April 22nd, 2008

Minimal Guidance or Direct Instruction


I recently received a reference to a well-reasoned, well-referenced analysis exploring why “minimal guidance” during instruction does not work. The article appears in a well-respected educational psychology journal which means there’s specialized nomenclature which does not make it particularly easy reading for an outsider. “Minimal guidance” (as opposed to direct instructional guidance) means that learners, rather than being presented with information, must discover or construct it for themselves. The referent includes discovered based approaches, problem-based learning, inquiry learning, experiential learning and approaches based on constructivist theories of education.

The article focuses on science education, albeit science education from grade school through med school. The case against these approaches rests on a definition that equates learning with a change in long-term memory and the assumption that “the practice of a profession is not the same as learning to practice the profession.” (p. 83) I think that means that even though science is based on a discovery model, the content of science is not best learned by a discovery model.

There are lots of references included in the article that I need to review to understand this position fully. But even after my first read, I’m wondering why they don’t address issues related to the motivation to learn and large bodies of evidence documenting how well students can and do learn from each other.

It does seem like a case where we would so like it to be one way or the other—either students can learn without much guidance (if the task is carefully designed) or they must have guidance as in be given “information that fully explains the concepts and procedures [they] are required to learn as well as learning strategy support that is compatible with human cognitive architecture.” (p. 75)

Maybe it depends. Maybe it depends on what it is students must learn. Maybe it depends on whether students are learning a skill or developing a knowledge base. Maybe it depends on the developmental position of students. Maybe it depends where they are in the specific learning task. Maybe it depends on what the teacher does best.

I keep coming back to how dichotomously pitting pedagogical approaches against one another ends up trivializing the complexity of teaching and learning. Given all the different things that we teach, given all the skills we seek to develop, given all the different learners that face us, given all our different strengths as teachers, isn’t it a bit of a stretch to imagine that either telling students or letting them discover is the definitive right answer?

Reference: Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41 (2), 75-86.

  • The issue of the effectiveness of such methods depends entirely on the type of subject matter, the type of student, and the type of setting. There are simple subject matters or principles that can easily be discovered given a complete setup of materials and equipment, however there are also subjects that took the discoverer a lifetime to discover which means that it will take almost the same amount of time for the student to discover that himself assuming they have the same level of mental capacity. The educational system should be a mix of those, direct instruction on topics which requires a very long time to discover, minimized guidance for easier and shorter topics, and also the availability of efficient equipment to facilitate the learning.