FAQ – Direct Instruction

This series of posts tackles some common issues that keep arising as I write about education.


You have described yourself as an advocate of ‘explicit instruction’. Is this the same thing as ‘direct instruction’ and, if so, why not use that term?


Discussing definitions is boring but sometimes necessary. Unfortunately, the term ‘direct instruction’ is ambiguous. I am going to follow Barak Rosenshine here in the way that I deal with this issue but, even then, it is worth noting that Zig Engelmann vehemently disagrees with Rosenshine. Basically, the term ‘direct instruction’ is fraught.

Rosenshine identifies no less than five meanings of ‘direct instruction’.

1. Academic instruction that is led by a teacher regardless of the quality of instruction.

2. The instructional procedures that were used by effective teachers in the teacher effects research.

3. Instructional procedures used by teachers when they taught cognitive strategies to students.

4. Instructional procedures used in the Distar (Direct Instruction Systems in Arithmetic and Reading) programs.

5. Instruction where direct instruction is portrayed in negative terms such as settings where the teacher lectures and the students sit passively.

The teacher effects research that Rosenshine identifies in Type 2 is the process-product research conducted from roughly the 1950s through to the end of the 1970s. Many people are unaware of this research because it seems to have gone out of fashion. Rosenshine has written an accessible article here that describes the features of this kind of instruction.

It is broadly this kind of direct instruction that I am referring to when I advocate ‘explicit instruction’. However, I also sometimes extend the meaning into Type 1, particularly when discussing the kind of large-scale correlational study described in this paper.

Type 3 is a specific kind of direct instruction aimed at teaching things like reading comprehension strategies. Although I am sceptical about the benefits of spending extended time on such instruction (see Willingham), I think this demonstrates that, even when the learning objective is somehow ‘higher order’, direct and explicit approaches are superior.

I do not directly advocate Type 4 Distar programs. However, I view these as a particular form of explicit instruction. I am intrigued by their adoption in Cape York and by some of the unique features of these programs – such as the scripting of lessons – and I think that, through Project Follow Through, they provide empirical evidence to support explicit instruction more generally.

Type 5 is the sort of direct instruction that people set-up in experiments when they want to prove that it’s ineffective. Typically, this kind of direct instruction is non-interactive. The problem here is that there are no mechanisms to ensure student attention. Some commentators tend to refer me to studies where traditional university lectures are compared to ‘active’ learning – which is often something as simple as adding the use of ‘clickers’ to the lectures – and then claim this is evidence against direct instruction and/or in favour of constructivism. It is worth noting that, in contrast, Type 2, 3 and 4 direct instruction are all highly interactive.

A good example of Type 5 direct instruction may be found in this paper.


FAQ – Constructivism

This series of posts tackles some common issues that keep arising as I write about education.


Why do you write about constructivism as if it is a theory of teaching when it is actually a theory of learning?


It is true that constructivism is a theory of learning or, more properly, a set of learning theories. In essence, constructivists suggest that we learn by relating new knowledge to what we already know. In schema theory, knowledge is organised in the mind within interrelated schema rather than a flat system of files such as in a filing cabinet.

I find this relatively uncontroversial although I disagree with those who argue for a more postmodernist interpretation; that all that actually exists are different people’s perceptions as represented by these schema; that there is no external reality. That seems quite mad. But if constructivism, more broadly, is true then it must describe how we learn whether we are reading, watching a lecture, solving a problem or are engaged in a debate.

Yet some educators really do draw implications for specific teaching methods from constructivist theory. It is these methods that I am generally arguing against because I find the evidence in favour of them to be weak.

