Response to Kirshner

Here is my talk:

Here is my response to Kirshner's criticisms, posted here. Wilfred Reubins provides the translation.

Wilfred Rubens wrote:

Paul had doubts if he would respond. Partly because he does not think your 'attack' is not worth responding. He writes that apparently you became upset about his article during the Edublogdiner.

I discussed my subject during the edublog dinner. But as you can see if you look at the dates of my postings on Half an Hour, I had already begin collecting and working on material prior to the dinner. I became upset, not at the dinner, but when I read the article, which was about a week prior to the talk.

Kirschner writes that your speech was not the speech you agreed upon with the Surf organisation (and the speech you were paid for).

First of all, I was not paid for a speech. I do not charge speaker fees of any kind. My expenses (airfare and hotel) are paid by the organizers; otherwise I could not deliver the talk at all. But my time and effort are freely donated.

In my email to Tom Dousma, of Surf, dated August 1, 2007, here is what I promised:

I think I culd contribute with a talk titled 'Learning Without Leaders' (or something like that) in which I could outline how learners, supported with new technologies, are able to manage their own learning. A focus of the talk would be to response to some of the very specific objections that have been raised, eg., that students without guidance do not work, that they do not make the correct (or appropriate) choices, that they do not learn the fundamentals, etc. (ifyou have heard additional objections you would like to see address, please let me know of them).

I would say that this is exactly what I delivered.

He wonders why you did not get in touch with him but that you choose to hold a monologue instead of a dialogue.

I have discussed these issues for a long time on my website and in my newsletter. I posted the summary of the Kirshner, Weller and Clark paper as well as a series of responses on my blog, Half an Hour.

In my newsletter, the day before the talk, I posted that I would be addressing the Kirshner, Weller and Clark paper during my talk, asking for comments and feedback and received a number of very valuable comments in response.

I did not contact Kirshner (or any of the authors) personally and privately because I did not see any reason to do so. My work is open and public. There was ample opportunity to see what I write and to respond.

It is worth noting that neither Kirshner nor anyone else contacted me prior to the publication of the article in the first place. Of course, I would not expect such exceptional and preferential treatment.

Now, he was not able to respond to your contribution.

He was invited by the organizers to make a response in English, which I would attend (and very politely sit in the back of the room and listen). Probably this was not possible because he did not attend my presentation in the first place.

Kirshner does not read my papers, nor my blog, nor my newsletter, nor attend my presentation, and then suggests that it is my fault that he is not informed.

Paul writes that his article was published in one of the best scientific magazines. Three teams of researchers responded. And Kirschner, Clark and Sweller had the opportunity to react. The reader could produce conclusions himselves. Kirschner thinks this is a proper and decent debate.

A number of the responses remain behind subscription firewalls, and I cannot afford to pay the fees to read them. I have collected and analyzed as much of the public critique as I could find.

It was my opinion that the debate was conducted in a very narrow arena, with limited perspectives offered in response. In the responses to the paper I did not see any recognition of Kirshner's mischaracterization of scientific method. I did see an abstract accusing him of misunderstanding cognitive processes, but this was behind a subscription paywall and so I could not read the entire text.

Kirshner continues to be free to respond to my arguments. I do not believe that 'debate' is limited to a specific academic journal or a specific conference. A debate, properly speaking, is something that is distributed across time and space, and includes a variety of autonomous contributors, communicating through various media, in which there is not an 'audience' per se (this is not a performance of a play!) but participants in a wider discussion.

Kirschner writes that they do not mention the "holy cow social-constructivism" (I used the term in my impression). Kirschner, Clark and Sweller warn for the dangers of minimal guidance or no guidance, and their criticism is according to Paul Kirschner based on facts and empirical research.

It is very clear to m that the authors attach the presumption of 'little or no guidance' to a number of theories, and find that their criticism of 'little or no guidance' constitutes a basis for criticizing those theories.

There is no question from the text of the paper that the authors believe that a pedagogical process that does not contain direct instruction is therefore one in which there is little or no guidance.

I understand that Kirshner believes that research supports his position. But merely citing research does not produce support. The conclusion must be entailed (or at least, inferred, or at the very least, suggested) by the research. This is not the case here, as I demonstrated in my talk.

It is OK for him that you call him an instructivist. So was -according to Kirschner- Lev Vygotski with his ideas concerning the use of scaffolding and the zone of proximal development. Kirscher suggest you should support your "belief" in free-learning with scientific evidence.

In my talk I stated that among my criticisms of constructivism and inquiry learning is the assertion that there is too much instruction. So I too agree that Vygotski is a type of instructionist. I have criticized this position in the past - here, for example, responding to David Merrill.

There is voluminous research showing that learning takes place when in contexts where there is little or no direct instruction. In my talk I refer both to some of the formal research, as well as appealing to our own experiences, in making this point. Kirshner is simply incorrect to suggest that my 'belief' is not supported by scientific evidence.

The video of my talk has been available on my website for a number of days now. Perhaps Kirshner should view the video before commenting further on what my talk does not contain.

According to Kirschner you presented strowmen and inadequacies in your speech. He adds: "If I interpret Wilfred's contribution correctly". I wrote for example that according to you Kirschner cs think that there is no evidence for inquiry learning and problem-based learning.

I do not say this. In fact, I acknowledge that in their paper, they do cite support for inquiry learning and problem-based learning. For example, one of the things I cite is their description of the use of problem-based learning by U.S. medical schools. Research does show that this learning is effective, as Kirshner Sweller and Clark note. But they criticize it, because the graduates prescribe "unnecessary procedures".

Furthermore I wrote that according to you Kirschner cs made a caricature of social constructivism. I used this word deliberately because imho it is a label for Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. This label is rather common in Dutch literature about teaching and learning. And it was my interpretation of a part of your contribution. I wrote to Paul Kirschner that it was my interpretation but that I think it was what you meant.

