Horrible theory of minimal guidance learning by Kirschner, Clark, and Sweller

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Confusion about discovery learning

If you are a ruthless hard-core teacher who wants to prove that discovery learning does not work, you might try the following trick. Enter the class and demand: "I want you to master quantum mechanics! Go ahead and discover!". You would obviously meet with a classroom of silence. If you think that your students are whimpering in their minds "Oh no! Don't do it to us! Please help!", you must be sporting a wrong model of a student's mind. If you could translate brainwaves into sounds, you would rather hear "Are you kidding me?". Sadly, there are thousands of teachers who believe that their students have no future without a teacher's assistance. Confusingly, there is a mountain of research showing that discovery learning is inefficient. It is all wrong (see: Discovery learning is hard to measure). However, most horrifyingly, there are still researchers who honestly believe that discovery learning is inefficient. If they base their thinking on data, we can easily demonstrate bad design and poor-quality research. However, if they base their thinking on a wrong theory of mind, we all need to worry about the prospects for a bloodless revolution in education. If the young generation needs to fight for their rights with a backup from science, the news is good. However, if science stands in opposition, we may enter the era of universal confusion worthy of the best mud stirring Trumpian trickery.

Happy life of discovery

I was lucky to be free to ignore direct instruction for 22 years of my largely compulsory schooling. On rare days when I was forced to perform some robotic memorization for a test, I would promptly discard incoherent knowledge soon after to pursue my own interests. For the last 30 years, I was totally free to learn effectively. I employ free learning, and I wish all kids around the world were free to have the same freedom and pleasure. My whole life was about the fun of unrestricted discovery learning.

It is incomprehensible for me that there are still educators who can argue with a straight face that being guided by a hand in learning is somehow superior to unrestricted freedom of exploration.

Bad example

Here is one prominent and widely cited example of bad science: "Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching".

The authors stand against the tide of history peppered with intellectual giants that stretch from Aristotle, via Locke and Piaget, to Seymour Papert. They stand against the well-established theory of constructivism.

The quoted article tells me that poor research design is not the only reason for which free learning or discovery learning are misunderstood. Even sheer modelling of the learning process falls short of the mark. Education psychologists with PhDs believe in theories that leave me with an impression they have never observed a playful child or have never observed themselves learning new things. A complete lack of understanding of the constructivist theory is stunning. Working memory and long-term memory are somehow contorted to build an argument that discovery learning is inefficient. A new astonishing idea pops up that the concept networks of (1) a child and of (2) a scientist are qualitatively different beyond the natural quantitative difference in the level of conceptualization (i.e. crystallization of established concepts). The whole claim of the superiority of guidance over freedom is an insult to human intelligence. Human brains are better than that. The text speaks of the arrogance of the authors: "we the experts, we the scientists proclaim that know better than the little humans".

Is science that bad or is that just wishful thinking of committed hard-core teachers? Do we worry about the next test, or do we want kids to soar in intellectual achievement? Is there some common denominator between Kirschner, Manfred Spitzer, Yuval Harari, and Nicholas Carr? Is it arrogance?

Cream of the crop

I leave some of the "gems" from the criticized article below with sparse dignifying comment assuming the reader is familiar with the subject matter to spot the preposterous.

Discovery learning is all about discovery. By definition it stands in opposition to the concept of a classroom. And yet:

Minimally guided instruction appears to proceed with no reference to the characteristics of working memory, long-term memory, or the intricate relations between them. The result is a series of recommendations that most educators find almost impossible to implement—and many experienced educators are reluctant to implement—because they require learners to engage in cognitive activities that are highly unlikely to result in effective learning. As a consequence, the most effective teachers may either ignore the recommendations or, at best, pay lip service to them (e.g., Aulls, 2002)

The learn drive mechanism makes the optimum use of working memory by maximizing value for a given semantic distance. And yet:

Recommendations advocating minimal guidance during instruction proceed as though working memory does not exist or, if it does exist, that it has no relevant limitations, when dealing with novel information, the very information of interest to constructivist teaching procedures

The authors do not seem to understand the incremental nature of constructivism. They are seemingly unaware of layer by layer build up of long-term memory associations in the concept network. The learn drive mechanism operates in limited search space by ensuring concept activations at optimized semantic distance. And yet:

Working memory load does not contribute to the accumulation of knowledge in long-term memory because while working memory is being used to search for problem solutions, it is not available and cannot be used to learn

The learn drive mechanism is the best known optimizer of learning trajectories (see: Jigsaw puzzle metaphor). The authors clearly subscribe to the myth of efficient optimization by hand (see: Mountain climb metaphor of schooling):

The goal of instruction is rarely simply to search for or discover information. The goal is to give learners specific guidance about how to cognitively manipulate information in ways that are consistent with a learning goal, and store the result in long-term memory

The authors do not seem to understand the incremental nature of the learning process. They clearly imagine that pure discovery learning looks like asking someone to go and discover quantum mechanics on her own? So the working memory gets overwhelmed and nothing is left in long-term memory? This is exactly how hand-optimized curriculum-oriented schooling looks most of the time! This is the problem of schooling put on its head:

The consequences of requiring novice learners to search for problem solutions using a limited working memory or the mechanisms by which unguided or minimally guided instruction might facilitate change in long-term memory appear to be routinely ignored

Jerome Bruner is one of the geniuses of constructivism. Long before we understood the mechanisms behind the pleasure of learning, he knew that knowledge is its own best reward. Now that we understand the learn drive and how memory works, all traces of doubt are gone. Bruner's "blunder" was "excused" by his living in an ignorant era? In 2016, Bruner died at the beautiful age of 100. Since the discussed paper's publication, Bruner had a decade to become enlightened with the marvelous concept of the "well-mapped cognitive architecture". Unsurprisingly, he never recanted his beliefs.