For instance, in this article for ASCD, constructivism is defined as having five properties:

  • First, constructivist teachers seek and value students’ points of view. Knowing what students think about concepts helps teachers formulate classroom lessons and differentiate instruction on the basis of students’ needs and interests.
  • Second, constructivist teachers structure lessons to challenge students’ suppositions. All students, whether they are 6 or 16 or 60, come to the classroom with life experiences that shape their views about how their worlds work. When educators permit students to construct knowledge that challenges their current suppositions, learning occurs. Only through asking students what they think they know and why they think they know it are we and they able to confront their suppositions.
  • Third, constructivist teachers recognize that students must attach relevance to the curriculum. As students see relevance in their daily activities, their interest in learning grows.
  • Fourth, constructivist teachers structure lessons around big ideas, not small bits of information. Exposing students to wholes first helps them determine the relevant parts as they refine their understandings of the wholes.
  • Finally, constructivist teachers assess student learning in the context of daily classroom investigations, not as separate events. Students demonstrate their knowledge every day in a variety of ways. Defining understanding as only that which is capable of being measured by paper-and-pencil assessments administered under strict security perpetuates false and counterproductive myths about academia, intelligence, creativity, accountability, and knowledge.

Some of this is clearly just a grab for apple-pie statements. The idea that constructivist teachers value students’ points of view is a bit like saying that they favour treating students with respect, the implication being that it’s those nasty non-constructivist teachers who don’t care what students think.

But there are other statements that set-out a clear agenda. The requirement for ‘relevance’ places a barrier to the selection of abstract curriculum items such as the Ancient Egyptians, quadratic equations or romantic poetry. I would characterise this as constructivism’s commitment to the mundane and commonplace.

We can also see that teaching must proceed from the whole-to-the-part rather than from the part-to-the-whole. My reading of the evidence is that this is actually a poor way to build robust schema and so it is not necessarily something implied by constructivist learning theory. And yet, here it is, stated as such.

Finally, we have the requirement for classroom investigations, side-lining more didactic, teacher-led forms of instruction. This is why constructivist teaching is often associated with problem-based-learning, project-based-learning and inquiry learning whilst being seen as in contrast to anything approaching explicit instruction.

Indeed, the authors go on to describe a lesson of which they approve;

“…a teacher asked 9th graders to ponder the effect of temperature on muscle movement. Students had ice, buckets of water, gauges for measuring finger-grip strength, and other items to help them consider the relationship. The teacher asked a few framing questions, stated rules for handling materials safely, and then gave the students time to design their experiments. He posed different questions to different groups of students, depending on their activities and the conclusions that they seemed to be drawing. He continually asked students to elaborate or posed contradictions to their responses, even when they were correct.”

Interestingly, they later suggest that it is incorrect to conflate constructivism with discovery learning and yet this vignette clearly represents a form of student-led discovery.

On a final, personal note, it is relatively recently that I have called constructivist approaches by this name. Before I engaged with the research, I would have known them as ‘the use of science investigations’ or ‘problem solving’ or even ‘good practice’. I think this is interesting.


Why Linda Darling-Hammond is wrong (and why this matters)

Recently, Linda Darling-Hammond wrote a piece for the Huffington Post to introduce her new Learning Policy Institute. Anyone who has seen with the “Shift Happens” YouTube clip of 2008 will be familiar with many of the arguments. Yet these arguments are profoundly misguided and, given the influence that the Learning Policy Institute is likely to exert in the U.S. and the rest of the world, it is important to highlight exactly why.

Powerful knowledge is not information

Michael Young is an Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education in London. Having reversed his position since the early 1970s, he has developed the concept of ‘powerful knowledge’. He argues that teaching this knowledge is the purpose of schools because it is not going to be acquired by simply participating in society:

“Knowledge is ‘powerful’ if it predicts, if it explains, if it enables people to envisage alternatives, if it helps people to think in new ways. If these are some of the ‘powers’ of powerful knowledge, how might it then be distinguished from the everyday or commonsense knowledge that we all have as members of society?”

On the other hand, Darling-Hammond seems to conflate all types of knowledge with information more generally, allowing no distinction between the more or less powerful kinds. She states, “The quantity of human knowledge is exploding. According to UC Berkeley researchers, between 1999 and 2002, there was more new knowledge created in the world than in the entire history of the world preceding.”

If you follow that link, you’ll find a paper analysing, “new information contained in storage media, and heard or seen each year in information flows.” So, presumably, this would include photographs of cats and things like that. I would not class this as knowledge.

