A letter to my students about why I disagree with Paul Kirschner about the Failure of Constructivist/PBL/IBL etc…

Context – my students learning to consider the viability of Learning Styles

Had a great time with my ed tech pre-service students last week. We were learning about searching (the web) and research and talking about how to be effective in learning what we need to know about tools and approaches that we come across. My edtech courses have never been particularly content focused, but after some discussions with Tom Farrelly this summer, I’ve converted it almost entirely to teaching the literacies I think students need to discover what they need to know based on their own values.

The first hour of the class was focused on looking at the learning styles information on the web and comparing it to existing research. The vast majority of my students come into class believing in learning styles and, for many, it’s the only educational theory language they are comfortable using. Our first group read was “The myth of learning styles” by Reiner and Willingham. My purpose in choosing that particular article is that, while I tend to agree that the concept of learning styles has serious limitations, at least in Willingham’s case, I don’t tend to be on… his side of education. He is more invested in memory than I am and thinks that expert learners are people like chess players. He’s a huge figure in cognitivist literature dealing with education. I used him because I wanted students to understand that research comes from a context, and finding out about that context can help you understand what a person means by words like learning.

Look at the intersection of memory and chess. The ability to remember every pattern on a chess board is going to be hugely important for people trying to be good at chess. While there are LOTS and LOTS of potential patterns, there are a limited number, and chess has clear rules about winning and losing. Much like the other examples Willingham uses, like computer science and music, we can understand how memory is going to be hugely beneficial to people working at a high expert level in those fields.

That’s not me. It’s never going to be me. I’m never going to be a world class expert in a field like chess or computer science. I would also argue that almost none of my students will be either. The important question, I think, is to consider what things we do value preparing ourselves for and considering whether our approach to teaching best prepares them to do that.

So when I offhandedly suggested to my students that there is a whole field of education that is committed to that kind of work, they quite rightly asked for the research. 🙂 A review of that literature is out of the scope of the course I’m teaching, so on the off chance that some of them are interested, I thought i would put a quick article breakdown here of one of those pieces of work.

Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching

This article has been cited over 10000 times according to google scholar, so safe to call it influential. I’m using it here because it allows me to point to some of the patterns I’ve blogged about here before, all wrapped up in a nice tight package. If you’re a constructivist, I encourage you to read the article, I think it’s a nice introduction to what the constructivist haters think. If you love Kirschner et. al., I’m happy to engage in a conversation, but it will have to start with our lack of shared epistemology. I find that conversation fascinating, I don’t find the ‘but science!’ conversation to be as fascinating.

Minimal guidance

Here’s an easy one to start with. The citation provided tying constructivist pedagogies to ‘unguided’ or ‘minimal guidance’ are not, I would suggest, sufficient to the use of the term. My constructivist classrooms are VERY guided though it’s true that I’m not handing over tons of content for people to memorize. I see the expression ‘unguided’ or ‘minimal guidance’ as a misrepresentation of what constructivism is about.

A good reference here is the Mayer article (firewalled) cited throughout. The article, from 2004, suggests that totally unguided instruction is not the best way to have people accomplish defined tasks. Totally agree. I have never found a problem based teacher, for instance, who is providing ‘totally unguided instruction’. Sure. People aren’t going to discover an algorithm for solving a math equation by just hanging around some numbers. Agreed.

The chess argument

I’ve made a few comments about chess above, so I wont go over it again. Simply put, chess is a game that you can win. Most of the important decisions people make in their lives aren’t games with rules that show how to win. I think that makes it a suspect example for helping people become learned humans. Same for solving math problems. Same for computer programming. They are important niche skills, certainly, I’m not convinced they are the basis for learning as a human. Nathan Ensmenger’s article on chess in education is excellent.

Problem solving skills

Much of the cognitive argument in the article is around what works best for ‘problem-solving skills’. This is where your values come into play. Are we, on the whole, teaching ‘problem solving skills’ in our education system? You might see it that way. When I look at the regular life of a regular person there are certainly problems that are solved. I can fix a leaky tap. I can, to use the example in the article, cross a road without being hit or do a math problem. Most of the things I decide on in a given day, however, are not these kinds of things. Not in my job. Not in my family life. Not doing construction in my attic. There’s no one to tell me I’ve done the work right. I am always choosing between a variety of intersecting and often conflicting rules, values and implications.

For me, constructivism is not about teaching people to problem solve the MOST EFFECTIVELY. It’s about learning to confront uncertainty. It’s about learning to ask a question even when it’s not clear what that question should be. It’s about deciding when you don’t have all the information. It’s preparation for life.

So I don’t consider constructivism a failure if its not the best preparation for problem solving. Solving (getting the right answer) problems is not the thing on the top of my list in my classroom.

Novices and experts

This one is trickier and one I struggle to explain. The argument the article seems to make is that because novices don’t have loads of information in long term memory, it’s harder for them to use that information to do the work. Putting aside that ‘the work’ that the article wants us to do is solve problems with right answers, I have some other concerns.

Most of us will always be novices at almost everything. The pathway that seems to be implied here is – master the content – then you can use the higher order thinking as an expert. But most of us will never be experts at what we’re learning. Most of my students will be english teachers or math teachers but not ‘edtech experts’. If I give them information now, most of them will never do enough work to become an edtech expert to allow them access to the higher order conversation. I’ll be preparing them with information from 3-5 years ago, for a career 3-5 years in the future. Information that will continue to be out of date as we go forward.

My view of constructivism reaches for a modified guided expert approach. Sure. If I say ‘hey, go out and evaluate this math software for the classroom’ with no support, it’s going to be terrible for them. But going through these guided approaches, where I spot them a few questions, do a lot of iterative feedback, and allow them to develop their skills, gives them the chance to get some of those expertish tools that can help them later.

Final notes

The upshot of my concern with this research is that it reduces teaching to ‘helping people solve problems’. It also sets up a hierarchy of learning where people get basic instruction now and expert instruction later, even though the vast majority of us never make it to the later part. I’m not interested in populating the world with more excellent chess players, I’m more interested with compassionate citizens who can engage in difficult discussions in ways that help us work through the challenges in our society.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

3 thoughts on “A letter to my students about why I disagree with Paul Kirschner about the Failure of Constructivist/PBL/IBL etc…”

  1. Kirschner et al also use the Mayer (2004) as evidence of their claim – Minimal guidance does not work. Yet, as you point out the paper does not conclude this at all. In fact, it can be used against their claim as it concludes minimal guidance is better than no guidance.

  2. I created a course called Myths, Legends, and Lies in Education for this very reason – I was tired of the misunderstanding (and excuses) that I heard in a teacher education about learning styles. I agree with your points and, while I am not saying that learning preferences don’t exist, catering to them specifically in an individual basis is not the way to go. In a subsequent issue of the journal that published the Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark article (yes, all cognitivists), several big names in the field refute the claims that KS&C make – primarily that constructivist strategies are not ‘unguided’.

    I offer this article that I co-authored as to the contextual effectiveness of PBL.

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