This post is a tad more theoretical than most previous entries. It was drafted as an assessment task based on readings regarding the benefits/issues associated with the Direct Instruction v Constructivist debate on best pedagogical practice. Please give feedback and let me know if you think there’s anything missing. Forgive the highly narrowed vision and scope for the readings – it is not a major task and I think I may have overdone the word count by about 200%.
The debate between direct instruction (as espoused by Kirschner et al) and other methods of teacher-led instruction or ‘pedagogies’ is a contentious, political issue within Australian schools and systems. The pressure from governments and other bodies for schools to “improve” (Garrett, 2013) and provide increasingly better results for students is immense. The three articles provide an interesting and multi-layered snapshot of the debate as it stands today. There are several key themes to the debate that this blog post will explore: the theoretical stance of each article, the learning process, the role of the teacher in learning, the role of the student in learning, and finally, the purpose of learning.
Each author has a distinct stance or perspective on the type of instruction that is most effective for learning. Their differing definitions of learning shall be discussed later, but essentially Kirschner et al (2006) holds that direct instruction requires “…providing information that fully explains the concepts and procedures that students are required to learn as well as learning strategy that support that is compatible with human cognitive architecture.” (p.75) By fusing several elements into a single definition, it would seem that Kirschner et al are suggesting that methods that do not fully explain the learning-to-be are not compatible with human cognitive architecture. This is a stance refuted by Schmidt et al (2007) who specifically argue that Problem-Based-Learning (PBL – defined later) is “…potentially more compatible with the manner in which our cognitive structures are organised than the direct guided instructional approach.” (p.91) Finally, the stance of Deanna Kuhn does not subscribe wholly to either the direct-instruction (DI) ideology nor to the PBL ideology, but stands aloof to argue that “…we need to focus our attention on what sense students are making of things if we hope to influence their behavior.” (Kuhn, 2007, p.110) Clearly some subject areas (discrete disciplines) are more suited to a DI model – such as mathematics, science, law and medicine as explored in the articles. In summary, all three approaches relate to the cognitivist explanations of learning. The debate is over which sub-approach (DI or constructivist) has greater learning gains and is thus more worthwhile to implement.
This leads into the second theme apparent in all three readings: the nature of the learning process. Both Kirschner et al and Schmidt et al use the information processing approach to compare and contrast their instructional methodologies. The argument is acute when focused on the heaviness of cognitive load on students’ working memories. Despite Kirschner’s (2006) restrictive assertion that “[l]earning… is defined as a change in long-term memory…” (p.75) both the authors of this article and Schmidt et al actually agree that it is the application of this learning (rather than the ability to ‘remember’) that actually indicate that learning has, or has not, taken place. The difference – most vehemently identified by Kuhn – is that there is little discussion of the assessment of learning, what is being learnt or the group of students (assumedly in subject areas) is being ‘instructed’ for much of Kirschner’s argument. It is both logical and proven by several studies cited in the articles that in controlled experiments conducted with a specific learning goal in mind and a specific method of achieving that goal, that direct instruction will prove more beneficial. It is a self-fulfilling prediction. Schmidt et al expand the notion of learning to include the procedure by which students would – with increasing independence – approach a similar problem to that initiated by the teacher. This, in turn, includes their interaction with other students (collaboration), the teacher, and the information. Kuhn goes further to suggest that learning will only occur when students have the motivation to learn about the subject matter. This suggests that learning is not just a relationship between teacher-student-information but also requires the student to understand and interact with their own reasons for learning as an essential part of the process.
Therefore, it follows that the role of the teacher in the learning process is, depending on the stance of the author, critical in at least some way to the students’ progress and development as a learner. Within a DI model, the teacher becomes a conduit for guidance, delivery, assessment and progression to further learning. The student cannot learn and cannot progress without the direct and constant intervention of the teacher. The PBL model holds that students will learn with the teacher as the person who sets the goals and perhaps models or instructs as needed, but then moves to a more peripheral role in which guidance is given if and when the students need it. Kuhn rightly argues that there needs to be balance between the two (and other) instructional models so that students are the focus of learning and the teacher is adapting and modifying their practice to suit those who are actually in front of them. Seemingly, although the teacher is at the gateway of learning in the DI model, it appears that they are nothing more than a worker who imprints a specific mould of understanding on the student, regardless of their own skills, interests, expertise and preferences.