This conflation is dangerous and so is the idea that it implies that, “there is no set body of knowledge we can transmit in carefully defined dollops throughout 12 years of schooling that will fully prepare our young people to meet their futures.” I don’t think there is anything that will fully prepare young people for their futures but there are certainly some kinds of powerful knowledge that will help. These are the relatively stable facts and principles housed within the traditional subject domains; history, science, mathematics, English.

In school, we are not usually in the business of teaching cutting-edge developments that are likely to be quickly superseded unless, ironically, we go with the fashion and try to utilise the latest evanescent technology. As a physics teacher, I teach Newton’s laws of motion, for instance. In some sense, these have been superseded; they are wrong. They break down at speeds approaching the speed of light. Even so, they are still incredibly useful principles to apply at lower speeds which is pretty much all of the time. Einstein’s more complete theory of relativity is exactly that; more complete. It does not mean we have to throw Newton’s laws out. And I know of no-one who developed an understanding of relativity without mastering Newton’s laws.

It is a naive view of education; the idea that learning about something means that we accept it as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in such a way that we are not open to future revisions or developments.

I would like to ask Linda Darling-Hammond exactly when she thinks it will be the case that 2 + 2 = 4 is no longer true? When will it no longer be true that there was an ancient civilisation in Egypt that built the pyramids? Exactly when will the theory of evolution lose its relevance? We know that spellings change over time but is Darling-Hammond suggesting that the spellings of the majority of English words are likely to change in the lifetime of current school students?

Developing reified abilities

If we don’t wish to teach all this passing and transient knowledge then what should we do? Darling-Hammond has an answer; “Rather than memorizing material from static textbooks, our young people need to learn how to become analysts and investigators who can work with knowledge they themselves assemble to solve complex problems we have not managed to solve.” This involves developing reified abilities. Students need to, “think critically and creatively; solve problems, communicate and collaborate; and contribute to the improvement of their community and society.”

These abstractions are meaningless outside of a knowledge context. Daniel Willingham has observed that small children are quite capable of thinking critically about subjects that they know a lot about and yet research scientists can fail to think critically in an area outside of their domain of expertise. Willingham sadly concludes that abilities such as critical thinking cannot really be taught.

In his submission to the Australian Curriculum Review, John Sweller made a similar point about critical thinking and problem solving skills.

“It is a waste of students’ time placing these skills in a curriculum because we have evolved to acquire them without tuition. While they are too important for us not to have evolved to acquire them, insufficient domain-specific knowledge will prevent us from using them. We cannot plan a solution to a mathematics problem if we are unfamiliar with the relevant mathematics. Once we know enough mathematics, then we can plan problem solutions. Attempting to teach us how to plan or how to solve generic problems will not teach us mathematics. It will waste our time.” [my emphasis]

How people learn

Darling-Hammond points to How People Learn by Bransford et. al. as representing a large body of evidence on which we may build. I think this again highlights the significance of this book and justifies why I have tackled it a number of times.

I am dubious that How People Learn really does represent the best evidence available. To give just one example, it discusses an ‘exemplary’ mathematics teacher who, “almost never demonstrates the solution to problems.” This clearly ignores all of the evidence that we have in favour of the use of worked-examples going back at least as far as the 1980s.


Perhaps most strikingly of all, Darling-Hammond invokes performance in PISA international assessments as a reason to adopt methods that emphasise thinkiness rather than the acquisition of knowledge. In her view, the focus on “lower-level basic skills, rather than the higher-level abilities evaluated by PISA,” coupled with the inequality of the U.S. education system, is the cause of this ‘lacklustre’ performance.

I wonder whether Darling-Hammond has investigated those countries and jurisdictions that outperform the U.S. on PISA such as much of the Far East? Yes, there are cultural factors that make these comparisons problematic but, if you are going to invoke these comparisons as Darling-Hammond does, you at least need to address what other countries do. Do students in Singapore learn critical thinking skills rather than knowledge contained in textbooks? No.

Of course, Darling-Hammond might be thinking of the favoured example of Finland. A lot of people imagine this as some kid of educational nirvana. There are a couple of points worth making on Finland. Firstly, it is not what you think it is; teaching is actually quite didactic. Secondly, its PISA results have been declining since the early 2000s and this means that we would better look to what it was doing in the 1980s and 1990s rather than what it is doing now. Tim Oates has written a great paper on this. He’s also written another one that shows that high performing systems – like Singapore – make use of good-quality textbooks.

