Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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( 'Nother Solent is this blog's good twin. Same words, searchable archives, RSS feed. Provided by a benefactor, to whom thanks.
I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Re-naming it every ten years hasn't made it work. Read Joanne Jacobs linking to Ken DeRosa linking in turn to an article in Educational Psychologist magazine called Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clark.

These three links all have worthwhile stuff to read in them, so I'm telling you to read all three. OK, I'm also admitting that I have only skim-read the paper itself - but I've always said that "Do as I say not as I do" has a lot more going for it as a teaching strategy than it is given credit for.

Anyway. It's been called discovery learning, experiential learning, problem-based learning, inquiry learning and now (heaven help us) "constructivist instructional techniques".

Whatever you call it, it gives worse results for most people most of the time than just telling them. So why do people keep coming up with new discovery-learning programmes decade after decade? Why do they keep getting it wrong? (I'm not saying that getting students to discover stuff for themselves has no place in a teacher's repertoire of techniques. Ultimately, it is true, all teaching should give the student tools to discover things for themselves. I am saying that teachers should spend more time on direct instruction and less time on discovery learning than they currently do.)

My take: the sort of people who think these programmes up are unreasonably generalising from their own experience. Here are three reasons why they do this:

Reason #1: the sort of people who become teachers and devisers of learning programmes did well in school. Their own memories of learning are the memories of successful students. Geeks, nerds and brainboxes are the ones who are most likely to be able to make the leap, to discover the next step for themselves. They wrongly assume that what worked for them works for all. They forget that most students are less successful (or as we teachers like to put it, "thicker") than they were.

Reason #2: in one's study of any subject the times when one is most likely to learn by discovery come later, when one is already firmly grounded in the subject. (The section early in the paper on "Cognitive Architecture" deals with why this is so. See, I have read some of it.) When teachers and devisers of learning programmes remember their own experience of learning, their later, discovery-heavy memories are clearer than their earlier, instruction-heavy memories. They give the way they learned more recently too large a weighting compared to the way they learned in early childhood.

Reason #3(a): the moment of discovery is glorious. Remember? Of course you do. You laughed, you gasped, you punched the air. Unfortunately that was not, and could not be, how you learned most of the time. The people who devise these programmes give too much weight to the extra-memorable moments of discovery compared to the weeks and months of forgettable slogging that lay between. Furthermore, they are kindhearted. They want to multiply these happy "light bulb" moments. Sadly, in doing so they also multiply those "I feel completely lost, please God let the bell ring soon" moments. Or, conversely, those "hey, this is better than working" moments - see the section in the paper headed "Knowing Less After Instruction."

Reason #3(b): we humans like to flatter ourselves. When recalling (even after minutes rather than days) the moment of discovery we overestimate how much of that discovery was our own independent genius and how much of it was really the teacher telling us all but the last step. Teachers go along with the deception. How often, teachers, have you happily acquiesced in your pupil's pleasure at having "thought something out for herself" when you know perfectly well that your lips and tongue had practically formed the first sound of the answer? Don't discontinue this practice. Sugar helps the medicine go down. (On a related track, one of Ken DeRosa's commenters, "steveh", recalls that he had a light-bulb moment while being directly taught. So have I.)

However, having read over my list of reasons for the unshakeable popularity of discovery learning, all of which revolved around people drawing mistaken conclusions from their own memories, I can't help feeling that I have not covered something more basic. When physicists discovered that there was something more rock-bottom than any of the first, second and third laws of thermodynamics, they called it the "Zeroth Law". On the same pattern I shall have a Reason Number Zero.

Reason #0: they don't want to look bossy. They don't want to look authoritarian. As it says at the end of the paper, "current constructivist views have become ideological."