Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Debunking Constructivism: What's bad for the goose is bad for the gander

Every once in a while, an empirical study comes along that suggests that one or another of those Constructivist practices that shortchange left-brainers (or so I claim) may, in fact, be bad for students in general.

Dan Willingham's book Why Don't Students Like School presents a whole bunch of these experimental results. Together, they challenge the notions that:

1. Students need to learn inquiry, argumentation, and higher-level thinking rather than lots of facts.
2. Integrating art into other subjects enhances learning. So does integrating computer technology.
3. Children learn best through self-guided discovery.
4. Drill is kill. Multiple strategies are better than a single strategy practiced multiple times.
5. Students learn best when constructing their own knowledge.
6. The best way to prepare students to become scientists and mathematicians is to teach them to solve problems the way scientists and mathematicians do.

The experiments that Willingham cites show that, in fact:

1. "Factual knowledge must precede skill"

"Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts... The very processes that teachers care about the most--critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving--are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long term memory..."

2. Teachers "must design lessons that will ensure that students are thinking about the meaning of the material."

Here, Willingham cites two examples where this failed to happen. In one case, his nephew was asked to draw pictures to represent the plot elements in the book he'd read, which "meant that my mephew thought very little about the relation between different plot elements and a great deal about how to draw a good castle."

In another case, groups of high school students were allowed to use computers for their research projects, and quickly got caught up in Power Point. "The problem," Willingham writes, "was that the students changed the assignment from 'learn about the Spanish Civil War' to 'learn esoteric features of PowerPoint'" like animations, videos, and unusual fonts.


3. "Use Discovery Learning with Care."


"If students are left to explore ideas on their own, they may well explore mental paths that are not profitable. If memory is the residue of thought, then students will remember incorrect 'discoveries' as much as they will remember the correct ones.
"

Willingham suggests that the ideal environment for discovery learning is when feedback is immediate, as when you are learning how to use a computer:

When you make a mistake, it is immediately obvious. The computer does something other than what you intended. This makes for a wonderful environment in which 'messing around' can pay off. (Other environments aren't like that. Imagine a student left to 'mess around' with frog dissection in a biology class.)
4. "It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice."

In particular, extended practice helps students extend and abstract concepts in ways that don't otherwise come easily. "Working lots of problems of a particular type makes it more likely that you will recognize the underlying structure of the problem, even if you haven't seen this particular version of the problem before."

5. "Students are ready to comprehend but not create knowledge."

"Experts create... Experts not only understand their field, they also add new knowledge to it... A more modest and realistic goal for students is knowledge comprehension."


6. "Cognition early in training is fundamentally different from cognition late in training."

Willingham observes that the best way to train a novice to eventually become an expert is knowledge comprehension and extended practice.


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Now we just need the education experts to drop fact-free inquiry and argumentation and pay attention to Willingham's results.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

After 35 years in medicine, I've started teaching "community college" anatomy and physiology. I'm encountering lots of "edubabble", and I have found this post to be very enlightening! Thanks.

Up in Vermont.