The University of Chicago Magazine April 1996
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Joe Layng Believes Education is a Science

Layng drops in on first graders in a direct-instruction reading session at Herzl Elementary School; practice with math worksheets helps Malcolm X College students to solidify their skills.


much of Layng's work inexperimental and educational settings over the past 27 years. By applying "thelearning sciences"--as opposed to "the educational arts"--to determine howpeople learn and how best to teach, Layng has won friends and stirredcontroversy in Chicago education circles.

At Malcolm X College, one of Chicago's City Colleges, the Layng-developedPersonalized Curriculum Institute (PCI) won the 1995-96 Illinois CommunityCollege Board award for teaching excellence. It also en-couraged 15 Chicagopublic schools to ask Malcolm X's help in starting similar programs. Theenthusiasm is based on results that show adults enrolling in the PCI withskills at the ninth-grade level and leaving a semester later, ready for collegecourses. And in PCI-inspired elementary school programs, first-graders whomight otherwise not read at all zip loudly and confidently through stories andworkbooks. Yet Layng's behaviorist methodology also invites dissension amongeducators wary that such techniques reduce thinking to rote memorization andconstrain student and teacher creativity. Layng refutes them with a stack ofacademic articles and, more importantly, with the work of his students.

Knowledge is like Swiss cheese. It's an analogy that Layng, Malcolm X'sdirector of academic support, often makes. His job is to plug the holes. Histool of choice is the Morningside Model of Generative Instruction, firstdeveloped by friend and colleague Kent Johnson at Seattle's MorningsideAcademy, a school for "learning-disabled" (Layng doesn't believe in the label)children that Johnson founded in 1981. The two men frequently modify the modelbased on data from their classrooms, dropping whatever students don't respondto. Layng and his wife, a doctoral student in educational psychology, have usedit to supplement their 4- and 9-year-old sons' schooling.

"A melting pot of learner-verified instructional practices," as Layng describesit, the model incorporates a number of techniques developed by behavioristeducators: direct instruction, fluency-building, precision teaching, and"talk-aloud" problem-solving methods. Direct instruction, the best-knowntechnique, has been hotly contested since its inception in the 1960s.

Direct instruction uses specially-designed programs that break concepts intotheir most basic pieces and present those pieces in sequence. Students mustmaster one piece before proceeding to the next, but they skip over things theyalready know to avoid wasting time. Teachers stand at the board and use ascript from which they cannot deviate; students are required to give answers inunison at a rate of about ten per minute. Teachers provide instant correctionsand feedback. In fact, in this early stage no homework is assigned, so thatstudents can't make mistakes without realizing it.

In response, many educators object that direct instruction is merely themindless parroting of phrases and numbers drilled into students. Studentstaught by such techniques may be able to pass a test, but can they retain theirknowledge? And how will such students respond in a situation that requiresanalytical or independent thought?

Addressing these criticisms before they're even raised, Layng has obviouslyheard them all many times before. He doesn't hesitate to hammer home hisconviction that direct instruction works, and works well, for every subject andfor every student.

Each "objectionable" aspect of direct instruction's presentation has value, heargues. For instance, he says, the noisy, fast-paced call-and-response is thebest way to involve all of a classroom's learners. "Typically, if you ask aquestion, the people who know it are the ones who raise their hands....Whatwe're trying to do is get them all to respond at once so everybody isresponding and interacting with the teacher at the same time." Even better, "assoon as they start responding, they see themselves succeeding" and startfeeling "enjoyment and satisfaction" in school. Regarding the scripts used bythe teachers, Layng insists that they're necessary to limit variations inlanguage that can confuse students just learning a concept. "Teachers can bevery creative--but all creativity, just like all mutations, is not good for thecreatures. The fact that you're creative doesn't make it effective." As forwhether direct instruction's gains hold down the line, Layng points to ProjectFollow Through, a federally funded effort to determine what teaching methodsare most effective for at-risk students. After looking over eight- to ten-yearfollow-up studies on the direct instruction groups, the Follow Through reviewpanel labeled the groups all "exemplary."

