In his recent column “Should Teachers Know the Basic Science of How Children Learn,” Daniel Willingham writes that “some statements concerning children’s learning are perfectly sound scientifically but should not influence educational decisions.” Basically, educators must be very discerning when evaluating the usefulness of common educational phrases.
As examples, Willingham highlights unhelpful, epistemic assumptions like “learning is social…everybody learns differently…knowledge is constructed.” These vague platitudes, while containing tiny grains of truth, offer far less value to educators than empirical generalizations – consistent observations in research across background, age, task, and context. One robust and uncontested empirical generalization would be that practice helps memory.
My aim here is to more closely examine the epistemic assumption that glorifies struggle while learning. It sounds something like “without struggle, there is no learning.” It is this epistemic assumption that confuses teachers about what effective teaching looks like, and needlessly complicates the learning process for learners.
The Glorification of Struggle
We all want to build students’ perseverance, grit and problem-solving abilities. To do this, we are often encouraged to make students “do the heavy lifting” in lessons. As such, teachers are often discouraged from giving students students clear explanations or efficient procedures for solving problems.
Instead, it is now the norm to have students struggle on their own or in groups to construct their own strategy. Or, students are to engage in an endless “guess what’s in the teacher’s head” game to “make connections” in the name of “inquiry.”
I call this the glorification of struggle. Times are such that simply teaching a skill/concept clearly and having students practice said skill/concept is believed to negatively impact motivation, enthusiasm, and conceptual understanding. This obsession with struggle fuels polemics heard in my teacher training like:
“The worst thing a teacher can do when a student asks a question is answer it.”
“Parents or educators can support a child when she is struggling through a problem by framing it as an adventure to be worked through together…teach them that not knowing is not failure. It’s the first step to understanding.”
Listen, I get it. Struggling is a huge part of the learning process. In order to grow, we need to experience failure and setbacks. This is the foundation of a growth mindset – knowing that our abilities are not fixed, and that we can persevere in the face of obstacles. And in life, we might not always have a teacher showing us the steps, right?
Yet the glorification of struggle is being taken to the extreme in education, and is often used to rationalize poor, ineffective teaching. Worse yet, teachers are now actively discouraged from clearly modeling and engaging in guided practice. The epistemic assumption that “without struggle, there is no learning” distorts what good teaching looks like, and does not take into account what we have learned about the brain’s working and long-term memory.
And so, if we are going to ask students to struggle, we need to be much more clear about how exactly this should be done. We need empirical generalizations, not vague assumptions. Research on desirable difficulties is the most useful place to start.
“Teachers won’t know if their students have actually learned something until after a period of time in which the students didn’t use or think about the information.”
Therefore, it is not helpful for students to struggle with newly-taught material. They should be experiencing high levels of success, at least initially. This is accomplished through clear modeling, extensive guided practice, and frequent checks for understanding. In other words – explicit teaching.
“In order to reap the learning benefits of these strategies, students need to be equipped with the necessary background knowledge and skills to overcome the challenges. There’s a sweet spot with this [desirable difficulties] stuff – think Goldilocks.”
Once necessary background knowledge and skills are taught and practiced, then students are ready for additional challenge and difficulty. Crucially, the level of task difficulty should increase incrementally.
“If students aren’t struggling a bit — that is, if their performance isn’t somewhat hindered — they’re probably not engaged with the material in ways that will lead to meaningful, long-term comprehension and understanding.”
Notice again that these desirable difficulties are implemented after students have been taught material. When teachers metaphorically throw students into the deep end with new content, they are merely overloading working memory. This is not rigor – rather, we are only frustrating students who want to learn and master challenging material.
It’s Okay to Teach Students Effectively
The more effectively we teach students necessary background knowledge and procedures, the more we can implement desirable difficulties and give students tasks that involve greater independence/autonomy. If students are constantly struggling, they are likely not learning much.
Initially, the teacher should be doing much of the heavy lifting while students experience success. However, as students gain mastery and build deeper background knowledge in their subject, they will be ready and eager for more challenge and difficulty.
