Ran across a very interesting paper today that I'd like to discuss with people.

Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching by Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark

The abstract:

"Evidence for the superiority of guided instruction is explained in the context of our knowledge of human cognitive architecture, expert-novice differences, and cognitive load. While unguided or minimally-guided instructional approaches are very popular and intuitively appealing, the point is made that these approaches ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half century that consistently indicate that minimally-guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process. The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide ‘internal’ guidance. Recent developments in instructional research and instructional design models that support guidance during instruction are briefly described."

In short, this guy is saying that Olin's "squirt-squirt"/"throw-'em-in-the-deep-end" method of education is not effective because it "does not fit human cognitive architecture."

Among other things, it says novices "in the deep end" are unable to build a cognitive map of the information, so much of the learning is lost the first time around ("spiral learning") which is often the /only/ time around. Worked examples or process sheets (which guide you step by step through solving the problem yourself) are more effective, according to the studies they cite. It also presents the problem of "lack of clarity about the difference between learning a discipline and research (or work) in the discipline," which is the same as the gap between the engineering classroom and the engineering workplace we've been talking about at Olin.

It concludes with the question of why on earth are we using PBL if it's not effective. I agree that before you can do PBL, you need to have knowledge of where to find knowledge (which is not the same thing as prior knowledge). I also agree that you tend to perform "directed" tasks more efficiently, which is not the same as deep learning of that particular subject. Years later, the things that caused you the most cognitive friction are the ones you are most likely to remember.

I'm not sure how to design a study to properly respond to this, or whether one has been done - it's adding to my frustration at being essentially an illiterate in the educational field, and to my desire to fix this somehow (grad school?).

Update: Sam, Chris, and DJ all pointed out that the link to the paper was broken. It's been fixed - thanks, guys!