The Difference Between Learning And Instruction – Caine’s Arcade


An article has just appeared in American Educator which, essentially, argues that educators who believe in the value of experiential, problem-based learning, are misguided fools. ‘Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction’, written by Richard E. Clark, Paul A. Kirschner and John Sweller seeks to ‘put an end to (the) debate’ around which mode of learning is best: partially-guided instruction (as seen in discovery learning, problem-based learning, or inquiry learning) or fully-guided instruction.

It’s a long-ish article, so I’d urge you to read it for yourself. But the gist of it goes something like this: advocates of constructivist approaches to learning are wilfully ignoring decades of rigorous research who proves, beyond doubt, that for novice learners, (defined by the authors as almost all of us) fully-guided instruction is the way to learn.

I don’t know about you, but my hackles rise when I see learned professors seeking to ‘put an end’ to debate. it just smacks of absolutism. The article in question is actually not saying anything terribly new: it is summarising a longer, previous paper headed ‘Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work’. Following the publication of this paper, in 2006, there were many counter studies cited by those seeking not to put an end to the debate, just wishing to present an alternate view. Not least among those arguing that Inquiry-Based Learning can be very effective was John Hattie’s seminal ‘Visible Learning’ meta-analysis, which ranked problem based learning and creativity programs within the top 20 strategies to improve learning effectiveness.

There is, however, another aspect to this kind of academic snobishness that irks me. Why do these arguments get presented in such a polarised manner? Who said it was either/or? And, of course, minimal guidance during ‘instruction’ is pretty pointless – it barely counts as guidance.

When, during the Learning Futures development and research phase, we asked students how they preferred to learn they (not having reputations to defend) said they preferred a 60/40 blend: 60% of scaffolded inquiry-based approaches, and 40% didactic instruction. Why? Because, while there are times when you just need to know stuff (and it’s quicker for the teacher to just tell you), they also felt that knowledge was more likely to stick, if they’d acquired it whilst trying to solve a practical problem.

This article points to an even bigger question, for me, though. What do we mean by ‘learning’? The authors imply that learning is simply about reaching into the long-term memory data banks to find previous ‘worked examples’ which will provide a solution to presented problems. They cite chess masters as prime examples of this, being able to beat several opponents at once by retrieving data on previous moves from their memory banks. I don’t know much about chess, but I do recal Bobby Fischer emphasising the importance of speculation and intuition. To which I might add imagination, emotion and engagement.

In a future where a connected mind is likely to be at a premium, should we not be seeing ‘learning’ as more than just store-and-retrieve? Sure, that might help you pass a standardised test, but will it help you put two ideas together to create a new one? And, if a student becomes engaged (and inquiry and problem-based approaches seem remarkably good at engaging students) aren’t they going to be more likely to apply some discretionary energy into learning more about concepts and theories, because doing so could explain why an experimental didn’t work fully? We do know that, if knowledge isn’t re-visited regularly, we lose it. This explains why most of us can’t remember much of what we rote-learned in our childhoods, no matter how guided the instruction. If we weren’t engaged at the time of the instruction, we aren’t likely to want to re-visit it.

Solving problems, recognising the part our emotions play when learning, following hunches, daydreaming (also known as using your imagination) might seem to Profs Clark, Kirtchner and Sweller as ‘inefficient’. But I’d argue that they all help engage they learner and without engagement, there’s no deep, or lasting, learning.

By way of illustration, I invite you to visit Caine’s Arcade, in the video below, and ask yourself if you think that he will have long-term memories of how he solved problems through experience, experimentation, emotion and intuition? I would love to hear your views.

10 Responses to The Difference Between Learning And Instruction – Caine’s Arcade

  1. Robert says:

    I agree. A little while ago I read ¨Why Don´t Students Like School¨by D. T. Willingham. I ended up thinking that whilst his approach may be the most effective in theory (he was championing more didactic approaches), in reality this is likely to turn students off of learning. Keeping students active and engaged is the most important thing if learning is going to take place.

  2. David Price says:

    Robert, I also read Willingham’s book and felt the same way. It reminds me of the cartoon where the kid says ‘I’m teaching my dog to whistle’ The other kids says ‘But your dog has never whistled’ ‘I said I was teaching him, I didn’t say he’d learned’.The operation (judging teaching by test scores) may prove to be successful, but what if the side effect is a hatred of school, or even learning?

  3. oldandrewuk says:

