Can teaching cause learning?

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In The Conversation today, there is an article by Vaughan Prain and Russell Tytler that takes aim at ‘simplistic advice to teachers on how to teach’. I have some sympathy for the reservations they express about effect sizes because I also have reservations about the way that these are used. However, if readers are left with the impression that Hattie-style effect size tables are the only evidence we have for explicit teaching then that would be unfortunate because there is a wealth of evidence from a diverse range of studies; something that Rosenshine makes clear in this important piece. I think that the main issue is, perhaps, that many in academia, and the authors in particular, don’t really like the idea that explicit instruction is effective. It is at odds with the constructivist teaching philosophy that still permeates education faculties and in the social sciences, it is always possible to suggest that things might be more complex than we assume.

As might be expected, Tytler and Prain go the well-worn route of suggesting that we also need to teach reifications such as creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, implying that strategies such as explicit instruction are inadequate to meet this aim. Yet all the evidence suggests that these abilities are not discrete and are largely an emergent property of knowing a great deal about a particular subject. See, for instance, Dan Willingham on critical thinking or Tricot and Sweller on problem solving. The author’s claim that, “Explicit teaching… [is] effective in teaching basic skills, but less so for advanced creative problem-solving,” is one that I would dispute. To support their view, they link to an article by the Australian Literacy Educators Association that has not been peer-reviewed. Such as strong assertion requires far more robust evidence.

So far, however, we have encountered little that is new. All of this is to be expected from Australian education academics. For instance, I empathised with Michael Salter’s summary of the authors’ argument in the comments:

“…we know now that explicit teaching methods are more effective (as if any experienced teacher was unaware of this), but for a variety of nebulous reasons, we will continue to promote the usual constructivist canards in education degrees and/or teacher training courses, chiefly for ideological reasons.”

There is, perhaps, a grain of truth in that.

And it is in the comments where we find an idea that I am keen to highlight; something that perhaps illustrates the disconnect between academia, policy makers and the wider public. It is a comment by Scott Webster, a senior lecturer at Deakin University, and it contains this claim:

“The underlying assumption [of government department that promote particular strategies] is that teaching causes learning – but it doesn’t and can’t. Learning (whatever that might be) is something students do and of course as [the authors] argue, human persons are complex.”

The idea that teaching does not, and indeed cannot, cause learning is extraordinary. I understand that causation is a favourite topic of debate among philosophers but this particular idea is baffling. When challenged, Webster suggests:

“I could share with you several classrooms I have experienced where walking in the doorway and being immediately attacked and abused for being ‘white’ even before I opened my mouth would offer some challenge to your belief that somehow I could ‘cause’ those students to learn by simply applying something like High Impact Teaching Strategies.”

I am no philosopher, but I see a flaw in this argument. I am sure we can all think of instances where teaching will not cause learning. Perhaps the teacher speaks in a language that the students don’t understand or perhaps a bee enters the classroom and consumes the attention of the students. Neither of these examples demonstrate that teaching cannot cause learning. In my view, it manifestly does. We don’t need to run randomised controlled trials to demonstrate that. If not, what are we doing? What’s the point?

There is probably some arcane argument to justify this stance but my view is that its transparent absurdity makes it hard for anyone to engage with if they have not been initiated into the appropriate ideology. However, I can certainly see the value in thinking like this. If you believe that teaching cannot cause learning then explicit instruction simply won’t work, no matter what evidence is presented to show that it does. If you believe that teaching cannot cause learning then you might be more inclined to pursue problem-based learning, discovery learning and all those other methods that ask teachers to get out of the way and shut-up.

As the Queen in Through the Looking Glass suggests, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Perhaps that’s where the disconnect lies. Here we all are in the real world, trying to teach kids stuff, whereas some education academics have gone down a rabbit hole or through the looking glass.


24 thoughts on “Can teaching cause learning?

  1. Thanks for the quote! 🙂 As usual, you made most of the other commenters there look pretty foolish.

    It really is the worst of both worlds, isn’t it. These people swallow wholesale the ultra-individualist “creativity” bilge spouted by Sir Ken, pop stars and pig-ignorant tech squillionaires in grey T-shirts, and at the same time hold fast to the idea of “critical thinking/literacy” à la Freire. It is an extraordinarily incoherent approach to education, and could only be held by people who have not had the difficult but satisfying and valuable experience of acquainting a class of students with a hierarchical body of knowledge, step by step, with patience and dedication.

  2. How about a randomised controlled experiment: Treatment is a few hours of good, evidence-informed teaching of physics and then seeing if kids can come up with creative solutions to problems. Control is a few hours of kids playing with physics apparatus in a lab along with an internet connection and some physics books on a shelf and seeing how these kids do on the same problems.

