The following are, in a strict sense, some fragmentary reflections on an article that sparked a heated debate at the 2007 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. In this article, Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) examined guided instruction in the context of human cognitive architecture, expert-novice differences and cognitive load and concluded that "minimally guided instruction is less effective and efficient" than guided instruction. My reflections on this article roughly fall into three sections:
strengths of Kirschner et al. with regard to their line of argument;
two major flaws with their line of argument;
scaffolding as the optimal instructional support.
Strengths of Kirschner et al. with regard to their line of argument
Kirschner et al. display two praise-worthy strengths in their line of argument.
Kirschner et. al examined the use of instruction with minimal guidance in the light of working memory and long-term memory, pointing out that having novice learners construct solutions by themselves overloaded their working memory and thus did not facilitate alteration in long-term memory, which is the ultimate goal of learning. In a bid to justify the superiority of guided instruction over minimally guided instruction, they also provided empirical evidence in their favor. I have to acknowledge that Kirschner and his partners did a convincing job in demonstrating that the superiority of guided instruction is theoretically justified and empirically validated.
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Also meriting our attention are concepts of worked-example effect (novice learners benefit from extensive guidance) and expertise reversal effect (higher aptitude learners learn less after receiving strong guidance), which tempered their seemingly partisan touting guided instruction and deprecating other constructivist instructional approaches.
Two major flaws with their line of argument
While I accept what Kirschner et al. said about minimally guided instruction, I find two major flaws with their line of argument.
The first one is their convenient but problematic way of grouping. They loosely and indiscriminately grouped together "several distinct pedagogical approaches---constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based---under the minimally guided instruction" (Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007). According to Hmelo-Silver et al. (2007), "at least some of these approaches, in particular, problem-based learning and inquiry learning, are not minimally guided instructions but rather provide extensive scaffolding and guidance to facilitate student learning". Schmidt et al. (2007), while concurring with Kirschner et al. that unguided or minimally guided instructional approaches are less effective and efficient for novices than guided instructional approaches, do not agree to their equation of problem-based learning with minimally guided instruction either.
The second flaw is their claim that constructivist instructional approaches resulted in "a shift of instructional focus 'away from teaching a discipline as a body of knowledge towards an exclusive emphasis on learning a discipline by experiencing the processes and procedures of the discipline'" (Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007). All constructivist instructional approaches, even PBL and IL which are accused by Kirschner et. al of focusing solely on processes and procedures of a discipline and totally ignoring content knowledge, do in fact promote content knowledge in one form or another.
What underlies the two flaws is that the authors polarize supporters of guided instruction and advocates of constructivist instructional approaches. As a matter of fact, as Wise and O'Neill observed in their dialogue with Clark, "there are points of intersection between these two camps". Clark (2009) himself also noticed that "many advocates of the constructivist position have moved far beyond the radical views advocating total discovery suggested in the past and that considerable agreement exists between the parties to the debate".
Presumably the two flaws stem not from a questionable method of reasoning but from a frustrating academic practice: scholars of the same group "keep to their corners, working with like-minded researchers" (Clark, 2009 ).
Scaffolding as the optional instructional support
While I agree with Kirschner et al. that minimal guidance is superior to direct guidance for novice learners, scaffolding should be the optimal instructional support for any successful instructional approach.
As there lacks a universally accepted definition of guidance and other concepts in the debate following the essay of Kirschner et al., guidance has been referred to by various terms such as "direct instruction", "guided instruction", "instructional guidance" , "direct guidance" etc. For the convenience of later analysis, it is necessary to define guidance first.
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Instructional "guidance" is defined as providing students with accurate and complete procedural information (and related declarative knowledge) that they have not yet learned in a demonstration about how to perform the necessary sequence of actions and make the necessary decisions to accomplish a learning task and/or solve a problem. (Clark, 2009 )
Instructional "scaffolding" is the support given during the learning process which is tailored to the needs of the student with the intention of helping the student achieve his/her learning goals (Sawyer, 2006). Pea (2004) suggests that scaffolding should be withheld unless teachers have "independent evidence that the learner cannot do the task or goal unaided" (p. 443)
Both guidance advocates and scaffolding advocates agree that instructional support is necessary for learners and it should be gradually withdrawn or faded "when students' expertise reaches the level where additional support damages learning" (Kayluga et al., 2003). The chief difference between these two types of instructional support consists in "whether it is more effective and efficient to provide a complete description of "when and how" even if a learner could solve a problem with adequate mental effort" (Sweller, Kirschner, & Clark, 2007). In an ideal teaching environment, scaffolding is provided on a just-in-time basis.
Instructional scaffolding, if properly applied, benefits learners in several ways.
Just-in-time scaffolding enables learners to successfully negotiate a learning task by reducing their cognitive load. Kirschner et al. (2006) claimed that having learners struggle with a complicated learning task may cognitively overload them. However, timely scaffolding allows learners to allocate their limited cognitive capacity to more complex brain activities entailed by completing the learning task, thereby facilitating an effective and efficient learning.
Constructivist instructional approaches using scaffolding better engage learners. One major drawback of strongly guided instruction is that learners are reluctant to be involved in learning activities, be they difficult or easy. Learners intuitively hate being passive receptors of knowledge which is given in the form of direct instruction. On the contrary, constructivist instructional approaches with appropriate scaffolding can motivate learners to solve a complex task by turning them into active regulators of their own learning process.
Other issues of scaffolding such as what form of scaffolding to give, when to give and when to fade it are not covered in this paper. But they are important factors to be considered in instructional design. It takes an instructor years of experience to be to able to skillfully use scaffolding in his/her instructional practice.