As I’ve written before, replacing explicit instruction (not just lecturing, but a scaffolded combination of interactive modeling, questioning, and practice) with fun but trivial activities is not the key to students’ hearts. If anything, this causes disillusionment and resentment. Kids are smart enough to recognize that their education is being wasted.

In this post, I’d like to take you through three real examples from my schooling of teachers whose experimental methods effectively robbed us of the opportunity to learn. Enjoy!

1. The Role Play Teacher

I once had a high school history teacher who taught everything by role play. We’d read a text about our roles and then act it out – often in the format of a public hearing. This was fun for about ten minutes, but the serious students wanted more, while the laggards lagged and the loafers loafed. 11 mins in, we’d end up asking the teacher to, please, teach us something about the subject.

But he didn’t want to. He thought we were nuts for asking for a lecture… as if the education system had ruined our ability to think for ourselves. It was only when we became totally frustrated by his “new” form of instruction that he would relent and try to teach us something. Once he did, it was often far too late. “Why were we making stuff up about the Aztecs this whole time,” we’d whisper to our table partners, “when there’re actually well-known facts out there that he could have told us in advance?”

The whole role play scheme felt like a sham because it was novices attempting to construct a house by starting at the roof rather than with a solid foundation of knowledge. If only this teacher had received training in cognitive science and learned the uncontroversial fact that one’s ability to think creatively and critically is highly dependent on prior knowledge of a domain.

2. The “Student-Centered” Teacher

I had a middle school math teacher, let’s call her Ms. Y, who “facilitated” a criminally unstructured classroom. Students were meant to launch our own investigations, pursue our own interests (even if it wasn’t math) and turn in assignments as we saw fit. I spent an embarrassing amount of class time learning how to play various card games, an activity that Ms. Y saw as an adequate substitute for “real math.” For homework, she thought up a scheme where, as long as you managed to get your name at the top of your paper, you’d get credit for it. How empathetic! How student-centered! It wasn’t until she realized half-way through the year that all we were doing was putting our names at the top of our papers that she changed tack.

Despite us all receiving A’s in her class, we left feeling cheated out of an education, and I can’t help but blame her interpretation of “student-centeredness” for the struggles I had in math class for the remainder of my schooling. If only Ms. Y had known about the research on student judgments and beliefs about teaching and learning, which shows that students don’t always choose modes of instruction or learning activities that help them learn. My own dissertation research confirmed this.

3. The Hands-On Teacher

The third teacher, let’s call her Ms. Clarke, is someone I’ve written about before. She’s particularly memorable because she replaced my regular science teacher (who used explicit instruction) midway through the year when the three 1st grade teachers decided to rotate students between them for science, social studies, and art.

While my regular classroom teacher (Ms. Wee) would use masterful storytelling and lengthy guided practice at the board before she would ever have us engage in hands-on activities, Ms. Clarke had other ideas of how students learn. She would begin most lessons by passing out science materials without explaining what they were for, and by the time they were finished being distributed, several students experienced having theirs taken away due to inappropriate touching. When we were finally given the go-ahead to mess about with the materials, it wasn’t immediately clear to what end. Eventually, and almost begrudgingly, Ms. Clarke would halt our hands-on play to teach us what we were supposed to have discovered, stopping often to reprimand students who couldn’t handle listening while seated in front of colorful materials. Half of the class sat with our backs to the board and many of us misbehaved. Having never managed to find myself in trouble in Ms. Wee’s class, I was now in danger of being sent into the hallway or to the principal’s office each time we rotated into Ms. Clarke’s class.

This wasn’t the science that I had grown to love, I remember thinking. In Ms. Clarke’s class we “do science” but end up doing it wrong, and in Ms. Wee’s class we “learn science” and then feel like world class scientists when we applied these learnings to practical work. If only Ms. Clarke had known the difference between “behaviorally active” and “cognitively active”, or that the way scientists generate new knowledge is not an appropriate substitute for classical training in science.


I hope that these three case studies, spanning the subjects of history, math, and science, illustrate a point and get you thinking about how you want to design instruction this year. My reading of the evidence supports explicit models of instruction where a teacher leads the learning at the beginning, and gradually fades instructional supports as students master the material. Cognitive load theory supports this form of teaching. But the debate, which I have a whole podcast about, rages on. If you’re interested in why we should assume the traditional role of subject matter expert and actually teach stuff, I recommend checking out my interview with Jasmine Lane.

2 thoughts on “Playing Around with Kids’ Education

  1. I just happened upon this page and am glad I did. I’ve retired from my first career early and am looking at elementary education for my next. The licensure program here will send me into a classroom as a paid full time teacher before the first course in the MAT program. Add to that these course teach a progressive style of learning that I’m not convinced is even effective, I’m looking for evidence based teaching methods to learn prior to walking into the classroom for the first time. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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