The Godzilla vs Kong of Education? Direct Instruction or Constructivism, And The Winner Is…

A few years ago, myself and other members of the school community were invited onto an episode of David McWilliams’ TV3 series titled “David McWilliams’ Ireland: Could school be making you stupid?”. About midway through the discussion, a young man working in tech declared with evangelical certainty that Direct Instruction was the best teaching method. You know, like, ever.

According to The Glossary of Education Reform, “direct instruction (DI) refers to (1) instructional approaches that are structured, sequenced, and led by teachers, and/or (2) the presentation of academic content to students by teachers, such as in a lecture or demonstration. In other words, teachers are “directing” the instructional process or instruction is being “directed” at students.”

It’s sometimes described as ‘sit ‘n’ git’ education.

Well, the other day, a friend of mine posed a familiar question about how things are taught in Wicklow Democratic School. It reminded me of that TV show, and prompted me to write this post.

So, the tech guy on the TV show claimed that DI’s superiority over other educational methods had been proven as an incontrovertible fact, and he said so in a way that suggested anyone who didn’t know as much already had no business being in the room in the first place.

I confess, the forcefulness of his pronouncement put me on the backfoot. I was sitting there thinking ‘Has there been a new study? Did I miss something? Had I got it all wrong?’

That night, I started trawling the internet to find the edict from on high, the celestial memo, that the tech guy, and presumably everyone else working in education, had already received and which identified the one pedagogy to rule them all. But it turned out there are quite a few such edicts, and they don’t all agree with one another.

If DI Is Kong, Then What’s Godzilla?

The most prominent educational alternative to DI is called Constructivism, with a variety of subcategories such as Inquiry Based Learning, Problem Based Learning, Project Based Learning, and Active Learning. I’ll just call it PBL from here on. This type of education posits that, rather than just passively taking in information, learners construct knowledge and “build their own representations and incorporate new information into their pre-existing knowledge.” Constructivist teaching aims to “provide experiences that facilitate the construction of knowledge” and engage students in the learning experience.

PBL has no shortage of advocates claiming that research shows it is superior to DI, not to mention those who claim a combination of DI and PBL is the best approach to teaching.

To understand constructivist education a bit better, let’s consider the following experiment by Held and Hein, described by Michael Anderson:

In this experiment, two sets of kittens were raised in the dark, and only exposed to the light under very controlled conditions. When they were in the light, one set of kittens was allowed to roam freely, although each kitten from this first group was fitted with a harness, itself attached to a basket in which a given member of the second group of kittens was placed in such a way that only its head was free to move about. Because the kittens were raised mostly in the dark, both groups developed the same motor capacities and physical repertoire. Likewise, kittens from both groups were exposed to the same amount and sort of visual stimuli. However, only kittens from the first group were in a position to move about and see at the same time.

The results were quite striking, and indicated that the kittens from the second, constrained group had not developed an appreciation of the physical significance of their visual experience. For instance, when a normal kitten is held and brought close to the floor or a table-top, it will reach out its paws in anticipation of the contact. The constrained kittens did not display such reaching behavior. Likewise, kittens from the constrained group were more likely to bump into walls and fall off the edges of things, apparently not recognizing the significance of the relevant visual input.

In other words, we have to meaningfully explore, and interact with ideas in practical ways if we are to meaningfully integrate them into our understanding of the world. This is essentially the constructivist, or PBL, view on learning. By touching and navigating their environment, the kittens in group 1 were able to understand it and therefore ‘construct’ it into knowledge they could use, but the kittens in group 2, as passive recipients of the information, couldn’t apply it in a way that was useful to them.

However, we (apologies for this bold assumption) are not kittens, and as a result the above conclusion doesn’t necessarily apply to us humans. So, let’s sift through what the research says and see if we can get a clearer picture of what does.