Be wary of epistemic assumptions like “without struggle, there is no learning” that distort and provide little value to educators
Students should experience high levels of success initially when learning new content
Desirable difficulties can be implemented in later lessons to make learning more resilient
I was born into a family of musicians. My father was drafted during the U.S. – Vietnam War but thankfully avoided combat by auditioning successfully for the Army Band. Later, my parents met while studying piano and organ studies together in graduate school. Starting at age four, each of my three siblings and I started singing in choirs and playing violin and piano.
Truthfully, I didn’t particularly enjoy music much growing up, even though much of my life revolved around it. I felt music was quite dorky, and would have much preferred to have been playing more sports. But quitting music was never a choice in my family, thankfully. I say thankfully because through music, I learned the secret to continuous improvement – the sacred art of practice.
Deliberate Practice In Music
Practice is revered in the music world. No matter how talented the player, daily practice is required – it is the great equalizer. I grew up learning that skilled musicians are not born, but made through tremendous amounts of practice.
I had to practice every morning before I went to school. I would start each session with a warm-up of extremely rote scales, vibrato exercises, and previously-learned songs. Then I’d move on to the most intense part – working through a new piece.
I would never just play through a new song – I had to first isolate the most difficult section. After identifying those bars, I’d set my metronome at an almost unbearably slow speed and start playing until there were no mistakes.
I would then gradually speed up the tempo so long as I could proceed without errors. Once I reached or exceeded the goal performance tempo, I would back up 4-6 bars and then practice transitioning into the difficult portion until it was seamless and automatic. The process was tedious and grueling, but improvement was always immediate and noticeable.
Through practice, I learned to treat musical pieces like a quilt to be woven together over time – never in one practice session. I honed my ability to notice mistakes, isolate problems, and then resolve through practice. Feedback came from my instructors, and with training, eventually from myself. Over time, I even realized that I could apply this process to my studies and sports.
This process of learning and practicing is not unique to music. I’ve since learned it has a name and has been studied with chess players, musicians, and in education. It is called Deliberate Practice.
Craig Barton’s 5 Stages of Deliberate Practice
“For Ericsson et al (1993), the principle of Deliberate Practice involves breaking down a complex process, isolating an individual skill and working on it, receiving regular and specific feedback so you can improve your performance. It is how performance musicians prepare for a recital – not by practicing the piece from start to finish, but by concentrating on small sections of it at a time until they achieve mastery.”
Craig Barton’s How I Wish I Taught Math
In his book How I Wish I Taught Maths, Barton develops Ericsson’s principle of deliberate practice into a useful five-step model:
Isolate the skill*
Develop the skill
Assess the skill
*I am not advocating for teaching reading comprehension as skills-based.
Deliberate practice is a clear improvement from the adage practice makes perfect. Deliberate practice is far more specific and precise, and also recognizes the importance of feedback and retrieval. Here are some other immediate benefits deliberate practice activated in my instruction:
I was forced to break complex knowledge into manageable chunks that could be practiced with immediate feedback and retrieved over time
I gave my students extensive practice with multiple sub-processes that over time can be layered and combined to solve more complex problems
I caught misconceptions and mistakes much sooner
I developed a more carefully-planned and thoughtfully-sequenced curriculum to support the desired incremental learning and practice
Deliberate practice is also in clear opposition to many current, rampant classroom practices I witness frequently. For example, TPT or Pinterest-sourced curriculum designed the night before on a lesson-by-lesson basis with little connection or routine; or minimally-guided independent/group work with vague objectives, directions and teacher feedback.
Recognizing the power of deliberate practice has put a renewed focus, energy and urgency in my guided and independent practice. Every minute of my lessons have become more intentional and purpose-driven. My classroom has started to feel more like the music lessons of my childhood.
Using Deliberate Practice in Lessons
Using deliberate practice as an individual musician or athlete does not translate perfectly into a classroom with 20-30 students. What follows is a description of when and how I’ve found deliberate practice to be effective in my instruction.
