Saturday, 31 July 2010

Guided instruction versus independent learning

The image on the left was made by a thirteen year old student after being introduced to surrealist method, epitomised by Max Ernst's painting on the right

Do we have to tell the students what to do, or should invite them to discover what can be done? Recent scientific publications shed new light on this dilemma.

I teach visual art. Generally art is considered to be completely different from science. I am not too sure about that when it comes to teaching.

Art is a discipline, as science is. The methods of art and science may be completely different but both disciplines embody a relation with reality which has developed over centuries within a cultural context . The aims of research may be vastly different, almost opposite, as art strives for a profoundly subjective representation and communicating of meaning on a personal level, where as science seeks objective description and universal truth. Nevertheless, in both subjects there are methods that can be taught, content-related vocabulary that must be learnt, and results that can be compared and evaluated. The dilemma of teaching is the same. Are you in your lesson of maths going to explain Pythagoras' theorem, or are you providing your students with just enough information to have them reinvent the theorem by themselves? Am I as an art teacher to direct the students' perception of their visual environment by giving them precisely defined tasks, or should I give them leeway in an open setting to find their own interesting modes of seeing? In all subjects taught in secondary education each teacher faces the same problem: prescribing these youngsters precisely what to do makes boring lessons, independent learning strategies may enthuse students but they are time consuming and less effective. Especially in the field of art it is poignant that students seldom come up with creative work when given too many options or too vague directions.

Previously I found confirmation of my intuitive experience-based ideas on this dilemma in Daniel T. Willingham's wonderful book “Why don't students like school.” Now I have found an other source: Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller, Richard E. Clark, “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, for download here

The misconceptions underlying independent learning strategies are falsified by results of scientific research as described in these publications. Summarized:

  1. Problem solving draws heavily upon knowledge of facts and experience of methods previously stored in long term memory
  2. Methods of problem solving on an expert level cannot be transferred to the level of novices.

As a teacher I must introduce old ideas and proven procedures leading to predictable results and wrap these in exciting adventures to have students store the lesson in their long term memory, thereby enabling them to use this knowledge on an expert level in the future.


Mr Teacher UK said...

Without going in to specific details, surely the best option is an appropriate balance between the two?

Joep said...

Thank you for your comment. It has resulted in a new post.

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