Why this matters

Despite the unimpressive U.S. performance on PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, the whole world still seems to take it’s cue from U.S. education and the views of its professors and policy institutes. This is partly because of America’s cultural dominance and partly because it is such a vast system, allowing for much variation and experimentation.

It matters that an institute such as this, which is likely to be highly influential in the U.S. and across the world, is to be founded on such flawed principles.


Busting the number one myth of problem-based and inquiry learning

It is a cold Saturday morning in winter. You have lots to do but the covers are warm and soft and your bed is welcoming. Your children are quiet – they’re probably watching something inappropriate on TV but, crucially, they’re not bothering you. A few thoughts flit through your mind; you need to pay the water bill, you need to post a birthday present to your great aunt Penelope before the post office shuts at 12.00 pm, you need to get your car cleaned so that you don’t have to wash your hands every time you open the boot, you need to get out there and do something significant with your life before you die.

Your better-half enters the bedroom with a steaming mug of milky tea; your favourite. ‘How agreeable!’ you think, but before you can voice your appreciation, your partner speaks.

“The kitchen sink is blocked and it smells like rotten cabbage.”

According to many proponents of problem-based learning, you should now immediately leap out of bed crying, ‘thank you, thank you,’ whilst skipping to the kitchen to have a sniff of it yourself. Why? Well, being presented with problems is intrinsically motivating and authentic, real-life problems – such as a blocked sink that smells of putrefying brassicas – is doubly so. No, you don’t want to simply be told a solution.

I think this myth warrants specific challenge because it represents the single wheel on a barrow that some people have been pushing for far too long.

It signals a retreat from claiming that problem-based learning produces greater academic gains. It seems that it does not. And so the territory has shifted; problem-based learning is more intrinsically motivating instead.

I have noted before that this is an odd claim. Increased motivation should result in increased application to learning tasks and therefore increased academic gains. Although it might be true that these won’t show up in short studies, they should appear in longitudinal and correlational studies.

So I offer two more pieces of evidence. In the first study by Tornare et. al. (2015), we have students who feel more negative after being asked to solve mathematical problems than beforehand. The most important factor seems to be how they feel that they went in the problems and that this is related to self-concept i.e. how good they think they are at maths. Actual performance was not related to their emotional state (apart, perhaps, from feelings of ‘hopelessness’.) It seems evident to me, and probably to many others without needing to read research papers on the subject, that we need to set children up for success by teaching them how to solve the problems. This will make them feel more competent and will positively affect how they feel about problem-solving.

Instead, we have a narrative where children need to struggle because it’s good for them and if they don’t like it then that’s because they’ve got a fixed mindset or something and so we need to put up some motivational posters. I paraphrase.

I dislike talking about definitions but it is necessary to highlight here that the concept of problem-based learning tends to overlap with the idea of inquiry learning; both seem to share many features. In medical training and mathematics teaching, educators tend to refer to quite well-defined problems whereas science tends to adopt a language around ‘inquiry’ because people link this to the scientific method – in fact, many courses will describe learning about the scientific method as developing scientific inquiry skills. However, both approaches involve presenting a problem or question to resolve without giving instruction on a solution, or the solution to a similar task, upfront.

I therefore want to mention a second study by Hushman and Marley (2015) which I think has something to tell us. It is similar to the famous Klahr and Nigam experiment in which students were either taught the scientific principle of controlling variables (CVS) or were facilitated in discovering the principle for themselves (I always find this an ironic subject to choose given that so many educational studies are badly controlled). However, in this case, the researchers had three instructional conditions which are interesting to investigate.

