As I noted in my previous entry, there is considerable disagreement over the efficacy of “student centered learning”, despite its popularity with the Twitterati. For example, in a 2006 article* from the journal Educational Psychologist, Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark argue that student centered learning – which includes constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching – is less effective than direct instruction. They argue that “minimal guidance during instruction is significantly less effective and efficient than guidance specifically designed to support the cognitive processing necessary for learning” (Kirschner et al 76).
So what is the basis for this claim? At the center of their thesis is the relationship between learning and long-term memory. If there is no measurable change in the latter, the authors explain, there is no real learning:
[A]t its most basic, the architecture of long-term memory provides us with the ultimate justification for instruction. The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned (77).
But Kirschner and his co-authors argue that student-centered learning “makes heavy demands on working memory” (ibid). This kind of thinking is immediate, short-term and procedural, and does not help students commit their efforts to long-term memory. Without guidance, students must exert an enormous amount of mental effort making sense of the information in front of them. Solving the problems of procedure tends to overwhelm any memory and understanding of the relationship between units.
Solving a problem requires problem-solving search and search must occur using our limited working memory. Problem-solving search is an inefficient way of altering long-term memory because its function is to find a problem solution, not alter long-term memory. Indeed, problem-solving search can function perfectly with no learning whatsoever (80).
Thus, students are literally overloaded and unsure where to start, and may not be any further ahead at the end of the exercise.
The authors explain that this cognitive overload is particularly noticeable for “novice learners, who lack proper schemas to integrate the new information with their prior knowledge” (80). In other words, students who do not have a strong background in a given topic cannot draw from prior experiences to make sense of the new tasks in front of them. This is why they are so overloaded dealing with procedural problem-solving. Without schemas, or scaffolding, information becomes a daunting jumble that leads to frustration. When students learn “with pure-discovery methods and minimal feedback, they often become lost and frustrated” (79). Moreover, this frustration can “lead to misconceptions” and missteps that are “inefficient” (ibid).
As a result, students new to a topic need “extensive guidance because they do not have sufficient knowledge in long-term memory to prevent unproductive problem-solving search” (80). Direct instruction is the key. Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark examine a number of individual cases where teacher-led instruction is vital. With new math concepts, for example, a teacher ought to work out equations with the students. Numerous studies show that a worked example “both reduces working memory load because search is reduced or eliminated and directs attention (i.e. directs working memory resources) to learning the essential relations between problem- solving moves” (ibid). The authors also point out that students “must construct a mental representation or schema irrespective of whether they are given complete or partial information. Complete information will result in a more accurate representation that is also more easily acquired” (78). They argue that “a growing body of research [is] showing that students learn more deeply from strongly guided learning than from discovery”; moreover, recent “findings were unambiguous. Direct instruction involving considerable guidance, including examples, resulted in vastly more learning than discovery. Those relatively few students who learned via discovery showed no signs of superior quality of learning” (79-80).
The authors do suggest that minimal guidance strategies can work, but only if the students have already acquired extensive knowledge beforehand: “guidance can be relaxed only with increased expertise as knowledge in long-term memory can take over from external guidance” (80). And even in these cases, it works best if the advanced students have undergone “some prior structured experiences” (82).
A final point from Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark is that long-term memory is absolutely important to those who wish to learn on their own. Independent problem-solving, said to epitomize student-centered learning, cannot function without a deep repository of knowledge:
We are skillful in an area because our long-term memory contains huge amounts of information concerning the area. That information permits us to quickly recognize the characteristics of a situation and indicates to us, often unconsciously, what to do and when to do it. Without our huge store of information in long-term memory, we would be largely incapable of everything from simple acts such as crossing a street … to complex activities such as playing chess or solving mathematical problems. Thus, our long-term memory incorporates a massive knowledge base that is central to all of our cognitively based activities (76-77).
Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark’s article argues that direct instruction is more efficient and more accurate than student centered learning. Direct instruction allows the student to by-pass unhelpful procedural struggles, and thus move more learning more quickly into long-term memory. Whether this is palatable set of conclusions remains to be seen, but the authors hope it will spur educators forward without prejudice:
It is regrettable that current constructivist views have become ideological and often epistemologically opposed to the presentation and explanation of knowledge… It is also easy to agree with Mayer’s (2004) recommendation that we “move educational reform efforts from the fuzzy and unproductive world of ideology—which sometimes hides under the various banners of constructivism—to the sharp and productive world of theory – based research on how people learn” (84).
*Kirschner, P. A., J. Sweller, and R.E. Clark (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. Online. Accessed July 3, 2011: (http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf)