Student-centred activities are effective for most 1st graders, but not for low achievers

It’s the current view of many thinkers on education: education should be student-centred. A new study by Morgan, Farkas and Maczuga looks at possible correlations between what teachers (in the study in the US) report in surveys of their teaching practices and achievement of different groups of children in mathematics. The study found that first-grade teachers in classrooms with higher percentages of students with mathematics difficulties (MD) were more likely to be using ineffective instructional practices with these students. And those practices were often student-centred. (Looking at this quote from Hattie & Yates not that surprising actually.)

A round up of the research in this video:

From the press release:

The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health, found that first-grade teachers in classrooms with higher percentages of students with MD were more likely to be using ineffective instructional practices with these students.

When first-grade classes had larger percentages of students with MD, their teachers were more often using non-traditional instructional practices, in which students use manipulatives, calculators, movement, and music to learn mathematics. The researchers found these types of practices were not associated with achievement gains. These practices were ineffective for both MD and non-MD students.

Instead, the researchers found that only use by first-grade teachers of more traditional, teacher-directed instruction — in which teachers used textbooks, worksheets, chalkboards, and routine practice to instruct students in mathematics facts, skills, and concepts — was associated with achievement gains for students with MD.

According to study findings, the most effective instructional practice that first-grade teachers could use for students with MD was to provide them with routine practice and drill opportunities to learn mathematics. The findings held true for first-grade students who had shown either persistent or transitory MD in kindergarten. Results were extensively controlled for students’ prior mathematics and reading achievement, family income, and other factors.

“Use by first-grade teachers of non-teacher-directed instruction is surprising and troubling, given our findings and what prior research has shown about the instructional needs of students with MD,” said lead study author Paul L. Morgan. “It suggests that first-grade teachers are mismatching their instruction to the learning needs of students with MD.”

Our findings suggest that students with MD are more likely to benefit from more traditional, explicit instructional practices,” Morgan said, “This is particularly the case for students who are more likely to persistently struggle to learn mathematics.”

“Effectively instructing students with MD at an early age matters immensely to their future academic achievement and opportunities in life,” said Morgan. “We know that students who continue struggling to learn mathematics in the primary grades are highly likely to continue to struggle throughout elementary school. Others have reported that students who subsequently complete high school with relatively low mathematics achievement are more likely to be unemployed or paid lower wages, even if they have relatively higher reading skills.”

For students without a history of MD, teacher-directed instruction is also associated with achievement gains. However, unlike their schoolmates with MD, the mathematics achievement for these students is also associated with some, but not all, types of student-centered instruction, which focuses on giving students opportunities to be actively involved in generating mathematical knowledge. Student-centered activities associated with achievement gains by first graders without MD include working on problems with several solutions, peer tutoring, and activities involving real-life math. Students without MD benefited about equally well from either more traditional teacher-directed instruction or less traditional student-centered instruction.

While previous research has identified instructional practices that can be used by elementary school teachers to increase reading achievement for those with and without reading difficulties, very few empirical studies have tried to identify instructional practices being used by teachers that are effective in increasing the mathematics achievement of their students with and without MD.

For their study, the researchers analyzed survey responses from 3,635 teachers and data from a subsample of 13,393 children in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99, a nationally representative dataset maintained by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Abstract of the research:

We used population-based, longitudinal data to investigate the relation between mathematics instructional practices used by first-grade teachers in the United States and the mathematics achievement of their students. Factor analysis identified four types of instructional activities (i.e., teacher-directed, student-centered, manipulatives/calculators, movement/music) and eight types of specific skills taught (e.g., adding two-digit numbers). First-grade students were then classified into five groups on the basis of their fall and/or spring of kindergarten mathematics achievement—three groups with mathematics difficulties (MD) and two without MD. Regression analysis indicated that a higher percentage of MD students in the first-grade classrooms were associated with greater use by teachers of manipulatives/calculators and movement/music to teach mathematics. Yet follow-up analysis for each of the MD and non-MD groups indicated that only teacher-directed instruction was significantly associated with the achievement of students with MD (covariate-adjusted effect sizes [ESs] = .05–.07). The largest predicted effect for a specific instructional practice was for routine practice and drill. In contrast, for both groups of non-MD students, teacher-directed and student-centered instruction had approximately equal, statistically significant positive predicted effects (covariate-adjusted ESs = .03–.04). First-grade teachers in the United States may need to increase their use of teacher-directed instruction if they are to raise the mathematics achievement of students with MD.

4 thoughts on “Student-centred activities are effective for most 1st graders, but not for low achievers

  1. From the original article:
    “Of the 13,393 (unweighted) children in the sample, 2,486 did and 10,907 did not have a prior history of MD, as measured by their scores in the fall and spring of kindergarten. (Note that the sampled children falling in the bottom 15% of the weighted distributions constituted more than 15% of the analytical sample because over-sam- pled groups of children tended to have below- average test scores.) These students attended 3,635 classrooms in 1,338 schools.”

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