My wife grew up in the Bronx. She did not live in a world where having a car was valued. She walked or used public transportation for everything, and she believed zealously that the internal combustion engine is the destroyer of civilizations and neighborhoods. She didn't know how to drive when I first met her, and she had no interest in learning. That was fine when we lived in Manhattan for the first six years of our marriage, but when we moved to Seattle I insisted that I would teach her to drive. No need to go into the details here--about the red lights we ran, the one-way streets we went up the wrong way--it was a disaster.
It wasn't her fault. It was mine because my direct instructional skills in this area were primitive. I made assumptions about her level of knowledge and motivation that had little or no basis in reality, and it never occurred to me that her learning style was different from mine.
When I taught my son to drive, it was a completely different experience. He knew more about the rules of the road than I did. He had spent years observing and asking questions. When the time came to get his license, he could have got into a car and done fine with little or no direct instruction. He just needed me in the car because the law required it, and because I could give him a helpful hint or two about parallel parking or merging into traffic on I-5.
In this situation my wife needed a teacher trained in direct instruction--which she eventually got from a driving school; in my son's case, a more constructivist approach would have been fine.
Constructivism is a learning theory that dates back at least as far as Socrates helping Meno's illiterate slave to "discover" fundamental principles in geometry, but it has had its greatest impact on American education through John Dewey's Democracy and Education and Jean Piaget's lifetime of research on cognitive development in children. Both have played a big role in developing theories and curricula for progressive education. Constructivist learning is experiential, group-centered, and discovery oriented. The teacher is more of a facilitator than a knowledgeable expert. And while I'm all for experiential learning, Dewey, and Piaget, I'm not necessarily a fan of the way their ideas have been used in developing curricula, particularly in math, and especially in the Discovering Math program.
Direct Instruction, on the other hand, comprises a range of teaching styles from rigidly scripted, step-by-step curricula like SRA Reading Mastery and Corrective Reading to the kind of lecturing all of us are or were exposed to, for better or worse, in high school and college classrooms. Direct Instruction therefore requires a knowledgeable expert who conveys his or her knowledge through verbal instruction.
Direct Instruction at it's worst is dry and didactic--my burnt-out high school American history teacher comes to mind. But it doesn't have to be. Our most memorable teachers from high school and college were more than group and experiential facilitators. They were passionately committed to their subjects and infected us with their enthusiasm and their love of their subject. And remember Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid? His teaching style was a bit unconventional, but it was a very effective and creative form of direct instruction by a master teacher.
If you want to learn piano, and if you have some musical talent and a lot of motivation and discipline, you could probably teach yourself to become a decent player. If you have athletic talent, you could probably do a decent job of teaching yourself golf--and have fun playing. But if the goal is to play piano or golf at a very high level, you will get there a lot faster if you have a good teacher to provide you with solid direct instruction and drills to develop the habits of mind and body that are necessary to play at that high level.
The great thing about civilization is that we don't all have to figure out for ourselves how to build a wheel or a fire. We learn from those who already know and who pass their knowledge on to us, and if we absorb and work with their instruction, we can attain a level of mastery much quicker than if we try to figure it out for ourselves.
This is particularly true when teaching anything that is part of a large, complex, rich subject matter with a tradition of best practices for doing it--like martial arts, law, biology, history, music, or math. The first step is to lay a solid foundation in fundamentals--later on in the process, you can allow the student to improvise or work more creatively. It's just common sense. You master the tradition's fundamentals and best practices first, then you can improvise or innovate or discover.
Here's the point: Direct Instruction is the way to go when there is subject matter students need to learn from those who already know and care about it. Direct instruction is particularly important at the beginning stages of learning when a solid foundation and good fundamentals are necessary for future learning. The experiential and discovery part are important too, but these experiences will be richer if there is a foundation in place to have experiences with a better chance not to miss the meaning.
Which kids are having the richer experience when they take that trip to Washington, D.C.? Those who are experiencing it without any knowledge of American history or those who have a good teacher who has already made American history come alive for them? Knowing something about the Civil War and the 600,000 killed in it makes a difference when you walk around Arlington Cemetery. Knowing something about the Constitution and the arguments and struggles to create it makes a difference when you visit the White House, the Supreme Court, and the Capitol building.
Both constructivist and direct instruction, obviously, have their place in any curriculum. In my classes at the UW, I use both. There are situations in which groups have powerful learning experiences when they work together to solve problems as a group. But I think we've all had group experiences that amounted to a little more than pooled ignorance or were dominated by one or two aggressive blowhards. Good teachers know how to adapt their teaching of the curriculum to different students and to different aspects of the curricula. I'm lucky because I have control over how to do that in my classroom. Public School teachers too often don't. One size does not fit all, but they are required to teach as if it does. And there are moments in any pedagogy when one approach is appropriate and the other just isn't.
The bottom line: Whether you have a Mr. Miyagi or Mr. Rogers, the only thing that matters is whether students are leaarning and loving to learn. That they are making progress and mastering the materials presented in a well-designed curriculum. The Discovering Math curriculum has been a disaster not because there isn't some interesting progressive pedagogical theory behind it. There is and I get it. It's a disaster because it doesn't produce the kind of learning that kids need to function at the next level.
It's unbalanced in the constructivist/experiential direction. The kids are not getting fundamentals and parents and volunteer tutors aren't able to work with the curricula to support the kids who are having trouble. It's not delivering kids who are ready to hit the ground running at the university level if they aspire to careers in engineering and the math-heavy sciences. The curve is being set by the kids from Asia or private schools or home schools, and as a result too many kids from public schools, even those who thought they were good in math, are finding that they can't compete. This is fundamental disservice to our kids. We need to have a math curriculum that does not require the parents who can afford it to send their kids to Kumon, and those who can't afford it--well tough luck.