Bill Kerr 2nd October, 2013

CONTEXT: appalling basic literacy and numeracy rates amongst indigenous Australians, especially those who live in remote regions.

PERCEPTION: We literally see the world according to the memes in our minds

The Direct Instruction (DI) approach is a good attempt to solve a number of practical problems that arise for teachers of severely disadvantaged students who have poor skills at reading, writing and comprehending English and Maths. Important features of DI (full immersion) include:
  • rigorous field testing of the teaching materials for quality (not normally done in other approaches)
  • placement tests for grouping into age independent ability levels so that every child in the class has a good chance of understanding the lesson content and participating fully in the lesson
  • a large volume of relevant materials (teacher manuals, student workbooks) in basic literacy and maths
  • intensive scripting in the teacher manuals stating word for word how the lesson should be delivered to enable quality, fidelity (consistency of delivery) and a mass scale of delivery
  • verbal participation by the students in unison (chanting) which makes it very difficult for a child to avoid participation (which of course is normal in many classrooms, especially in disadvantaged schools)
  • without fail, every school day, from 9am to 1pm there are 3 hours of English language instruction (broken up into decoding using a phonics approach, comprehension, writing) and 1 hour of Maths instruction
  • No excuses: if the student hasn't learned then the teacher hasn't taught

This approach is not a universal panacea (as sometimes suggested by its founder Zig Engelmann) but a good pragmatic method for achieving basic literacy and maths skills for severely at risk students

HYPOTHESIS: Many can't see the value of DI because of the synergistic influence of a plethora of mind memes which act as blinkers and filters to influence their perception. The rejection of DI is not based on research or science as is claimed but results from a deep, internally coherent world view. ie. the rejection of DI is more part of a cultural, psychological, philosophical and political world view and not scientific as is usually claimed.


The memes are grouped under various subheadings: (1) culture, (2) rights, morality, compassion, justice (3) social class, (4) "real learning", (5) creativity, (6) philosophy, (7) institutionalised inertia and (8) computer lib. The identified memes are often associated with a "progressive" world view / education and form a large part of the cultural background of "progressives". It will be argued that some of these memes are refutable, some of them are valid in a more general sense but not in the particular context being discussed (basic education of severely at risk students) and some are more or less correct and should contribute to the educational environment that ought to be developed. However, when combined together synergistically these memes are likely to evoke a critical response to DI in any context and act to block its possible implementation. The critical response is often emotionally charged, that is, part of a culture war.


Fanaticism is on display from both sides of politics in this culture war. From the "right", constructivist methodologies are part of a socialist plot to weaken capitalist society. From the "left", educational drill and skill is a sophisticated form of child abuse.


ANTI Direct Instruction
PRO Direct Instruction

Cultural assimilation into the dominant white, western culture is the main enemy both historically and today. Bilingualism (in the face of linguicide) and indigenous culture must come first and foremost (Chris Sarra, Ghil'ad Zuckerman)

Cross cultural moral agreement is possible. Moody-Adams argues for a moral philosophy of rationality and problem solving. Any real culture is layers of culture. (Noel Pearson). Orbiting b/w two cultures, the best of both worlds, is the way to go (Noel Pearson)


Progressives have battled valiantly over the years for indigenous rights eg. against racism, for recognition after the shame of terra nullius, against assimilation, for land rights, etc.

White guilt: whites have no right to lead in view of the historical legacy of brutal and ignorant assimilationist policies, the deaths, the stolen generations etc.

The responsibility agenda rather than the rights agenda is the more pressing requirement in the current context of indigenous progress ("Our right to take responsibility" - Noel Pearson)

The immediate social issues of welfare dependency, substance abuse and fourth world conditions should be tackled NOW and distinguished from issues which can't be solved (the history of dispossession) immediately


Social class always has and always will determine learning outcomes. When George W Bush called for "no child left behind" he was just using that as a cover to destroy teacher rights as a cunning manoeuvre in the class war. The problem is capitalism, not the teachers who do the best they can with limited resources

How do miserable people progress in the world?The great failure of "progressive" thinking is that there is no magic mass elevator or social justice forklift. Each individual has to climb the stairs, one by one. Everyone has to climb. Social justice is the sum of individual progress. (Noel Pearson)


Reading wars: phonics worksheets, levelled readers and controlled vocabulary is boring and kills natural interest and enthusiasm of children

Student motivation is the key to real learning, if we get motivation right and don't deny creativity and imagination then problems will be solved, learning will flourish. No other way is acceptable. Child development is an ocean, learning by comparison is throwing a few pebbles in this ocean.

