“Why minimally guided instruction does not work”

Jul 18, 2006

Miles Berry

There’s been an interesting debate on one of the moodle.org forums over the last few days provoked by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s paper in Educational Psychologist 1. I tend to agree with Martin Dougiamas that the paper as it stands doesn’t actually have much to do with Moodle, as Moodle’s support for scaffolded, social constructionist learning is quite a way removed from the ‘minimal instruction’, discovery based pedagogy that the authors are arguing against, but it does raise some interesting points, and there’s perhaps a danger that all constructivist approaches might be tarred with the same brush. It’s also perhaps worth noting how splendid it is that discussions like this happen in Moodle’s forums: a strong reason for not ghettoising us UK school moodlers, nor can I imagine many other learning platforms in the UK market with this level of debate in their online support communities.

One of the main problems with the authors’ argument is, to my mind at least, their failure to acknowledge much by way of a social dimension to learning – their comparison seems largely to be between content delivery led by a teacher and alternative approaches in which learners work things out for themselves. This seems to ignore the whole range of approaches in which learners are empowered to learn from other learners, including those perhaps just that little bit further along the learning journey but still inside their Zone of Proximal Development, and a whole range of others with expertise in the field, either directly or through their writings. Of course, traditionally this third way was limited at school level, where the learning network was restricted to those in the class, most of whom would be at roughly the same level, their teacher, the textbook and maybe the school library, but with net access from our classroom and desktops, the number and variety of others with whom learners may engage is orders of magnitude greater. Not only does this extended learning network provide more sources from which students may learn, it also open up a whole host of opportunities for them to teach – as they explain new concepts to each other, and work together to solve problems, I’m sure that the quality of their learning is enhanced, as is the likelihood that such concepts can make it into longer term memory.

Even if one discounts the social dimension of learning, I think there’s evidence from informal, independent learning outside of the formal classroom that a discovery, problem-based or just-in-time approach may have life in it yet. When I think of my own, admittedly limited, experience with things like Linux and windows administration, and the minimal amounts of HTML coding, PHP and Fortran programming that I’ve been involved with, none of this has been something I’ve been taught, but has all been stuff I’ve discovered through a process combining experimentation and reading; OK, I have an O level in computer studies, but I suspect the content from this hasn’t been too important in the ‘expertise’ I’ve built up since. I don’t think my experience here is particularly unusual, especially in those fields where a learner’s interest is engaged, such as computer gaming, obviously, I suspect the chess players the authors talk about, and plenty of the fun stuff my pupils engage with outside school. I think part of what we’ve seen with discovery/problem based/constructivist ‘instruction’ has been an attempt to bring some of this enthusiasm for finding out how to do stuff inside the classroom and applying it to academic disciplines, with perhaps variable success. I suspect the ‘cognitive load’ of this sort of learning exceeds the level which the authors would regard as conducive.

Although at a fundamental level it’s difficult to argue with their contention that “The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory”, it would be all too easy to interpret this in narrow terms of knowing stuff, with a danger of returning to Gradgrind‘s “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts”. Whilst I think we’d acknowledge that “expert problem solvers derive their skill by drawing on their extensive experience”, which is, of course, stored in long term memory, this experience is only partly made up of the “facts, laws, principles and theories that make up a disciplines content”, but must also include a more practical understanding of their application, and some elements of critical reflection and engagement with the discipline’s community of practice. When we think about what it means to be ‘educated’, I’m sure most of us would include more than simply ‘knowing stuff’ in our definition – an educated person is surely someone able to take delight in and contribute to a range of activities, someone who can think reflectively and creatively for themselves, someone who can engage in a purposeful dialogue with others, and who can make a positive impact on their community and society. Whilst much of this will flow from the knowledge learnt at school, more still will be developed through the social process within which that knowledge is acquired, and I’m not convinced that being instructed in facts and studying worked examples are going to be the most effective ways to bring about this broader, perhaps less easily measurable, educational agenda. I think even today, given how easy it is to get to information, knowing stuff is less important than being able to find stuff out and apply it to novel contexts Fast forward 30 years, and let’s imagine there’s a nanotech pill that can mess with your neurons so that you know all the stuff up to A-level, degree, whatever – I suspect that taking the pill still wouldn’t be enough to provide an education, that there’d still be a place for schools, and that place would have much to do with social interaction, creativity, individuality (or personalisation if you must) and novel experience.

It’s interesting that the authors focus on the hard sciences, mathematics and medicine for their examples, perhaps those disciplines with a relatively high reliance on a body of knowledge that needs to be properly assimilated. I find it difficult to imagine my music, art or PE colleagues being able to do much by way of teaching their disciplines without some opportunity for pupils to learn through experience and for themselves, with, of course, appropriate scaffolding and guidance.The same seems to be true for writing, history, foreign languages etc these days. It seems to me that in these subjects a very strong case can be made for “learning a discipline by experiencing the processes and procedures of the discipline”, which the authors seem to think so inappropriate in the sciences. It would be interesting to learn about the results of randomised, controlled studies in these disciplines too.

The authors cite research in which constructivist approaches have produced lower test scores than approaches using direct instruction. Whilst this isn’t news, and the ‘no significant difference’ phenomemon is well documented elsewhere, it does rather come back to a question of what’s being measured – if the measure of success is recall of facts and their application to relatively familiar problems, then it’s not entirely surprising that pedagogic approaches which emphasise this dimension will produce better results. The experience of teaching to the test is far from uncommon, and high input methods such as detailed revision notes, worked examples and practice papers are certainly felt to be effective by many, if effectiveness is determined by performance on narrow spectrum tests, as indeed it is in UK and US education. Finding broader spectrum ways of measuring wider educational impacts has to be high up the agenda, and I’m hopeful that e-portfolios, peer review, reflective blogging and data mining might make visible and measurable things which otherwise would be overlooked. I know it’s a cliche, but this is about measuring what we value rather than valuing what we measure. I’m optimistic that the cool stuff being done over at QCA Futures will make it from the C to the Q section of the Authority in time.

The sort of constructionist approach that Moodle (and other VLEs) can facilitate beyond the confines of the classroom, and which many of us believe most effective in the classroom, is not simply one providing activities in which learners might find things out for themselves, but one of engaging, supporting and guiding them in meaningful work together, in which not only do they construct artifacts embodying their understanding but also the mental schemas on which future applications of this knowledge. If you’ll forgive the tortured metaphor, most construction projects might well need the vision and attention to detail of an architect, due regard for building regulations, proper foundations, and some scaffolding, at least in the early stages. Most importantly, these sort of projects tend to be the result of teamwork.I’m just trying to decide whether my role is architect or site manager, but either way, it’s great to have the right tools for the job.

[1] Kirschner PA, Sweller J, Clark, RE (2006) “Why minimally guided instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching”, Educational Psychologist 41:2 p75-86. Preprint available online.