Problem-Based Learning, Constructivism, and Inquiry Learning a Failure?

The journals Educational Psychologist and American Journal of Physics (which is the top journal for physics education research) published some very controversial “editorials” recently (although they are not labeled as such).

The first is an article by Kirshner, Sweller (inventor of cognitive load theory), and Clark entitled “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.” Richard Hake, a prominent physics education researcher, has responded to this article on various educational listservs. Cindy Hmelo-Silver, Ravit Duncan, and Clark Chinn also have a response forthcoming in a future issue of Educational Psychologist entitled “Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark.”

Problem-based learning (see this overview) in particular is anything BUT “minimally guided.” See for example this article by Cindy Hmelo-Silver and Howard Barrows (father of PBL) which details the role of the facilitator in PBL. Kirshner, Sweller, and Clark appear to have created a straw man argument that no one actually believes. Why bother responding to something like that? For one thing, it has been published in a peer-reviewed research journal, and thus can and will be interpreted as scientific “truth.” This has happened before. As Hake discusses in his listserv post, an earlier 2004 article by Klahr and Nigam entitled “The Equivalence of Learning Paths in Early Science Instruction” has been used by conservatives to argue that good old fashioned lecture is the best way to teach. So we have to respond to these types of articles and engage in a dialog and not merely dismiss one perspective or the other.

The second controversial editorial is entitled “School math books, nonsense, and the National Science Foundation” and was published in the American Journal of Physics. Leslie Atkins notes in her blog that she has sent AJP a response, and see also this webpage detailing the issues educators have faced in reforming math education entitled Algebra Instruction, Then and Now.

A criticism of math education in the same vein was also posted recently on Kuro5hin by a Canadian math (not math ed) phd student, entitled The Declining Quality of Mathematics Education in the US, criticizing TERC’s Investigations in Number, Data, and Space elementary math curriculum. A Youtube video criticizing the same curriculum has been making the rounds the past month as well. As Bob Tinker writes, however, this curriculum has been quite successful, and we need NSF and other agencies to fund more innovative K-12 curriculum development, not revert back to old ways of teaching, or spend money on pure research alone.

Most of the time these attacks appear in newspapers, websites, and online groups, such as the criticisms of teacher unions by conservatives (and recently even by Apple’s Steve Jobs). We have to respond and engage in a dialog in those cases, as well. See for example Diane Ravitch’s article entitled “Why Teacher Unions Are Good for Teachers and the Public.”

Posted in education, learning sciences, research
5 comments on “Problem-Based Learning, Constructivism, and Inquiry Learning a Failure?
  1. Bill Kerr says:

    hiI responded to the “minimal guidance doesn’t work” article back in October last year, < HREF="" REL="nofollow"> minimal guidance during instruction can work <>Extract:“constructionism as developed by Papert et al is a method of subtle (environmental) intervention, yes, there is scaffolding but it is relatively unobtrusive – with scaffolding being removed (the teacher getting out the way and letting students create) where appropriate – other approaches may not enable able students to flourish in this way, they may always keep students chained up”Good to see that others have blown the whistle on this sloppy research

  2. D Holton says:

    Richard Clark has also written against the use of animated pedagogical agents and videogames in education, see:

  3. Keith Russell says:

    A great response to the issues raised. There would still seem to be a set of logical issues to be addressed. Fir me, most of these arise from the general avoidance of the central question “what is a problem?” I have attempted to get to this matter in a paper that now is up on Knol.THE PROBLEM OF THE PROBLEM AND PERPLEXITY(Note: this paper has been published as part of the refereed conference papers , 5th International PBL Conference 99, PBL: A Way Forward? University of Quebec at Montreal, Canada, July, 1999.)I also have put up a PBL survey that so far I’ve never been able to get anyone to answer. Blog!

  4. Kellie Doty says:

    I think that what is being left entirely out of the debate is learning styles. As an auditory, big picture learner, I love lectures. I also do as well, if not better, than most of my peers at using that information in authentic tasks, for after I have the big picture, I can easily break it down into steps. However, when presented with a hands-on task for discovery learning, I rarely gain anything from the experience. It is nothing more than a series of meaningless steps – training in a procedure, if you will.

    On the other hand, my daughter is a very visual, hands-on learner who does well with taking the small parts to create a whole. For her, lectures literally go in one ear and out the other. She excels with discovery learning because she can see what is going on.

    When the instruction matches our learning styles, we both get great results. If we are throw into the others learning environment, we struggle. Algebra with learning tiles makes absolutely no sense to me. I am so not a visual learner. I’m left dazed and confused. Jenn, loves it! Forget completing the square – give me the quadratic equation any day.

    I believe the real key to a quality education is not to embrace direct or discovery learning, but to provide students with a multitude of experiences that utilize all learning styles, theory-based approaches, and intelligences throughout the process. This meets all students where they are, allows them to utilize their strengths, and to strengthen their weaknesses. Neither side has to be “right.” Why can’t we accept that education is no different than ordering a pizza – one crust or one topping doesn’t fit all, but by using a menu and creating customized orders, we can all leave the restaurant satisfied customers.

  5. Keith Russell says:

    While I can agree with the multiple learning styles approach (I too prefer abstractions) I also understand that their are crucial aspects of learning that are tied to situations. Concrete learners and abstract learners both need to confront the alternatives in search of distinct kinds of knowing (can-do).

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