      • Which is convenient because then they can never be held to account for any failures. It reminds me of the “not real socialism” argument trotted out by Marxists everytime another regime fails. In many ways it mirrors that thinking – protect the ideology and the people defending it at all costs, ignore the human suffering caused by the bad idea and construct a conspiracy theory (in our case neoliberalism) to denigrate and discredit those who point out the faults.

      • Michael pye says:

        That is the rub ins’t it. One of the key changes that allow people to accept this kind of evidence is when they move from believing that no question can be answered quantifiably, as we are using proxies, to the idea that some of those proxies are really good enough.

        We can’t define creative questions very well, but in a more reasonable world we could get progressive educators to write a suite of questions (or even several suites) and use them as proxies. We could then break down the skills required to create a explicitly taught curriculum, focused on those tasks, and compare it with a implicitly designed curriculum.

        This is suitably weighted in the favor of progressive approaches, while if we are correct, an explicitly taught approach should still be superior (as long as it was designed after seeing the questions) . The last problem of course is that hardly anyone would read it, and those that did would argue that we were teaching to the test (ignoring the fact that both curriculums were using this advantage).

        By the way it is nice to see you here, the last time was in somewhat adversarial surroundings.

  3. Tempe says:

    A really bizarre position ie teaching doesn’t result in learning. Huh? Are schools just glorified baby sitting centres, then?

    When I homeschooled I’m pretty certain that my teaching resulted in learning. But I suppose I used explicit instruction. I saw Kumon result in improved mathematics ability almost immediately.

    When my daughter went to high school she had never encountered algebra but now she’s quite good at it. Did she just pull that knowledge out of the ether I wonder…

    • Michael pye says:

      It isn’t really what they mean, in the same way we say skills don’t exist (and as a concept they definitely do) they mean that learning is a process in the student.

      It is silly though as most people would agree that teaching creates an environment that encourages, nurtures and stimulates students to learn, which would be understood as teaching causing learning.(The use of progressive terms is deliberate as explicit methods do these as well). Bit of amateur level philosophy seems to be being used.

  4. ijstock says:

    As always the truth is rely in the extremes. With regrd to Criticl Thinking, for example, I think it is pretty certain that teaching it in a vcuum does not chieve much of use – but I always found that A level students saidit helped them a lot. A skill to be taught almost retrospectively perhps, in order to refine and make greater sense of something they were already doing by other means?

    • But A-Level students would still have more knowledge than a 5 year old for whom teaching it distinctly is a complete waste of time. They have something to draw on. It would have been even better taught in the subjects as it should be according to that discipline. But the truth is – in history at least – there is a problem because the intention is not to think critically but to critique a particular perspective so you will accept a different perspective. This means that critical thinking is the last thing that such people want because that would open them up to critique too. And let’s face it – Marxist theories and their derivatives have plenty of issues – it’s just that they’ve created an echo chamber to protect themselves from the critique by denouncing individuals and their motives and not sticking to ideas. This is an inherent flaw because a sociological theory has been elevated to the status of religion.

      • ijstock says:

        Hmm…not quite sure I’m follwing all of that. I simply meant that the analytical skills I covered in CT seemed to help students…and perhaps most of all when they already had had those experiences elsewhere, to which we were simply adding names and formal understanding.

  5. Stan says:

    Someone needs to check whether Scott Webster is accepting payment for teaching students. I suspect he is going for some not clever and pointless wordplay. Perhaps when he lectures he is facilitating learning not causing it. But unless his lectures cause something to be learned that wouldn’t if he was absent he is the cause of some learning.

  6. Molly de Lemos says:


    Thanks for drawing attention to this article.

    Perhaps there is a confusion here between what causes learning and what constitutes learning.

    I think that most people would agree that learning involves some kind of change in the brain, either in terms of long term memory, or in terms of linking new knowledge with established knowledge to consolidate or add to understanding of a particular topic or concept. In this sense, it is possible that teaching a new concept may not result in learning if nothing is changed in long term memory or in the way a particular concept is understood. Take for example the simple view of reading. This is actually a relatively simple concept, which should be self-evident to most people who are aware of what reading involves. That is, converting letters and words on a page to spoken language, so that the written text can be converted to spoken language, which is already known and understood. So in order to get meaning from text, you must obviously have to have knowledge of the code that links the written letters to the spoken sounds. But there still seem to be many people who do not seem to understand this simple concept, and believe that you do not need to know the code to get meaning from text. And no matter how much you try to explain this concept to them, they still don’t seem to ‘get it’. So in this context, you might say that teaching does not necessarily lead to learning.

