How many strikes do they need?

I recently received this email out of the blue from a math teacher in California. I think that it’s really important that others read what he comes up against trying to give teach math to his fourth-grade students so I asked the sender if I could put it – anonymized – in a short blog. The sender agreed.

Dear Dr. Kirschner,

This is XXXXX, fourth-grade teacher in XXXXXXXXX, California.

I read HLH and HTH and listened to the recent Chalk and Talk podcast interview. Armed with my new knowledge, I’ve started to look at things critically and ask questions. 

I’m not the only teacher enlightened by your work and likely not the first one to begin to look at education differently as a result, so I’m sorry to report that it’s not going well.

Basically, my district-adopted math curriculum (iReady k-5 classroom mathematics) doesn’t appear to have many aspects from the books or the interview. So I asked the authors of our curriculum if they accept and agree with the process of how people learn, as explained succinctly in your podcast interview.

No direct answer, but basically …. NO.

The response from the authors did, however, include two articles (linked below) and no deep discussion as to why. [PK: The first was a reply to the article[1] that John Sweller, Richard Clark and I wrote in 2006 on why constructivist-based approaches to instruction (and all its synonyms) don’t work, the other on ambitious instruction and an observation instrument called TRU math]

So, there you have it. I’m a teacher who has been enlightened, knows his stuff, and still operates with a subpar math curriculum without an explanation as to why. The reality for enlightened teachers like me is we are well-read yet operating in a system beyond our control. It’s the sad truth, but it’s the truth. I guess I wrote this all to express this sadness. 

Thanks for reading.

Yesterday I read in the New York Times how not only math and reading scores are (still) falling in the United States, the same is now true for history and civics. I can’t say whether there’s a causal relationship between the constructivist teaching approach that is prevalent in the US and the decline, the correlation seems to be really strong. Jaap Scheerens and I wrote a pamphlet[2] on this (sorry, only in Dutch but there are now really good AI-programmes that will translate it for you and Microsoft Word now has a decent translation function) called Progressief Achteruit: Zwartboek over de last van slechte ideeën voor het funderende onderwijs’ [Progressively backwards Black book on the burden of bad ideas for foundational education] about this.

When I see how often bad ideas are proven to be wrong, are given new names, reincarnated into a new life, and fail again, I can only think of Rich Mayers great article ‘Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction[3]. Though educational and cognitive science have been making some headway against romantic philosophies and ideologies, this letter that I received shows that there’s still a long way to go.

[1] Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 46(2), 75-86. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1


[3] Mayer R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. The American psychologist, 59(1), 14–19.


6 thoughts on “How many strikes do they need?

  1. Hugh Bosely says:

    Given Paul is a man of evidence, this conjecture is surprising and uncharacteristic. If correlation now equals causation then we have a much greater culprit. Direct instruction (Di) and teacher centered pedagogy in the USA are far more ‘prevalent’ than constructivist approaches which includes PBL, collaborative learning, activity-based learning and other student-centered approaches. So why blame the less prevalent approach? Paul’s claim that constructive approaches are somehow tied to lower test scores is purely speculative.

    As usual, Paul’s presumption is: imparting factual, conceptual and procedural knowledge should be the focus of educators. Yet, meta-intelligence, virtue/character development and durable skills acquisition are equally, if not more important. This kind of skill-building lies outside any curricula so any attempt to ‘teach’ it is a ’twas brillig endeavor. No one who has been lectured on patience or courage has left the schoolhouse more patient or courageous. However, we know meta-skills can be *learned* in the classroom and necessarily, on the back of core curricula be it math, language, civics or physics. But it requires a cage-fight of sorts and the teacher shifting to choreographer and referee.

    It’s understandable that many educators feel threatened by this approach as it seems to violate a number of norms. The reality is, we now live in an era where our survival depends on distinguishing us from the robots. The IQ of chatGPT is 8 billion. It’s EQ is zero. DI is necessary but no longer sufficient.


