Thursday, August 20, 2009

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

Here is the second of two article critiques done as part of my George Mason University FAST TRAIN course work this summer. The article that I examine here makes explicit reference to the first article I reviewed, and stands in direct opposition to it, seeming to show that a hands-on constructivist approach to learning is decidedly more effective than a "direct instruction" approach. But I found that the research behind this second article seems to be just as skewed as the first, albeit in the opposite direction, in order to come to an opposite conclusion.

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Article Critique on

Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: The Long View
by David Dean, Jr. and Deanna Kuhn

As I reported in my last article review, I was disappointed to find that the research of Klahr and Nigam, published in Psychological Science in 2004, seemed to be intentionally set up from the beginning to assure that the end result would definitely be declared a victory of good old-fashioned direct instruction against new-fangled constructivism. The authors apparently went to considerable effort to produce the study, but did not think it important to familiarize themselves in even a cursory way with the basic tenets of the branch of constructivism they were claiming to test in comparison to direct instruction. Their self-professed ignorance of the branch of constructivism known as “discovery learning” assured that their resulting article would be of no use to any thinking classroom teacher (Klahr and Nigam, 2004). So I was heartened to find a follow-up study done by another team in 2006 which, in its abstract, seemed to promise to correct some of the failings of objectivity of the previous work.

Hoping to find a more intellectually honest and balanced study contrasting traditional direct instruction teaching with newer constructivist methodologies, I instead found documentation of yet another elaborate round of research which seems to have been intentionally skewed to make a preordained point, this time in favor of the constructivist method. As with the earlier study, this one focused on teaching students the “control of variables strategy” (CVS), i.e., to choose only one independent variable and keep all others constant when constructing and performing an experiment. Dean and Kuhn claimed that they were rigorously adhering to the basic setup of the earlier study, with the most significant difference being that they would be conducting the new study over a longer time frame.

The detailed description of the conditions of the study show, however, that the cards were decidedly stacked against the group of students that were purely undergoing direct instruction. The direct instruction students were given only a single 45 minute lesson which included 10 minutes of direct instruction on the topic of CVS, while another group of students (called the “practice” group) was given a slightly shorter introductory lesson followed by 12 sessions over 10 weeks of working with experiment-emulating computer software which repeatedly led them through exercises in which they were encouraged to choose a single variable to construct a virtual experiment. Unsurprisingly, when both groups were given the same assessment at the 11 week point, the group that had been practicing with the concepts for 10 weeks significantly outperformed the group that had been given the single “direct instruction” lesson, with no follow-up, 11 weeks earlier (Dean and Kuhn, 2006).

At this point in my new teaching career, my training and my natural inclinations lead me to lean in favor of applying constructivist methods in many situations. However, I am not an ideologue in this regard, and I am a firm believer that many different teaching techniques, include those involving direct instruction and other traditional teaching methods, could certainly be fruitfully put to use in a number of contexts. As a person who is open to a broad range of ideas, I long for comparative studies that are constructed so as to honestly put all methods compared in the best possible light, to give each a fighting chance to show what its strengths might be. A greatly improved future study comparing direct instruction with a constructivist-oriented approach might involve competent teachers in the construction of the study’s parameters, with proponents of both teaching philosophies represented. By involving a balanced mix of others, researchers might be able to bottle up their own predispositions and establish an air of reason and objectivity so desperately missing from both of these competing studies.


Dean, D., & Kuhn, D. (2006, December). Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: The Long View. Wiley Interscience Journal. Retrieved June 25, 2009 from

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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