An insight from Richard E Clark

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It was 2011. I had in front of me a copy of John Hattie’s, ‘Visible Learning,’ and I was reading the section where he discusses constructivism. I distinctly remember seeing the in-line reference and then looking this up in the references section. At that time, I had no institutional access to research papers so it was with a low expectation of success that I started to Google, “Why minimal guidance during instruction doesn’t work…” I was lucky – there was a pdf freely available on the internet, one that I encourage you to read.

This paper, by Kirschner, Sweller 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 culminated in a book that is worth reading if you can get access.

These days, nobody seems to be in favour of ‘pure’ discovery learning and even the academics who are still avowed constructivists seem to limit themselves to a bit of open-ended problem solving prior to full, explicit instruction. So it’s a paper that has had a huge impact. And it has profoundly affected me. I have managed to connect with Paul Kirschner via Twitter and John Sweller is now one of my PhD supervisors. However, I hadn’t heard much from Richard E Clark, despite putting up a Google alert for his papers. That is until I read a new interview with him; an interview that is freely available on ResearchGate.

I now realise that he retired in 2012 so that’s probably why I don’t see his stuff pinging through on Google. Apparently, he is famous for an interesting quote about the use of media in education, “media are mere vehicles that do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition”. Clark’s interest in media stems from his first career in television; a career that led to doctoral work in the use of television for learning. He suggests:

“I was likely perceived as a pain by many of my educational technology instructors by insisting that they offer evidence for their claims, and when they did, I read the studies they mentioned and came back to them with critiques.”

Clark looked into the research around how different media affected course outcomes; it didn’t seem to make much difference. The same teacher using different media would tend to achieve the same outcomes. It was the teacher that was important and the instructional methods the teacher used, not the media. The effect of using different media, if any, could be explained due to it’s novelty; something that quickly wore off.

Clark received some criticism for this from people who made a living from the use of new technology in education. But this didn’t stop him from questioning a few other cherished assumptions in his future research:

“…there is an abiding belief that if we give students a choice in how they will learn, they will be more motivated and successful as learners. In Clark (1982), I published a review in the Educational Psychologist titled Antagonism Between Achievement and Enjoyment in ATI Studies that offered evidence to the contrary for many students. There is considerable evidence that when students can choose more than one way to learn, a significant number expect that the way they’ve chosen will require less effort than the way they rejected. As a consequence they seem to invest less effort and so achieve less.”

And in 1989, Clark, “found evidence that most students seem not to learn effectively when they attempt to use unstructured and unguided (often called “discovery”or “constructivist”) instruction.” In the early part of this century, he reviewed the evidence for the use of computer games in learning and similarly found it wanting. Students didn’t even appear more motivated by these games. Instead, they tended to become distracted.

There is much more to read in the interview. It is densely packed with insights but I’m going to skip to Clark’s description of the genesis of the paper with Kirschner and Sweller:

“John, Paul, and I started our collaboration as a result of an informal chat over coffee at the 2003 American Educational Research Association meeting in Atlanta. I mentioned that during my talks at the convention and other locations, people were rudely interrupting and shouting slogans advocating constructivist and discovery learning. Some had called me “an instructivist”as if it were an insult. John and Paul reported exactly the same experience and it’s fair to report that we were upset that people with different views felt they had to be rude to be heard. We also agreed that they were wrong and decided that maybe it was time to take a more careful look at the evidence for discovery and constructivist learning and write some-thing together.”

And that’s how we have the paper that certainly changed the course of my teaching career and that, I suspect, changed a few others too.

As a final aside, it is worth noting just how far people go to dismiss this paper. A guy called Doug Holton has posted a theory that the paper has attracted attention because it was posted as a reference on an article about constructivism on Wikipedia and, “many bloggers today get their opinions about education and psychology from Wikipedia (or other bloggers who read Wikipedia).” I replied to this, explaining how I came across the paper. That comment was initially approved but now appears to have been deleted. Perhaps Wikipedia makes a better story.

I strongly recommend the Clark interview. It is well worth the time invested.


8 thoughts on “An insight from Richard E Clark

  1. Edward Cain says:

    I had precisely the same moment of enlightenment during my PGCE year, via the same page in Hattie’s Visible Learning! And what a relief it was: I was at that time placed in a school preaching discovery learning as the only appropriate teaching method. Glad to see there are more survivors out there.

  2. Wow, these critiques of constructivist pedagogies date back to the 1980s? I am stunned that I am not being taught this and I would have no idea if it wasn’t for people like you.

  3. Pingback: A principled objection #AARE2016 | Filling the pail

  4. Update from my email exchange with Dick Clark last month: I’ve come out of retirement to work with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Schmidt Family Foundation – both exciting projects – both focused on Cognitive Task Analysis.

    You can’t a good man down. 🙂

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