When: Accessing New and Reviewed Content
Anytime students are engaged with independent (or partner) work, I ask myself “how can I make this deliberate practice?” Since asking myself that question, I’ve built a small collection of routines that students use to access new content and retrieve previously-learned knowledge. A few examples follow of how I’ve used deliberate practice across many different subjects and tasks:
Example Problem Pairs:When teaching a new concept in math, I use an example problem pair with 4-6 independent practice problems placed directly after. Whereas I used to bulk-deliver all my modeling at the beginning of the lesson, I’ve found example problem pairs with bursts of deliberate practice are much more effective given students’ limited working memory. A nice rhythm to lessons also emerges with concise, well-planned models followed by sprints of purposeful and focused practice.
Low-Stakes Assessments:I include 2-3 low stakes assessments per week in all content areas that include one question from the day’s lesson, and the rest review of previously-learned concepts. Students have approximately 10 minutes to complete. As they finish, students raise their hands and I quickly put a check next to the correct answers and circle any errors. When the timer goes off I display my exemplar for students to compare their work with. These low-stakes assessments provide students with multiple opportunities to revisit and practice the more challenging parts of the curriculum – much like how I would isolate the most difficult parts of music.
Reading: When reading any textbook chapter together for the first time, control the gamecan be used to properly model and involve as many students as possible in reading aloud, interspersed with immediate coaching on prosody, pronunciation, vocabulary, and quick recall questions. I have also built in routines for students to preview chapter headings, vocabulary, and visuals.
Writing: Hochman and Wexler’s (2017), The Writing Revolution is full of deliberate practice routines that “break the writing process down into manageable chunks and then has students practice the chunks they need, repeatedly, while also learning content.” These routines are perfect for retrieving and deepening previously-learned knowledge in any content area. My most-commonly used is the Because, But, So writing exercise to give students daily practice in comprehending and communicating complex cause-effect ideas through well-crafted sentences.
In short, deliberate practice is a versatile and useful lens for designing effective student work across all subject areas. The next and final section will show that how deliberate practice is planned, implemented, and checked in the classroom is crucial.
How: Identify Steps, Short Bursts, Feedback
“Merely repeating an activity is insufficient to get you better at it…for practice to improve skills, it has to have a specific and focused goal and must gradually link together a series of smaller goals to created linked skills…deliberate practice requires all-in focus, and that is maximized in a short and intense burst.”
Doug Lemov, Foreward to Hochman and Wexler’s (2017) The Writing Revolution
Before giving students independent practice, students must be taught and explicitly shown what is expected. My model will frequently include 2-3 steps that I can quickly refer students to when circulating and giving individual feedback “Check step 2.”
After sufficient modeling, questioning and checking-for-understanding, students should be given concise directions with a clear “I will be looking for _______ as I walk around” statement. I set a timer for 4-5 minutes and students get to work. This amount of time works well for my 5th graders, but can certainly vary depending on the task. During this time I strategically circulate with my exemplar (checking students that finish fastest first) and star student work that will be shared.
When the timer goes off, efficient whole-group feedback starts. There are many different ways to do this, but my favorite is to either do a show call on the document camera with high-quality student work examples, or to display my own exemplar and strategically cold call students to explain the steps. Most important is that the correct answers are visible for all students to compare their work against.
I use between 2-3 cycles of this deliberate practice in each lesson to access new and retrieve previously-learned content. I find the bursts of deliberate student work creates a palpable sense of purpose and momentum always followed by consistent and clear feedback.
Since striving to make my lessons 85 percent review, I have fully embraced that nothing is taught in one lesson. Through bursts of deliberate practice, manageable chunks of new content can be accessed through routine exercises, and previously-learned content can be retrieved and consolidated in long-term memory. Practice is essential to mastery, and as teachers we should take every opportunity to incorporate effective deliberate practice in our lessons.
What does deliberate practice look like in your personal life or classroom?
This year I radically shifted my instructional focus. I made it a goal for all my lessons to be approximately 85% review of previous content, with only 10-15% of each lesson being new content.
The 85% review takes many forms – lesson starters, homework checks, interleaved low-stakes quizzes – but has had profound and far-reaching impacts in all areas of my instruction. I will detail three major effects shortly, but first, where did this 85:15 ratio originate?
Siegfried “Zig” Engelmann started as a former marketing director for an advertising agency interested in how many repetitions it took for a child to learn something. After searching and not finding any available research on the topic, Engelmann ran some studies on his own with small groups of students and his two sons. Engelmann video-recorded these sessions and tried to persuade universities to hire him after showing how he successfully taught 5 year-old students algebra. Only the University of Illinois was willing to hire Engelmann.