The first condition was called “direct instruction” and is worth quoting in detail:

“The experimenter read a definition to the students of three types of variables (independent, dependent, and control variables). The relationship between variables was verbally illustrated using an example of two levels of ramp steepness as the independent variable, the distance the ball rolled as the dependent variable, and the surface area as the control variable. The explanation was delivered without soliciting responses from the participant. Next, two examples were given… During the presentation of the examples, each type of variable was highlighted by the experimenter. After each example, participants were asked if they could clearly tell the effect of steepness on the distance the ball rolled to induce cognitive engagement (Klahr & Nigam, 2004). After the student answered, regardless of their answer, an explanation as to why the example was or was not unconfounded was given by the experimenter.”

If you are a regular reader of my blog then you will know that I prefer the term ‘explicit instruction’ to ‘direct instruction’ to avoid confusion with Engelmann’s ‘Direct Instruction’ programs. However, I do not recognise the above as a description of explicit instruction because it is profoundly non-interactive. Rosenshine unpacks the various confusions around this term well in an article that you really should read if you have the patience. In short, I think this represents a worst-case kind of direct instruction.

The other two conditions were a minimally-guided student-centred inquiry condition called ‘minimal instruction’, similar to the Klahr and Nigam study and a ‘guided instruction’ condition which, confusingly, reads a lot like my understanding of explicit instruction and seems to have no student problem-solving or inquiry prior to the presentation of examples (unless we count the presentation of some initial prompt-to-reflection questions; something that I often use in my own teaching).

“Guided instruction was delivered through the use of leading questions prompting reflection during the example phase of the session (Mayer, 2004). Students in this treatment received the same instruction on the type of variables as those students in the direct instruction treatment. While the same experimental examples were used, the participants in the guided instruction treatment were asked questions prompting explanation of the parts of the experiment and whether the experiment was unconfounded. They were asked to verbalize what the independent variable was in the example and to elaborate on how they knew. Then they were asked the same questions regarding the dependent variable and the control variables. When wrong answers were given, the facilitator encouraged the participant to try again. Finally, the student was asked if he or she could clearly tell the effect of steepness on the distance the ball rolled, followed by questions asking the student to provide an explanation as to why he or she could or could not clearly make a conclusion. In contrast to the direct instruction condition, the facilitator offered no explanations during the presentation of the examples.”

Why have I gone to so much trouble to describe an experiment of this kind in a post about motivation? Well, sometimes you have to go digging for gold. Without perhaps realising it, these experimenters have run a trial of interactive explicit instruction against student-led inquiry. And what makes this interesting is that they measured the students’ self-efficacy.

Before I get to that, it is also worth remarking that both ‘direct instruction’ and ‘guided instruction’ outperformed ‘minimal instruction’ on most learning measures. Interestingly, although these differences were significant, there was often no significant difference between the ‘direct instruction’ condition and the ‘guided instruction’ condition. I would have expected more differences in favour of the latter, given that it involved more student interaction.

When students’ feelings about their success in science – their self-efficacy – were examined, the pattern changed. Gains in self-efficacy were significantly greater for ‘guided instruction’ than for ‘direct instruction’ and ‘minimal instruction’, with the latter two not being significantly different from each other.

So what does this show? If you explicitly teach students stuff and ask them questions while you’re doing it then they will learn more and feel like they’re better at the subject than if you just lecture them or let them solve problems without much guidance.

And I suspect this is going to be motivating.


How people really learn

I ran into trouble with a few commentators last week. I wrote a piece for Spiked magazine where I referred to the children’s story “Fish is Fish,” and the way that it is used in the teacher education textbook “How People Learn,” by Bransford et al.

Of the story, I wrote, “The implication is that we cannot understand anything that we have not seen for ourselves; each individual has to discover the world anew.” Clearly, this is not exactly what is written in How People Learn because, the way I’ve stated it, it’s obviously absurd and people tend to avoid making obviously absurd claims. Also, note my use of the word, ‘understand,’. In education, some people are inclined to see understanding as something quite different to mere knowledge (which it isn’t, really).

So, have I misrepresented the book?

Some have suggested that the point of the story is simply to show that we must take into account our students’ prior knowledge when teaching them something new. If this is the point then it is a trivial one. Fish is Fish is deployed to illustrate something about constructivism. If you were to look for an educational approach that was as far away as possible from those inspired by constructivism then you may well alight upon Engelmann’s Direct Instruction. I was having a look at the manual for one of his writing programs recently and the first thing that he mentions is the use of placement tests to figure out what version of the program different students should be put in.

