After having a short discussion with Guy Wallace on his blog, I decided to do a review of Kirschner, Sweller and Clark's, Why Minimal Guidance during Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching, in which they postulate that students who learn in classrooms with pure-discovery methods and minimal feedback often become lost and frustrated, and their confusion can lead to misconceptions.
The paper caused a bit of a stir in the learning and training community when it was published five years ago, especially among those who lean towards a more constructivist approach. However, while the author's critics did raise some good points, the paper is a good reminder that learning and training professionals often carry new ideals and technologies to the extreme. For example:
- We had the visual movement from about 1900—1950, which brought us Dale's Cone of Experience. And of course someone had to add some bogus percentages to it to make it more “official.”
- When VCR's arrived we made training tapes of everything… even if it did not make sense.
- eLearning was supposed to kill the classroom.
- Formal and informal learning were supposed to be at odds which each other, even though each hour of formal learning spills over to four-hours of informal learning.
- All learning is social! Uhh… no. While the majority of learning may be social we often still learn things on our own.
Thus Kirschner, Sweller and Clark's paper is an important reminder for us to not carry Problem Based Learning (PBL) to its extreme. That is, while it has its strengths, learners often need a more direct approach in order to build a solid foundations before being presented with PBL.
With that being said, we do need to take a closer look at the paper. For those that are interested, there is a list of papers that discuss the Direct Instruction versus Constructivism Controversy (they are located at the bottom of the page).
The Title and Paper gives Little Respect to the Constructivism Approach
With the title blaring, “Why Minimal Guidance during Instruction Does Not Work” rather than, “Why Minimal Guidance during Instruction Does Not Work for Novice Learners,” the authors almost seem to ignore that PBL is a necessity in order to promote deeper levels of understanding. They do pay some respect to constructivism, such as:
Higher aptitude students who chose highly structured approaches tended to like them but achieve at a lower level than with less structured versions
Certain aspects of the PBL model should be tailored to the developmental level of the learners… there may be a place for direct instruction on a just-in-time basis. In other words, as students are grappling with a problem and confronted with the need for particular kinds of knowledge, a lecture at the right time may be beneficial.
However, they end up admonishing constructivist:
According to Kyle (1980), scientific inquiry is a systematic and investigative performance ability incorporating unrestrained thinking capabilities after a person has acquired a broad, critical knowledge of the particular subject matter through formal teaching processes. It may not be equated with investigative methods of science teaching, self-instructional teaching techniques and/or open-ended teaching techniques. Educators who confuse the two are guilty of the improper use of inquiry as a paradigm on which to base an instructional strategy.
But it seems, at least to me, they may be doing the same, but only at the opposite end of the continuum. For example, they seem to treat their theories as laws, yet…
Cognitive Load Theory Coming Under Withering Attacks
The paper relies heavily on Cognitive Load Theory, yet we have to realize that it is still a theory rather than a law. Will Thalheimer lists several papers on his site that raises several concerns about Cognitive Load Theory. For example, even though we know that working memory can only hold about seven chucks (which actually may only be four, give or take one), using the old KiSS (Keep it Simple Stupid) principle can be just as effect because trying to count the number of chunks can be quite difficult, if almost impossible. For example, how many chunks are in Rene Descartes statement, “I think, therefore I am?”
Thus, both the authors and the constructivism movement are guilty of jumping on theories before they are fully understood. But why do we do this? Joel Michael writes in Advances in Physiology Education:
…it is important to recognize that educational research is difficult to do; this has been cogently highlighted by Berliner (8) in "Educational research: the hardest science of them all." Berliner points out that unlike a physics experiment, in which it is possible to readily distinguish between the independent and dependent variables, and also possible to isolate and control all of the independent variables, in educational experiments all of this is problematic. Researchers may not agree on which variable is the dependent variable of greatest interest or importance. There may be disagreements about which independent variable(s) are to be manipulated. There may be disagreements about how to measure any of the relevant variables. And, finally, it may be extremely difficult, or even impossible, to isolate and manipulate all the variables suspected of being involved in the phenomena being studied.”
Rather than waiting for eons to pass before all the research is available, we (the learning, training, and educational community) often jump into a new theory because will simply do not want to wait until we are dead and buried before we can fix and/or improve our methodology. With that in mind…
Evidence for Constructivism
Joel Michael continues his discussion for promoting active learning with these two studies:
1. Support for discovery learning is provided by a study in which students engaged in a course that incorporated some discovery learning exercises were tested, and their performance on questions related to topics learned through discovery learning was compared with their performance on questions related to topics learned in lecture (Wilke, Straits, 2001). The authors concluded that performance was better on those topics learned through discovery learning.
2. Burrowes compared learning outcomes in two sections of the same course taught by the same teacher. One section was taught in the traditional teacher-centered manner (control group of 100 students), whereas the other section was taught in a manner that was based on constructivist ideas (experimental group of 104 students). The results of this experiment were striking: the mean exam scores of the experimental group were significantly higher than those of the control group, and students in the experimental group did better on questions that specifically tested their ability to “think like a scientist.” Reference: Burrowes PA. Lord's constructivist model put to a test. Am Biol Teacher 65: 491–502, 2003.
While you can find plenty of other research findings on constructivist methods, the ideal that you can teach learners to “think like scientists” is fascinating because problem solving skills are extremely hard to train. That is, conduct a problem solving course in an organizational setting and you will more than likely get little or no results. It's almost as if the process must be embodied within the discipline.
On the Brain Science Podcast, Ginger Campbell discusses Embodied Cognition with Lawrence Shapiro (both podcast and transcript can be found in the link). They note that in cognitive science, the brain is normally studied while isolated from the world and from the body. While in contrast, embodied cognition imagines not that the brain can be isolated from the body and the environment, but thinks of the body as in some sense shaping, or constraining, or involved in the very processing of the kinds of information that an organism needs to interact successfully with the world.
In the podcast, Dr. Shapiro talks about a fascinating work on the use of gesture. He notes that boys perform better in certain spatial reasoning tasks than girls. When psychologists studied this they've noticed something kind of interesting—boys rely on gestures a lot more than girls do when solving spatial reasoning tasks. Boys use gestures to work out the problem, at the same time they're talking through the problem. And often, they don't synchronize with the verbalizing. It's as if they have two different systems working at the same time—one a gesture system, and one a verbalization system. Gestures seem to be a part of the process of figuring out these spatial reasoning tasks.
They also discuss the study of kittens moving around their environments by pulling carriages with other kittens in them. And the ones in the carriages presumably see everything that the kittens pulling them see, but because they don't actually employ their motor systems to move them around the environment, their perceptual systems don't develop properly. The idea there seems to be that part of what's necessary for perception is actual exploration of the environment; not just being a passive recipient, like these kittens conveyed in the carriages are.
Thus rather than focusing on pieces of conceptually unrelated pieces of information, such as practice first and then learn problem solving second, perhaps we should be focusing our learning processes on entire ideas and concepts whenever possible.
I would interested in your thoughts on the subject by leaving a comment, creating a blog post, or through Twitter (I'm @iOPT).