08/02/2016 01:32 EDT | Updated 08/03/2016 04:59 EDT

Experiential Learning Advocates Have Had It Wrong For Decades

Edward Carlile Portraits via Getty Images
little girl at the table looking a little frustrated at her exercise book.

During the Middle Ages in France, all the nuns at one of the convents suddenly began to meow like cats and wouldn't stop until the local villagers called in the army.

"Penis panics" are very common, whereby large numbers of men start to think that their penises are disappearing into their bodies. In Singapore, for example, in 1967 a total of 454 men sought medical intervention at one hospital alone for this condition.

In Salem in 1692-93, a total of 25 women were put to death because they were believed to be witches.

There are thousands of examples from every era and from all over the world in which a group of people managed to convince themselves of something bizarre and ignored all evidence to the contrary. You might think that the modern world is too enlightened for this kind of thing, but you would be wrong.

A modern-day case in point is the widespread belief among North American educators that children learn better when they receive minimal guidance from their teachers. This belief has had a powerful impact on schools and the education our children are receiving, and not in a good way. There is considerable evidence that minimal guidance techniques are failing students -- plunging test scores, millions of functionally illiterate and functionally innumerate high school graduates, and loud complaints from unhappy parents, employers and postsecondary institutions.

The concept of providing students with minimal guidance has been around for at least 50 years, but most people are not aware of its longevity because it keeps changing its name every 10 years or so when its poor results can no longer be ignored. At first, back in the '60s, the minimal-guidance approach was called "discovery learning," but that name soon gave way to "experiential learning," which in turn became "problem-based learning" and then "inquiry learning." Now it's "constructivist learning." Remarkably, every time the wheel turns the newly fired up passionate advocates of the latest iteration appear to be unaware of its long history of failure.

The fact that cognitive science has proved these notions false has not yet caught up with most education leaders.

Back in the '60s, these minimal guidance techniques were fresh and exciting, and it is totally understandable that educators would have been attracted to them. Indeed, without knowing more it's easy to think that figuring something out on your own will make you remember it better than being told the answer. And this is true under certain conditions -- when the learner already knows a lot about the concept and when he or she has mastered needed skills. Unfortunately, however, most of the time these conditions are not being met in modern schools, for reasons that will be explained.

Fifty years ago cognitive scientists knew much less than they do now about the human brain and how it learns. Since then, however, the architecture of the human brain has been carefully mapped, using advanced scanning techniques, and the new understanding of human cognition leaves no doubt that minimal guidance teaching is inappropriate for classrooms, especially in the early years and for disadvantaged students.

The advances in cognitive science centre mainly on an appreciation of the importance of long-term memory. No longer seen as a peripheral and passive repository of isolated bits of information and skills, long-term memory is now viewed as the central component of human cognition. In fact, long-term memory is regarded as so important that cognitive scientists consider any instruction that doesn't alter long-term memory useless.

Unfortunately, minimal guidance techniques rely almost exclusively on short-term memory -- because its advocates believe it harmful to pre-teach background skills and knowledge for storage in long-term memory. This places a huge burden on short-term memory, one it is ill-equipped to handle.

Short-term memory, unlike long-term memory, is very limited and of very short duration. People can think about only three or four things at a time, plus they can hold on to new information -- for example, a telephone number -- for only a few seconds. The only way to overcome the limitations of short-term memory is to already know a lot about the topic and be able to summon that knowledge from long-term memory.

Unfortunately, minimal guidance advocates continue to believe that too much guidance will impair later performance. They believe that the best way to make learners remember new information is to allow them to construct their own learning as opposed to being provided with a lot of facts and being made to practice basic skills. The fact that cognitive science has proved these notions false has not yet caught up with most education leaders.

Research from a number of domains -- cognitive science, neuroscience, pediatrics, neurology -- along with comparisons of minimally taught students versus directly taught students -- have converged in favour of direct instruction. In medicine, such a strong consensus -- think, for example, insulin -- would result in universal adoption of the treatment.

But education leaders still cling to their discredited minimal-guidance methods and prevent teachers from using direct instruction. For some reason, they are determined to keep on meowing together even after the villagers have called in the army.

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