Students don’t know what’s good for them

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In yesterday’s post, I linked to a piece of research that showed that students don’t make good choices about how they learn.

It is worth pointing out that this is not an isolated piece of research. It is such a strong effect that the author of that paper, Richard Clark, coined the term ‘mathemathantic’ for when particular teaching methods ‘kill’ learning and noted that instructional procedures where students are give control over learning tend to be mathemathantic. Paul Kirschner and Mirjam Neelen have an excellent blog post on the topic.

If you are still not convinced, then perhaps it might be worth sharing two papers that I just happened to have stumbled across recently.

The first paper is a study of students engaged in reading digital texts and print texts. Students preferred the digital texts and predicted that they had understood them better. However, testing demonstrated that students actually possessed a superior understanding of the print versions.

The second paper is a new one in Learning and Instruction and John Dunlosky, one of the authors, may be familiar to you from this piece in American Educator. Students were give choices of how to learn to solve certain probability problems. Few students chose the optimal strategy which was to study worked examples prior to attempting the problems.

I think there are two conclusions we may draw from this. The first is the fairly robust conclusion that giving students choices over how to learn will lead to less learning than a teacher choosing strategies according to research-informed principles. We may, of course, decide to give students choices for other reasons, such as motivation or variety, but we need to do this in the knowledge that we are trading this for effectiveness. The mantra at the heart of progressive education, that we should always follow the child’s interests, is deeply flawed. Teaching models such as Universal Design for Learning that are premised on student choice are hopelessly inadequate.

The second conclusion is more speculative. If students make the wrong choices then what about teachers and academics? If students are drawn towards less effective instructional strategies then might this explain why some of us hold on to beliefs about teaching that do not reflect the evidence? Perhaps constructivist teaching methods just feel right to people?


8 thoughts on “Students don’t know what’s good for them

  1. David says:

    You’re pretty careful how you react to studies. But one cannot draw any conclusion from the digital versus print exercise. You have not specified which students. Are they accustomed to digital or print? How accustomed? Is it their first time at digital? To clarify, I’m a Luddite and dislike all technology, and work in a techie school district. I argue with much younger teachers that the 90 minutes/day we spend on explicit reading instruction techniques won’t matter soon because reading will no longer be necessary. People want it to be necessary, I more than most. But it’s going away. Children are read to in state-approved text adoptions They write on their devices (or simply speak to them) which edit and proofread their offerings, each month more skillfully. Where we are losing children is in math. I don’t see a future in which math will handle itself. Yet we spend less time on developing early math concepts. And, having nothing to do with any of this, I’ve just learned that I teach in the fiftiest state of fifty when ranked by science teaching!

    • What makes you think we will stop reading, for these reasons? Or that we will cease to need to be able to read? For someone to read to a child someone needs to know how to read. Are you perhaps assuming that we will teach computers to read and they will then read to us? This is a dystopian idea familiar to sci-fi readers, and has a predictable outcome. The computers choose the texts to read and knowledge (information in the head that is processed) dies out in humans, who rely on the computers to tell them what they need to know: this is how a civilization ends, because the computers are not self-replicating and the humans cannot read the instructions for repair or construction. People who endlessly say ‘oh, you don’t need knowledge, you can google it’ do not appear to see or understand this logic path.

    • Chester Draws says:

      You think that in the near future instructions will be “scratch and listen”, that ingredient lists on products will be via videos, that we will be searching our computers using audio searches of exclusively audio content for knowledge?

      How will the people making the videos know what to say without being able to read?

      There’s no risk in the foreseeable future that we won’t be needing to be able to read. It’s possible that long texts like books will be less popular, but that’s not quite the same thing.

  2. I am sure that constructivist ‘feel’ right. It just seems so wrong to be making a child learn facts and methods by rote without always knowing why they work: except that the only way ever to find out how they work is by learning them (I was most surprised to realise, once I knew my 9xtable, that all the products up to 12×9 add up to 9 or 18 (which adds up to nine, of course) and that this was a way I could check the accuracy of my answer. But I had to know the table well to realise this, not just look at it, or be able to count in nines, or indeed to assume if I ever needed the 9xtable I could google it.

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