Engelmann would go on to develop Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading (DISTAR) in the 1960s, which was characterized by carefully sequenced curriculum, teacher scripts, unison choral responses, and regular assessments. Note that this Direct Instruction (capital D, capital I) is unique from the teacher effects pattern outlined by Rosenshine in the 1980s, although both share many similar characteristics.
Engelmann’s (1999) Student Program Alignment and Teaching to Mastery paper identified the 85:15 split as a key component of an effective mastery learning program. In the paper, Engelmann argued that teachers should gradually develop student mastery in all lessons by presenting material in small, incremental steps.
“A program design that supports mastery does not present great amounts of new information and skill training in each lesson. Rather, work is distributed so new parts in a lesson account for only 10–15 percent of the total lesson. The rest of the lesson firms and reviews material and skills presented earlier in the program.”
Engelmann noted that the emphasis on mastery and review is in contrast to the typical curriculum characterized by topical or thematic units with little if any connections made between lessons or units.
“Students will work on a particular unit for a few days and then it will be replaced by another unit that is not closely related to the first and that does not require application of the same skills and knowledge.”
While I was skeptical of devoting so little time to new content, my doubts disappeared after discovering that Engelmann’s Direct Instruction – with its incremental steps and heavy emphasis on review – was shown to be the most effective form of instruction in Project Follow Through – the largest and most expensive educational research student ever conducted by the U.S. federal government.
To make the switch to an 85:15 split, first I had to re-examine how my current curriculum was designed and sequenced.
Benefit 1: Improved Unit/Lesson Planning
Prior to my adjustment, I found myself in an exhausting cycle. I would typically spend more than half of lessons leading students through loads of new, cognitively-demanding content, and would then set independent work only to find that students were already mentally depleted.
I would then end with an exit slip with one or two more similar items, but this would usually confirm my suspicion that the majority of students were confused. So I would go back to the drawing board, re-plan and re-teach the concept the next day, all the while worried that I was running out of time before the next, upcoming high-stakes quiz.
As soon as I committed to the 85:15 split, I realized I needed to design my lessons differently – the new content had to be in smaller, more manageable chunks. For example, rather than using multiple visual representations of fractions in a single lesson, I would spread the representations out and have students develop familiarity with each.
“Teachers cannot teach to mastery without a program design that supports the approach. Teaching to mastery is built upon effective student and program alignment. The program assumes that nothing is taught in one lesson. Instead, new concepts and skills are presented in two or three consecutive lessons to provide students with enough exposure to new material that they are able to use it in applications.”
Immediately, students experienced greater success and I found myself devoting more of my planning time to the sequencing and delivery of new content instead of home-brewing massive reteach lessons. I also found myself spending a great deal more time thinking of effective ways of questioning students and checking comprehension.
By shifting to 85% review, I also realized I had to be very intentional about the content of my homework (always review) and what items to routinely include on low-stakes assessments. My perspective on lesson planning expanded so that I was always looking for links and connections, rather than scrambling to re-adjust and re-teach on a day-to-day basis.
Benefit 2: Students Do More High-Quality Work
During observations, colleagues would frequently note that I was “doing more work than the students.” I knew this was true, but I was not confident in the quality of my students’ independent work – I felt I had no other choice but to take over the heavy lifting.
What I’ve realized now is that I was spending an unsustainable and inefficient amount of time and energy leading students through cognitively-demanding new content for the majority of every lesson. I was not effectively managing my students’ cognitive load. I needed to chunk the new content more strategically and provide additional practice and review.
As soon as I limited the amount of new content taught in each lesson and increased time spent revisiting prior content, I was able to give students more demanding and rigorous pair and independent work. This in turn allowed me to spend more time circulating, noticing common errors, and providing further assistance to individual students.
In summary, by shifting the emphasis to revisiting prior content with only small and carefully sequenced doses of new content, the quality and quantity of student work immediately improved. This had the additional positive benefit of building student self-confidence and self-reliance in completing high-quality, independent work.
