How people really learnPosted: September 5, 2015
I ran into trouble with a few commentators last week. I wrote a piece for Spiked magazine where I referred to the children’s story “Fish is Fish,” and the way that it is used in the teacher education textbook “How People Learn,” by Bransford et al.
Of the story, I wrote, “The implication is that we cannot understand anything that we have not seen for ourselves; each individual has to discover the world anew.” Clearly, this is not exactly what is written in How People Learn because, the way I’ve stated it, it’s obviously absurd and people tend to avoid making obviously absurd claims. Also, note my use of the word, ‘understand,’. In education, some people are inclined to see understanding as something quite different to mere knowledge (which it isn’t, really).
So, have I misrepresented the book?
Some have suggested that the point of the story is simply to show that we must take into account our students’ prior knowledge when teaching them something new. If this is the point then it is a trivial one. Fish is Fish is deployed to illustrate something about constructivism. If you were to look for an educational approach that was as far away as possible from those inspired by constructivism then you may well alight upon Engelmann’s Direct Instruction. I was having a look at the manual for one of his writing programs recently and the first thing that he mentions is the use of placement tests to figure out what version of the program different students should be put in.
If this is all that Fish is Fish is meant to signify then it reminds me of Vygotsky and his Zone of Proximal Development; another underwhelming concept.
However, I hold to my view that Fish is Fish is there to tell us more than that; to tell us that it is basically impossible to transmit understanding from a teacher to a student. Instead, the student must be involved in some amount of direct discovery, particularly of the main concepts involved.
It has been pointed-out to me that the authors of How People Learn do suggest that there is a time for simply telling students stuff. This is true. For instance, they state that, “there are times, usually after people have first grappled with issues on their own, that “teaching by telling” can work extremely well (e.g., Schwartz and Bransford, 1998). However, teachers still need to pay attention to students’ interpretations and provide guidance when necessary.”
Note the whopping caveat, “usually after people have first grappled with issues on their own.” This is important, of course, if you want your students to truly understand. There is a whole area of constructivist research trying to prove the concept of ‘productive failure’, which is the idea that students benefit from struggling with problems prior to being given explicit instruction. It is the subject of some debate in the book “Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure”, and, unfortunately, it seems that most of the key experiments have been poorly designed, with more than one factor varied at a time. I have a particular interest in this area – it’s part of my PhD research.
I think that the authors also reveal their views about the need for direct experience when they describe how it is quite impossible to explain to children that the world is spherical.
“When told it is round, children picture the earth as a pancake rather than as a sphere (Vosniadou and Brewer, 1989). If they are then told that it is round like a sphere, they interpret the new information about a spherical earth within their flat-earth view by picturing a pancake-like flat surface inside or on top of a sphere, with humans standing on top of the pancake. The children’s construction of their new understandings has been guided by a model of the earth that helped them explain how they could stand or walk upon its surface, and a spherical earth did not fit their mental model. Like Fish Is Fish, everything the children heard was incorporated into that preexisting view.”
If you are still unsure as to exactly what is being suggested then it is instructive to look at the exemplary lessons that the authors describe towards the end of the book. After informing us that history teaching should not be about learning facts – something quite at odds with my understanding of cognitive science that sees fact-learning as absolutely critical – they describe a maths class:
“Word problems form the basis for almost all instruction in Annie Keith’s classroom. Students spend a great deal of time discussing alternative strategies with each other, in groups, and as a whole class. The teacher often participates in these discussions but almost never demonstrates the solution to problems. Important ideas in mathematics are developed as students explore solutions to problems, rather than being a focus of instruction per se. For example, place-value concepts are developed as students use base-10 materials, such as base-10 blocks and counting frames, to solve word problems involving multidigit numbers.” [My emphasis]
It seems that this exemplary maths teacher has never heard of the worked-example effect.