Thursday, August 20, 2009

Critique of rather questionable "research" (1 of 2)

The following is a brief article critique that I wrote up as part of my summer course work in the George Mason University FAST TRAIN program. The article that I review here (and a second that I review in a soon-to-be-added additional blog posting) seems to me unfortunately representative of a noticeable collection of social science and educational "research" that seems skewed in order to come to preordained conclusions.

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Article Critique on:
The Equivalence of Learning Paths in Early Science Instruction: Effects of Direct Instruction and Discovery Learning
by David Klahr and Milena Nigam

One of our in-class readings, “Instruction versus exploration in science learning”, by Rachel Adelson (2004), raised considerably more questions than it answered. The article's main thrust was to summarize a slightly longer article published in the journal, Psychological Science, in the fall of 2004. The original article, the work of two psychology professors, David Klahr and Milena Nigam (2004), purportedly did a clinical comparison of “discovery learning” and “direct instruction” and found that the former was much less effective than the latter for teaching crucial science process skills to third and fourth graders. However, Adelson's summary article left the reader wondering whether the researchers had a fundamental understanding of what “discovery learning” actually is. On the other hand, perhaps Adelson had completely mischaracterized the content and intent of the original Klahr and Nigam article. I decided that the only way to strip away some of the ambiguity was to get my hands on the original Klahr and Nigam text.

My main question, “Did Klahr and Nigam have an understanding of what 'discovery learning' is?” was answered in a surprisingly clear way near the beginning of their article: “... at the outset, we faced a difficult definitional problem because nearly 100 years of research had yet to produce a consistent definition of discovery learning.” (Klahr and Nigam, 2004) The only work that they cite in their article as the basis of their knowledge of discovery learning is a work written by W.A. Winch in 1913, forty-seven years before the concept of “discovery learning” was first proposed by Jerome Bruner (1961). The researchers make no attempt to explain why they did not aggressively seek out a more current working definition for “discovery learning”, but instead stake out their acknowledged position of ignorance as justification for pushing their experiment to the furthest possible extremes:
... we intentionally magnified the difference between the two instructional treatments in order to provide a strong test of the path independent transfer hypothesis. In our discovery-learning condition, there was no teacher intervention beyond the suggestion of a learning objective; there were no guiding questions and no feedback about the quality of the child’s selection of materials, explorations, or self-assessments. (Klahr and Nigam, 2004)

The fact that the researchers are so open about their premeditated skewing of the conditions of their experiment immediately absolves them of any hint of malpractice. If we also presume away incompetence on their part and on the part of the journal that accepted and published their article, then we are left with little alternative but to question the motives of all those involved, none of whom (notably) appear to be professional educators. Why did the researchers openly create their own caricature version of a rather obscure flavor of constructivism to place in comparison to their version of “direct instruction”? It is not clear to me whether there actually are any present-day proponents of discovery learning as originally espoused by Bruner (1961), which makes it even more unclear why it was chosen for this study. Ultimately, it seems most likely that what has here been labeled “discovery learning” simply serves as a convenient straw man taken up by the researchers to stand in for constructivism in general. By openly “cooking the books”, the researchers ensured that the crude stand-in for a constructivist method would not merely fail, but fail miserably.

I for one would be very interested in a study which genuinely attempts an effective comparison of one or more aspects of constructivist teaching with alternative methods. For beginning teachers like me, the jury is still (and perhaps shall always remain) out, and we are open to a broad range of ideas, thoughtfully presented. But a study like this, in which the outcome is openly preordained, serves as nothing but a case study of how not to do empirical educational research.


Adelson, R. (2004, June). Instruction versus exploration in science learning. Monitor on Psychology, 35(6). Retrieved June 25, 2009 from:

Bruner, J. (1961). The Act of Discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31(1), 21-32. Retrieved June 27, 2009, from Education Research Complete database.

Klahr, D., & Nigam, M. (2004, October). The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction: Effects of direct instruction and discovery learning. Psychological Science, 15(10), 661-667. Retrieved June 25, 2009, doi:10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00737.x

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