Benefit 3: More Retrieval = Less Reteaching
I used to think of assessments as time-consuming and stressful requirements that would result in stacks of papers and grading. Once I learned about low-stakes assessments and whole-group feedback, I now see assessments as one of the most underutilized instructional techniques a teacher has at their disposal.
Essentially, I plan 2-3 low-stakes assessments per week, each with 4-6 questions that are interleaved with questions from the most recent lesson and from previous units. I include deliberately-chosen questions that give students multiple “at-bats” with more difficult concepts. This eliminates the need for extensive reteach lessons later in terms. I either rapidly mark the quizzes in front of the students or have them self-correct using the document camera. Clear and concise feedback is vital.
These low-stakes assessments are effective because they activate retrieval which reconstructs the entire neural pathway to stored information. Efrat Furst breaks down why teachers should incorporate routine, effortful, and properly-supported retrieval in her post, Retrieval Practice: Paving Pathways in the Memory Maze:
“Retrieval is highly effective as a method of practice, it has strong continually-growing body of evidence, and most importantly – it can be applied in any classroom to enhance the learning of all students, to close gaps and supply students with effective learning-tools for the rest of their journey.”
Furst also notes the importance of framing these assessments as routine, low-stakes learning activities that emphasize the correcting of mistakes.
“The way we address the activity (e.g. quiz vs. review), how we frame it (e.g. surprise quiz vs. morning review routine), the stakes (high vs. low or none), and how much room we leave for making mistakes and correcting them are essential factors.”
By including routine retrieval in lessons, students’ working memory is freed up as increasing amounts of knowledge become automatic and easily accessible. This allows me to increase the rigor of students’ independent work as an increasing amount is devoted to deepening and connecting prior knowledge.
I hope to have shown how shifting my lessons to 85% review and 15% new content has completely shifted how I plan, teach, and assess in the classroom. No longer are lessons at the end of the week or term wasted because every single lesson is a valuable opportunity to further reinforce and build students’ content knowledge.
Most beneficial, I’ve found that my newfound emphasis on review is developing curriculum coherence as concepts are now being deeply woven together on a daily basis.
How do you incorporate review throughout your lessons?
When I completed my teacher licensure coursework only a few years back, I would have characterized myself as a die-hard believer in John Dewey, Alfie Kohn, flexible seating and student-centered learning. I believed children learned best by doing, that teacher-talk should be limited in a “readers/writers/math workshop,” and that group work and personalized technology were the future of education.
I didn’t realize it at the time – probably because my teaching philosophy was identical to much of my cohort – but I was unwittingly indoctrinated in the educational progressive’s interpretation of constructivism. I assumed what I was being taught in teacher training was best practice, until I started reading books that were not on any of my syllabi.
I was able to gain some perspective and insight into the history of this philosophy of teaching after reading Education is Upside-Down by Eric Kalenze. In his book, Kalenze traces the origins and current dominance of the progressive movement in education and the constructivist pedagogy it has defiantly sworn to be the future of learning.
While progressive educators will decry that it is they who are the underdogs desperately trying to save children from oppressive schools and teachers with “old-school teaching methods,” the reality is the opposite. Constructivism has been the dominant dogma and unquestioned ideology in U.S. teacher training and professional evaluation for quite some time. Constructivism is the undercurrent that continues to fuel “balanced literacy” and discourages math teachers from teaching standard algorithms.
“Since the time of the Progressives, prioritizing student engagement in ‘constructivist means’ also known as ‘student-directed,’ ‘student-determined,’ student-discovered,’ or ‘students-hands-on’ – reigns unquestioned as a best pedagogical practices. It’s an idea first instilled in practitioners during training/licensure programs, then reinforced continually throughout each teacher’s professional experience.”
Kalenze, E. (2014). Education is upside-down: Reframing reform to focus on the right problems. Rowman & Littlefield.
In this piece I will outline three cracks in constructivism. These three holes in the pedagogy are the primary reasons I changed my mind about what good, effective teaching looks like since leaving my teacher training.
First, constructivism is misinterpreted as a pedagogy; second, constructivism ignores basic cognitive science if used without proper scaffolding or at the wrong time in the learning process; and third, current prioritizing of constructivism in teacher training, at the expense of more direct forms of instruction effectively reinforces educational inequities for students.