  2. Christine Calabrese says:

    HUGH BOSLEY doesn’t give any data to back his claim that Direct Instruction (DI) is “way more” prevalent than constructivist teaching in our schools. Where’s the data? Provide it and show me where the schools are that are using Direct Instruction CORRECTLY, and I’ll show a school that is far outpacing the schools in the majority.
    Implementing the curriculum is critical, and training and retraining are also essential. While you’re at it, HUGH BOSLEY show me a UNIVERSITY ~ teacher’s training college that trains teachers PROPERLY in Direct Instruction. I was hoping you could show me a University that REVIEWS the curriculum with the teachers and discusses the efficacy therein. We’ll wait, and we’ll be waiting a LONG TIME.
    This is because teachers are trained in dreamy-eyed college classrooms to believe they are the masters and can create their CURRICULUM! That’s right, show me where I’m wrong.
    Now teachers whose eyes are opened and know what works will do what I did, SNEAK in a curriculum that works and use it instead of the garbage bought by the districts. I did this because I was BLAMED when the curriculum THEY chose didn’t work, so I covered myself by using a GOOD SOLID CURRICULUM, and they could say nothing because my test scores always surpassed in the school. Further, the parents in the community knew I taught properly and supported me and fought the principal when he asked me to use their nonsense.
    We’re waiting for HUGH’S stats that DIRECT INSTRUCTION IS USED, I want to know WHAT SCHOOL DISTRICTS use DIRECT INSTRUCTION, and I want to know what kind of support the teachers have if it is genuinely a good curriculum. I want to know what school districts use CONSTRUCTIVISM if they’re in such a minority where?
    Because I can’t find ANY, who are using DIRECT INSTRUCTION here on the NORTH SHORE OF LONG ISLAND, where wealthy parents HIRE TUTORS to teach their kids because their kids are failing due to the CONSTRUCTIVIST teaching methods. So please ENLIGHTEN ME!
    Finally, I want to know HUGH’S credentials. Is he a “TEACHER OF THE YEAR?” Does he have any awards, or is he just speaking with no credentials? Where are HIS TEST SCORES using constructivism, can he match mine? Has he taught in ANY SCHOOLS? I’ll wait for that too.
    If anyone thinks for one minute that vetting a GOOD curriculum and using it is a waste of time, they are off the wall and have never taught in the INNER CITY, as I did in NEW YORK CITY.
    Here you go, HUGH! My credentials are SUCCESS and, of course, AWARDS!


    • Hugh Bosely says:

      Hi Christine, the subtext in your reply indicates that you, like most of us here, are pretty passionate about educating our youth and have pretty strong feelings regarding pedagogy. We each have a dog in the hunt of enabling youth with the skills they need to not only survive this rapidly changing world, but thrive.

      I very much agree with your point that schools should not be buying curricula. Any teacher worth her weight in salt should be able to sit down the weekend before the term starts and bang out a 12 week curriculum that meets district standards and grade level OKRs. Props to you for having the courage to exercise a right that was granted via in loci parentis 50 years ago – autonomy.

      I am in adult education so the forest looks a bit different than K-12. For the past 7 years I have been running character accelerators in regions of conflict. We are huge fans of DI and understand its value in concept accretion. That said, we see the best results when it is used sparingly, no more than 30 minutes a day. We spent several years optimizing the delivery of what our 500+ hiring partners demand – meta-intelligence. We found the more we taught (using DI), the less they actually learned. So we experimented until we found the right combination which is a hybrid of several pedagogies – DI, PBL, collaborative, sprint, immersive, generative and agile methodologies. How do we know it works? The youth unemployment line in the regions where we work exceeds 85 million yet our placement rate in industry is 100%. Our grads skip that line not because of their foundational knowledge but because of something else they did not get in 16 years in DI classrooms: courage, patience, integrity, magnanimity, humility, steadfastness and empathy.


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