Saturday, March 31, 2007

Good Study, Poor Terminology

ScienceDaily: Kids Learn Words Best By Working Out Meaning:

During the inference trial, Brinster showed the youngsters both familiar and strange objects (for instance, a ball and a plumber's "T" connector). After saying a nonsense word ("blicket," for instance), she would ask them to either point to or grab hold of the "matching" item. Since a ball is a "ball," the children might conclude that the unfamiliar object — the "T" — was the "blicket".

In the direct instruction trial, the child was simply shown an unfamiliar item and heard the nonsense word.

A short while later, Brinster would invite the children to play with typical, familiar toys in the Lab's waiting area. During the relaxed play period, she would bring out a "blicket" or a "dax" that the children had seen during the trial, and ask the youngsters a question.

"For instance, I might say, 'I think one of these is called 'blicket,' but I can't remember which one it is. Can you help me? Do you know which one is the 'blicket?'" Brinster said. "This way, I could ascertain how well they learned the word. Once we analyzed all of our data, it was clear that inference worked best."
The article, based on a study by undergraduate researcher Meredith Brinster at the Johns Hopkins University Laboratory for Child Development, compares the effects of learning by "inference" compared to "direct instruction". I question whether the use of the term "direct instruction" is appropriate, considering that the term "direct instruction" is commonly used to refer to a specific pedagogy.

According to Zig Engelmann, who is the father of "Direct Instruction", instruction must be "logically faultless",

Faultless Communication (Faultless Instruction): A sequence of instruction, frequently involving examples and non-examples in a well-crafted order, which logically leads to an accurate communication of the concept and eliminates the possibility of confusion.

For an example of faultless communication, please see http://psych.athabascau.ca/html/387/OpenModules/Engelmann/theory.shtml

Using the term direct instruction to describe simply giving a positive example as opposed to giving a negative example, overly simplifies the term, especially since true direct instruction would also include logical inference as described in the study.

My concern is that the work could be taken out of context to argue against a curriculum that has proven to be successful at raising the achievement of low SES students.

(I emailed the student, Meredith Brinster, mentioned in the study, to see if I could get a copy of the paper, and to express my concerns about terminology.)

8 comments:

CrypticLife said...

I am somewhat concerned about the methodology of this study. While it's certainly a clever idea, if the article is correct then she may be seeing an effect other than "inference".

" During the inference trial, Brinster showed the youngsters both familiar and strange objects (for instance, a ball and a plumber's "T" connector). After saying a nonsense word ("blicket," for instance), she would ask them to either point to or grab hold of the "matching" item. Since a ball is a "ball," the children might conclude that the unfamiliar object — the "T" — was the "blicket".

In the direct instruction trial, the child was simply shown an unfamiliar item and heard the nonsense word."

The "direct instruction" trial she gives is entirely passive, whereas the inference trial involves an actual action. Clearly, the kids could simply be ignoring the experimenter in the passive trial, while in the active trial they're asked to act.

It's also a bit unclear what she does with kids who do NOT pick up the inference (after all, it says the kids "might" conclude the name of the unfamiliar item. What if they don't? Does she drop them from the study? If so, she's selecting out the kids better able to make inferences. I'm sure she has something about this in her writeup.

She's picked a great area of research, however, and I suspect exploring it could fill an entire career easily. I'm also heartened by her experimental bent, given the number of psychologists who enjoy pure bs.

Parentalcation said...

I am completely prepared to accept the premise of her experiment on the complexity level that it was performed at, but further studies need to add in more complexity.

Regardless, the only pedagogy that directly uses this principle on a systematic basis in Direct Instruction, as illustrated by my linked example.

Its any attempt to link this experiment to a "project" based curriculum that I have problems with.

rightwingprof said...

If you get a copy, I'd like to see it. I'm somewhat dubious, since this is an undergrad paper. Don't get me wrong; there are very bright undergrads. But very few are trained in conducting research, because even in the physical sciences, a BS is not a research degree. I did research for my undergrad honors thesis, and it's embarrassing to think about it today, just because I was an undergrad and nobody taught me how to do research.

JM said...

Here's the part that I found most interesting:

"While we know that active engagement is the key to rapid learning," he said, "Meredith's result suggesting that knowledge gained via a child's own inferences is sometimes more powerful and longer lasting than knowledge gained through instruction may have powerful repercussions for how we teach new material. These implications have yet to be explored, but this first result is tantalizing."

Isn't this one of the rationales for using whole word/whole language/whatever they call it - that the child is "actively engaged" in discerning meaning, as opposed to doing mere decoding? So what happens if the "knowledge gained via a child's own inferences" is wrong? What if the "knowledge" is that a word that looks kind of like "conflagration" is pronounced "congregation"? What's the likelihood then that the child will always confuse those two words and any other word that begins with "con," ends in "tion" and has some other letters in between?

Mr. Person said...

Great find! Do let us know if you get the full article.

The researcher (if, indeed, she uses the phrase "direct instruction" to describe the non-inference treatment) is likely unaware of Engelmann's work and simply uses the phrase to contrast it with the inference treatment.

I think it's important that the subjects in the study were all under the age of 2.

CrypticLife said...

mr. person,

The subjects are "36 to 42 months." Last I checked, that was 3 to three and a half. At least, assuming calendar months.

Not a victim of whole math, are you? :)

Mr. Person said...

My mistake. I switched the numbers in 42, I think. I would still consider the age of the subjects here important.

Parentalcation said...

It seems to me that the study will have the greatest impact in those studying volcabulary acquistion in toddlers and preschoolers, but the general gist of the articles was that it was being extrapolated to cover how people learn all information.

The study is so simply designed, its hard for me to see much real life application, especially with regard to education in K-5.