Recommending minimal guidance was understandable when Bruner (1961) proposed discovery learning as an instructional tool because the structures and relations that constitute human cognitive architecture had not yet been mapped

Which is better? (A) Tell a child that eclipse is caused by the obstruction of the sun by the moon, and (B) Make the kid curious and make her go on her own google search exploration? Is it good when a child veers off unpredictably to other topics such as extraterrestrial intelligence, or Big Bang, or questions such as "Why is the sky blue?". Each time the answer is B (own exploration), we have glaringly obvious evidence for the power of exploration and discovery. And yet:

Most learners of all ages know how to construct knowledge when given adequate information and there is no evidence that presenting them with partial information enhances their ability to construct a representation more than giving them full information

The brain is a concept network. It begins the process of conceptual crystallization long before birth. The process ends with the last bit of consumed information, often after the last breath. And yet:

According to Kyle (1980), scientific inquiry is a systematic and investigative performance ability incorporating unrestrained thinking capabilities after a person has acquired a broad, critical knowledge of the particular subject matter through formal teaching processes. It may not be equated with investigative methods of science teaching, self-instructional teaching techniques, or open-ended teaching techniques. Educators who confuse the two are guilty of the improper use of inquiry as a paradigm on which to base an instructional strategy

We know that kids get bored with easy tasks and run away from hard problems. They employ problem valuation network. And yet:

Free exploration of a highly complex environment may generate a heavy working memory load that is detrimental to learning

Fathers of a bad theory

When there is bad science around, we should always look for the root cause. How can it be explained? Each widely-cited bad theory has a degree of good contribution to the progress of science. But it also causes waves of confusion, esp. among the less-informed who take scientific authority as the ultimate oracle. In this case, a bad theory might undermine the quest for the Grand Education Reform.

Kirchner, Clark and Sweller have all rich background in classroom education. They must be experiencing the "fish tank effect" were classroom reality distorts the truth of social ecology, incl. the ecology of learning. They all believe in a qualitative change in the learning process with the buildup of expertise. In their minds, students need guidance, but experts don't.

During one of the educational conferences, they have been labelled instructionists, and for them that's no offence. Over a coffee, they decided to put some flesh on their convictions. By capitalizing largely on Sweller's cognitive load theory, they produced a controversial piece that turned out to hit the jackpot.

Google Scholar tells me that Kirschner and Clark have built their citation fame on their bad theory and a controversial claim. Again we see the flaws of the citation index in peer review. Those who make outrageous claims often shoot up in citation popularity contest. They get quoted in books and in confused blogs. One of the victims wrote "I am eternally grateful to whoever pointed in the direction of a paper which gave me new teacher-life" (source).

Paul A. Kirschner discovered that Facebook decreases GPA. Richard Edward Clark wrote "Media will never influence learning". The authors apparently differ from most kids of the new generation. They prefer a classroom over YouTube. Perhaps it is unbearable to see great learning theories be quashed with cat videos? Kirschner's lectures even seem to follow a similar pattern than those of Dr Manfred Spitzer.

I do not mind a difference of opinion, however, I wish the paper authors did not contribute to enslaving kids in the classroom by spawning flimsy theories of learning. Human rights call for the professors to be free to learn with guidance, and for kids to be free to choose their own ways.

As for Dr John Sweller, he is a surprise. Does he not know that kids naturally run away from problems that are too hard? His classroom bias dates back to his original 1988 publication that put his name in the annals of education science history. It is clearly not just a problem of bad definition of discovery learning because the title of the article clearly speaks of minimum guidance (see: It is hard to research discovery learning). Crucially, Sweller claims:

Cognitive load theory suggests that the free exploration of a highly complex environment may generate a heavy working memory load that is detrimental to learning

I have never seen a toddler confused by complexities of the environment. Just the opposite, open behavioral spaces favor intelligence. As long as mama is around to provide the sense of safety, exploration thrives. It is the confines of the guidance that keeps students shackled to complexity by force of coercion. Should not Sweller's cognitive load theory tell him that the learn drive effectively optimizes learning by employing a problem valuation network or an analogous knowledge valuation network?

Georgios Zonnios explained the roots of the confusion in the research on discovery learning in: Misleading Research on Discovery Learning. Paul Kirschner is clearly welded to the concept of classroom learning, and the only exploration he finds acceptable is the one that pleases the goals set by an authoritarian teacher. Free exploration in free world by the most adaptable device in the universe is simply out of his purview.

Kirchner has also revealed himself as having a soft grip on emergence. To his mind, crystallization of knowledge in conceptual computation without guidance verges on miraculous. It is analogous to the amazement of a creationist who does not buy the idea that complex life might emerge via evolution.

However, the more fundamental root of all evil is the old myth that Paul Kirschner subscribed to in one of his interviews: "learning is hard". All people in doubt should focus on studying the pleasure of learning! From there, it follows logically that we must respect the Fundamental law of learning. If the learn drive is the best guidance in exploration then we arrive deductively to the concept of free learning.

The student must be the boss of her own destiny

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru