That minimal guidance paper

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 I thought these contained quality research evidence but given that one of them, later withdrawn, was on Learning Styles, this was probably wrong.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.

The third rebuttal suggests that we are asking the wrong question and it is a highly recommended read. I won’t critique it here because Kirschner, Sweller and Clark do a good job in their response.

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.

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10 Comments on “That minimal guidance paper”

  1. lenandlar says:

    Your blog is causing me to seriously rethink direct instruction. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Tempe says:

    The cheer squad for inquiry/discovery learning now all argue that they use direct/explicit instruction and lots of scaffolding which, as you have pointed out, made me wonder how very different their methods were from teacher-led classes or if they perhaps wondered if full teacher-led might be a better way to proceed overall, especially considering the evidence in its favour.

    • gregashman says:

      This is a sign that the argument is being won. Few now argue for pure discovery learning in the way that they might have done in the 1980s or 1990s. They either insist that their version of inquiry is highly guided or they parcel it off into something like a ‘maker space’.

      Yet we are still buffeted by a lot of ‘the future changes everything so education has to change’ arguments. We’re in a transition, I think.

      • Tempe says:

        Fingers crossed we are seeing the death knell of progressive Ed. England seems to be leading the way here and I am very impressed with Canadian parents/teachers who are fighting to keep these damaging ideas out of their class rooms. I wonder why Australian’s are so silent?

        The 21st C skilling and learning how to learn stuff still abounds and this takes many forms. From my experience my eldest daughter, in yr 7, is being “taught” via Google with little formal instruction at all. The next big battle is to reinstate knowledge in our curriculum taught via the teacher (expert).

  3. Tempe says:

    Also, in addition to employing Google to teach, my daughters classes seem to be about sustainability in most subjects, health & safety and well being. I guess when you hollow out the knowledge you have to fill the gap with something.

  4. Stan says:

    An interesting aspect is how this plays out in different countries. The US and England both have had a more segregated and more visible elite education stream. Think US property tax based differentiation of school access and funding and the Ivy league universities and the English Oxbridge and grammar schools.
    I suspect a large population in both these countries believe that an educated person knows a lot of stuff. In the US this is evident in the intensity of completion for preferred universities and we can see it in the UK with a popular shows such as QI and Mastermind – the like of which are not see elsewhere.

    Where knowing a whole lot is either required or held up as worthy Kuhn’s argument should have a harder time winning people over.

    In contrast Canada and Australia both can take egalitarianism to the point where they will drive a combine over the tall poppies.

    The US and England have other issues with the compensation of teachers outside of their elite systems that may hold them back. Otherwise I would bet on the England leading a trend away from IL and PBL and the subsequent improvement in results.

    Somewhere this is going to happen and the arguments of the IL and PBL proponents will have much less influence. Until it happens somewhere like enough to us people will dismiss results from foreign places with the implicitly racist- that would not work here.

    This view is based on living in all four countries mentioned here.

  5. […] and Clark is something that I have linked to countless times on this blog. I have written about it here, decribing the reaction to it, the responses and the responses to the responses, all of which […]


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