Can a Neuromyth Result in a Truce?

We teachers feel passionately about our work, and so–no surprise–our debates and disagreements get heated.

Few debates rage as fiercely as that between champions of direct instruction (with or without capital “D” and “I”), and champions of constructivism (in its many forms: project-based learning, student-centered learning, etc.).

In a recent essay, writer and blogger Tom Sherrington would like soothe this ferocity by declaring the whole debate a myth.

As his title declares: it’s a myth that “teacher-led instruction and student-centred learning are opposites.” (Sherrington is British, so we can overlook the missing “e” from “centred.”)

In brief, he argues: no matter how passionately we disagree about pieces of this debate, almost everyone agrees on a sensible core of ideas. We’re arguing at the margins, but could just as easily refocus on our agreements at the center.

Passionate Debates

One well-known meta-analysis sports this dramatic title: “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching.”

Not much grey area there.

But, as Sherrington notes in his essay (I’ve tweaked the punctuation to make it blog-friendly):

[The authors] present their case most strongly for novice and intermediate learners but they appear to concede that for students approaching a more expert position, the different approaches are at least ‘equally effective.’

This means the debate is more about sequencing approaches appropriately in the learning journey.

Students will reach a point where these approaches represent a genuine choice.

And, critics of that meta-analysis also find a middle ground (again with the punctuation tweaking):

The more important questions to ask are: under what circumstances do these guided inquiry approaches work? What are the kinds of outcomes for which they are effective? What kinds of valued practices do they promote?

In other words: even the champions of the strongest claims concede that they see both approaches being appropriate at different times.

Specifically: novices need (relatively more) direct instruction. Experts benefit from (relatively more) open-ended, project-y methods.

Beyond Knowledge

Sherrington argues for a truce between direct instruction and PBL, first, because even strong advocates admit that the “other side’s” methods have a place under certain circumstances.

Teaching novices? Try direct instruction. Working with relative experts? Bring on the projects.

Second, he argues that schools exist both to help students acquire knowledge and to help them acquire social habits and practices we value.

As Sherrington writes: “there are many aspects of student activity and teacher-student engagement that are desirable simply because we value them as social constructs.”

So, for example: our society–heck, our very form of government–requires that people be able to work together effectively. For that reason, we benefit our students when we help them learn how to do so.

When we coach students along with group work, that teaches them skills that our society values–above and apart from the knowledge they gain while doing that work.

Of course, Sherrington’s essay includes many other thoughtful points beyond these two: it’s worth reading in full.

A Recent Example

Sherrington’s first argument struck me because I’ve been trying to make it for some time now.

Just ten days ago on this blog, I wrote about a huge study from South American purporting to show that collaborative, inquiry based learning produced substantial advantages.

And yet, as I found when I read its methods, the study didn’t contrast student-centered teaching with teacher-centered teaching.

Instead, it contrasted good teaching (combining both explicit instruction and projects) with really bad teaching (“copy down the names of the 206 bones of the human body”). Unsurprisingly, bad teaching produces bad results.

In other words: I’d like to spread the word of Sherrington’s truce. I hope you’ll join me!

Sherrington’s essay appears in The researchED guide to education myths: An evidence-informed guide for teachers, published by John Catt.

I wrote about Clare Sealy’s essay in this collection last week as well, so you can tell I think it’s got lots of quality work.

I don’t agree with everything I read in this guide, but neither does its editor (Craig Barton) or the series editor (Tom Bennett). They want to foster the debate, and this volume does that admirably.

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