Native speaker / non-native speaker. Implicit / explicit. Accuracy / fluency. Dichotomies abound. “False” is a common collocation with “dichotomy,” and this is often because nothing is either black or white but rather falls on a gray-scale continuum between the two ends. Yet, dichotomies are useful for discussion as they represent the crux of a concept. Stepping a bit back from ELT and looking more broadly at pedagogical theory, this research bite will look at Kirschner and colleague’s (2006) exploration of the evidence against minimally guided instruction and in favor of guided instruction, especially in terms of human cognition.
What is minimally guided instruction?
You might know it as discovery learning, problem-based learning, inquiry learning, or experiential learning. It is based on constructivist theory of learning and the assumption that learning occurs when students make their own solutions to “authentic” problems in an information-rich environment. In these situations, guidance on how to complete the task is minimal, if it exists at all.
What is guided instruction?
Guided instruction is direct instruction, modelling, practice, working with examples, and scaffolding that presents relevant information rather than making learners discover it. It is more traditional in the sense that it is less hands-off, though it should not be confused with what we typically believe to be “traditional” teaching.
So, what’s the problem?
According to the authors (p. 77):
The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.
Much of what we know about our cognitive structure, in particular about how working memory and long-term memory work, shows that long-term memory is the foundation of learning. Moving knowledge from working to long-term memory requires efficient cognitive processing and being within the limits of working memory. Interestingly, research shows that while new information is limited to 4-7 items in working memory, the limits disappear when working with familiar information.
The authors again (p. 77)
Any instructional theory that ignores the limits of working memory when dealing with novel information or ignores the disappearance of those limits when dealing with familiar information is unlikely to be effective.
Empirical studies spanning decades show that minimally guided instruction (when the learners are novices) requires a large cognitive load and, therefore, is not supported by the research on how we learn effectively and efficiently. Solving a problem, specifically “problem-based searching” places a large burden on our working memory, especially by splitting learners’ attention, and therefore takes up valuable resources that are needed for actually learning. It’s possible to search and work on a problem for quite some time without learning a thing. It seems that only those who have extensive experience, schema, and prior knowledge benefit from this type of activity.
Where’s the evidence?
The authors cite a number of studies, qualitative and quantitative, that show the minimal or negative effects of minimally guided instruction across a range of disciplines.
- In science classes, students have been observed to become lost and frustrated (Brown and Campione, 1994)
- There are more false starts in this type of instruction and therefore it is less efficient (Carlson et al., 1992)
- Students in a science class learning under guided instruction could better transfer their learning and the quality of learning was superior (Klahr and Nigam, 2004)
- Guided learning produced greater recall and longer term transfer (Sweller, 1999)
- In an algebra class, students learned more studying already solved examples rather than simply solving the problems (Cooper and Sweller, 1987)
- A meta-analysis from Cronbach and Snow (1977 – yes, quite dated) showed that direct guidance was more beneficial for lower-level learners (something still supported today, Kylllonen and Lajoie, 2003)
- Another meta-analysis (Clark, 1989) found that “lower-aptitude” students had lower scores after minimally guided instruction, even if they prefer the experience more.
- A meta-analysis of problem-based learning in medical schools (Albanese and Mitchell, 1993) found many negative effects, including lower scores, no differences, and increased study hours.
What’s the basic takeaway?
Instruction must be rooted in what we know about how we actually learn. We must consider cognitive load (e.g. working memory limits) and how knowledge moves from working to long-term memory: “cognitive load theory suggests that the free exploration of a highly complex environment may generate a heavy working memory load that is detrimental to
learning. This suggestion is particularly important in the case of novice learners” (p.80)
In terms of problem solving, “knowledge organization and schema acquisition are more important for the development of expertise than the use of particular methods” (p. 83). Clearly, the evidence is in support of direct instruction.
How is this related to language teaching?
Minimally guided instruction often appears in language learning as implicit or inductive language instruction, and findings similar to Kirschner’s have been reported: explicit grammar instruction is often superior to implicit instruction (please check out the interesting discussion in the comments). Problem-based learning and similar approaches also appear in ELT. It is important to be aware of the evidence regarding this category of instruction, as it involves all learning and is not necessarily skill specific.
Albanese, M., & Mitchell, S. (1993). Problem-based learning: A review of the literature on its outcomes and implementation issues. Academic Medicine, 68, 52–81.
Brown, A., & Campione, J. (1994). Guided discovery in a community of learners. In K. McGilly (Ed.), Classroom lessons: Integrating cognitive theory and classroom practice (pp. 229–270). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Carlson, R. A., Lundy,D.H.,&Schneider,W. (1992). Strategy guidance and memory aiding in learning a problem-solving skill. Human Factors, 34, 129–145.
Clark, R. E. (1989). When teaching kills learning: Research on mathemathantics. In H. N. Mandl, N. Bennett, E. de Corte, & H. F.
Freidrich (Eds.), Learning and instruction: European research in an international context (Vol. 2, pp. 1–22). London: Pergamon.
Cooper, G., & Sweller, J. (1987). The effects of schema acquisition and rule automation on mathematical problem-solving transfer. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79, 347–362.
Cronbach, L. J., & Snow, R. E. (1977). Aptitudes and instructional methods: A handbook for research on interactions. New York: Irvington.
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.
Klahr, D., & Nigam, M. (2004). The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction: Effects of direct instruction and discovery learning.
Psychological Science, 15, 661–667.
Kyllonen, P. C.,&Lajoie, S. P. (2003). Reassessing aptitude: Introduction to a special issue in honor of Richard E. Snow. Educational Psychologist,
Sweller, J. (1999). Instructional design in technical areas. Camberwell, Australia: ACER Press.
Featured image by HelloImNik