1. Constructivism Is Misinterpreted as a Pedagogy
The most persistent flaw in constructivism is that it was was created as a theory to explain how an individual learns, and has since been widely misinterpreted as a teaching pedagogy that is characterized by minimal guidance and individual interests.
“Constructivism, as conceived purely as a theory of learning by Piaget, was not designed to be associated with any specific pedagogical approach. More importantly, the raft of neuroscientific evidence supporting the theory of ‘neuroconstructivism’ actually, in my view, provides strong evidence to suggest the opposite, that constructivist pedagogies are unlikely to be the most effective approaches to learning, at least until schemas are well developed.”
So yes, constructivism is an instructive theory of learning when viewed through the individual lens. It explains how we are only ever able to create partial representations of the world that are very context dependent and constructed by our individual perspective. But in translating this individual theory of learning into a class-wide pedagogy centered around individual choice and minimal teacher guidance is where everything falls apart.
The ultimate goal for teachers, according to Hobbiss and the neuroconstructivist view, should be to provide students with “multiple, overlapping partial representations, which are strengthened through repeated access.”
For example, rather than spending multiple class periods allowing each student to discover and teach other classmates their self-generated strategies to divide numbers, it is far more efficient to clearly model and teach one representation (e.g. the standard algorithm) and then provide students with multiple opportunities to gain repeated exposure and practice with that partial representation.
Once student mastery is demonstrated through practice and repeated exposure, then additional partial representations of the division algorithm can be added – showing remainders as decimals and fractions, converting improper fractions to mixed numbers and so on. The layers of understanding build on each other to over time create a stronger, more cohesive schema to be stored in long-term memory. Routine sequencing, retrieval, and interleaving further strengthens these schemas.
“It is not the discovery of the strategy which is important for subsequent success, but the repeated exposure to it, and practice at accessing it, multiple times and in multiple different ways.”
In constrast, constructivist pedagogy atomizes and individualizes each student’s learning by providing minimal guidance, leading to partially-developed conceptual understandings and misconception-riddled partial representations that vary from student-to-student and are hard to diagnose and clarify by teachers.
This section detailed how constructivism has been misinterpreted and misapplied as a pedagogy. The next section will outline how poorly-timed constructivist teaching ignores basic cognitive science research on the difference between expert and novice learners.
2. Constructivism Ignores Differences between Expert and Novice Learners
“After a half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners.”
Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006)
Why might constructivism and it’s emphasis on minimal guidance not have much supporting evidence? One reason might be that in constructivist pedagogy, there is no recognition of the brain’s working or long-term memory, let alone the profound differences between novice and expert learners. Every student is treated as an expert in their own individual interests – as though they are already little mathematicians, scientists, and authors immediately, making for great optics and “messy teaching” but questionable learning outcomes.
According to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006), when expert learners are confronted with problems, they are able to draw on a large reservoir of background knowledge and experience stored in long-term memory. In contrast, novice learners have limited background knowledge and simple information retrieval places a heavy demand on working memory.
Greg Ashman puts it even more succinctly: “Low knowledge individuals have to start guessing when they are still a long way from the goal. Higher knowledge individuals begin the process of trial and error far closer to the goal.”
The importance of fluent and flexible recall is also highlighted in the National Research Council’s book How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (2000). They write that experts can “chunk” and organize knowledge around important ideas and concepts, which lightens the working memory load and makes for faster retrieval. Importantly though, this fluency does not mean that thinking is less creative or thoughtful.
“Their ability to retrieve information effortlessly is extremely important because fluency places fewer demands on conscious attention, which is limited in capacity Effortful retrieval, by contrast, places many demands on a learner’s attention: attentional effort is being expended on remembering instead of learning.”
How Experts Differ from Novices.” National Research Council. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition.
As fluency and long-term memory develops, Andrew Martin (2016) found that achievement, motivation, and engagement increased at the early stages of learning. This solid foundation of content knowledge then allows for less-guided, more constructivist, approaches to be then deliberately introduced and scaffolded.
“Introduced at the appropriate point in the learning process, these scaffolded exploratory approaches can also be a means to manage cognitive load, generate autonomous learning, and provide a further basis for students’ motivation and engagement.”
