Constructivist teaching methods are more attuned to human cognition than those advocated by Traditionalists.

In my last BLOG I discussed the social aspects of cognition and cast further doubt on the fundamental arguments that substantiate traditional teaching methods,  responding to David Didau’s pedagogic prodding and probing.

It is fair to say that traditional methods of Teaching and Learning are heavily reliant on the work of  Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke and  Cognitive Load Theory (CLT).  Harry Webb, as ever, outlines the arguments really well in his interesting BLOG Webs of Substance (WOS) http://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/?s=cognitive+load+theory  , describing the attraction of CLT for the advocates of Traditional Teaching Methods (TTM):

CLT was a revelation to me. It made sense of much that I had learnt inefficiently as a teacher via trail-and-error. Basically, we have a limited working memory – roughly corresponding to our conscious mind – that can manipulate only a few items at any one time (between 5 and 9) WOS

Of course this was a observation in my last BLOG, that often we look for explanations that seem coherent within the context of a current narrative. Harry acknowledges this here:

“Learning has to pass through the working memory in order to be stored – a problematic word but one I’ll use for now – in the much larger long term memory.” WOS

In effect we are starting to emulate the language of Computers; memory and storage. Creating concepts that leverage pre-existent social narratives helps researchers to “sell” ideas when engaging in a social discourse about education. And of course, it helps those in other fields understand them enough to start to interpret them into practice.

Harry explains CLT this way:

 For example, if we were to try to remember the sequence XCVTRM then each of the six letters represents a single item that we will need to manipulate in the working memory. However, if we were to try to remember the sequence APPLES then, although this is the same number of letters, we have a concept of ‘apples’ in our long term memory so this sequence represents just one item.However, if we were to try to remember the sequence APPLES then, although this is the same number of letters, we have a concept of ‘apples’ in our long term memory so this sequence represents just one item (WOS).

In my last BLOG I made the assertion that it’s quite possible abstract and pre-conceptualised concepts are dealt with by two different systems, System X and System C which manage representational and non representational information. Apple is a representational concept. It has both a social and visual representation. And it looks increasingly likely that it is handled in memory differently to highly abstracted non representational symbols such as the variable “X”.

The explanation that XCVTRM is “6” letters and a stored concept Apples is “1”, and therefore a linear working memory handles it better is discursively powerful, but does it bear any relation to how the brain really works? Even a most perfunctory knowledge of the brain suggests otherwise.

This theory implies certain teaching practices. For instance, when learning new material, we should be careful to structure teaching programmes so that the concepts are broken down into small numbers of interacting elements in order to ensure that students can apprehend all of the required concepts in their working memories. As learning develops and relevant knowledge is built in students’ long term memories, we can start to make use of chunking and expose our students to more complex concepts

The thing is, and it’s a big thing, is that it is quite likely that what we are discussing here is not complexity or otherwise but the difficulty the brain has in managing abstract information. Of course  if you deal with abstract “parlour game” type research as DT Willingham often seems to do, then you are essentially highlighting this particular issue, which is fine except when you then use that information to make much wider claims about Teaching and Learning practice in the classroom.

Harry neatly sums up the issue here

For instance, we could give students a paragraph of dense, technical prose about gases, liquids and solids. Not only would they then have to devote working memory resources to thinking about the concepts, they would also have to devote some to decoding the prose. This is the basis for Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s criticism of ineffective teaching methods. (WOS)

Indeed, if a teacher stands at the front of a class and eschews any attempt to link any of the concepts they are teaching to pre-existent cultural concepts, and use overly technical terms the brain will struggle. The irony being that teacher talking in abstracted terms with little interest in allowing learners the time and space to think independently, work in groups etc is exactly the kind of teaching methods Harry and others seem to advocate.

Other advocates of traditional teaching methods such as DT Willingham, often seem to conflate “thinking well” and expertise. It’s clear that any of us would struggle with a paragraph of dense technical prose. Constructivists would suggest simply not presenting dense technical concepts rather using other techniques to present that information to make it easier for learners to decode.

I would certainly value a teacher with expertise enough to allow a certain amount of thinking time, chatting time and constructive collaborative activities should I be faced with very difficult and abstract learning materials. I certainly wouldn’t want spend several hours in purgatory, listening to a teacher wearing a jacket with leather patches on his elbows, droning on and on about noxious gases; been there and done that.

I mean even the most basic of teachers could give some kind of socio-cultural context for noxious gases to make life a little easier for students. This may lead to students valuing the concept used to deliver the information more than the information itself but to me that is a problem of teacher expertise and not the basic fact that people learn better within the context of pre-existent social models. Sometimes it’s not possible and dry stuff has to be learned. So be it but I would suggest that for the most part subject matter can be related to real world activity.

Traditionalists could argue that this is a caricature of traditionalist teaching methods, which maybe so, but as Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke themselves seemed to both critique and advocate constructivist methods at the same time, constructivists could be forgiven for wondering how traditionalists manage the problem of too much teacher talk. That is, of course, assuming that they do actually see it as a problem

Harry finally says this:

Let’s assume, for instance, that CLT is incomplete. Perhaps, in the future, we will find ways of expanding working memory. Or perhaps we will discover that, under certain circumstances, information can pass straight from sensory memory to the long term memory (which reminds me of that urban myth amongst students about playing tapes of your notes to yourself while you sleep).

And that is exactly what is happening. It is unlikely that the working memory model was ever as simple as limited memory and “data storage”, or rather, memorising information.

Meghan L. Meyera et al say this:

Gordon Bower (52), a leading memory researcher, once suggested that the purpose of working memory “is to build up and maintain an internal model of the immediate environment and what has been happening in our world” (p. 54). Past working memory research has focused on the basic building blocks that allow us to handle representations of our immediate environment but has neglected to incorporate relevant social information that makes up much of our mental processing. Our results demonstrate that
humans possess mechanisms to support social working memory and that these mechanisms include mentalizing regions in addition to canonical working memory regions. Echoing Bower, we suggest that the purpose of social working memory is to build up and maintain an internal model of the immediate social environment and what has been happening in our social world.

And this:

… it is also plausible that social working memory training could benefit everyday social competence. Studies show that working memory training not only improves working memory, but these improvements generalize to improved cognitive reasoning and fluid intelligence (48–50).

In other words it’s quite possible that working memory can be improved by training. Of course, this is neuroscience, and we are teachers, however it seems much more likely that CLT will collapse in a heap as a useful concept in Teaching and Learning than Harry seems to think, and that cognition is much more attuned to constructivist methods than those advocated by traditionalists.


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