Who's afraid of evolutionary educational psychology?
A possible answer as to why David C Geary's theory is so contentious
The battle between educational progressivism, that argues students should follow their own interests and learn by doing, and educational traditionalism, that emphasises the central role of the teacher in gifting knowledge to students, has raged for hundreds of years. One reason for the longevity of this debate is that although progressivist methods repeatedly fail, motivating them is a simple, undeniable truth. By and large, children do not learn to walk or speak or find their way through the local woodland or interpret the intent of others from their body language by sitting in a classroom and interacting with a teacher. Instead, these abilities accumulate naturally through experience and play.
As a result, any amateur who ponders education for a few minutes comes to a striking conclusion, one they often consider to be a unique and urgent insight: Why can’t school learning be much more like the way children learn these other things? What can’t it be more natural? Why have we created artificial ‘factories’ to inculcate young people with rote learning when what we really need to do is set them free in the woods? At this point, we see the origins of progressivism as a romantic ideology that emphasises naturalism and individualism.
When such ideas are put into practice, they don’t work. The progressivist idea that has caused the most widespread damage is the theory of ‘whole language’ reading instruction. Rather than systematically teaching children the relationships between letters on the page and the sounds of speech, why not surround children with books, read them lots of interesting stories while pointing at the words and wait for nature to do its work? Although a dismal failure according to a wealth of empirical evidence, opponents of whole language have lacked an explanation of why it does not work. What is different about learning to read compared with learning to speak? Why can’t children catch reading through immersion?
Cognitive load theory faced a similar problem. Cognitive load theory was forged against the backdrop of a concerted effort by educational psychologists in the 1980s to research problem-solving and develop teaching methods based on students solving problems. However, John Sweller and colleagues discovered that learning by solving mathematics problems was not as effective for novices as being shown how to solve those problems. Over the years, the corpus of cognitive load theory research has swelled to many hundreds of randomised controlled trials, replicating and expanding on similar findings, and yet a puzzle remained. Learning by solving problems, as opposed to being shown how to solve the same problems, replicates, in microcosm, the debate between progressivist and traditionalist approaches and so the same question arises - if we can easily learn so many things through immersion and discovery, why does this not work for mathematical problem-solving or other forms of problem-solving? Why is it more effective to be shown how to solve the problems?