Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Does Discovery learning work?

At least one of the reasons I have been attracted to the use of online instruction is because of the possibility of creating more authentic learning environments. In general, I have had a bias towards creating problem-based, discovery, constructivtist approaches to instruction.

In the past few weeks I have been doing my homework which means that I have been reading the literature on instruction and I am increasingly skeptical of my simple ideas about instruction. Here are a few highlights from an article by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard E. Clark, titled, "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, 2006, 41(2), 75-86.

The main point of this article problem-based learning makes too many demands on novice learners' working memory. In short, beginning learners are trying to identify the basic facts and issues related to the problem while also trying to employ novel problem-solving strategies using that information. The authors write,
"cognitive load theory suggests taht the free exploration of a highly complex environment may generate a heavy working memory load that is detrimental to learnning" (p. 80).

They also cite the work of other researchers who note,

"when students who learn science in classrooms with pure-discovery methods and minimal feedback, ... often become lost and frustrated, and their confusion can lead to misconceptions.... Other researchers found that "because false starts are common in such learning situations, unguided discovery is often inefficient" (p. 79).
So why do many of us resonate to the contructivist theories of teaching and learning? These researchers also offer us insight here. Just as novice learners benefit from direct instruction, expert learners seem to benefit from the contructivist, inquiry-based approaches. In other words, the point is not that all constructivist teaching is wrong or ineffective, it is developing teaching strategies that over the course of a students' experience shifts from much guidance to less and less guidance.

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