But direct instruction occupies only about 15 percent of a typicalMorningside-style class period. About 70 percent is spent working on buildingfluency. According to Layng, fluency in math, for instance, means that studentsnot only can add correctly, but they can do it so quickly and easily that itbecomes second nature--and can be readily called upon when they move toadvanced skills like algebra. To that end, the Morningside Model requires thatstudents, with a teacher's supervision, sprint the same way athletes do,testing their abilities in short intervals. Then students practice with eachother, covering more ground and building their endurance. And--following thetechniques of precision teaching, another model component--they monitor theirown progress by marking lessons learned and speed established on posted wallcharts. If students don't hit their targets, they confer with their teachersand determine what concepts still need work. After they reach their goals andmove on--students proceed at their own pace--they're tested on what theylearned earlier in the semester, to check on retention. As students progress,they study more by themselves--at school and home--and spend more time onanalytical reasoning and writing, working through problems by speaking theirthought processes out loud.

The reason for students' rapid progress with the Morningside Model, Layng says,is a process he calls contingency adduction, which he explored as a graduatestudent in the U of C's Behavior Analysis Research Laboratory. Contingencyadduction in-volves involuntarily making an intuitive leap, linking basicconcepts in a much more complex thought process to respond to the demands of anew environment. In their work with pigeons, he and Israel Goldiamond,PhD'55--the lab's head and Layng's thesis adviser, who died in November1995--found that pigeons trained in basic skills could develop tit-for-tatstrategies on their own and teach them to each other. Layng is not shy aboutapplying this observation to humans as well. "Here at Malcolm X College," heexplains, "we found that if you teach students whole-number problem solving,and fraction computation at certain frequencies...they can solve fractionproblems without being trained to do so." Thus the Morningside Model ofGenerative Instruction.

Layng's bookish talk and behavioralistic beliefs could make him seem cold if itweren't for his self-deprecating humor and the underlying passion he brings tohis work. Interrupting his own grimly serious delivery, Layng readily cracksjokes with a hearty laugh. One of his philosophies of life is "nothing beatsfun." But he knows fun isn't always easy to find, and part of his passion stemsfrom his desire for children, his own in particular, to have a better world inwhich to grow up. Education, he thinks, is the key. And, he admits, his owneducational biography has influenced his endeavors.

As a child growing up in Illinois, Layng moved with his family from one town toanother--an experience that perpetually put him in a "catch-up" situation atschool. In need of instruction on the mechanics of studying and note-taking,Layng instead received lectures on the need to "apply" himself. He explored hisinterests on his own time, reading Plutarch's Parallel Lives and Plato'sRepublic before entering high school. But that didn't stop his 12th-gradechemistry teacher from flunking him for a "bad attitude," forcing him to go tosum-mer school for his high-school diploma.

With thoughts of studying English or political science, Layng entered RockValley College, a community college in Rockford. After a year--the year when hediscovered behavioral psychology--he transferred to Western Illinois Universityin 1969. He entered as a sophomore and left four years later--still asophomore, having been too caught up in the activism of the time to attend manyclasses. As part of the attempts to shake up the campus, the studentgovernment, of which Layng was a member, pushed for classroom changes andestablished the short-lived Centre for Innovative Design and ProgrammedInstruction. Layng ran the center, developing teaching programs based on hisself-taught knowledge of instructional-design science. When University ofIllinois at Chicago professors Susan Markle and Philip Tiemann came to Westernto speak on instructional-design science, they took an interest in Layng'swork, helped him to refine some of his ideas and procedures, and introduced himto Israel Goldiamond, whom Layng calls "one of the great geniuses of ourtime."

Goldiamond invited Layng to workshops and panels and later to his classes atthe U of C. In 1973, Layng left Western and took a job as a mental-healthworker at Northwestern's Institute of Psychiatry. Not until 1978 did he receivehis bachelor's degree--from Governors State University, where he'd never takena class. A state program allowed Layng to apply life experience to his degree,fill out the paperwork at the nearest school in the program, and pick up hisfinal credits while also earning his master's degree from the University ofHouston, Clear Lake. At Houston, realizing he still lacked the skills tosucceed in a regular college curriculum, Layng used instructional-designprograms in math and composition on himself. With Goldiamond's encouragement,Layng applied to the U of C's graduate program in biopsychology in 1979.Throughout the '80s, he alternated time in the lab with full-time jobs,including several years as president of an educational- and graphics-softwarefirm. In 1991, he joined Malcolm X and, encouraged by the administration, begana pilot project, a summer program for students weak in math, a.k.a. "AcademicStorm: The Mother of All Summer Programs." Though the name was tongue-in-cheek,the intent was dead serious.

