Seven Myths – the evidence base, part III

Posted on 23-02-2014

In my previous two posts (here and here), I looked at the structure of my book and restated some of the evidence I’d used to make the claim that a certain set of ideas were dominant in English education. In this post, I want to restate the evidence I used to back up my second claim: that these ideas are misguided. Essentially, the evidence here is fairly straightforward and derives mostly from cognitive psychology. In summary, working memory is limited; long-term memory is powerful; and we remember what we think about. Here’s a summary of just some of the evidence about this.

Dan Willingham – Why Don’t Students Like School?
Kirschner, Sweller & Clark – Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching
Herbert Simon – Skill in Chess and Expert and novice performance in solving physics problems
John Anderson – A Simple Theory of Complex Cognition

Here are two other excellent articles which I don’t cite in my book but which deal with very similar ideas.

Greg Yates – “How Obvious”: Personal reflections on the database of educational psychology and effective teaching research
Richard E.Mayer – Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning? The Case for Guided Methods of Instruction

These three key facts about memory have huge implications for classroom practice. It’s because working-memory is so limited that projects, authentic activities and discovery learning are so problematic. It’s because long-term memory is so powerful that we need to make sure pupils commit facts to memory, and that pupils who don’t already have background knowledge are not left to devise their own education. And it’s because we remember what we think about that we need to make sure all our classroom activities focus our pupils’ attention on what we want them to remember.

The myths I identify, and the practice they have influenced, are in direct opposition to all of this evidence. I will give just three examples of this here – one example of a lesson from Ofsted, one example of a statement from a popular educationalist, and one example of a popular non-governmental curriculum. I’m not going to repeat in detail the problems with each example – I’ve just followed it up with a quotation from the research literature.

Lesson from an Ofsted report

‘Pupils first matched each of the diverse group of party guests (baby mice through to a giant) to various balloons. Then they had to measure string of differing lengths (5cm to 2m) for tying onto the balloons for each guest. The higher level teaching assistant encouraged good debate between the pupils around whether the string should be measured and cut before tying, or tied first and then measured. She did not steer them towards the other approach when they decided to measure and tie the string first. The pupils wrestled with measuring the string after tying it to the balloons which enabled them to appreciate the difficulty of measuring accurately once the string was attached to the balloon. They also realised that some of the string was used up in tying it to the balloon. This led to good discussion around which approach should be taken. The pupils revised their strategy for the task, which they went on to complete successfully.’ (Link here.)

Evidence from research

‘Controlled experiments almost uniformly indicate that when dealing with novel information, learners should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it.’ (Kirschner, Sweller, Clark)
‘Children who have the advantage of clear instructional cues will achieve understanding more readily than children expected to acquire knowledge via less directive teaching methods.’ (Yates)

Guy Claxton

‘Knowledge is changing so fast that we cannot give young people what they will need to know, because we do not know what it will be. Instead we should be helping them to develop supple and nimble minds, so that they will be able to learn whatever they need to.’ (Link here)

Evidence from research

‘In every domain that has been explored, considerable knowledge has been found to be an essential prerequisite to expert skill.’ (Simon, Expert and novice performance in solving physics problems)
‘Data from the last 30 years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most — critical thinking processes like reasoning and problem solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is in long-term memory (not just in the environment).’ (Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?)

RSA Opening Minds curriculum

‘Children plan their work, organise their own time and explore their own ways of learning.’ (Link here.)
‘With the primary sector’s more cross-cutting and discovery-based approach to teaching and learning we expect there to be a natural fit with how Opening Minds has evolved at Key Stage 3.’ (Link here.)

Evidence from research

‘Constructivism too often is seen in terms of student centred inquiry learning, problem-based learning and task based learning and common jargon words include “authentic”, “discovery” and “intrinsically motivated learning”. The role of the constructivist teacher is claimed to be more of facilitation to provide opportunities for individual students to acquire knowledge and construct meaning through their own activities, and through discussion, reflection and the sharing of ideas with other learners with minimal corrective intervention. These kinds of statements are almost directly opposite to the successful recipe for teaching and learning as will be developed in the following chapters.’ (Hattie, Visible Learning, p.26)
‘In all major domains, an accumulation of effective methods has occurred for teaching the accumulated knowledge and skills…teachers know how and to what degree of mastery the simpler tasks have to be acquired to serve as the building blocks of more complex skill. Unlike the beginners themselves, teachers can foresee the future demands and avoid the need for complete relearning of previously obtained skill.’ (K. Anders Ericsson, link here)

E.D. Hirsch has used the insights we have from cognitive psychology to formulate some ‘middle axioms’ for classroom practice. (I blog about this here). Middle axioms are general theoretical principles that can guide our practice. Hirsch’s seven are as follows.

• Prior knowledge as a prerequisite to effective learning.
• Meaningfulness.
• The right mix of generalization and example.
• Attention determines learning.
• Rehearsal (repetition) is usually necessary for retention.
• Automaticity (through rehearsal) is essential to higher skills.
• Implicit instruction of beginners is usually less effective.

I would suggest that these seven middle axioms are a better guide to educational practice than the seven myths I identify. Unfortunately, it’s the latter which currently guide much of our education system.