I began reading about education research when I started at my current school. Before this, I had been a deputy headteacher at a high school in London where my contact with research had been quite limited. At that time, we had the government national strategies that included a set of training materials known as ‘Pedagogy and Practice’. I thought these contained quality research evidence but given that one of them, later withdrawn, was on Learning Styles, this was probably wrong.
So, encouraged by my new school’s research focus, in 2010 I picked up a copy of John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’. I found this fascinating and had not yet read enough to be critical of the kind of meta-analysis that this book involved.
I was stunned to find Hattie write in positive terms about ‘direct instruction’. This sounded like the kind of teaching I often used but felt guilty about. Everyone in education knows you are supposed to do lots of group work and ‘facilitate’ activities where students find things out for themselves and can exercise choice. This is what the research said, right? Not according to Hattie.
In his discussion, Hattie referenced a paper that I found was freely available online. The paper was, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work,” by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006). If you read nothing else, you should read this paper in order to understand much of the thinking that informs this blog. I was blown away.
I didn’t realise it at the time but this is a seminal paper. It led to three direct rebuttals, a conference and a book.
The rebuttals are particularly interesting. Two of them (here and here) basically accept the Kirschner et al argument about cognitive architecture but plead that particular approaches to Problem-Based or Inquiry Learning are highly structured and guided. This is a debatable point and prompts the question: if more guidance makes minimally guided approaches more effective then why not use a fully guided approach? Won’t that be still more effective?
It is an argument that plays out again in the book and one that offers little comfort to proponents of open-ended problem solving in high school maths classes.
This was the start of a journey for me. John Sweller is, in my view, a great unsung hero of education. You can read a profile of his work here. I sought him out and now he and Slava Kalyuga – known for the ‘expertise reversal effect’ – are my PhD supervisors.
It’s been a great journey so far. Perhaps reading these papers could start you on a journey of your own.