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

Send one to me also, please, Mike.
- Steve

On Aug 15, 2010, at 10:05 AM, mike cole wrote:

I'll send along the draft paper, Jerry.
My speculation concerning the "attention span" argument is the same as yours and Jay's: students who have gotten involved in active learning and been successful doing it are badly turned off by transmission teaching in large classrooms with little feedback. They display "short attention" spans which at least one of their professors interprets is a deep disposition brought
about by the hidden failures of activity-centered, motivating, and
agency-distributing activity-based instruction (with the caveat from David K
not to lump all non-direct-instruction into a virtuous clump).

It was primarily the willingness to make such deep disposition claims with the idea that it was now up to the college to teach attention span, that
were the focus on my amazement in the discussion I reported.

On Sat, Aug 14, 2010 at 10:30 PM, Jerry Balzano <gjbalzano@ucsd.edu> wrote:

Hey Mike Coole,

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

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

Apropos, however, of your point. Recent news reports concerning
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

I'll read your paper with interest.

On Sat, Aug 14, 2010 at 3:44 PM, David H Kirshner <dkirsh@lsu.edu> wrote:


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.")


-----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


gain traction against recitation scrips and direct instruction. A major

general finding was that when implemented as designers intend, such


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


she agreed with all I said, and thank you, etc. She began by saying that


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


of students who are great at collaborative learning, but it appears to


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


of short attention span in school kids, which appears to masquerade far


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


to understand."

But I never expected that the the charge of "reduced attention spans"


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


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


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


are rapidly deconstructed once they leave the home ground.

Anyone else have observations of this kind?


Two things struck me


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