Is it better to be told, or to discover a fact?

//Is it better to be told, or to discover a fact?

I’ve read a lot of blogosphere twaddle about why students don’t learn effectively in groups and the only effective method for teaching is direct instruction. My view is there needs to balance in all things and using one teaching strategy to the exclusions of all others is a bad mistake.

I think it’s worth reproducing this fairly lengthy quote from, John Hattie in full:

Various successful methods of teaching were identified in Visible Learning, but the book also identified the importance of not rushing to implement only the top strategies; rather it is important to understand the underlying reasons for the success of the strategies and use this as the basis for making decisions about teaching methods. The programs that  had the most success were acceleration (d=0.88), reciprocal teaching (d=0.72), problem solving teaching (d=0.61), and self verbalisation/self-questioning (d=0.64). These top methods rely on the influence of peers, feedback, transparent learning intentions and success criteria, teaching multiple strategies or teaching using various strategies, and attending to both surface and deep knowing. The least effective methods seem not to involve peers, to focus too much on deep to the detriment of first attending to surface knowledge or skill development, to overemphasize technologies, and to fail to take into account similarities, instead of overemphasizing differences. 

Visible Learning for Teachers page 84

Learning is fundamentally social. We don’t just learn facts, we learn from the context in which we encounter those facts. By discussing, experimenting and dealing with failures we learn how to use the skills and knowledge we have acquired. Getting students to explore ideas in groups encourages them to talk about problems and try to solve them together. Hattie quotes Nuthall’s finding that 25% of what students learn they learn from each other. Obviously this can, and often does, mean that what they learn is wrong. This is equally the case when students try to decode what teachers tell them. Group work doesn’t mean that students will make more mistakes but it does means that there is more of an opportunity for teachers to be aware of these misapprehensions and to try to correct them because, hopefully, they’re active in observing the activities they’ve set up.

Spelling is a great example. We need to give students sufficient knowledge about language to recognise common patterns and to be able to identify unlikely combinations of words in English. But, if I tell a student how to spell ‘coherent’ or ‘microcosm’ (two that came up last week) and they dutifully copy it down, what have they learnt? Only that if they get stuck I will do the work for them. Much better to ask questions which will give them some ownership of the spelling. Almost always with spelling students get most of the word right, the trick is in them discovering which bit they struggle with and applying a rule to remember it in the future.

I challenged the fact that this was an effective way to demolish the efficacy of discovery learning and was sent a paper called Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Trips off the tongue, doesn’t it?

It’s full of all sorts of wonderful evidence about why it’s not a good idea not to tell anybody anything. Well, duh! Of course it’s not. What I fail to understand is why teachers believe that constructivism and direct instruction have to be mutually exclusive. The report above goes wrong in it’s introduction when it states,

On one side of this argument are those advocating the hypothesis that people learn best in an unguided or minimally guided environment, generally defined as one in which learners, rather than being presented with essential information, must discover or construct essential information for themselves. On the other side are those suggesting that novice learners should be provided with direct instructional guidance on the concepts and procedures required by a particular discipline and should not be left to discover those procedures by themselves.

I guess it’s true that educationalists really have argued the toss over this, but why? It seems clear to me that any teacher worth their salt will begin by sharing (in some form) the information students need to know and then let them engage with it in all sorts of interesting and exciting ways. I love lessons where I introduce a concept or skill and then encourage students to ‘break’ it. If  students have an opportunity to discover whether or not it’s true it seems clear that they’re more likely to learn it than if I simply assure them it is.

But don’t take my word on it: test it out for yourself. That, after all is why we can’t just pick up a book and deliver great lessons; we have to tinker with the ideas and make them work for us.



  1. Andrew Old January 23, 2012 at 9:04 pm - Reply

    You always do this: the moment you are presented with evidence that discovery learning or group-work methods don’t work, you immediately seek to cannabalise the research to show something else. However, your quibbles are utterly unconvincing to anybody who isn’t already a true-believer, and you end up cherry-picking quotations that are from the gloss, rather than the substance, of the research. The whole point of discovery learning is that you don’t tell kids stuff. If it’s not “minimally-guided” then it’s not discovery learning. “Acceleration” and “problem solving teaching”, are most definitely not forms of group work or discovery learning.

