A response to Doug Holton

Last year, Doug Holton wrote a blog post about ‘The evidence for various research-based instructional strategies‘. I went to the trouble of commenting on this blog. It appears that my comment has now been deleted. That’s fine: Doug has every right to delete comments from his blog. 

I never had a response to my comment – I suspect that Doug is unable to respond – and Doug has recently been linking people to the original blog post on Twitter. I kept my own copy of my comment and so I reproduce it below:

Hi Doug.

Thanks for this – very interesting.

I am someone who thinks critically about ‘constructivist’ approaches to teaching. I use this term with caution as I accept many of the premises of constructivism as a theory of learning. Conflating a theory of learning with a theory of teaching is what Mayer calls ‘the constructivist teaching fallacy’ (see http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2009-09809-010) and so I try to separate these ideas.

I would like to make three points.

Firstly, I did not get my views from Wikipedia. In fact, I first found out about Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s 2006 paper from a reference in John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’. The paper is quite significant, in my opinion, having sparked numerous responses, a conference and a book. I am certain that you did not intend this but stating that, “many bloggers today get their opinions about education and psychology from Wikipedia,” gives the impression that those who disagree with you are rather simple-minded and amateurish. You might want to correct this impression.

Secondly, I would suggest that it is wrong to conflate lecturing with explicit instruction. If we were to run a trial, for instance, where a non-interactive lecture was compared to a lecture where clickers were used to gain live audience feedback then I would predict that the latter would be more effective. It is also closer to explicit teaching. Any lecturing within an explicit teaching approach is highly interactive and explicit teaching will also involve subsequent periods of individual practice and teacher feedback (See Rosenshine for a full definition: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2009-09809-011). The key feature of explicit teaching is that new concepts are fully explained. Students are not required to work any of this out for themselves.

The effectiveness of EI for novices is in accordance with the predictions of cognitive load theory (CLT). However, CLT also predicts that students who are more expert in a domain will benefit from less guided approaches; something known as the expertise reversal effect (See Kalyuga et. al. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/S15326985EP3801_4#.VR8p_fmUd7E). This would mean that experiments conducted with students who already have considerable domain knowledge will not invalidate the value of explicit instruction for novice learners. 

Finally, it is often asserted that constructivist teaching approaches are superior for transfer of learning whereas explicit instruction is only any good for “rote” recall. “Rote” implies recall without meaning. It’s actually very difficult to remember things that have no meaning to you and so I suspect this term is often misused, although I accept that it has rhetorical power. Klahr and Nigam investigated whether students finding things out for themselves leads to superior transfer than explicit instruction (see http://lexiconic.net/pedagogy/KlahrNigam.PsychSci.pdf). It did not.

Thanks for the discussion.


6 thoughts on “A response to Doug Holton

  1. Sorry I’m late to the party. The critique of Holton’s reference to wiki is fair enough.

    However, the 2nd point regarding definitions of lecturing vs explicit instruction is getting ‘muddier’ with respect to the so called ‘evidence’.

    The Willingham critique, mentioned by David, is about the lack of precise definition of variables and the lack of a control group, to get meaningful comparisons.

    But, this critique applies to much of Educational Research, including that cited for CLT, e.g., Mayer (2004) who Greg cites in Ashman et al. (2019) “Across multiple domains ranging from mathematics to reading comprehension, researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that fully guided forms of instruction are more effective for novice learners than unguided or partially guided forms of instruction (see Mayer 2004,Kirschner et al. 2006).”

    I’ve finally had the time to read Mayer (2004) and his definitions of guided instruction range from:
    ‘teachers direct students’ attention toward relevant aspects of the conservation task.’
    ‘provided corrective feedback to children as they solved conservation problems, such as telling them “you’re right” or “you’re wrong.”’
    “expository methods, in which the student is given the problem along with the correct answer.”
    “students learned by following a worksheet that guided them through the basic processes of programming and debugging with corresponding classroom discussion.”

    Greg’s use of ‘explicit instruction’ does not align with this paper.

    Furthermore, Mayer (2004) does not distinguish between “fully guided forms” or “partially guided forms” – a definitions & control group problem.

    Mayer (2004) concludes,

    “In some cases, direct instruction can promote the cognitive processing needed for constructivist learning, but in others, some mixture of guidance and exploration is needed.”

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