+ Direct Instruction or Minimal Guidance — Which is More Effective?

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For fifty years, the question of how much instructional guidance to provide has been hotly debated.  An article by Paul A Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard E Clark, published in Educational Psychologist (2006), contends that — based on what is known of human cognitive architecture — Minimal Guidance (discovery learning/inquiry-based learning/experiential learning/constructionist learning)  approaches do not work as well as Direct Instruction with scaffolding.

Minimal Guidance has variously gone under all those names.

In such Minimal Guidance instruction, for example, a student in a science class may be asked to discover fundamental principles of science by simply modeling the investigatory activities of professional researchers.

Similarly, medical students can be asked to discover medical solutions for common patient problems using problem-solving techniques.

Two main assumptions underlie these minimal guidance programs.  First,  in information-rich settings, students are challenged to solve “authentic” problems or acquire complex knowledge.  The assumption is that having learners construct their own solutions leads to the most effective learning experience.

Second, it is assumed that knowledge is best acquired through experience based on the procedures of the discipline (for example, seeing the pedagogical content of the learning experience as identical to the methods and processes or epistemology of the discipline being studied).

Those who advocate for this approach feel that direct instructional guidance —  which would provide or embed learning strategies in instruction — interferes with the natural processes by which learners draw on their own unique prior experience and learning styles to construct new situated knowledge and thus  achieve their goals.

They say that large amounts of guidance — while it may produce good performance during practice — impairs later performance.

Human Cognitive Architecture 

To the contrary, Kirschner, Sweller and Clark declare that minimally guided instruction makes no reference to what is known of the characteristics of working memory and long-term memory, or of the complex relations between them.

Long-term memory” is viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear and think about is critically dependent on, and influenced by, our long-term memory.

For example, research on chess expertise suggests that expert problem solvers derive their skill by drawing on the extensive experience stored in their long-term memory;  they then quickly select and apply the best procedures for solving  problems.

Any instructional recommendation that does not/cannot specify what has been changed in long-term memory — or that does not increase the efficiency with which relevant information is stored in or retrieved from long-term memory — is likely to be ineffective.

Working memory” is the cognitive structure in which conscious processing occurs. This is where new information is taken in.  Working memory has two well-known characteristics —  1) limited duration and 2) limited capacity — that must affect the processing of novel information.

Almost all information stored in working memory, if not rehearsed, is lost within 30 seconds.

And the capacity of working memory is limited to approximately seven elements (it may be as few as four).  In addition, when processing (as opposed to storing) information, the number of items that can be processed may be only two or three.

The limitations of working memory — small number of items, brief period of time — only apply to new, yet to be learned information that has yet to be stored in long-term memory.

Conversely, when working with previously learned information, there are no limitations as to amount of information, and access is possible over indefinite periods of time.

The authors feel that any instructional theory that ignores the limitations of working memory, or that ignores the fact that familiarity with information eliminates those limitations, is certainly going to be ineffective.  “Problem solving,” or “inquiry-based instruction,” places a huge burden on working memory.

Human cognitive architecture has implications for instruction.

The goal of instruction is rarely simply to search for or discover information.  The goal is to give learners specific guidance about how to cognitively manipulate information in ways that are consistent with a learning goal, and store the result in long-term memory.

Substantial research undergirds the thesis that Direct Guidance is much more effective instruction than Minimal Guidance approaches.

One study  found that in science classrooms with pure discovery methods, students became lost and frustrated; they were prone, therefore, to misconceptions.

Another research group found that because false starts are common in such learning situation, unguided discovery is inefficient at best.

Yet another investigation found, unambiguously, that learning with direct instruction — involving considerable guidance, including examples — resulted in vastly more learning than discovery-based instruction.

For more information, visit http://igitur-archive.library.uu.nl/fss/2006-1214-211848/kirschner_06_minimal_guidance.pdf 

Orton Gillingham tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021 or email aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com 

One response to “+ Direct Instruction or Minimal Guidance — Which is More Effective?

  1. Pingback: Differentiated Instruction Includes Direct Instruction: Comments on the Concept in Secondary Education | Knowledge Study