Over at his Half and Hour blog, Stephen Downes has posted a speech he gave recently criticising Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark’s paper entitled, Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry based teaching.
Downes begins the speech by telling us that he believes in connectionism. He describes what it is and describes how one teaches in a connectionist manner. Oddly enough, I agreed with much of what Downes was saying and thought that much of it was complementary to the theories set forth in Kirschner, rather than opposed to Kirschner as Downes seems to think.
Basically, Downes believes that knowledge and learning can be explained by using network principles, specifically by understanding how connections are formed in the brain network. Knowledge means having a certain organization of neural connectivity such that you can recognize certain patterns in the environment.
This seems to be neither controversial or in apposition to Kirschner. Knowing something means being able to quickly recognize and retrieve it from your long term memory in response to some stimulus. And pattern recognition seems to play same role here.
Then Downes states that learning is not having things pushed into your head but growing and developing in a certain way such that you recognize certain patterns. If by this Downes means that teachers cannot induce learning, I would disagree. The literature is replete with experiments showing that learning can be accelerated by the use of good teaching. See for example, the famous chicken sexing experiment in which the patterns of recognizing the sex of newborn chickens was greatly accelerated by use of summary sheet prepared by an expert chicken sexer. In this case, knowledge was certainly pushed into the student's head quicker than having the student sit in an authentic environment at the foot of the expert learning by observation.
Perhaps, Downes mispoke or I am interpreting what he said incorrectly. I just don't think this statement follows from what he stated previously or what he states afterwards.
In any event, Downes next defines learning and teaching. According to Downes, to teach is to model and to demonstrate, to present experiences so people can form these connections in their mind. To learn is to form these connections by practice and repetition and by reflecting on that practice. I agree with this, even though I disagree with Downes next statement that learning is best done by participating in an authentic community of practice. It does not follow from Downes' definition of learning that an "authentic community of practice" is needed to form the desired neural connections. I might be able to learn physics the long and hard way by conducting thousands of experiments like the great discoverers did, but it's much quicker and easier to learn the same things by reading a physics textbook prepared by an expert in physics.
All of this occurs in the first seven minutes or so. Downes spends the remaining forty minutes of his speech criticizing the Kirschner paper. Downes seems to think that the connectionist theory conflicts with Kirschner and instructivist learning. And seems to favor constructionism, problem based learning, discovery learning, and the like.
In my opinion, much of this time is spent parsing Kirschner's language, erecting a few strawmen (which he curiously doesn't knoock down), and manufacturing a conflict with Kirschner when in fact his theory is complementary with Kirschner's. For example, Downes characterizes Kirschner's position as being that non-instructivist teaching results in no learning. This is a strawman. The standard position is that non-instructivist teaching often results in less efficient learning, the probability is increased that incorrect learning occurs, and it favors those with more background knowledge. These are the standard criticisms and Downes does nothing to refute them, choosing instead to attack a strawman.
Let's examine some of these issues using Downes' definition of teaching and learning.
Downes defines teaching and learning as modeling/demonstrating coupled with doing/practice so that proper connections can form in the student's brain. Downes leaves out the feedback loop, testing, which is needed so that the teacher can make sure the student has actually learned correctly from the demonstration/model presented. Let's add it back in. The full blown schematic goes something like this: model, (lead), do, test, practice, delayed test. The lead step is optional and depends on the amount of guidance needed by the student. The delayed test is for determining if the learning has made it to long term memory. Oddly enough, this is the procedure they use for Direct Instruction, a pedagogy I'm sure Downes is four-square opposed to, yet which oddly enough is fully in accord with his definition of teaching and learning.
Looked at this way, learning comprises a presentation of a demonstration/model, the student attempts to replicate the model/demonstrate with or without a teacher's leading, the teacher tests to see if the student can successfully perform and has understood the presentation, the student then practices the demonstration, after a period of time the teacher again tests the student to see if the student can perform what was taught.