The challenge Layng faced was to build students' skills to college level, butto do so quickly, before they became discouraged and dropped out. AcademicStorm served as the foundation for a Precollege Institute, begun in fall 1991for students who registered at Malcolm X but had reading skills below thesixth-grade level. Now called the Personalized Curriculum Institute, theprogram has expanded to teach all underprepared applicants--Malcolm X has anopen-admissions policy--in various levels of math, reading, and writing.Approximately 700 students pass through the PCI each year. Classes meet 90minutes per day per subject, four days a week.

Layng directs his visitor to a PCI math class. A gray-haired man sits at thefront and, with his teacher's help, isolates the x variable in whole-numberproblems such as x+5=9. Timers sound off shrilly at odd intervals: The otherstudents are fluency-building with problem worksheets. A walk across the hallfinds two young adults at a second-grade reading level struggling through apassage about a rabbit, learning to distinguish between "hop" and "hope."Around the corner, students in a more advanced class pair off to read aloud andthen retell stories. They're trying to speed up to 200 words per minute;they're also working on accurately recalling and understanding what they'veread.

One of the Institute's advanced reading students, 19-year-old ReginaldWilkerson, admits, "At first I thought it was kind of little-kiddie," citingthe use of workbooks and the teacher's scripted presentation. But Wilkerson--inhis first semester at Malcolm X--says that after a few weeks the class hadbroadened his vocabulary and made English-class assignments easier to followand understand.

His teacher, Patricia Miller, enthuses, "The students are very happy, verypleased with themselves. They go to other classes and come back and tell me howwell they're doing." Miller, who also teaches expressive and advanced writing,adds: "They come in not knowing the meaning of words or how to concentrate. Weteach them to stop, focus, and imagine."

In a sample of 50 students who took the College Board placement exam lastspring upon applying to Malcolm X, 36 percent who took the reading exam, 96percent of those taking the math exam, and all of those taking the writing examplaced into Malcolm X's for-credit program after only one semester in the PCI.Layng's early data shows that after one year, 76 percent of PCI graduates arestill in college and maintaining a grade-point average of 2.4 or higher. Theprogram's success has led the City Colleges' chancellor to investigateextending the model to the six other City Colleges. Even more exciting to Layngare the positive results his methods have achieved in Chicago's troubled publicschools.

Theodore Herzl Elementary School signed on in October with a class of secondgraders who couldn't read; since then, even kindergarteners in the West Sideschool have begun to read. "We realized the programs we were using were noteffective for the majority of our students," principal Betty Green franklystates. Now, as she watches first graders read aloud together as their teacherclaps along, Green comments, "They read so well, and we owe it all to directinstruction." Both students and teachers, she says, have taken to the newmethod: The teachers voluntarily get together every morning an hour beforeclasses to practice on each other.

Herzl is just one of 13 elementary and middle schools and two high schools inwhich Layng--along with Malcolm X and University of Oregon faculty andstaff--have implemented academic programs over the past three years. Thoughonly direct instruction has been applied in the lower grades, the MorningsideModel--still more time-intensive and complicated to set in place--is being usedto bring older students up to their respective grade levels. Much of thefunding has come from the White Sox Charities, though the programs now alsoreceive substantial monetary support from the Chicago school system itself.

The most important problem to be addressed in the Chicago schools, according toLayng, is that so many children enter school without the language skills theyneed even to function in a classroom, let alone study. Many, Layng says, can'tgive their first and last names or have never spoken in a complete sentence.Students labeled as slow because of low IQ scores actually just don't have theskills to perform on what are essentially language tests, he says, adding thatone year of direct instruction in language can improve an IQ score by 16percent. "We don't have to write people off," Layng emphasizes. "I like tothink that our new science is a science of hope."

Layng's visionary zeal extends beyond the Chicago public schools to thoughts ofstarting his own school. He and Morningside's Kent Johnson hope one day tofound a school where they can train doctoral-level students in theirtechniques. For Layng, it could be another successful melting pot, a truesynthesis of his odysseys in research, academe, and education.

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