Every once in a while, an empirical study comes along that provides solid evidence against one of those Constructivist practices that some of us whose thoughts on education come more from actual practice than from education theory have often been skeptical about. There is, for example, Jennifer Kaminski’s Ohio State study, which suggests that too much of a focus on “real-world” math obscures the underlying mathematics, such that students are unable to transfer concepts to new problems.
Dan Willingham's book Why Don't Students Like School presents a whole bunch of these experimental results. Together, they challenge the notions that:
1. Students need to learn inquiry, argumentation, and higher-level thinking rather than tons of facts.
2. Integrating art into other subjects enhances learning; so does integrating computer technology.
3. Children learn best through self-guided discovery.
4. Drill is kill. Multiple strategies in a given lesson are better than a single strategy practiced multiple times.
5. Students learn best when constructing their own knowledge.
6. The best way to prepare students to become scientists and mathematicians is to teach them to solve problems the way scientists and mathematicians do.
The empirical data that Willingham cites show that, in fact:
1. Factual knowledge, lots of it, is a prerequisite to higher-level thinking.
2. Students are most likely to remember those aspects of a lesson that they end up thinking about the most. Corollary: Incorporating art or computer technology into another subject may sometimes cause students to think about the art or the technology more than the lesson content, such that they don’t retain the latter.
3. Discovery learning should be reserved for environments where feedback about faulty strategies is immediate: "If students are left to explore ideas on their own,” Willingham writes, they may “remember incorrect 'discoveries' as much as they will remember the correct ones."
4. In Willingham’s words, "it is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task,” or transfer ones learning to new environments, “without extended practice."
5. Unlike experts in a field, "students are ready to comprehend but not create knowledge."
6. Novices don’t become experts by behaving like experts do. "Cognition early in training,” Willingham writes, “is fundamentally different from cognition late in training."
Of course, Willingham could be making all this up. But consider just one of his empirical claims:
"Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts... The very processes that teachers care about the most--critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving--are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long term memory..."
This is a strong statement that could easily be debunked by anyone who knows the empirical literature. There are plenty of highly articulate, outspoken people out there who don’t like what Willingham has to say, but I haven’t seen a single critical review that contradicts his empirical claims.
Of course, if all that matter in life are inquiry, argumentation, and “higher-level” thinking rather than lots and lots of facts, one can say whatever one wants to about Why Children Don’t Like School.