stages, you can’t be a critical thinker, so it is very silly to be thinking that first-graders need to be critically thinking most of the day.”

Sharette says that arguments against classical education and direct instruction are red herrings that distract from public education’s fundamental problems. “The resistance and opposition is not coming from parents; the resistance comes from the education industry,” she says. “They are anti-structure and anti-direct instruction because they feel like it puts too much pressure on their teachers. As a result, there are very low standards of accountability, and we can’t afford to maintain that. It is coming from our colleges of education, which actually don’t teach elementary teachers about direct instruction, which is malfeasance in my opinion, because that is the developmentally appropriate way to teach kids of that age. Because they have been philosophically turned against it.”
Does the school work for kids that aren't white and white?
But Sharette wanted to prove that the school’s model is portable to all demographics, so she “picked the toughest demographic we could find in Utah”: West Valley, another Salt Lake suburb but one with a median household income of $54,000 and with 34 percent of families speaking a language other than English at home. “American Preparatory isn’t about elitism,” she says. “It isn’t about rich white kids in the suburbs. A strong academic model works for all kids—most especially ESL kids, who need that extra repetition in the early stages, because that is what direct instruction provides.”

The West Valley campus scores 10 percent below the state average, and an average of 5 percent above its public school neighbors.
I assume the reporter means "percentage points", and either way, this model doesn't appear to be hurting kids at all--American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, CA, comes to mind. I'd like to see more evidence from more schools with different philosophies to see if there is a silver bullet out there.


maxutils said...

I'm not a fan of any curriculum that is rigidly scripted, at least beyond that first phase where there really isn't a lot more going on than memorization. But even then -- I would never be able to work there. Staying on script and doing everything the same way every time would absolutely not suit my personality, and students would know that I was faking it, and it would not be successful. I guess if you were able to hire automotonic teachers with very little to offer who were able to be happy reading someone else's words everyday ... then it might work out. But that's certainly not a school I would want my kids to go to and I doubt the students enjoy it very much -- even if it performs very well.

Anonymous said...

If I was a student, I'd rather have a teacher that cared more about my performance.