If this is all that Fish is Fish is meant to signify then it reminds me of Vygotsky and his Zone of Proximal Development; another underwhelming concept.

However, I hold to my view that Fish is Fish is there to tell us more than that; to tell us that it is basically impossible to transmit understanding from a teacher to a student. Instead, the student must be involved in some amount of direct discovery, particularly of the main concepts involved.

It has been pointed-out to me that the authors of How People Learn do suggest that there is a time for simply telling students stuff. This is true. For instance, they state that, “there are times, usually after people have first grappled with issues on their own, that “teaching by telling” can work extremely well (e.g., Schwartz and Bransford, 1998). However, teachers still need to pay attention to students’ interpretations and provide guidance when necessary.”

Note the whopping caveat, “usually after people have first grappled with issues on their own.” This is important, of course, if you want your students to truly understand. There is a whole area of constructivist research trying to prove the concept of ‘productive failure’, which is the idea that students benefit from struggling with problems prior to being given explicit instruction. It is the subject of some debate in the book “Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure”, and, unfortunately, it seems that most of the key experiments have been poorly designed, with more than one factor varied at a time. I have a particular interest in this area – it’s part of my PhD research.

I think that the authors also reveal their views about the need for direct experience when they describe how it is quite impossible to explain to children that the world is spherical.

“When told it is round, children picture the earth as a pancake rather than as a sphere (Vosniadou and Brewer, 1989). If they are then told that it is round like a sphere, they interpret the new information about a spherical earth within their flat-earth view by picturing a pancake-like flat surface inside or on top of a sphere, with humans standing on top of the pancake. The children’s construction of their new understandings has been guided by a model of the earth that helped them explain how they could stand or walk upon its surface, and a spherical earth did not fit their mental model. Like Fish Is Fish, everything the children heard was incorporated into that preexisting view.”

If you are still unsure as to exactly what is being suggested then it is instructive to look at the exemplary lessons that the authors describe towards the end of the book. After informing us that history teaching should not be about learning facts – something quite at odds with my understanding of cognitive science that sees fact-learning as absolutely critical – they describe a maths class:

“Word problems form the basis for almost all instruction in Annie Keith’s classroom. Students spend a great deal of time discussing alternative strategies with each other, in groups, and as a whole class. The teacher often participates in these discussions but almost never demonstrates the solution to problems. Important ideas in mathematics are developed as students explore solutions to problems, rather than being a focus of instruction per se. For example, place-value concepts are developed as students use base-10 materials, such as base-10 blocks and counting frames, to solve word problems involving multidigit numbers.” [My emphasis]

It seems that this exemplary maths teacher has never heard of the worked-example effect.


Goldilocks and the zone of proximal development

This post originally appeared on a different forum (and it’s meant to be funny).

Occasionally, our thoughts inevitably turn towards Lev Vygotsky and his original thinking around the Zone of Proximal Development. The Zone of Proximal Development – which, for reasons of clarity and meaningfulness, is usually simply shortened to the snappier ‘ZPD’ – is a notion at the heart of educational theory. Whether you are a social constructivist – whatever that is – or not, Vygotsky’s definition will be in the forefront of your mind when planning your lessons. “The zone of proximal development,” said Vygotsky, “defines functions that have not matured yet, but are in a process of maturing, that will mature tomorrow, that are currently in an embryonic state; these functions could be called the buds of development, the flowers of development, rather than the fruits of development, that is, what is only just maturing.”

The radical notion that Vygotsky had established was that we shouldn’t ask students to do things that they find impossible and neither should we ask them to do things that they can already do and find really easy. Neither of these will help the student to learn new things. Instead, we should ask them to do things that are ‘just right’; at exactly approximately the right level for them to learn.

The idea can be conveniently summarised by this diagram:

zone of optimal porridge temperature

The Zone of Optimal Porridge Temperature (ZOPT) is the region where the porridge may just about be eaten with sufficient blowing.

Sorry, I meant this diagram:

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the region where the learner can just about complete the task with sufficient guidance.

