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

Hey Mike Coole,

I for one would very much like to see a draft of your APA paper, if you please.

I'm trying to figure out how your Canadian interlocutor comes to the inference that the collaborative learning per se, as it were, is acting as "intellectual Borax", stripping students of their attention spans.  How could such a thing work, in principle, I wonder?  Seems more likely to me, in any case, that having had first-hand experience with successful learning using collaboration and other more activity-based methods gives students a healthy skepticism about the value of "direct instruction for its own sake", especially when the latter is manifested in the form of a not-very-skillfully-executed lecture.  What, precisely, does my inability to pay attention to a badly designed lecture say about my attention span?  Did this woman, one wonders, really have her "scientific thinking cap" on when coming to these conclusions?

As for good ol' calculus, it just so happens that I have a personal story -- a slightly sad one -- to tell.  I was as happy as a clam, learning calculus quite successfully as an "autodidact" during my senior year of high school, and I entered college very much excited to take a "Real Calculus Course" taught by a Real Calculus Professor so I could really go racing forward in this wonderful subject.  As it turned out, Direct Instruction in Calculus, in my freshman year in college, all but killed my love of mathematics; I barely survived the course, escaping with a C+, which stands to this day as my lowest grade ever in a math course or any other course (OK, I also got a C+ in an Anthro course, but that's it).  My love for mathematics survived, thankfully ... but it really didn't come all the way back until I taught myself group theory approximately eight years after my Freshman Calculus Direct Instruction Disaster.

There does seem to be some very strongly entrenched pedagogical folklore to the effect that Some Subjects Require Direct Instruction, or at least, Some Subjects Necessitate More Direct Instruction Than Others, but it's never been clear to me what the provenance of this folklore is, or what the logic of it is based on.  I certainly don't buy any of it; and in the case of calculus, a strongly favored example used to illustrate the folklore by its advocates (I think of Al Manaster from UCSD lecturing me about this, no pun intended), I have direct personal evidence strongly to the contrary.


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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