It seems clear that Kirshner Sweller and lark very deliberately sidestepped 'social constructivism'. I am careful therefore not to use this phrase anywhere in my presentation. I also do not engage in any discussion of Vygotsky or social constructivist their in detail. My response (that the authors pose a false dimemma, for example) is based on the nature of Kirshner Sweller and Clarks statement of the theses, and not of any particular interpretation of any of them.

Kirschner ends his response with the remark that you are not debating. That you use a monologue that you control (e.g. on your weblog).

My own belief is that my own style of dialogue and debate is more open than any alternative being proposed. I may control my own website (though I do allow comments both on my main website and on my blog) but I do not control the blogosphere or the wider internet.

Kirshner may not choose to use open and public fora for debate, but it is certainly inappropriate for him to blame me for this choice.

If his understanding of scientific debate and enquiry is that it takes place only in special fora with limited participation and paying audience, then he is in my view mistaken, and he should not blame me for the consequences of his mistake, particularly after my efforts to correct them.

I conduct my side of the debate in the open five days a week for all to see, and if Kirshner has not seen, and does not care to take part, in this debate, then it is his loss, not mine. And I would say that the advantage that I - and any others who take part - gain from this method *is* empirical evidence for the position that non-guided instruction supports learning.

I used a title "Downes tears Kirschner apart" (at least a Dutch expression which means the same). According to Kirschner a better title would be: “Stephen Downes makes a fool of himself”.

I have made a fool of myself before and will no doubt do so again. I am happy to make a fool of myself, if it will advance our knowledge and understanding.

I will be making a transcript of the talk so that Kirshner and others can respond to my specific arguments, should they so desire.


  1. Kirshner clearly has every opportunity to engage in debate, as you say, here and elsewhere on the open web.

    Far from foolish, your presentation is an attempt to engage and extend ideas. Why that's not being met as a healthy invitation is a question worth asking, particularly in the context of "educational pyschology."

  2. Hi Stephen,

    I've also embraced the tenets and techniques of social constructivism and connectivism, but your presentation left me wondering... *how* much instruction do *you* think is appropriate in a given learning experience?

    And do you see a fundamental irony in "instructing" an audience on why learning by instruction is so much less beneficial than learning via pedagogies that reject instruction?

  3. As I watch your presentation another irony I've spotted is that you talk about "recognising patterns in data" as being fundamental to cognition and learning... yet you saw it necessary to go through Kirschner's paper in with your detailed criticism.

    I would personally have found a less anatomically critical, more constructive (in both the positivist sense as well as the socialogical/pedagogical one) more engaging and convincingp!

  4. Hi Steven, another great talk in this great struggle. While I agree with anonymous that a less anatomical approach would have been more engaging, it is unfortunately necessary when trying to engage these types of positions. A painful and emotionally draining process, and I admire your abilities to go through with it. I am inspired to try myself to refute the rise (or is it persistence) of similar backward thinking here in Australia/NZ. And in my usual emotive way, I will leave out the blow for blow critique as I just don't have the stamina. Great talk though, like almost all your other talks, I have been IMing the link around colleagues as a recommended listen.. I don't expect to many will watch, as the thinking of Steven D is a long term engagement in my view. And one well worth the ride. I hope you're holding up over there. Keep up the good fight. History will be your judge and she will be favourable.

  5. Anonymous' question about "how much (direct) instruction ... is appropriate" is an interesting one, and points toward a middle way/continuum, rather than polar either/or model for this debate; at the same time, though, I think anonymous misses a key point in implying that your mode of argument undercuts your own theory (if I read anonymous right). That point is, namely, that your audience is "learning" from your discussion in its own self-directed, pattern-seeking, problem-solving sort or way - constructing, connecting - as part of its own learning agenda. Put another way, I chose to watch your lecture as one more piece of input into an ongoing inquiry that I pursue.

    In a sense, what you do in this lecture is not "direct instruction" so much as it is present the results of your own inquiry. If your audience attends because it has a similar inquiry as its motive, then this is more dialogical than mono-.

    My two cents.

  6. Clay says: "I chose to watch your lecture as one more piece of input into an ongoing inquiry that I pursue.

    ...If your audience attends because it has a similar inquiry as its motive, then this is more dialogical than mono-."

    It appears that you're trying to make a distinction here between a classroom-based face-to-face learning experience and that of attending Stephen's face-to-face lecture based on the audience's subjective motive for participating.

    I'm still not sure there's really a distinction. A learner - particularly an adult learner - generally chooses to engage in a (formal) course of learning to further themselves in an area of interest or professional development. These are exactly the same intrinsic motivators for attending Stephen's lecture - personal interest or professional development.

    As such, both the experience of attending a class or attending an event to be "led" by Stephen constitute *learning activities*, and the only difference is the level of formality with which the experience is treated.

    While attendance at Stephen's lecture does not contribute towards any kind of formal accreditation, it is nonetheless a learning activity (which attendees have paid to attend, no doubt), and it's difficult for me to distinguish why it should be delivered in a mode that is paradoxically tangential to the mode of learning which Stephen exhorts his audience to adopt!

  7. It's not that I disagree with some (or even much) of what you are saying. Nor of what Kirchner et al. posit. But as a practicing teacher, I find it hard to take what you blowhards say seriously.

    When was the last time you spent a semester (or hell, even a week, or a class) teaching a middle school science class?

    Yeh, thought so.

    Until your theories are informed by practice and direct experience, then you;re just another of many (very many) blah-blah types.

    Go ahead... become exasperated. Dare me to engage you in a conversation that pits your theories against my practice.

    Nah, didn't think you would.


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