As everyone knows, prior to the 1930s teachers routinely asked students to complete tasks that the students found impossible or else routinely required them to do lots of activities that they found far too easy. It was Vygotsky’s insight that enabled us to put a stop to this sort of thing.

Unfortunately, Vygotsky died before he was able to add the necessary bloodfilled flesh to the skeletal outline of his theory. So that has largely been left to others. However, he did have sufficient time to elucidate a few other useful ideas. For instance, one of Vygotsky’s insights was that if you are sitting next to someone who knows how to do something then they might be able to help you to learn how to do it too. Where such abilities are complementary in two individuals then together they may be able to complete a task that neither of them could complete alone.

There is, of course, one slight problem with Vygotsky’s big idea. We now know that in certain fields it is worth practising past the point of mastery. For example, memorising your times-tables is probably a worthwhile activity to boost future maths performance. In order to this this, students will actually need to practise things that they can already do. But that’s just a small thing.

In short, Vygotsky’s notion of the Zone of Proximal Development is an excellent guide or heuristic for all educational experiences apart from the ones where it doesn’t really work.


Are you that guy who wrote that thing?

I used to write a blog under the pseudonym of Harry Webb. I wrote pseudonymously because I wanted to be free to play around with ideas. If you like, the blog was a sandbox. I didn’t want to have to think about whether something I wrote was in line with my own school’s approach. This was fine when I was writing for an audience of about ten. However, I began to realise that writing like this was a bit of a mistake.

The blog was actually quite anodyne; full of links to academic papers and the like. I didn’t write anecdotes about work – in fact, I steered clear of a lot of stuff. If you never read it and want to know what it was like then… it was pretty much like this blog. In addition, I began to realise that some people – usually those who disagreed with me; supporters of inquiry learning and that kind of thing – chose to view a pseudonymous blog as something sinister. It had never occurred to me that people would think this way. I don’t think like that at all. And this was compounded by the blog’s growing popularity.

Why did I shut it down? Well, someone at researchED Sydney figured out who I was – there are not that many people with my blend of interests living in Victoria. He has been trolling me on-and-off about it ever since. I can’t remember him ever constructing an actual argument against something that I have written and I think this is no coincidence. Instead, he has declared that Harry Webb presented a narrow, ideological view and was something of a bully.

I reject this. It’s strange how the people we disagree with are always so darned ideological and exhibit such terrible manners. Actually, it’s not strange at all. This is a common cognitive bias; the negative version of the halo effect. In the interests of balance, the comments at the end of Harry’s farewell post will give you an entirely different perspective on what the blog was like. Some of them still bring a tear to my eye.

There now seems to be a growing tendency to reanimate poor old Harry in the middle of any discussion I might be having on Twitter. Some people think this is a kind of “gotcha”. It’s more of an irritant.

For instance, I wrote a typically arcane piece making the case that our political beliefs do not require us to hold to certain views on teaching methods. A guy from Canada who I had never interacted with as Harry started a discussion with me about this on Twitter. He quoted Freire. I then posted an old piece I had written about Freire that this guy didn’t like much at all. The discussion continued, I asked a question that I thought was pretty central to Freire’s argument and, all of a sudden, the Canadian guy started repeatedly asking me whether I was Harry Webb. He wanted to establish my ‘credibility’, apparently.

From these events, I conclude two things: Firstly, someone is busy on the DMs, informing people of this great secret and secondly, people are going to keep using this tactic to avoid tricky questions and sideline discussions.

This could be most tiresome.

Therefore, I will be directing these folks here in future.

And now a word of advice. This kind of stuff isn’t nice. It makes people feel bad. Engage with me on the substance of an argument and we might both learn something. Take the excellent advice of Paul Graham. You might find me abrupt. I’m really sorry about that. I don’t mean to be but, you know, Twitter only allows 140 characters. And consider the fact that if you disagree then you are likely to project the worst possible interpretation on what I write. Launching personal attacks just makes people feel sympathetic towards me.

As I grow ever stronger.

Now, where’s my black hat and cape…?

[Maniacal Laugh]

[Maniacal Laugh]