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.