Kuhn actually argues that Kirschner et al “…ignore the question [of fulfilling the demands of the students’ needs]…the assumption…is that others will make the decision of wha tis to be learned and as educators their task is to identify the most efficient way in which this learning can be accomplished.” (Kuhn, p.110) Kuhn’s article is the only one of the three that places the learner at the centre of the process and argues that the teacher and educational institution or structure that exists around the learner must facilitate the kind of learning suitable to that student and respond to how students value what activities are provided to them. Kirschner also frames the progress of learning in the binary novice-expert relationship by which all students are novices that require direct instructional intervention to achieve mastery or expertise in a specific field. One of the key examples given is that of chess players achieving a particular level of expertise. This ignores one of the fundamental aspects of cognition that they themselves describe: “[cognition] is no longer seen as a passive repository of discrete, isolated fragments of information that permit us to repeat what we have learned.” (p.76) In the very example given in the next paragraph, a discrete set of memories is used to “reproduce” a specific result. In the words of Schmidt et al, “the outcome of comparison studies depends on the type of assessment used.” (p.96) Whilst students do learn in discrete subjects, it is hardly useful learning if it cannot be transferred to other areas in increasingly complex and sophisticated ways. Merely expanding and increasing the amount of information stored in our long-term memory is not sufficient to say that learning has occurred until it can be challenged, evaluated and applied in different circumstances. The student is not merely a repository of memories, therefore learning is more than just establishing long-term memories as Kirschner et al purport. Schmidt et al explore the methodological limitations of Kirschner’s article in depth (p.95-96)
This connects to the final theme: the purpose of learning. If the purpose of learning is to repeat or reproduce an action in an identical situation to that ‘taught’, DI will achieve its own goals well. If the purpose of learning is, however, a lifelong process of evolution of knowledge and skills, it does not require the usurpation of DI for PBL or other methods on the constructivist spectrum of methodologies, but rather a “balance” that acknowledges that “there is a place for both direct instruction and student-directed inquiry.” (Kuhn, p.112) Kuhn explores more widely what Schmidt et al explain are other important elements of learning i.e. interactions between the learner and others (collaboration), a process, an expert and the information (p.93). She is able to widen the scope of learning not just as a process by which students achieve a goal at the end of a specifically designed activity, but that “…[schools] should teach students to use their minds well, in school and beyond.” It is clear that Kuhn’s fear is that some instructional models work effectively when the teacher is accessible, but lose their effectiveness beyond a specific context.
The importance of these debates lies in their practical application in schooling. The challenge to find the ‘right’ method with which to teach students is sometimes an obsession that teachers or schools take to extremes: either because the school/system is highly invested in a particular ideology or approach, or the individual teacher is. The limitations associated with the somewhat exclusive positions of Kirschner et al and Schmidt et al (though the latter admits to some elements of direct instruction as being required at times within PBL) is that they ignore the reality of learning and schooling in which diversity and multi-faceted approaches are required because of a multiplicity of individual learners. Kuhn’s argument that “a teacher cannot change a student’s belief system or way of thinking unless the student wishes it to be changed” reacts to this exclusivity, but is itself naïve in thinking that students are not conditioned by the very models and systems themselves to ignore or overcome their own motivations in order to ‘succeed’ within their context – regardless of what instructional model is applied.
This debate is critically important to all educators and learners in the 21st century. Students have increasing access to information, more varied and in which digital technologies can facilitate a more engaging and effective learning environment (Write, 2010). Therefore, teachers need to be aware that their instructional models and design must be more attuned to the learning goals of the student, rather than the teacher and be targeted to the evolution of students’ skills and knowledge – beyond that required by a specific task or activity. This is an incredible challenge to teachers who are now monitored with professional standards, school or system based structures and expectations, as well as the wider expectations of the school community and society. Students are no longer only learning within the confines of the classroom, in tandem with what teachers instruct, but anywhere, anytime. This requires students to be equipped with a complex array of skills and knowledge-acquisition practices that they value and can apply in different circumstances. They need to be able to analyse, evaluate and assess their own learning practices in order to confirm or challenge their learning in new situations. The best method of instruction, and the very role of the teacher in the modern learning environment, is therefore an area of critical debate.
Garrett, P., (2013) Back to better schools for NSW, http://www.petergarrett.com.au/back-to-better-schools-for-nsw/
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
Kuhn, D. (2007). Is direct instruction an answer to the right question? Educational Psychologist, 42 (2), 109-113.
Schmidt, H., Loyens, S., Van Gog, T., and Paas, F., (2006). Problem-based learning is compatible with human cognitive architecture: Commentary on Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 91-97.
Wright, N. (2010). e-learning, Outcomes and Pedagogy: What does recent evidence have to say? In D. Gronn, & G. Romeo (Eds) ACEC2010: Digital Diversity.