So let me be very clear, I am not arguing for “all DI all the time.” There is a place for less-guided instruction (particularly to avoid expertise reversal effect), but certainly not at the beginning of the learning process. In addition, as constructivist, minimally-guided techniques often require teachers to combine and switch between DI, inquiry, and problem-based learning simultaneously in lessons (a legitimately difficult undertaking for any teacher), it would make far greater sense to equip new teachers with a strong skill set in explicit, direct instruction before adding in constructivist approaches. I personally aim for a 80% – 20% split, as described by Tom Sherrington.
In summary, research has consistently shown that when delivered to novice learners, the minimal guidance enshrined in constructivist pedagogy results in minimal learning and little change in long-term memory. While all students are negatively impacted by constructivist pedagogies, those who come to school with the least robust background knowledge are certain to be the most negatively impacted.
3. Constructivism Reinforces Inequity in Education
60 percent of American fourth-graders are not proficient in reading. Results from the Nation’s Report Card show that fourth and eighth graders in the U.S. have made little to no gains in math or reading since 2015. Worse though, the country’s poorest-performing students scored worse in both subjects as compared to 2015, while the highest-performing students grew, further increasing educational inequity.
Constructivism and progressive teaching practices, writes Citizen Stuart, are a tempting ploy that harms the most vulnerable. He argues that rather than “waiting for the poor to discover for themselves the alphabet, letters, calculus, astronomy, and the base knowledge that is passed generation-by-generation to the offspring of the rich so they can rule the world,” educators should simply directly teach content.
“In 1972, the wealthiest Americans were spending five times as much per child as the lowest-income families. By 2007, parents at all economic levels were spending more on their children, but the highest-income families were now spendingnine times as much.”
By embracing and prioritizing constructivism and forms of minimally-guided instruction, teachers are unfairly expecting all students, who have widely varying degrees of background knowledge, to “discover” basic information about math, science, and history on their own. Thankfully, there is a solution according to Wexler:
“Provide students with information about concepts and events in a coherent and engaging way and then guide them to think, talk, and write about that information analytically. It’s not that hard, and it wouldn’t necessarily cost any more money or require any more instructional time than what schools are doing now.”
Stockard, Wood, Coughlin, and Khoury (2018) determined that direct instruction could “substantially reduce current achievement disparities between sociodemographic groups” after looking at 50 years of data. Again, the evidence is clear and right in front of us.
I hope to have shown through these three sections that constructivism is to be understood as a useful supplement to more direct forms of instruction. Unfortunately, many teacher training programs continue to slander direct instruction as “old-fashioned” and remain stubbornly attached to the romantic ideal of minimally-guided instruction and completely individualized learning. Evidence-based teaching methods like explicit/direct instruction are well-known and available and should be the first priority for new teachers to master.
Before becoming a teacher, one of my many odd jobs was as a barista at Caribou Coffee. The work was backbreaking, fast-paced, and incredibly stressful. The slightest mistake or delay during a morning rush with grumpy customers was devastating.
At first I was stuck on the register, in awe of the more experienced baristas who could make 3-4 drinks simultaneously while carrying on a friendly babble with their customers. I noticed these expert baristas had things in common which I now have the cognitive science language to name – they knew how to manage their cognitive load using ingrained routines and habits.
I will not pretend to be a firsthand expert in cognition or memory acquisition, but the best explanation and diagram of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) I’ve seen yet is from Adam Boxer. He writes “increasing ‘task demand’ increases load, whereas increasing ‘available resources’ decreases load. Load, resources and demand are variables: they are things that can change, or be kept the same.”
As teachers, we are constantly managing the many variables of cognitive load to increase the effectiveness of our teaching and depth of our students’ learning. I think one of the best ways to implement cognitive load theory in classrooms is through the formation of valuable classroom habits. Harry Fletcher-Wood identifies the importance of routines and habits in his post What Makes Expert Teachers:
“Experts have automated many of their routines, allowing them to focus on the most important challenges…Kazemi et al. (2016) note the value of a limited repertoire of instructional activities, allowing teachers to focus on the content and student responses…We need to provide the tools novices need to automate simple, effective routines.”