    You need to stop trying to make the research say something it doesn’t say. We learn best from being told what we need to know, and then thinking about it. You can squeeze some problem-solving (but not discovery learning) and group-work into the thinking about it part, but (unlike the direct instruction part) it is not necessary and if it takes up more time or resources it should be avoided. Most importantly of all, it should never be forced onto teachers or classes who don’t want to do it.

    • learningspy January 23, 2012 at 11:50 pm - Reply

      Andrew, there’s little point in arguing about what discovery learning is or isn’t I agree that not giving students any information is stupid.

      But I’m not cannibalising research: I’m reading it thoroughly. Hattie is clear in his new book that
      1) direction instruction isn’t all that
      2) peer interactions (group work) are iCal to learning.

      What isn’t clear about that?

      I’m not interested in trying to force you or anyone else to engage in group work, but it’s just silly to pretend that it isn’t an important and respectable component of learning.

  2. Andrew Old January 24, 2012 at 6:44 am - Reply

    The point is that Hattie’s spin, in a book aimed at teachers, is not of any great authority when it doesn’t fit particularly well with his research. He might decide that “peer interaction” is the key to some methods, but that is opinion, not research. It is hard to defend the suggestion that acceleration and problem-solving teaching demonstrate this, and it is at odds with the relatively low effect size for co-operative learning and the high effect size for direct instruction. If we are going to inform our practice from research, we should look at the evidence, not the opinions.

    • learningspy January 24, 2012 at 12:12 pm - Reply

      Quite right. Fact is more compelling than opinion but all research is interpreted. You interpret DI as having a ‘high’ effect size while Hattie sees it as a ‘medium’ effect size (only 0.19 above the hinge point). Who’s opinion should be given greater weight? Yours or his?

      Feedback is given a far higher effect size and group work lends itself to specific, verbal feedback being given to large numbers of students. DI relies on work in books being formatively assessed: less immediate and less likely to effect behaviour at the point of learning.

      I know we’re never going to agree on this but it’s gratifying that Hattie has been persuaded. Maybe it’s to do with the fact that his most recent book is based on more studies and meta analyses? Interestingly, he quotes Nuthall’s research extensively and is a big fan of SOLO.

  3. Andrew Old January 24, 2012 at 6:10 pm - Reply

    The point is that we have to sort out facts and opinions in academic research. It is a fact that direct instruction is well above the hingepoint in Hattie’s studies. It is a fact that collaborative learning isn’t. It is a fact that feedback was particularly effective in his studies.

    It is, however, only *opinion* that groupwork is good for effective feedback. He is, presumably, only expressing opinion regarding Nuthall and SOLO. We need to distinguish between the two. There’s no point looking into the academic research if all you end up doing is looking for opinions, and opinions you already agreed with, rather than the evidence.

    • learningspy January 24, 2012 at 7:03 pm - Reply

      What is a fact without an opinion? Has their ever been research conducted on education without a conclusion being drawn? I doubt it.

      Our opinions are based on our experience. I know there’s a time and a place for DI and a time and place for students to work collaboratively to explore ideas. The fact that Hattie’s opinions on his research support my own is experience is just a comfort.

  4. Andrew Old January 24, 2012 at 8:21 pm - Reply

    My point is that conclusions are only as good as the thinking by which they are reached, and that opinions aren’t given any greater credibility by a tenuous, drawn-out connection to a body of evidence which, on the face of it, actually seems to point in the opposite direction.

    Obviously one can argue that all interpretations are valid, but if one does so what was the point of looking at the evidence in the first place? If all you needed was one half-agreeable (but apparently unjustified) opinion from the person who collated the evidence, why was the evidence actually needed? What was the point of measuring the effect-size of collaborative learning or direct instruction if we then just work our way around it?

    I’d have a lot more respect for your position if you said you found your methods worked despite the weight of the evidence against them, than when the evidence is filtered, interpreted, re-interpreted, relativised, and finally ignored in favour of an interpretation of the opinion of the person who compiled it.

    • learningspy January 24, 2012 at 8:25 pm - Reply

      I think it might help if you read the book Andrew.

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Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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