The debate over the most effective method of instruction continues as ever and where one stands on the topic is largely influenced by the purposes one attaches to education. Analysing a series of research articles reveals the nature of the debate between advocates of direct instruction compared to those who support a problem based learning methodology. In these articles one can see that the debate centres on the desirable outcomes of learning; either a focus on the acquisition of skills and knowledge taught by the teacher to the student or learning that is focused on rehearsing and applying broad skills for learning. The language and perspective in each article is interesting to note and while the arguments over the benefits of each perspective are interesting it is worth digging beneath the surface and asking how each author imagines learning and its outcomes.
Kirschner et al., (2006) argue that minimally guided instruction, which they equate with methods such as inquiry based learning, project based learning or discovery learning is incompatible with what we have come to understand about human cognitive architecture. Human cognitive architecture provides a research based understanding of the processes of learning and define particular limits for how learning occurs and even what it is. Learning is defined as a change in long-term memory and this requires new material or content to be processed in short-term memory and then consciously moved into long-term memory. Factors such as a limitation on the number of chunks which may be held in short-term memory and the duration for which items may be held without rehearsal result in cognitive load as defined by Sweller (2003). Kirschner et al conclude that minimal guided instruction methods increase cognitive load to the point that learning is inhibited; that the additional demands of searching for information, acting with incomplete information and exploring complex environments is too great. They advocate for direct instruction (DI) models of learning as the method of instruction and learning most effective and best informed by human cognitive architecture. They further argue that constructivist approaches have no research base and are aligned with an erroneous belief that teaching in the methodologies of the discipline in which the learning is based is an effective approach.
Schmidt et al., (2006) state that Problem Based Learning is not a form of minimally guided instruction and that it is, contrary to the assertions of Kirschner et al., compatible with human cognitive architecture. Their claim is that PBL provides a scaffolded learning environment which manages cognitive load and by activation of prior learning and elaboration of knowledge. They described PBL as a structured approach aimed at developing 'knowledge about how to interpret and approach problems.’ (Schmidt et al. 2006 p96) and identify issues with the type of assessments used in comparison studies between DI & PBL where the focus is on the efficient learning of 'directly applicable knowledge and focus on “sequestered problem solving”'. (Schmidt et al. 2006 p96) A further point is made regarding the placement of learning within a social setting and the effect that collaborative learning and shared knowledge construction has on reducing individual cognitive load. While PBL occurs within a social setting the assessment of its effect occurs in isolation from this. The authors point to the need to avoid conflating research centred around with individual cognitive load with group-based learning.
Kuhn takes a distinctly different approach and argues that the question of what is to be taught and the broad purposes of education are more important than that which is addressed by Kirschner et al. Kuhn argues that the factors of motivation and the need to prepare learners for an uncertain future should focus our attention on understanding what might be considered by learners as the most important objectives for their education. Kuhn identifies the skills of inquiry and argument as those which most importantly learners need to master and to take ownership of. Kuhn states that students need to experience and understand what it means to be learners and knowers and that the goal of empowering students to be problem-solvers is a better preparation for life than a focus on knowledge transfer can achieve.
Kuhn’s title (Is direct instruction an answer to the right question?) encourages us to consider the logic behind the selection of the most efficient teaching methodology. If our purposes are the efficient transfer of knowledge from the learned teacher to the student, then DI might be the right answer. In the days of the industrial revolution when the desirable output of the education system was a citizenry with the requisite skills and knowledge to allow participation in the workforce direct instruction was a suitable approach. If our goal is to produce individuals and collectives of them capable of taking charge of their own learning and skilled in the art of problem solving, then we need to focus more on the question of what we shall teach rather than how we might teach it. Only where the curriculum exists as a clearly defined body of knowledge and where the answer to the questions we might ask our students is equally defined should we focus on how that knowledge is best conveyed.
Seymour Papert says "There is only one 21st Century Skill - And that is the ability to act intelligently when you're faced with a situation for which you have not been specifically prepared."
The school I teach at is increasingly focusing on teaching students to think. Our current focus is on the development of a culture of thinking and teaching for understanding defined as the capacity of students to use what they know in meaningful ways and for the solving of novel problems. Beyond our students being problem solvers we hope that they might become problem finders with the disposition towards life-long learning that will allow them to adjust to changing circumstances. In this philosophy PBL is more what we teach than how we teach. As Kuhn suggest we utilise methods of DI as appropriate but this is largely to scaffold the skills of inquiry, knowledge sharing and knowledge making. The problems our students engage with have multiple solutions in alignment with the types of complexity which Schmidt et al., identify as the norm in PBL learning. The challenge is that this style of teaching is not the norm. To embrace a student centred approach to learning with the skills and dispositions of PBL as central tenets of our teaching requires a shift away from teaching for the accumulation of knowledge.
By Nigel Coutts
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, 75-86.
Kuhn, D. (2007). Is direct instruction an answer to the right question? Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 109- 113.
Schmidt,H.,Loyens,S., VanGog,T.,& Paas,F.(2007).Problem-BasedLearningisCompatiblewithHuman Cognitive Architecture: Commentary on Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 91-97