Therefore, to bring cognitive load theory down to earth, I’ve collected the top four habits I use daily to manage the variables of cognitive load in my classroom – specifically by focusing on the development of students’ internal resources through retrieval, spaced and interleaved practice.
Completing an answer key with exemplars for all day’s work before day begins. This has been a game-changer for lightening my own cognitive load. The clarity of my modeling and student questioning rises dramatically when I have an exemplar in front of me as an external resource. In addition, by doing the work students will complete beforehand, I can also notice and more clearly identify what knowledge and skills students must have to complete each task.
Using retrieval to start every lesson, ending every lesson with summary. The classic “what did we learn about yesterday….last week….last month” can also be modified to include “what key terms did we learn yesterday…can someone give an example of this term?” I love to then remind students that every time we retrieve a memory, it becomes stronger. At the end of every lesson, I have students summarize their learning with the stem “Today I learned ________.”
Consistent lesson structure. My lessons follow a very consistent progression – a do now, then homework review, new lesson content with worked examples, guided practice with checks for understanding, and then independent practice. This consistent structure simultaneously reduces the difficulty of my lesson planning and allows students to receive lesson content in a predictable and consistent format.
Multiple opportunities for “touches” on content through routine formative assessments with spaced and interleaved questions. I have set the routine of ending every lesson with a daily formative assessment using four boxes (see below). The first three boxes are spaced/spiraled questions from previous units that I have identified students needing more at-bats with. The final box is a check on what I taught that day – a small example of interleaving. I ask students to raise their hands when they complete all questions, and I then provide immediate feedback with either a check or circled mistake.
It really has completely shifted my perspective as a teacher to recognize habit formation as long-term investments in my students and classroom. These habits not only reduce cognitive load in both students and teachers, they provide momentum to make it through the roughly 160-day school year.
My takeaway – utilize the power of routines and habits to reduce cognitive load in the classroom. I think this quote from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits is a perfect summary of why habits are every teacher’s best friend.
“Habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment…habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks…The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.”
This year I let go of trying to make my lessons “fun” and “engaging.” I’ve held off on the group work, project-based learning, and inquiry lessons. Instead I raised the bar for learning and went back to basics – reading high quality text, fronting the writing, and discussion. I’ve noticed I have spent considerably less time creating and planning actual lessons, and far more time spent honing my questioning, sequence, and delivery of content. Along the way, I’ve also found my fear of “being boring” to students has all but disappeared.
By refocusing on reading, writing, and discussing – skills that have and will always stand the test of time – we are also rebuilding something that will become ever more valuable in our ever-more distracted world – sustained attention. I was fortunate to have parents that gave me many opportunities to develop my focus throughout my formative years.
Every morning before elementary school, my three siblings and I all practiced our repetitive violin scales and Suzuki books for a minimum of 30 minutes (even if we missed the bus). I then went on to attend a boarding choir school from 5th to 8th grade where we rehearsed and took music theory classes four to six hours daily in addition to the regular school day. And although I never achieved my goal and made it to the NBA, I practiced about two hours every day throughout high school on free throws, repetitive shots, and dribbling.
In all these experiences, I noticed a pattern – in order to improve, I had to isolate a specific skill and deliberately practice it until it was automatic, especially under pressure. The deliberate practice was always rote and never very interesting – at first. But I always found ways to make it engaging and intrinsically enjoyable. I’d practice my scales faster and faster using a metronome. I’d use a timer to see how many jumpers I could sink in 5 minutes. In short, I found ways to transform what most considered “rote” and boring into engaging deliberate practice where I could notice my improvement. This is directly applicable to teaching.
When students complain about lessons being boring or repetitive, I share my experiences with music and sports. I tell them, “not all learning is fun at first.” I trust that over time and with regular opportunities to celebrate achievement and growth through engaging routines like show calls, the learning itself will become enjoyable.
So, my takeaway: create and sustain routines and rituals around reading, writing, and discussion to give students opportunities to demonstrate mastery and sustain focus. Celebrate excellence, then raise the bar a little higher each day. And if you are worried about demotivating students through “boring” lessons, I think Craig Barton has it right when he argues our motivation arises from achievement, not the other way around.