Education Opinion

The Instruction War

By Walt Gardner — April 27, 2012 2 min read

The debate pitting supporters of discovery learning against supporters of fully guided instruction seems finally settled. “Decades of research clearly demonstrate that for novices (comprising virtually all students), direct, explicit instruction is more effective and more efficient than partial guidance” (“Putting Students on the Path to Learning,” American Educator, Spring 2012).

I agree with the conclusion. But I hasten to point out that there will always be students who, for one reason or another, possess advanced knowledge or are self-directed. Teachers who happen to inherit a class of these students will post impressive results in spite of - not because of - their instruction. They then can claim credit for what they don’t deserve. At the start of my career in the classroom, I happened to be given a 10th grade English class that was composed of students whose parents were professors, doctors, lawyers or corporate executives. They made me look good because of their backgrounds. In today’s parlance, I demonstrated value-added. Yet I didn’t deserve the kudos.

Therein lies one of the problems of the accountability movement. Teachers are understandably reluctant to teach in schools where most students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s not because they’re lazy or incompetent. It’s that they will not likely have students like the ones I had. Therefore, they’ll be saddled with the Sisyphean task of bringing their students up to proficiency. Let’s not forget that no matter how dedicated these teachers are, they have their students for only a small part of the day. The rest of their students’ waking hours are spent in the home and neighborhood.

That’s why fully guided instruction is particularly valuable for students who come to school with deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development. Time in school is limited. Allowing students to discover what they believe is the correct solution and then find out that it is wrong does them a disservice because research has shown they tend to remember their solution - not the correction. I realize that some of the most important lessons we retain come from failure, but I think confusion and frustration should be avoided as much as possible in learning.

In short, laissez-faire education, whereby students design their own education, is a gamble unlikely to pay off. Nevertheless, schools established along this line exist even in today’s accountability era. Their appeal is to parents who want their children to escape the stress caused by regimentation in traditional schools. That is their right. But I doubt that students by themselves can ever learn as much by discovery as they can from inspired teachers.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools

Read Next

Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of stories from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read