    I’m not terribly impressed with all this. Let’s run through the issues I have with your arguments.1) The ad hominem attacks about “absolutism” and ending the debate. This is little more than a complaint that they have dared point out that their case is highly convincing. Presumably, if they had given people more wriggle room to go on being wrong then that would be okay? It’s always the most desperate of attacks on an argument to imply it’s bad to ever be convinced by anything.2) There were, indeed, counter-arguments to that original paper, but they were not very good. Most just quibbled about definitions. There have also been counter-arguments to those counter-arguments. By all means refer to that debate but don’t simply imply that because the debate happened then there must have been merit to both sides of it.3) I think you are being very misleading about Hattie. Top 20 is not good. If you have read Visible Learning then you’d know Hattie considers an effect size below 0.4 to be worthless. He gives Inquiry based teaching 0.31 and problem-based learning an appalling 0.15. This simply confirms the very case you are citing it against.4) The article you are replying to already observed that students often favour the less effective teaching methods, so citing a survey of how they want to be taught is utterly pointless. Giving an explanation for their opinions, when you know all the evidence suggests that their explanation is wrong, does not help your case either. It seems to suggest that as long as your students are mistaken then everyone else should be too. 5) Redefining the nature of learning, in order to remove the centrality of memory is out of place if you are replying to cognitive psychologists. If there is one thing we know from cognitive psychology it is that thinking is based on knowledge. Obviously anybody in a losing argument about education methods can move the goalposts (I wrote about this here… ) but if you are going to respond to cognitive psychologists you should at least avoid resorting to a folk psychology that has long since been discredited.6) Engagement is a weasel word of the first order. If it means paying attention, or acknowledging teaching then it is important. If it means being entertained or finding the learning experience pleasurable then it isn’t. We can always defend poor teaching by claiming it is engaging.

  4. David Price says:

    Andrew,Thanks for dropping by and commenting. Sorry you’re not impressed. I suspect that whatever I say will cut no ice with you, but let me offer a few clarifications:1. I like that, now that the authors have closed down any wriggle room, the rest of us can go back to fully guided, direct instruction – it saves all that tiresome dialogue;2. I actually read a lot of the counter-arguments, and found some of them quite impressive : Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver, Ravit Golan Duncan, and Clark A. Chinn (2006); Chinn and Hung (2007) ; Geier et al (2011). But, I tried to acknowledge there was merit in both approaches, according to context. 3. I did actually read Hattie. We could argue about effect size all day, but I took the effectiveness ranking direct from Hattie.4. I’m sorry that you think students shouldn’t have a say in the way they’re taught. Following your logic, there’s clearly no point in asking them anything, since they always opt for the wrong thing.5. I wasn’t trying to redefine learning, nor was I trying to remove the centrality of memory – just trying to suggest there was maybe more to it than simply recalling information.6. If engagement is a weasel word, then we really need to stop most of the developed world from talking about it – they’re all, missing the point.I’m sure you’re enjoying teaching – I note your blog is titled ‘Scenes from the Battleground’. I’m sure you’re just being ironic.

  5. David Didau says:

    I’ve come up against the same problem myself: I know direct instruction is useful and I also know that it’s appeal is limited. Children don’t enjoy a steady diet of DI and get excited about the opportunity to work together and solve problems. Maybe it’s true that students don’t know what’s best for them but I know that if they’re not interested then they’re unlikely to learn much. I don’t really understand why Andrew is so against children being entertained: engagement is not evidence of poor teaching per se. Surely gaining students’ interest is a prerequisite for getting them to learn stuff?I read Willingham with interest and am convinced by much of what he says. That does not mean the constructivist baby needs to be thrown out with the bathwater: it’s just one more way for getting students to transfer knowledge from working to long term memory. Efficiency is not necessarily good. I have become very efficient at training students to get C gardes in English despite their functional illiteracy. This is not something of which I am especially proud but is often the best we can do when instruction is valued above learning.

  6. oldandrewuk says:

    1) You appear to be repeating the same point again. Still not convincing to anyone interested in the content of the argument.2) I didn’t say you hadn’t read them, I said that you should not talk about them as if they held up as solid arguments. They have, on the whole, been pretty comprehensively dealt with: I didn’t say you hadn’t read Hattie, just that if you have then you must know how misleading your claim about Hattie’s research is. I’m disappointed that you have still not acknowledged that, by Hattie’s standards, inquiry based teaching and problem based learning don’t work. 4) Pretty rotten strawman. Obviously there are plenty of things that students can be asked. However, the relevant evidence suggests that how they learn best is not one of them and I was not happy that you simply glossed over this point.5) The point is that, according to cognitive psychology, you are wrong.6) Please don’t equate progressive educationalists with the entire developed world. The obsession with promoting entertainment over education is not universal and, even if it was, that wouldn’t make it right.If I had a pound for every time somebody on the losing side of an argument came up with an ad hominem about the title of my blog then I’d be a rich man. My blog has that title because I think that those who want children to learn do have to battle with constant obstructions. For me, one such obstruction has been external pressure to use ineffective methods like problem-based learning or inquiry learning. As long as I have to defend actual teaching and mainstream psychology from those who would deny it, then I’ll stick with the title.

  7. David Price says:

    Andrew: we see the world very differently. Since you’re convinced I’m on the ‘losing side’ of this argument (I didn’t realise it was a competition), there’s not much point in taking it any further.

  8. Matthew Bebbington says:

    David,A thought provoking read. I continually ask myself what the best balance is between instruction, discovery and reflection. The best answer I can come up with is this: Best practice is doing what is right for each indivudual in each individual situation’. ThIs is a challenging ask of any educator but one we must aspire to on a daily basis. Nobody said providing an excellent education for every child would be an easy thing to do, but it is worth actively pursuing consistently.Here is a linked post from my blog: A Built to Last Education: A lesson from business:…Thanks again,Matt

  9. David Price says:

    Matt,I really liked your post. Thanks for commenting.

  10. Rob Smith says:

    I was going to comment but oldandrewUK already has and I can’t be bothered by his deranged blinkered rants!

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