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Re: [xmca] The Grip of "Direct Instruction"

I think that part of the argument that activity-based learning reduces college "attention spans" comes from the fact that after getting used to learning in meaningful activity contexts pre-college, students are then shoved back into the mother of all "direct instruction", i.e. the college lecture, and the boredom of it all is overwhelming and they are looking around for something else to do (surf the web, do email, chat, etc.). They have been "spoiled" for the utter idiocy of most lecture teaching. I imagine that many of them find their way around this eventually and make it into smaller seminar-style classes which are at least tolerable.

When I was at the U of Chicago as an undergrad (long long ago), all undergrad classes were in small discussion seminar sections with faculty (not grad students) and there might have been an occasional once-a-week lecture on some "extra" topic by a notable speaker. This was of course a VERY expensive mode of education, which someone paid a lot of money for me to enjoy. Some exceptions were made for introductory science classes, as the science faculty claimed to be just TOO busy to staff small sections, and besides there was nothing "discussable" in introductory science. Or so they said. I was a physics major and found it really hard to keep paying attention to equations scrolling down a blackboard, animated by chalk and talk. I am sure that my "attention span" for this had been adversely affected by the classes in which we had animated discussions of all my other subjects, and no chalkboards.

As to Calculus, there are at least three ways to learn it. By ingestion (and indigestion) of direct instruction, which enables you to perform the operations without understanding why you're doing it or why they work. By embedding it in abstract mathematical reasoning (cf. Anna Sfard), which enables you to think with and about calculus, but only as a matter of pure abstraction totally divorced from any application or use (or "transfer") to any "applied" (i.e. non-mathematics) domain. And by learning it as a tool to think with in the analysis of situations and problems in some concrete domain (like physics), which enables you to use it in that domain, imagine how it might be used in other such domains, but probably not be able to conceptualize it as "pure" mathematics or connect it to more abstract mathematical systems. 

I know because I learned it by the first two methods, and taught it by the third one. In my experience the first method produces the least results for the fewest students (but "passable" results for many), the second is totally impenetrable except for a vanishingly small minority who happen to have a very rare "habitus", and the third works pretty well for a high percentage of students from quite varied backgrounds, but (a) is rejected by math departments as not mathematical and (b) cannot compete in terms of "test results" per semester with the first method, largely because the tests are designed to show off masses of superficial "knowledge" and not knowledge-for-use. Method 3 can catch up with and surpass method #1, but it takes more time and more, expensive "discussion".


Jay Lemke
Research Scientist
Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition
University of California - San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, California 92093-0506

Adjunct Professor
School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

On Aug 14, 2010, at 4:01 PM, mike cole wrote:

> Thanks, David.
> If anyone is interested I can send draft of paper for APA. It is similar to
> my AERA address (but less interesting-- damned print!).
> Sure, crappy instruction can come from "we pretend to teach they pretend to
> learn" regimes. The examples I gave all have pretty good evidence in their
> favor and in many cases detailed differentiation of what gets cut out as a
> coherent program enters the sausage grinder.
> While I am certainly willing to believe that people get into Universities
> having acquired levels of learning that are very low ( I deal with transfer
> students from California colleges, and direct admitees into UCSD who cannot
> handle, for example, a book as complicated as *1984*, I do not believe that
> it is a plausible account of the average Canadian university's entering
> classes.
> Apropos, however, of your point. Recent news reports concerning unemployment
> indicate that there are a couple of hundred pretty well paid jobs going
> begging in the US right now because there is a dearth of people who can
> handle the work tasks. Not a new story -- one which puts many industries in
> the business of paying new employees to learn a lot before they start
> working.
> I'll read your paper with interest.
> mike
> On Sat, Aug 14, 2010 at 3:44 PM, David H Kirshner <dkirsh@lsu.edu> wrote:
>> Mike,
>> Thanks for sharing that anecdote.
>> Unfortunately there is a mirror image in reform teaching to the
>> dysfunctional portrait you presented of direct instruction of procedures
>> disconnected from meaning-making: engagement in activity with no vision
>> on the teacher's part of what or how learning is to be supported. I
>> think there is good evidence that the Math Wars in the US initiated not
>> from ideological resistance (that came later), but from true horror
>> stories of kids in dysfunctional reform classrooms, some of them getting
>> to college unprepared as learners (getting into college is not always a
>> sign of a successful K-12 learning experience). As a community, I don't
>> think we've done a good job of articulating what it is that makes
>> activity-based learning environments effective.
>> This was the topic of my AERA paper in May, "The Incoherence of
>> Contemporary Pedagogical Reform," which I attach in case anyone is
>> interested. (The meat of the paper starts about half way through at the
>> section titled "Theoretical Analysis.")
>> David
>> -----Original Message-----
>> From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [mailto:xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu]
>> On Behalf Of mike cole
>> Sent: Saturday, August 14, 2010 2:39 PM
>> To: eXtended Mind, Culture,Activity
>> Subject: [xmca] The Grip of "Direct Instruction"
>> Yesterday I presented a longish paper at the American Psych Association
>> meetings here in San Diego.
>> A lot of it was about what here I would refer to as "activity-based"
>> curriculum projects -- their virtues, problems, and apparent inability
>> to
>> gain traction against recitation scrips and direct instruction. A major
>> general finding was that when implemented as designers intend, such
>> program
>> work, but they tend quickly to be undermined by teachers who strongly
>> believe that direct instruction on elements not under control of a
>> meaningful whole is THE only way to be effective.
>> A person from Canada posed a question after prefacing her remarks by
>> saying
>> she agreed with all I said, and thank you, etc. She began by saying that
>> in
>> Canada such approaches had gained a lot of
>> traction in k-12 education, but they were causing a problem at the
>> university level. She phrased the problem roughly as follows: "We get a
>> lot
>> of students who are great at collaborative learning, but it appears to
>> strip
>> them of their attention spans. And, doesn't a subject like calculus
>> direct instruction?"
>> These comments/questions knocked me over. I have long disliked the
>> discourse
>> of short attention span in school kids, which appears to masquerade far
>> too
>> often as a proxy for "the kids will not sit still and control themselves
>> doing stuff they do not understand and do not understand why they should
>> try
>> to understand."
>> But I never expected that the the charge of "reduced attention spans"
>> would
>> be attributed to college students (who have succeeded in getting in to
>> college, after all) with the causal factor inducing this "deficit" being
>> that their former (successful) modes of learning engendered by
>> activity-centered instruction). Moreover, I was surprised that anyone
>> believes that calculus can be taught by "direct instruction" with no
>> effort
>> made to subordinate procedural knowledge to knowledge of the potential
>> motives for learning.
>> I think I was experiencing exactly the challenges confronting the many
>> really interesting and successful innovators in education (we might
>> start
>> here with Dewey, but I have in mind modern scholars) who want to make
>> education a meaningful process to students but who find that their
>> efforts
>> are rapidly deconstructed once they leave the home ground.
>> Anyone else have observations of this kind?
>> mike
>> Two things struck me
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