Thursday, October 18, 2007

Does constructivism work?

A controversy crops up occasionally among IDT theorists about how people learn best, and hence what kind of instruction we should design. Two major camps of theory are:

- Cognitive load theory - John Sweller, Jeoren Van Merriënboer, Rich Mayer, Paul Kirschner, Richard Clark. In some ways this group follows Robert Gagné and David Merrill's 1970s work to emphasize instructional control, subject-matter structure, and performance feedback. The instructional prescriptions are explicit - kind of like a detailed diet regimen to lose weight. The learning theory is heavy on information processing, encoding, memory limits, and so forth. They look at multimedia messages in terms of the cognitive demand placed on working memory. They use lab experiments to test out their hypotheses. Their work finds good reception in settings like military training and technical/vocational training. Master's students in our Message Design and Learning Processes classes get some introduction to these ideas.

- Situated learning and the learning sciences - Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Jerome Bruner, Sasha Barab, Michael Cole. These folks look at learning more broadly to include its social, participatory nature, and give less attention to individual info processing. Their instructional recommendation would be less detailed and prescriptive, and more about creating positive climate and relationships, and creating tools and environments to support productive learning activities. Our doctoral students get heavier doses of this line of thinking.

I like it when papers address this split - where one camp challenges the other. Examples include:

Anderson, Reder, and Simon's critique of situated learning (1996)

Rich Mayer's Should there be a three-strikes rule against discovery learning?(2002)

Or this title says it well:

Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of
the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching (Sweller, Kirschner, and Clark, 2006)

All of these articles are provocative pieces written by cognitive load theorists, explaining the failures of the other side.

I admit though - these attacks can be a lot more fun than the kiss-and-makeup attempts:

Anderson, Greeno, Reder, and Simon (2000)

I wrote a paper on the split myself, with Karen Myers:

Situated Cognition in Theoretical and Practical Context (2000)

This paper is reviewed in the American Journal of Psychology:

Jonassen and Land (2000) Book Review

Our paper was another attempt to reconcile the two sides, showing how info-processing and situated approaches could co-exist.

In the end, I see theories of learning and instruction mostly as lenses to try on - like I did at the optician's store a few weeks ago. Human learning is complex enough that no theory can really capture it. Particularly when the sides are divided, it's good to listen to both sides, and even appropriate their ideas on occasion, if the situation fits.