Saturday, May 14, 2011

This Headline Makes No Sense

Is it just me, or has the quality of headline writing declined precipitously along with, you know, just about everything since Richard Nixon was elected?

I know its a tricky thing to write a catchy and informative head – I've contributed my share of counter-examples – but I keep noticing headlines that give a misleading idea of what the story really says.

I blame teachers.


This morning's legacy media carried a story headlined "Study: Technique used in teaching more important than who teacher is." That certainly caught my eye, as it seems to counter the reformist meme that what we really need to do is kick ineffective teachers to the curb.


It also sent me over to my inbox, where Education Week had dropped off a link to a story titled "Eighth-Grade Students Learn More Through Direct Instruction." Direct instruction is EdSpeak for lecturing, or as it's nicknamed, the "Sage on the Stage" method of teaching. Shy people rarely go into teaching, and the non-shy tend to overestimate how much kids will learn if you blather at them for an hour.

Having taught a few eighth-grade classes this year, it seemed counterintuitive to me that they'd pay better attention if their lessons included more talk from the front of the room. And indeed, the study in question delivers something other than what the headline promised. Down at the bottom of the inverted pyramid we find that "Students learned 3.6 percent of a standard deviation more if the teacher spent 10 percent more time on direct instruction."

So what this really tells us is that we may get slightly better results by slightly tweaking the proportions of hands-on learning, group work and guided instruction versus the time spent explaining things. For eighth graders. Oh, and only in math and science classes. But I suppose it'd be hard to summarize all that in a pithy headline.

As for the other pithy headline, turns out that study applies only to college students. It concerns the use of the "clicker," You give students these little handheld devices, and you can run instant quizzes in real time, projecting the results on your screen and adjusting your teaching accordingly (assuming your classroom has screens and projectors). I've seen these used by a guest speaker with high school juniors, with fairly miraculous improvements in attentiveness.

The clicker is definitely a game-changer. It should be standard equipment for every classroom, like laser pointers and dry erase markers. I'm pretty sure I could improve my lesson planning and my test results if I used one every day. But as the other article suggests, it needs to be part of a mix of teaching methods, the proper proportions of which may vary from subject to subject and classroom to classroom. And it does take experienced, intuitive teachers to figure out that mix, often on the fly.

Which tends to suggest that it does matter who the teacher is. The study in question measured results using a lecture from an experienced professor versus a TA with a clicker. Well, I'm pretty sure my dog could get better results if he were teaching with a clicker. The study didn't measure the effectiveness of the clicker when wielded by teachers with varying levels of expertise.

But I suppose it's easier to imply that any schmoe off the street could handle a classroom as well as these overpaid leeches who crashed our economy with their irresponsible insistence on labor protections. Or to shuffle along with current groupthink about thinning the herd of the sickly and lame.

We've seen too many good teachers kicked to the curb, often based on their luck of the draw in being handed an "underperforming" roomful a few too many times. Somehow the thinking is that it would make more sense to replace them, or to overcrowd our classrooms by firing them and not replacing them, than to help them become more effective.

Maybe that's cheaper than giving them all clickers, though.

PS: By the way, Teachers are still furious about Arne Duncan's open letter to them during Teacher Appreciation Week.

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