Research that changed my teaching

In the first of a series in which educators explain how research has transformed their practice, English and media teacher Hélène Galdin-O’Shea tells us about one paper that changed everything for her classroom.

Research paper: ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching’

Authors: Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, 2006.

The end of my first decade as a teacher was nearly the end of my career as a teacher. I had become so frustrated with the way in which ‘outstanding’ teaching was defined and enforced that I was ready to give up. It was a horrendous regime of having lessons graded against a never-ending tick-list of dubious items and the dual premises of minimal teacher talk (no more than five to ten minutes and based in great part on the flawed – and now thankfully debunked – cone of learning or learning pyramid) complete with compulsory group work (or a ‘fail’), and finding a way to demonstrate ‘visible progress’ in 20 minutes. Five minutes of talking is just about enough to give a set of learning objectives and a set of instructions for group work if you want to avoid utter confusion when the signal is given.

Organising resources which are accessible and will give students something from which they can learn new information on their own is time-consuming enough, but add to that the provision of clearly defined roles for group members in order to make them ‘accountable’, and tasks through which students can engage with the materials, can do ‘something’ with the knowledge and prepare to feedback in a way that does not make students and teacher want to kill themselves after group 3 of 6 have had a go – well, all that is quite a feast. Dishearteningly, my role of ‘facilitator’ often led to the need to re-teach the materials – and ‘un-teach’ misconceptions. Could the group work task have worked better with clearly guided instruction at the start? Certainly so. But these were the rules of the game then. And boy, did I try!

When the focus of lesson planning becomes ‘What can I do in order not to explain this explicitly?’ as opposed to ‘How can I refine my explanations and polish the scaffolding work to maximise students’ understanding?’, something has to shift. It had become painfully obvious that the way ‘independent learning’ (as cited in the ‘outstanding lesson’ criteria) had come to be interpreted in schools was unhelpful. Did it really mean letting students struggle mostly on their own trying to make sense of the materials, organising themselves and others, formulating a response, and preparing to feed back that response? Even with timely interventions to redirect or explain, the process was painful, particularly for students who had a lower starting point. Why not provide more structured guidance with instant corrective feedback to start with?

After 13 years on the job, I went online, connected with many colleagues, and started reading. I am eternally grateful to whoever pointed in the direction of a paper which gave me new teacher-life, so to speak. It was a
paper by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clark (2006) titled ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching’ in which the authors make the case for fully guided instruction and the idea that most people learn best when provided with explicit instructional guidance. They argue that it is an ‘instructional procedure’ that takes into consideration the ‘structures that constitute human cognitive architecture’ with over 50 years of evidence from empirical studies to support its effectiveness.

The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.

A couple of years later, someone shared a follow-up article which had been published in American Educator in 2012 – ‘Putting students on the path to learning: the case for fully guided instruction’ – which, to this day, I use with teacher trainees as it presents the research evidence in a very clear and accessible way. The first paper helped me redefine what had become for me a bête noire: the concept of ‘independent learning’, and what it may mean, firstly by shifting the idea to ‘independent practice’, and more broadly by conceptualising it as guiding students towards independent learning from a novice status to a more expert one over the course of a unit of study but also over the course of a year, a key stage, one’s formal education. In this model, guided then independent practice logically follows carefully guided instruction, feedback is proffered as an ongoing process and its two-way nature is reinforced as the teacher tweaks instruction taking cues from student response. It seems obvious now but the concept of cognitive load was an eye-opener in so far as it greatly explained why many of my students had struggled to learn and retain information through the convoluted tasks I used to prepare for them.

The paper also opened for me the ideas behind the role of memory in learning and allowed me to plan sequences of lessons aimed at carefully revisiting and building on knowledge, taking into consideration ways in which I could help my students with ‘knowledge organisation and schema acquisition’. They suggested that ‘there is also evidence that [unguided instruction] may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganised knowledge’, which again chimed strongly with my experience. The lofty aims of ‘higher-order thinking’ that we were asked to prioritise now made sense as part of a carefully orchestrated and rehearsed foundational knowledge base, since ‘expert problem solvers derive their skill by drawing on the extensive experience stored in their long-term memory and then quickly select and apply the best procedures for solving problems.’ The paper culminated for me in the assertion that ‘the aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.’

The authors also introduced me to the worked example effect and the expertise reversal effect, the latter being summed up in: ‘The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide “internal” guidance.’ After a few years of chewing over these concepts and reading far more about them (starting with Barak Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of instruction’), I find it hard to believe that I was not introduced to these ideas at the start of my career. I am certain that teachers get a much better deal today but my own training can broadly be summed up by ‘Do group work’.

Now at the end of my second decade as a teacher, I feel more at peace with my practice and enthused about the future, knowing that I still have much to learn, practise and refine, but also knowing that there is a clearer path ahead in terms of finding helpful reading and research evidence, and having colleagues with whom discussions focus on student learning as opposed to nebulous proxies.

See Paul Kirschner’s article for more on this research paper.

Download a PDF version of this issue.


References

Benjes-Small, C. (2014) ‘Tales of the undead…Learning theories: the learning pyramid’, ACRLog [blog]. acrlog.org/2014/01/13/tales-of-the-undead-learning-theories-the-learning-pyramid/

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) pp. 75–86. www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf

Clark, R., Kirschner, P. and Sweller, J. (2012) ‘Putting students on the path to learning: the case for fully guided instruction’, American Educator, 36 (1) pp. 6–11. www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Clark.pdf

Rosenshine, B. (2012) ‘Principles of instruction: research-based strategies that all teachers should know’, American Educator, 36 (1) pp. 12–19, 39. www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf