One of my stat profs loved academic arguments. He enjoyed reading journal articles arguing different points of view. He especially enjoyed going to conferences and watching other stat profs fight over the minutiae of their field. One of his anecdotes centered on a conference where the book The Bell Curve was a featured topic. “People were screaming at one another,” he noted with glee. Good stuff!
Academic arguments, my professor maintained, are where new knowledge and ideas are tested, refined, and eventually accepted or rejected once the dust settles. Like a schoolyard brawl, people come running far and wide just to watch. Well, at least those in that field of academia do.
Currently an academic skirmish is in full swing over a paper published a year ago that strongly attacked constructivist learning. I have to speak in broad generalities here, but basically constructivists believe learning can be facilitated through the student creating her own knowledge. A constructivist would say: you can tell a student something all day, but if she discovers it on her own it will hold a much more powerful impression. Also, learning by doing will always be stronger than passive approaches.
An instructivist believes the teacher must guide the child in learning. An instructivist would say: you have to tell the student what he needs to know. Otherwise, how do you know he’s learning what you want him to know? He can’t get there (at least, not efficiently) unless you show him the way.
Probably most learning takes place somewhere between the two camps, and in truth many people likely fall on a spectrum between the two extremes. Nonetheless, slavish adherents exist on both sides, ready to rail against the other side’s philosophical position.
Constructivist learning is generally promoted in university education departments. In K-12 settings, where high stakes examinations at the state level are so important, instructivist learning dominates. The thinking here is, if students are to pass the state exam they must be directly taught what is on the state exam. So, instructivism dominates in schools.
At this point it may be prudent to note that, broadly speaking, folks involved in educational gaming tend to fall in the constructivist camp. One of the underlying assumptions of serious/educational/instructional games is that the whole videogame structure is one offering high engagement for potential learners. Thus, while some games are designed to “trick” players into picking up knowledge or skills (the hidden agenda approach), others are more overt in their pedagogy while couching objectives in an experiential gaming environment. But, they all assume players will engage in the game rather than passively consume information such as that transmitted in a lecture.
So with that as background, we come to our current fight. The paper in question is by Paul A. Kirschner, over at the Educational Technology Expertise Center, Open University of The Netherlands and Research Centre Learning in Interaction, Utrecht University, The Netherlands; John Sweller over at the School of Education, University of New South Wales; and Richard E. Clark, over at the Rossier School of Education at University of Southern California. The paper’s title is a shot across the bow of constructivist teaching: “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.” It appeared in Educational Psychologist last year, but as in so many other things with educational publishing, its impact is only now being fully felt.
Clark was involved in the famous Clark-Kozma Debate. This academic argument played out in the pages of Educational Technology Research and Development (ETR&D) and elsewhere, with Clark stating that, all things being equal, information transmitted via whatever media would not result in significant differences in outcomes at test time. Thus, info transmitted during a live lecture, or via videotape, or via audio recording, or through text … all would result in similar scores when subjects were tested on the information. Clark called this the delivery truck metaphor. Media is essentially the delivery truck, and it affects content no differently than real delivery trucks affect theirs. Kozma, for his part, felt Clark was painting with too broad a brush.
Clark has joined Kirschner and Sweller in the current debate. Several academics have taken exception to the arguments outlined in their paper. The most prominent is Stephen Downes over at the National Research Council Canada, Institute for Information Technology. Downes has linked a video of a lecture he gave addressing identified shortcomings in the paper on his main site, downes.ca. In addition, on his Half an Hour blog, Downes has posted the back and forth between him and Kirschner over debated details. He lists his arguments against the paper here. Finally, he has a long post called Kirschner, Sweller, Clark (2006) – Readings, that lists an extensive set of comments from people across academia and the blogosphere who have opined on the paper.
We’ll see what happens when the dust settles. Personally, I’m a fan of constructivist teaching when possible and practical. Many times when teaching to the test as required in our schools these days, a constructivist lesson is not the most efficient way to impart knowledge. But, there are times when a constructivist approach leads to profound and life changing lessons. The constructivist approach is especially useful for those “fuzzy” lessons that defy standardization such as on ethics, leadership, and social factors.
I’ve also noticed, especially with computer programs, few people want to “take the time” to read the manual. Instead, they’d rather jump right into the program and start figuring things out. I would say these people are eschewing the instructivist approach in favor of a constructivist one. In fact, one is hard pressed to find a substantial written instruction manual included with software programs these days. There may be online help included, or a brief “getting started” document. But, instructivists must resort to buying separate books for extensive program manuals. There is a lesson there, somewhere …
Clark, R.E. (1994). Media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 21-29.
Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R.E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2). 75-86.
Kozma, R. (1994). A reply: Media and methods. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(3), 11-14.