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Passion and precision: response to "Curriculum-based assessment and direct instruction: critical reflections on fundamental assumptions." (response to Lous Heshusius, 57 Exceptional Children 315, 1991) (Point/Counterpoint)

Perhaps that was because with the best will in the world, they couldn't make sense. They were speaking a language that was accurate for their experience but out of phase with the language of (others).... The simple truths of each language sounded like nonsense to speakers of the other.

(Hardison, 1989, p. 7)

* There seems no room for compromise between those espousing an empiricist/behavioral orientation towards special education and those espousing a holistic orientation. Typically, the advocates of each position know" the other approach is wrong, harmful, and antiquated. The empiricist tradition is often accused of being mechanistic. hi a similar vein, since holistic approaches are not data based, they are deemed not worthy of further discussion by many hard-line empiricists.

Through the issues it raises, Heshusius' (1991) essay makes a contribution. The emotional tenor of the essay reflects the intensity of the conflict. However, its uncompromising stance typifies several unfortunate tendencies. The first is the danger of polemics. The second is a lack of understanding and empathy for alternative points of view. And the third is the vast distance between rhetoric and reality.

As noted in the opening quotation, Heshusius speaks a different language" from me and many of my colleagues. Using that language, she has presented at best an incomplete, and at worst a distorted, picture of direct instruction (DI). For example, merging curriculum-based assessment (CBA) and DI--two disparate traditions--assists Heshusius rhetorically, but does not reflect the realities of practice. She also includes statements that are rhetorical distortions and oversimplifications of the DI philosophy, for example: "mastering skills is ... seen as separate and prior to involvement in learning for intrinsic relevant purposes" (p. 320), and her assertion that empiricists fail to see that children and rats "function at different levels of complexities" (p. 321).

The purpose of this essay is twofold. I wish first to respond to Heshusius with a balanced picture of some of the key ideas within the DI tradition. More broadly, I wish to reflect on Heshusius' essay from a more applied perspective--one that incorporates the realities of class-rooms.


The DI tradition relies on two pillars: an empathy for students' desire for success and an understanding of students' need for clarity, especially when confronted with new or demanding material. The artful modulation of intellectual challenge with success and clarity represents the core of DI.

To this end, the DI movement has attempted a more precise understanding of teaching and learning. Admittedly, in the early years some issues were oversimplified-jtist as holistic educators such as Heshusius and Poplin currently oversimplify. More recently, research from cognitive psychology and teacher cognition has forced a reexamination of some earlier conceptions. As Heshusius notes, we have been grappling with increasingly complex learning situations, in which several responses to a question make sense or the knowledge base is not well defined (Gersten, Carnine, & Woodward, 1987; Gersten & Dimino, in press). The resulting refinements of key DI concepts represent both a shift in our thinking and an enrichment of the DI tradition. However, clarity and student success-the initial cornerstones of the movement--remain at the heart of this tradition.

Heshusius states that in DI, "student-generated ideas are to be avoided" (p. 319). She supports that assertion by citing a 1986 article by Gersten, Woodward, and Darch which discussed the need for precision, clarity, and focus in teaching students with disabilities. This is a case of ignoring context to distort the author's intent.

The example in the article described a teacher attempting to convey technical material--in this case information on oceanography--to a group of low performing students. I actually observed this teacher utilizing the instructions in the basal teacher's guide to facilitate this lesson. The students were asked to guess what an oceanographer does. During the 5-minute "discussion" that followed, it was clear students had no idea what an oceanographer does. Students talked about going to the beach, going swimming, having picnics at the beach, even getting into fights at the beach. Little of the conversation was relevant to the topic at hand-oceanography.

More important, it was also clear that the discussion was not helping students develop any understanding. In fact, many seemed quite bored by the aimless and unstimulating interaction--some were talking to neighbors, others staring into space. When the teacher began talking about oceanography, student interest and attention increased.

In contrast to the science example, a wide range of student-generated ideas are discussed, analyzed, and utilized as points of departure for discussion in other DI research. Work by Dimino et al. (1990) and Gurney et al. (1990), for example, focuses on literature instruction. In these cases students did possess the relevant background knowledge, and the goal of instruction--rather than to convey technical material--was to encourage students to expand upon their thoughts on the characters and their motives.

Heshusius' point about the value of errors is actually a case of agreement rather than disagreement between the two traditions. She notes, errors are an intrinsic, natural, valuable, and welcome part of authentic learning. Errors can be sources of the emergence of understanding" (p. 325). Virtually all writing on DI supports this point of view. Errors are seen as a crucial source of information for the teacher (Engelmann & Carnine, 1982; Gersten, Woodward, & Darch, 1986). In a sense, the art of DI is the art of responding to students' misconceptions, guesses, or mistakes.

