A Superintendent Writes… An Attempt at Meaningful Dialouge – Round 1

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A LYS Superintendent shares the following:

SC,

A teacher (with a known agenda) sent a mass email to a bunch of superintendents. As you know, I love reasoned and spirited discussions so I responded. Below are the questions and my responses.

Thinly Veiled Questions Mass Emailed to Texas Superintendents:

Please inform me on what the teaching method is when promoting the learning theory of “social constructivism” and “proximal development.”  Is it inquiry-discovery?  I was under the impression that this is a learning method not a teaching method.  Is it facilitation as opposed to direct instruction?   Are these opposites?  Is there an actual term for the teaching method of CSCOPE?   Why would teachers need training for CSCOPE if they received certification in teaching via their academic degrees?  Why are so many people pulling their children out of CSCOPE schools across the state? Can they all be wrong?  Are they lying about the negative affects they speak of?

My Response as a Texas Superintendent:

Wow.  That’s a lot of questions.  Let’s start with learning theory.  Learning theory simply tries to explain how the human brain processes information and learns.  One of the first big theories was, “Mental Faculties,” which was developed in the late 19th century. The next big one was “Behaviorism.”  Behaviorism is interesting and can explain a lot of human learning.  If I squirt water on a cat for getting on the table, the cat learns not to get on the table.  We do the same thing with young children.  Behaviorism tends to lose effectiveness (notice I didn’t say it stopped working) as children get older.  By the time of our later teen years and into adulthood, we sort of want to be reasoned with and not spanked like a child in order to learn lessons. Some other commonly recognized learning theories include “Cognitivism” and “Constructivism.”

In Constructivism the learner constructs new learning in her brain by comparing a new, unfamiliar concept with something already known.  So, if you show me a puzzle, I think to myself, this sort of looks like the type of puzzle I worked last week, but it’s a little different.  So I take what I know from working a previous puzzle, identify the differences in the new puzzle, and find a way to solve it.  Fairly straight forward.  

Again, none of these learning theories are new ideas.  The father of American education, the famous John Dewey, who lived in the mid-19th century, used constructivism.  Yes, the same Dewey of the Dewey Decimal System, used to organize libraries to this day. Marie Montessori of the now famous Montessori Schools was also an early developer and user of constructivism.  So, the idea that CSCOPE and constructive approaches to learning are the products of leftist wackos is simply not the case.  Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of extremists on both the Left and Right in education, but CSCOPE and constructive approaches to learning are the product of neither.

People who like constructive learning theories like approaches to teaching such as discovery learning.  Discovery learning is used in the elite private schools to this day, and it can be highly effective.  Discovery learning is also very slow and inefficient. So, there is a learning theory/teaching method pair identified: Constructivism/Discovery Learning. Certainly other theory/teaching pairs are possible, such as:

Constructivism/Direct Instruction Constructivism/Group Learning Behaviorism/Direct Instruction

You get the idea.  It is possible to pair almost any learning theory with a teaching method, depending on the knowledge and talent of the teacher.

By “Proximal Development,” you surely mean the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which is once again a very old learning theory, not a teaching method.   I consider ZPD to be very similar to constructivism, but there are some subtle differences.  But once again it is possible to pair ZPD with instructional methods, for example:

ZPD/Direct Instruction ZPD/Group Learning ZPD/Discovery Learning

I am trying real hard to separate the ideas of learning theory and instructional strategies, because it seems that you have them thoroughly confused.  There are a variety of instructional strategies that a teacher can use:

Direct instruction, which often is called lecture, but doesn’t have to be.

Group learning, where children learn from each other.

Discovery learning, where children figure out things on their own.  

All of these methods are tried and true.  

Now let’s discuss CSCOPE.  In my view the value of CSCOPE is the scope and sequence. That is, it tells us what we should teach, in what order we should teach it, and for how long we should teach each unit.  In the old days the scope and sequence was merely the textbook. You started on chapter 1 and turned the page.  When accountability was not in existence, you could get away with just using the textbook. But that is no longer the case.  Now we are accountable to teaching specific content to a specific standard, or you lose your job.  Educators now work in a different environment that requires different tools.  It became obvious to districts that the accountability and testing standards were moving and changing faster than textbooks and textbook adoption/appropriation could change.  Something had to give.  Districts had to have something aligned to state standards (some years textbooks were, some years not) and be able to change on a dime.  CSCOPE was the solution to the problem.  So, I don’t see CSCOPE as promoting one learning theory or teaching method over any other.  

Frankly, I have not heard of a mass exodus from public schools because of CSCOPE. People leave because of discipline, or the excessive testing and accountability, but I have personally never heard CSCOPE given as a reason for withdrawing from a district. Couple that with the fact that 800 of the 1,027 districts in the state have self-selected to use CSCOPE and where are you going to escape to?  Yes, some of the larger districts create their own curriculum, but it still has to reflect the requirements set by the legislature and SBOE, and meet testing requirements. So honestly, the differences are minimal.  If people don’t like CSCOPE, their problem is likely with the content, which is set by the legislature and SBOE.  The antics of our SBOE, when it comes to setting standards for what must be taught is simply legendary (embarrassing) in public education.

Can everyone be wrong?  Of course. The majority can be wrong, and can in fact be wrong the majority of the time.  Misinformation, mass hysteria, and personal agendas can have a tremendous impact.  Combine that with fast moving technology and you can sway the majority to the wrong conclusion frequently.  Are they lying about the negative effects of CSCOPE? Lying is a strong word. I prefer misguided and misinformed. I think I have answered all of your questions.  

I appreciate the opportunity to have assisted you.

Think. Work. Achieve. Your turn…

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