There is a classic research design in education. Instead of investigating the effect of some intervention or other on children in schools, researchers study student teachers. The researchers typically try to change the attitudes of the students teachers towards some aspect of teaching and usually in a counterproductive way.
This design arises repeatedly because student teachers are easier to study than schoolchildren – they are available in the universities where researchers work and the ethics requirements tend to be less demanding – and because of a critical point about all research of this kind. First, the researcher assumes a position, then the researcher seeks to influence the student teachers to adopt this position, something that is relatively easy to do given that the student teachers want to pass their course. All the while, the position itself is never questioned. There is no chance of generating inconvenient data that may challenge the position.
Barry Garelick pointed me to a good example in the US version of The Conversation.
In this case, the student teachers are learning how to teach science and maths. Apparently, these student teachers tend to tell the researcher – Peter Cormas, an Associate Professor in science education – that children, “must memorize science and mathematics knowledge to learn it.” Instead, the professor wants them to accept that children can, “acquire knowledge through a process used by scientists and mathematicians called problem-solving.”
Replace ‘memorize’ with ‘remember’ and the concept that children must remember science and mathematics knowledge to learn it seems perfectly sensible. Moreover, in the alternative approach, do children not remember what they acquire through problem-solving? I admit this is possible, but it does then draw into question the efficacy of such an approach.
And there are good reasons to question this efficacy. Although Cormas seems unaware of this, there’s quite a debate about the value of discovery learning when compared to explicitly teaching the same content. Many advocates of problem-based learning are aware of this debate and tend to emphasise the amount of guidance they give students. Not so, Cormas, who is quite happy to advocate for discovery:
“Throughout the course, I asked the future teachers to discover science and mathematics knowledge with problem-solving. I also had the future teachers teach students at a local school by asking them to learn with problem-solving.”
Regular readers of this blog are probably already familiar with the research in this area, but here is a whistle-stop tour: In this article, Mayer makes a convincing case against pure discovery learning drawing upon historical examples, in this seminal work, Kirschner, Sweller and Clark survey the empirical evidence on approaches based on problem-solving, and in this piece, Kirschner blows apart the commonly-held notion that the best way for novices to learn a discipline is by imitating the behaviour of professionals.
And regular readers will also be aware of the explanation that Cognitive Load Theory provides for these findings: Discovery learning overwhelms working memory for novices who possess little to draw upon from long-term memory.
However, Cormas never seems to question his questionable assumption that learning by problem-solving is superior. Instead, he simply asserts, without references, that, “because problem-solving is necessary for scientific and mathematical literacy, students need teachers who will expose them to problem-solving.”
And Cormas lacks a little curiosity when he notes that, “former students that I ran into years later often told me that they do not use problem-solving as teachers. Instead, they reverted to simply asking students to memorize science and mathematics information. They told me the reason for this is that teachers in their present schools do not use problem-solving. I find this troubling.”
Is it worth considering – I mean, just for a moment – whether the experienced professionals who teach science and maths every day may be avoiding problem-solving for a reason? Is their craft knowledge worth exploring? At all?
The reason the grizzled old teachers are misbehaving, of course, is that learning through problem-solving is, at best, extremely inefficient and, at worst, does not work. One of the peculiarities of our species is that we have evolved the means to communicate complex ideas to each other. This has enabled us to pick-up where a previous generation left-off and develop ever more sophisticated iterations of science and mathematics. It seems perverse to cast this aside and insist that children figure out science and mathematics for themselves.
Research of this kind will continue to take place in universities. I see no prospect of that changing. So, as a profession, we need to seek new ways to disrupt and bypass these institutions that teach our newest members all the wrong things. As teachers, we need to be at the centre of that disruption, taking charge of our profession for ourselves.