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

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.)