Direct instruction provides teachers with a framework for attempting to understand the sources of misunderstanding and a battery of techniques for helping students develop a deeper understanding of the concept, process, or strategy being studied. At times, the issue is simply accuracy: a student may misidentify a number, misread a word, provide an inaccurate answer to a computational problem, or give an inaccurate definition of a word. In DI there is a rather intricate system for providing clear assistance to students in many of these instances. Depending on the situation, these errors require different instructional strategies--from merely reminding the student of the factual error, to asking for clarification or expansion, to reminding students of a cognitive strategy that may be helpful. Observational studies have shown that the type of feedback provided is often related to enhanced student learning (Brophy & Good, 1986; Englert, 1984; Gersten, Carnine, & Williams, 1982).

There are, however, errors beyond simple accuracy. Students may, for example, present answers that are not supported by the material they have read or answers that are underdeveloped. In these cases, the sort of dialogue encompassed in cognitive-strategy instruction (Harris & Pressley, 1991) or scaffolded instruction (Palincsar, 1986) appear to be the best approaches for encouraging students to interact with the text in a more dynamic, thoughtful fashion.

On other occasions, students present exciting, divergent ideas, including interpretations of character motives or analyses of themes of stories that are original. Here the teacher's role may simply be to express appreciation and/or encourage the student to develop this idea in a piece of writing. Direct instruction provides only one framework for mediating instruction. It is a rich framework, but is hardly all-encompassing.


Although not mentioned by Heshusius, Gersten, Woodward, and Darch (1986) included a lengthy discussion of another fundamental principle of DI: "The purpose of devising an overt strategy is to make the thinking process ... obvious to students. This overt demonstration and guidance is most important ... for students who do not intuitively devise ways of carrying out such tasks" [italics added] (p. 20).

Recently, several prominent minority educators and scholars such as Delpit (1988) and Reyes (1990, 1991) have begun to articulate why holistic/process-oriented, "progressive" approaches can be "disasters" for many minority students (p. 286). Their analysis has direct relevance for special education.

Delpit (1988) concluded that teachers utilizing a process approach to teaching writing or a whole language approach to literacy instruction often "create situations in which students ultimately find themselves held accountable for knowing a set of rules about which no one has ever directly informed them.... Students will be judged on their product regardless of the process they utilized to achieve it" (p. 287). She observes that if explicit instruction is not provided, many students may feel like "there are secrets being kept, that time is being wasted, that the teacher is abdicating his or her duty to teach" (p. 287). In Delpit's view, the success of DI reading programs with many minority students is due to the fact that these programs teach new information to children who have not previously acquired it either at home or on their own.

Delpit does not, however, propose an educational program that is based totally on DI. Rather, she calls for a creative synthesis of explicit instruction with maximal use of natural text, natural language, and intrinsically motivating activities.


In her essay, Heshusius describes a student "whose progress according to CBA/DI measures in reading achievement is poor, (but) nonetheless has read several books, who can tell you very well what has been read, and who has gained insight and poses questions about the material" (p. 323). Though I suppose such students do exist, in my 22 years in this field I have yet to meet any. Nor have I met any teachers who would perceive such a student as a problem.

My current research involves collaboration with classroom teachers in two inner city schools in California. The purpose of the collaboration is to assist the teachers (and their paraprofessional aides) in improving the reading performance of the students who are diagnosed as learning disabled or "at risk" (typically one fourth to one third of their classes). All the teachers use a whole-language methodology, as mandated by the state. After spending nearly 2 years observing and working with the students, the teachers, and the curricula, we have learned many things.

On the one hand, we have noted only rare instances of the sort of "authentic" learning Heshusius (1991) or Garcia, Pearson, and Jimenez (1990) discuss; within the context of holistic instruction, a good deal of time is devoted to the mechanics of writing, spelling, and punctuation. We also have noted that, sometimes, the strategies that seem to work for the class as a whole leave the students in the lower third of the class lost or bored. Frequently, we have observed lower performing students spending large portions of instructional time copying--definitions from the dictionary, stories from the board, sentences and stories from their neighbors (Lindsey, 1990; Woodward & Gersten, 1992). We have also observed instances of students spending blocks of time ambling around the room, braiding a friend's hair, or simply staring into space. This seems tragic.

On the other hand, we have found that many teachers and students clearly enjoy the holistic approach in reading and language arts. The use of high-quality literature significantly increases student and teacher motivation. The increased focus on concepts stimulates lively class discussions. The increased emphasis on expressive writing promotes student thinking and creativity.

