When should we provide guidance to students?

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Regular readers will know that I often link to a paper by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark to support my argument for explicit instruction. It’s a great paper but it is sometimes dismissed by critics due to its name, ‘Why minimal guidance doesn’t work.’ It turns out that nobody will own the concept of ‘minimal guidance’. They don’t recognise it in their own approach which they always insist contains loads of guidance.

This is a shame because the argument in the paper actually sets out the need for full guidance by providing worked examples or other forms of explicit instruction. Perhaps this is why, when they rewrote their article for an audience of teachers, the authors discussed the case for ‘fully guided’ instruction.

Many teachers and academics are against full guidance and so the argument applies to their methods. For instance, a form of mathematics instruction known as ‘Cognitively Guided Instruction‘ withholds explanations: 

“…teachers would not show the children how to solve these problems. In fact, teachers who use CGI usually tell the children to solve the problems any way they can… 

These teachers know that children are able to solve story problems without direct instruction on strategies, because children naturally direct model story situations about which they have informal knowledge.”

Interestingly, a number of CGI fans on Twitter have been arguing that this is not a form of discovery learning. If CGI is not a form of discovery learning then I don’t know what is. I think this indicates the strength of the argument against discovery learning: people would rather pretend it doesn’t apply to their methods than address this argument directly.

We tend to be attracted to discovery learning because we think it somehow leads to students learning things better. We imagine deeper kinds of learning. This idea was tested in one of the most misunderstood experiments in this field. Klahr and Nigam taught students a key scientific principle – the control of variables – either by explicit instruction or discovery learning. More of the students in the explicit instruction condition learnt the principle. But this is not the point. Of those who did learn the principle, students who learnt it by discovery were no better at evaluating science fair posters for control of variables than those who learnt by explicit instruction.

Following the publication of the Kirschner, Sweller, Clark paper and the fallout from it, Richard Clark wrote a chapter where he identified what he sees as the key difference in the way people view guidance:

“Guidance advocates suggest that learners must be provided with a complete demonstration of how to perform all aspects of a task that they have not learned and automated previously. So even if a learner could solve a problem with adequate mental effort, guidance advocates provide evidence that it is more effective and efficient to provide a complete description of “when and how”.”

Clark contrasts this position with that of those who would only provide guidance if it becomes clear that a student cannot solve a problem unaided.

I agree with Clark that there is evidence to support the position held by guidance advocates. So let’s debate that contention rather than the meanings of ‘minimal’ and ‘guidance’.

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7 Comments on “When should we provide guidance to students?”

  1. Chester Draws says:

    That CGI article linked is pure Discovery Learning.

    These teachers know that children are able to solve story problems without direct instruction on strategies, because children naturally direct model story situations about which they have informal knowledge.

    And then they end up at High School, and have no idea how to deal with situations about which you cannot “direct a story”. How do you do -3 – (-4) in story form?

    No wonder the kids arrive at high school unable to even subtract anything other than a bigger number from a smaller number.

    • howardat58 says:

      The difficulty with negative numbers is a consequence of the nature of the combined positive and negative numbers as very different from the straightforward numbers. /i am doing a post on this soon.

  2. Edward Cain says:

    Thank you for the wonderful links within your article. I have been fighting a rearguard defence using (among others) the ‘Why Minimal Guidance Does Not Work’ paper for a long time. Delighted to see it has been rewritten to specifically to persuade teachers.

  3. Stan says:

    Hey Greg,
    Did you take a look at the link amongst those tweets
    http://musicmathsmagic.com/page4/files/EffectiveTeachersofNumeracy.pdf

    It is a wonderful story, sadly unpublished in a peer reviewed journal it seems. They have done an amazing job of redefining all the normal terminology: direct or explicit instruction is transmission, discovery learning is as it normally is with the important caveat that it doesn’t care about how stupid the approach used to solve a problem is. Then there is the connectionist approach which is all things wonderful and beautiful you can imagine.

    Sadly the authors don’t seem to have used math beyond counting to establish the statistical validity of their conclusions. I am guessing that while the admire the connectionists they may be more discovery types – applying their definition that this is those that don’t care about the approach they use to draw a conclusion.

  4. […] reasons. One, because through his blogs and tweets he gets involved, and two, because of the relentless championing of one of his papers by teacher twitteratti bad boy Greg Ashman (@greg_ashman). Anyway this […]


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