Periodical in American Educator, Spring 2012
Access [free]: Clark, Kirschner, and Sweller (2012) via aft.org
Scope of Paper
The paper summarises key sections of “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching,” by Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller, and Richard E. Clark, which was originally published in Educational Psychologist 41, no. 2 (2006): 75–86.
The authors make the case for direct instruction as the most effective method of facilitating pupil learning.
- Decades of research clearly demonstrate that for novices, i.e. virtually all students, direct instruction is more effective and more efficient than discovery learning.
- When teaching new knowledge or skills, teachers are most effective and efficient when they provide explicit guidance accompanied with practice time and timely feedback.
- Discovery learning has the potential to widen the attainment gap in education, with only students with high prior attainment likely to make the correct discovery during a lesson. Students with lower prior attainment are likely to ‘discover’ wrong information, and even after being corrected are more likely to remember their incorrect discovery than the correction.
The instructional guidance (non-)debate
The debate over the impact of different approaches to instructional guidance in teaching is longstanding.
Broadly, the debate can be split into two perspectives. On the one hand, there are those who believe that people learn best when their instruction contains segments of unguided learning, where the learner must discover some of the essential information for themselves. This is often described as ‘discovery learning’ or ‘inquiry learning’.
On the other hand, there are those who believe that experts and novices learn differently. Experts may thrive in discovery learning scenarios, but nearly everybody else will benefit most (and learn most) when taught via explicit instructional guidance. This is often described as ‘direct instruction’.
The authors argue that the debate should be closed: Decades of research clearly demonstrate that for novices, i.e. virtually all students, direct instruction is more effective and more efficient than discovery learning.
Research has provided overwhelming evidence that, for everyone but experts, partial guidance during instruction is significantly less effective than full guidance.
When teaching new knowledge or skills to school-aged students, teachers are most effective when they provide explicit guidance, accompanied with practice time and timely, relevant feedback.
What is direct instruction?
Direct instruction is not the same as exclusively lecturing students. It is also not limited by media: it may be delivered via a wide variety of methods, including class discussions and activities, provided the teacher ensures that the relevant, required information is explicitly provided.
Whatever the method employed to deliver the content, students learn most efficiently when provided with the required knowledge or skill before being asked to practice.
Shortcomings of discovery learning
The shortcomings of discovery learning are proven through research from two separate fields: pedagogical research, and research in cognitive science. The research clearly demonstrates that for everyone except subject-matter experts, discovery learning is not as effective or efficient as direct instruction.
The ineffectiveness of discovery learning was discovered by empirical studies in the mid-1950s, yet the popularity of unguided teaching has persisted due to lack of awareness of the research denouncing it. Cognitive scientist Richard Mayer suggests that each new set of advocates for unguided approaches seem unaware of, or uninterested in, previous evidence proving that unguided teaching is ineffective.
Researchers have noted that when students learn science in classrooms with pure-discovery methods or with minimal feedback, they often become lost and frustrated, and their confusion can lead to misconceptions.
Impact on the attainment gap
Discovery learning has the potential to widen the attainment gap in education, with only students with high prior attainment likely to make the correct discovery during a lesson. Students with lower prior attainment are likely to ‘discover’ wrong information, and even after being corrected are more likely to remember their incorrect discovery than the correction.
In the context of cognitive science
Asking students to find solutions to problems via discovery learning places a high demand on a student’s working memory, and can lead to cognitive overload.
By contrast, direct instruction, for example, by using well-designed worked examples, keeps cognitive load low and allows students to become familiar with the presented knowledge in the correct context. As practice progresses, this scaffolding can be slowly removed until students gain mastery.
When learning via worked examples, students’ attention can be directed towards storing the information required to solve the problem in long-term memory, rather than using working memory to search for a solution to a novel problem.
Evidence from controlled, experimental (a.k.a. “gold standard”) studies almost uniformly supports full and explicit instructional guidance rather than partial or minimal guidance for novice to intermediate learners. These findings and their associated theories suggest teachers should provide their students with clear, explicit instruction rather than merely assisting students in attempting to discover knowledge themselves.
The authors conclude that in the context of modern cognitive science, combined with the findings from 70 years of empirical research, the debate over the effectiveness of discovery learning should be closed.
Teachers are most effective and efficient when they teach new knowledge and skills by providing explicit guidance, accompanied with time for students to practice, and timely feedback.