    In this sense you might say that learning is something that students do, and unless the teaching results in changes in long term memory and the organization of ‘knowledge’ (or mental schemas) in the brain, no learning will occur.

    This does not of course mean that teaching does not or cannot lead to learning, and that some approaches to teaching (direct explicit instruction) are more effective in terms of bringing about the changes in the mental schemas that lead to more effective learning.

    This is essentially what Piaget meant when he said that learning depended on interaction between the individual and the environment through the two processes of assimilation and accommodation, assimilation being the process by which new information is modified to fit with what is already known, and accommodation being the process by which existing knowledge is modified or restructured to accommodate new information which is in some way at odds with existing knowledge or beliefs.

    It would seem that somewhere along the way the balance between the processes of assimilation and accommodation got lost in ‘progressive’ education, with assimilation becoming dominant and, despite all the evidence to the contrary, accommodation to take account of new or conflicting information was somehow suppressed.

  7. Scott says:

    Hi everyone. I am that awful Scott Webster that some of you are keen to judge and condemn. Thanks Greg for letting me know that this blog existed.

    I think Molly has offered something valuable in this discussion and that is perhaps before ‘causes’ of learning can be discussed in a serious manner, first we ought to have a clearer grasp on how ‘learning’ itself might be understood. We can readily share examples of particular events we label as having some learning present, but it is quite difficult to actually produce a definition for learning which can encompass all instances. This is because, by turning primarily to psychology for definitions for learning we end up with something that is quite empty regarding content, direction and purpose. For example, learning can be equated to ‘training’ or ‘conditioning’ and so can be applied to animals as well as humans who learn competencies. Learning can also refer to undesirable activities such as indoctrination and brain washing. And of course learning could refer to something valuable such as ‘education’.

    One of the concerns I have is that discussions about curriculum, teaching and schooling, have tended to focus on learning rather than education. I wonder how different the discussions might be – including the ones on this blog – if the focus was on ‘education’ first and foremost, and then secondly how learning might be understood, and then thirdly whether it is possible to ‘cause’ learning or not?

      • David says:

        What people learn though is not always what you intend them to learn. This discussion about causation reminds me of those ‘How to pick Up Women’ books. If you just use the techniques correctly – they will tell you – then you will cause women to have fall for you. The ‘right’ learning only tends to happen when the motivations and interests, and pre conceptions, and so on that students have are well aligned with what the teacher has in mind. If not you can have (and often do) a situation where the teacher intends to cause a bit of learning about algebra for example, and ends up causing students to learn some ideal designs for paper aeroplanes.

    • Chester Draws says:

      but it is quite difficult to actually produce a definition for learning which can encompass all instances

      Sure it’s difficult, but it’s not required. We all know what learning is, even if a totally complete definition of it eludes us.

      A discussion about a “focus on learning rather than education” helps me not one jot as I try to teach my students about appropriate use of graphs in statistics. A discussion about “whether it is possible to ‘cause’ learning or not” just impedes me, because it takes up time when I could be reading about something useful.

      And people wonder why teachers scoff at education academics!

      • David says:

        The problem for teachers is when administrators or politicians pick up on some salient feature or learning or teaching (such as spaced repetition), and then take that to be the whole of the matter. The last thing you want is for someone to decide that it is really all about ‘growth mindset’, ‘learning styles’ or explicit instruction, and designing teacher evaluations around those things without seeing the bigger picture

      • Tempe says:

        Yes. It sounded like academic speak to me and didn’t enlighten me in any way. Seems like a merry-go-round type conversation.

    • Michael Pye says:

      Education as a goal instead of learning doesn’t help though. We can still go down the philosophical rabbit hole. What is the purpose of education? Self improvement, preparation for work, or independence and self motivation.

      I get were you are going, and I even find it interesting as I enjoy epistemology, but it is not really helpful for driving improvements in teaching. The answers to your questions are going to be political and ideological, asking what do we want to achieve. They say little about how we achieve them, which is the question that most of the posters are interested in.

      Ps. To make an obvious point, learning can be negative. I can pick up racism, bigotry etc:. It is still learning. Pretending otherwise romanticizes the concept preventing us from seeing the dangers and analyzing the potential downsides. This is why people can believe all learning is good, and why they resent unnecessary restriction. If I acknowledge that it can have significant negative outcomes then I need to consider costs and benefits in a very different light.

      By the way I am sorry if you feel unfairly judged,one comment on this post was definitely unnecessary. I have recently experienced that feeling after straying outside my reality bubble. However I think Greg has gone out of his way to keep his attacks on your ideas not on your person.

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