At times we have seen lower performing students actively engaging in collaborative and meaningful learning experiences--analyzing stories, evaluating characters, or freely critiquing each others' writing style. in these cases, the results are exhilarating. Holistic/process approaches to literacy instruction can create learning environments where students develop these capacities and abilities. I doubt that a diet consisting solely of teacher-directed DI will ever accomplish this.

Most important, we have observed that in practice these two traditions can be merged, integrated, and enhanced. The polemical tone of the Heshusius essay is not reflective of the way most teachers think about issues in reading curricula.

Now is a perfect time for serious, systematic inquiry that attempts to explore instructional environments for special education students using constructs from DI, cognitive science, and holistic traditions. The goal of the research and inquiry--both qualitative and quantitative--should be a balanced and valid (not necessarily "objective" in a Newtonian sense) analysis of factors that enhance learning. Polemical stances such as Heshusius', though useful in stimulating discussion, are no substitute for careful analysis and inquiry into teaching and learning. Ideally, our aspirations should be guided by what Nabokov (1980) described as the passion of the scientist and the precision of the artist.


Brophy, J. E., & Good, T. L. (1986). Teacher behavior and student achievement. In M. C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (pp. 376-391). New York: Macmillan.

Delpit, L. D. (1988). The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people's children. Harvard Educational Review, 58(3), 280-298.

Dimino, J., Gersten, R., Carnine, D., & Blake, G. (1990). Story grammar: An approach for promoting at-risk secondary students' comprehension of literature. Elementary School Journal,91(1),19-32.

Engelmann, S., & Carnine, D. (1982). Theoty of instruction. New York: Irvington.

Englert, C. (1984). Effective direct instruction practices in special education settings. Remedial and Special Education, 5(2), 38-47.

Garcia, G. Pearson, P., Jimenez, R. (1990). The at risk dilemma: A synthesis of reading research. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Reading Research and Education Center.

Gersten, R., Carnine, D., & Williams, P. (1982). Measuring implementation of a structured educational model in an urban setting: An observational approach. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 4, 67-79.

Gersten, R., Carnine, D., & Woodward, P. (1987). Direct instruction research: The third decade. Remedial and Special Education, 8(6),48-56.

Gersten, R., & Dimino, J. (in press). Visions and revisions: A perspective on the whole language controversy. Remedial and Special Education.

Gersten, R., Woodward, J., & Darch, C. (1986). Direct instruction: A research-based approach for curriculum design and teaching. Exceptional Children, 53, 17-36.

Gurney, D., Gersten, R., Dimino, J., & Carnine, D. (1990). Story grammar: Effective literature instruction for high school students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23(6), 335-342.

Hardison, 0. B., Jr. (1989), Disappearing through the skylight. London: Penguin.

Harris, K., & Pressley, M. (1991). The nature of cognitive strategy instruction: Interactive strategy construction. Exceptional Children, 57, 392-404.

Heshusius, L. (1991). Curriculum-based assessment and direct instruction: Critical reflections on fundamental assumptions. Exceptional Children, 57, 315-328.

Lindsey, M. (1990). The curricular experiences of at risk first graders in programs designed to promote success in literacy theory and research: Analyses from multiple paradigms. In J. Zutell and S. McCormick (Eds.), Thirty-ninth Yearbook of the National Reading Conference, (pp. 79-88). New York: National Reading Conference.

Nabokov, V. (1980). Franz Kafka: "The Metamorphosis." In F. Bowers (Ed.), Nabokov: Lectures on Literature, (pp. 251-283). New York: Harcorut, Brace, Jovanovich.

Palincsar, A. S. (1986). The role of dialogue in providing scaffolded instruction. Educational Psychologist, 21(1&2), 73-98.

Reyes, M. (1991). A process approach to literacy using dialogue journals and literature logs with second language learners. Research in the Teaching of English, 25(3), 291-313.

Reyes, M. (1991, April). The "one size fits all" approach to literacy. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL.

Woodward, J., & Gersten, R. (1992). Literary instruction for language minority students who are at-risk for school failure: Six case studies. (Tech. Rep. No. 92-1). Eugene, Oregon: Eugene Research Institute.


RUSSELL GERSTEN (CEC OR Federation) is a Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Oregon, Eugene.

The author wishes to thank Lisa Howard, Martha Morvant, Thomas Keating, Craig Darch, Christine Kolar, and Joseph Dimino for valuable feedback on an earlier draft of this article.

Exceptional Children, Vol. 58, No. 5, pp. 464-467 [C] 1992 The Council for Exceptional Children
COPYRIGHT 1992 Council for Exceptional Children
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gersten, Russell
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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