Evidence based practice: Give me the f___ing data (Engelmann, Hempenstall). A phonics based introduction to reading is the most efficient way to go (Wheldall, Hempenstall)

The "non universals": anthropological findings, summarised by Alan Kay, show that there is no easy or natural path to certain types of knowledge, including reading and writing (Kay, Geary)


It is alleged that DI will kill creativity and exploratory learning and much will be lost in this process. Creativity, curiosity and exploration is the path to meaningful engagement. From the teachers POV nothing is worse than surrendering their personal educational / cultural approach to the collective, since the collective always turns into a mind numbing bureaucracy. Noble stance: I am an autonomous, free, exploratory agent teaching and respecting others to be like me. I will fight for liberty against an epistemological death that will destroy my progressive soul and is an affront to my free will

Creativity has a behaviourist underpinning. It is not possible to be creative without a strong underpinning of basic and factual knowledge. Hofstadter, Variations on a Theme as the Crux of Creativity; Dennett, The Law of Effect won't go away; ED Hirsch various books


Progress is freedom because humans are naturally good (Naturalism or Romanticism, although usually not overtly stated). Behaviourism is robotic, Skinner has been rejected for good reasons.

I tend to agree that the philosophical basis of DI has been poorly explained or just not addressed by its founders and advocates. Pragmatism is a coherent philosophy (Hilary Putnam) which does provide a philosophical basis for supporting intensive DI in the context under discussion here


Millions of dollars are poured into indigenous issues in order to "close the gap" (whatever that is meant to mean) but the results have not been impressive. There is a continual battle going on about the rationale for this money and who should receive it. People work in jobs / careers which are often guided by policy inertia and usually they are policies which have not succeeded. In the distribution of this money where and how do we draw the lines between wisdom, good will, "just doing my job" and corruption?

Other approaches have failed so a no excuses approach with strict external checkups is the only viable way to go


The important thing is to be able to read the world rather than read the word. The new computer medium can be programmed so that difficult things to learn can now be taught more naturally. Hard fun. We need to focus on mastering the new medium, the new literacy rather than focus on older media. (Gee, Papert).

No computer program has yet been invented that teaches people to read.


Try to imagine the process involved in changing from the anti DI mindset to a pro DI mindset, or vice versa for that matter. Discussion points arising -

Self awareness and self examination of one's own deeply held biases or beliefs is a difficult process

When people argue that science or evidence supports their viewpoint what does this mean? This requires not only looking at the evidence but also looking at the model of science that is being evoked here

In a few of his essays Noel Pearson outlines the dialectical concept of the radical centre where the best elements from both sides of the political divide are combined into a coherent policy. Yet it could be argued that his currently favoured educational policy, Direct Instruction, is going too far to one side of such a centre.

Direct Instruction (full immersion) is an educational framework that can transform a community of poor learners to become fair learners. Naturalist approaches such as unguided constructivism have failed. Nevertheless, there are limits to Direct Instruction and a framework of guided discovery to promote higher learning is outlined (based on the educational ideas Montessori, Bruner and Vygotsky).

this is currently organised under the 8 categories


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Arendt, Hannah. (2006 version) On Revolution. Penguin

Michele Moody-Adams Fieldwork in Familiar Places: Morality, Culture and Philosophy (2002)
denies hopeless divergence b/w cultures

Nussbaum Martha C. (2011) Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Belknap Press

Sen, Amartya. The Idea of Justice. 2009


Pearson, Noel. 2009. Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia.


Allington Richard L. (2002) Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence.

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Bruner, Jerome (1996). The Culture of Education. Harvard University Press.

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Engelmann, Siegfried and Carnine, Douglas. Could John Stuart Mill Have Saved Our Schools? 2011

FaHCSIA (Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs ).
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MULTILIT materials
Wheldall, Kevin
Wheldall, Robyn
too numerous to list at this stage

Rose David, Martin JR (2012). Learning to Write, Reading to Learn: Genre, Knowledge and Pedagogy in the Sydney School. Equinox Publishing.

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(too numerous to list at this stage)


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Putnam, Hilary. The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy. 2002

Putnam, Hilary. Reason, Truth and History 1981

Putnam, Hilary. Words and Life 1994

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Widdowson, Frances and Howard, Albert. Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation. 2008.


DiSessa Andrea. Changing Minds: Computers, Learning and Literacy. (2000). MIT