Recently, there was a stir of excitement among fans of inquiry learning when Guy Claxton published a book that was deeply critical of a group of people he labelled ‘DIKRists’ i.e. people like me who argue the case for direct instruction and a knowledge-rich curriculum.
In Chapter Six, Claxton takes aim at cognitive load theory, an area that I research under the guidance of Slava Kalyuga and John Sweller. Sweller is the founder of this field and Chapter Six of Claxton’s book had the effect of violently shaking me out of any Gell-Mann Amnesia I may have been experiencing, because I did not recognise the theory from Claxton’s description.
The part I found the most jarring was when Claxton argued that cognitive load theory models the mind as a computer and that this cannot be an accurate model because, unlike a computer, the mind has no central processing unit. Cognitive load theory does not model the mind as a computer. Claxton seems to be basing his view on 1970s models of working memory that include a central executive, similar to a central processing unit. And yet Sweller and colleagues have explicitly argued against models that include a central executive.
Unfortunately, as Jonathan Swift complained, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”
As evidence for this, Professor Russell Tytler, Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Science Education at Deakin University, and Professor Vaughan Prain, have repeated Claxton’s incorrect claim in The Age.
“However, there are problems with this case. Sweller’s computer model of brain functioning is now perceived as reductive and dated. As noted by Guy Claxton, current brain-based researchers no longer view the brain as using distinct memory boxes.”
I contacted Sweller for comment and this is what he wrote:
“I have never viewed the human brain as analogous to a computer since it obviously isn’t. I have viewed it as processing information analogously to the manner that evolution by natural selection processes information and have written dozens of papers explaining the analogy.”
Can we stop with this now? Please?
My initial frustration at seeing this mistake repeated prevented me from engaging with the rest of the article. However, having now reflected on it, here are a few more points.
What is a brain-based researcher? Are we to take this as a reference to someone who, rather than being based in, say, Melbourne or Massachusetts, is based entirely within their own mind? Or is it to draw a distinction with the multitude of education researchers who are based firmly in their own buttocks?
When Tytler and Prain claim the following:
“Learning through direct instruction has its limitations. Procedure memorisation works well for standard problems but is ineffective for new or complex ones.”
I would like to see their evidence. Show me the studies that demonstrate that something other than explicit teaching is superior for preparing students to solve new or complex problems. Explicit teaching is a whole system that proceeds from the teacher demonstrating every new concept and procedure right the way through to students tackling problems on their own. The key difference when compared with inquiry learning is that everything is fully demonstrated, explained and practised when first encountered.
Tytler and Prain then state:
“Australian students were ninth in global ranking in memorisation strategies in mathematics, and almost bottom in the elaboration strategies needed to solve difficult problems.”
I’ve looked into PISA’s ‘index of memorisation’ before. It is based on a strange set of questions that I doubt captures anything valid about how students learn mathematics. However, it is held onto like a life-raft by advocates of inquiry learning amidst a sea of PISA data that makes depressing reading for them. Critically, there is absolutely no correlation between scores on this index and PISA scores. So, whatever it is, it is not relevant.
Tytler and Prain finish by making the case for guided inquiry. However, in order for that case to hold, they cannot just point to the evidence for guidance. I would agree that more guidance is better than less guidance and I would agree that adding guidance makes inquiry learning more effective. They need to show us the evidence to support inquiry.