Learning is greatly dependent on the quality of the demonstration/model. The problem with most teacher presentations, as I pointed out here, is that they are usually fraught with ambiguities. Let's use the ambiguous glerm example. Some students will walk away from the demonstration thinking that glerm means rectangle or purple, instead of vertical, and may labor under that impression for quite some time. Using Downes connectionist theory we know that this student's brain is going to connect itself up so that the pattern for glerm is associated with purple or rectangle, all of which will have to be undone when the student finally learns that glerm means vertical. We also know that it takes many more repetitions to learn something that has been mistaught than it takes to learn something new.
Another problem is the misunderstanding of instructivist teaching as comprising mostly rote learning, learning devoid of understanding. Almost no one teaches anything by rote. The reason is that rote teaching is inefficient because rote learning doesn't generalize well. For example, one can teach addition by rote by asking the student to memorize all the addition facts, such as 1+ 1 = 2, 1+2 = 3, 1+3 = 4, ad infinitum. Using Downes' lingo, in order to learn these addition facts by rote, the student learns to recognize that the pattern 1+1 is 2 and that the pattern 1+ 2 is 3. This is inefficient because unless the student has been taught the pattern 1+3 he does not necessarily know that the pattern matches with 4. In contrast, it is more efficient to teach addition by teaching the general rule that to perform addition you need to start with the first number and count up by the second number. This is not rote learning and it is much more efficient. The student seeing the pattern 1+2 will connect it to the more general pattern number + number means perform the addition procedure. This is more efficient because the teacher does not have to teach every addition fact because the student has a basis for recognizing a pattern which leads to a generalized rule that works with all problems in the form number + number.
Constructivist pedagogy merely differs from the instructivist pedagogy in that the constructivists set up an environment in which it is hoped that the student discovers the general rule on his own with as little guidance by the teacher as needed. So, the teacher might show the student that 1+1 =2, 2+1=3, 3+1=4 in the hope that the student recognizes that adding one to a number means to count to the next higher number and eventually that adding any number to a number means starting from the first number and counting by the second number, which is the general rule. The theory is that the student, having discovered the rule for himself, will understand the rule better and be able to remember the rule better which means in Downes' terminology that he will be able to recognize the pattern better. There is some support in the literature for this effect. And, if all students always learned exactly what we wanted them the first time, this might be a more effective teaching technique.
But it's not. And the reason why it is not is because many students will not learn or discover the first time around as they try to discover the right pattern. What the students do is experiment by testing their known patterns to see if they fit. And, unfortunately, the students tend to learn these wrong solutions about as well as the right ones until the right solution acquires some dominance acquired through practice. And there's less time for practice what with all this discovery going on. Then there is the risk that the student hasn't learned the most efficient pattern, but one that happens to work with the environment at hand.
There is also the issue of the feedback loop, i.e., how does the teacher correct student errors when they fail to learn. This is also a pattern recognition problem; however, this time it is the teacher who needs to recognize the right pattern so the right remedy can be employed. This is difficult enough when the teacher has directly taught the rule to the student and there is some basis for knowing what the student has failed to grasp. But, imagine the difficulties for the teacher when the learning is occurring in a more information rich environment in which there are more variables to attend to.
I could go on, but this post is getting way too long. My point is that learning and teaching is a complex endeavor that isn't fully explained by Kirschner's or Downes' theories and that the theories are, my opinion, are more complementary than in conflict as Downes attempts to paint in his speech. For example, Downes ridicules Kirschner's brain model as being a flat store of data and procedures which gets searched sequentially. And offers, that the brain is more a neural network that searches for patterns, more of a relational database, if you will. More likely, the brain is more a network/schemata arranged according to patterns and containing lots of facts and procedures, and other knowledge that make up those patterns.
Lastly, even if we are to accep Downes' model, I still do not think that the model favors a constructivist/discovery learning paradigm as opposed to a instructivist paradigm. This confuses a theory of knowing for a theory of learning that I do not think is supported by the available evidence and ignores many real problems typically encounter in the learning process, some of which I've listed above.
Nonetheless, I think Downes's speech contributes to the discussion. I certainly learned something or at least it's lead to a better understanding. But, I'm not exactly an novice in this area.