11 Jul 2018

Research into Practice: the piece of research having the biggest impact on the way I teach

Research into Practice: the piece of research having the biggest impact on the way I teach

‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem based, experiential, and inquiry based learning’ Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J. and Clark, R. E. 2006.

When I started my teacher training, inquiry based learning was at the forefront of all lesson plans. We were told explicitly that the teacher shouldn’t talk for more than 10 minutes in the lesson and that the students should be ‘discovering’ things for themselves as this was the best way that students learn. The triangle picture stating students only remember 20% of what they hear but remember 90% of the things that they teach each other was on the front of every PowerPoint delivered to us. ‘Facilitators’ of learning was the new buzzword – we were there to ‘manage’ the classroom and provide the scaffold for students to uncover the knowledge themselves.

These ideas went against everything I had spent the previous three years studying. I have a first class honours degree in psychology and had spent my undergraduate years studying memory, the brain, cognitive neuroscience and psychology in education. I knew the statistics about how people learn were incorrect and not scientifically proven. I knew that when people didn’t have the relevant schemas to solve a problem, they just blundered around trying to find a solution. I knew that working memory was limited and that in order for information to be transferred to long term memory it required repetition or a strong link to a prior schema. Being new to the profession, I went along with how everyone else told me to teach, all the while a little voice in the back of my mind niggling me that there was a better way.

My love of research stems from my degree, where most of my assignments were based on evaluating research papers. In my third year I carried out my own research and reported the findings in a research paper for my dissertation. So when the tide started to shift in education to more research based practice, I was more than happy to see what was out there.

There was an article recently in the first issue of the researchED magazine and I thought it was something that every teacher should read. Summed up in the article, Paul Kirschner and his team attempted to blow inquiry based learning out of the water by making the case for fully guided, explicit instruction when teaching novices. Research demonstrated that students were ‘novice’ learners and not experts, therefore they learnt in a different way. Experts ‘thrived’ in problem solving environments because they had the relevant schemas, knowledge and past experiences to drawn upon to help them figure out the problem they were presented with. Novices on the other hand largely blundered around trying so hard to find a solution, that they learnt nothing.

This was one thing I noticed when I first started teaching practical work in Science – students spent so long setting up equipment correctly and focusing on measurements that they didn’t learn any of the science behind what they were doing. They could remember the equipment and maybe loosely describe what had happened but they could not recall in accurate detail what they had just done or what scientific process they had just witnessed.

Decades of research has shown that for a novice, direct explicit instruction is a more effective and efficient way to teach new information, as it fully explains the knowledge, concepts and skills students require. Kirschner suggested that what could be taught in one lesson with explicit instructions and guidance, could take several lessons if taught via problem solving and minimally guided tasks. Research indicates that minimally guided instruction can actually increase the achievement gap, with lower skilled learners receiving significantly lower test scores when taught with minimal instruction (Clark, 1989). The article advises that for relatively weak students, the failure to provide ‘strong instructional support and guidance’ produces a ‘measurable loss of learning’.

This research has and will continue to influence my teaching into next year. After engaging with research like this I am actively seeking out ways to implement it in my classroom. Here are three easy things I have trialled with increasing success:

  • Worked examples. I show students 4 or 6 mark questions and model exactly how I would approach them. I point out key words, tell students what I think the question is asking me and write the answer out in front of them on the board so they can see exactly how I have approached it. I then explain why I wrote what I did and why I think it gets me the marks. Sometimes (if I’m feeling brave!) I put a choice of three questions on the board of a similar style and ask students to choose the one they want me to model. They will then attempt two or three very similar styled questions and I give them instant feedback.

  • Modelling work. I often show students examples of what I want their work to look like. If they are writing up a required practical with aims, hypothesis, equipment lists, method and conclusions I will show them one I have done earlier, so they understand what is expected of them in terms of content, layout and how I want them to approach it.

  • Practical work. For practical work in Science I will always demonstrate the practical first (maybe leaving out the end result so as not to spoil the surprise) or show them a video of how to set up the equipment. More often than not I set the equipment up in boxes so each group can come and collect a box with everything in they need; I want students to focus on the science. For practical work I will always do a theory lesson first to teach content. This way the students are aware of the scientific concept behind the practical they are doing and know what they are looking for in their experiment. It also strengthens the knowledge via dual coding – they have done the scientific theory and then it is reinforced by seeing it in action.

Now as the year draws to a close I am feeling much more confident in my teaching and my methods, knowing they are backed up by a wealth of scientific research. I am looking forward to continuing to read and to learn and to implement all of the wonderful work research schools are doing into my own teaching practice.

(Paul Kirschner has kindly provided the link to his article in researchED for those who are interested in reading it: http://bit.ly/2JbM80j