An interview with professor Paul A. Kirschner
(This interview is also available in French: La pedagogue constructiviste est comme un zombie qui refuse de mourir)
Grumpy old man. That is at least what he calls himself. But you might know him as Paul Kirschner. He is one of the world’s most influential researchers in the field of learning psychology. Currently he is a professor at the Open University of the Netherlands. Although unknown for the vast majority of my Swedish readers, his co-authored book Urban Myths about Learning and Education was recently translated to Swedish.
Urban myths and legends in school that refuse to go extinct is something Kirschner often returns to. That is also why I got the chance to meet him, when he visited Sweden to gold a lecture about 21st century skills for the conference ResearchEd.
I met up with him in the library at the Royal Institute of Technology for an interview. This interview was first published as in the Swedish paper Skolvärlden, but in a shorter version in Swedish. You can find it here: Our brains has not changed for ten thousand years.
Since that there’s at least someone out there that is as keen as I am to learn more about Kirschner and his ideas about education, psychology and teaching I decided to translate a longer version of the interview and post it here. Enjoy!
Professor Kirschner, why do you call yourself an ”old grumpy man”?
– I don’t believe most things I read and I am very sceptical of hypes and trends. The only thing I accept as ‘true’ is what is supported by high-quality research. This means that when I read about, for example, 21st century skills, I am the one who says ”stop and prove that it exists!”. Then I am stamped as a grumpy old man. But it’s a badge I wear with pride.
As for sounding grumpy, this summer, you tweeted ”How much more evidence do we need to stop discovery-based, constructivist madness and go back to traditional teacher-led teaching, which is effective for real?”. What is wrong with letting students search for their own knowledge?
– It’s madness since that there is absolutely no evidence that shows that letting students discover themselves what they need to learn works. The only studies that show a positive effect of such methods are when the students, paradoxically, also receive very much instruction during or preferably before. But that is what I call traditional teacher led-methods.
– It’s amazing that methods that have repeatedly proved to be ineffective are still in use. The constructivist pedagogy, unfortunately, is like a zombie that refuses to die. Instead it resurrects itself again and again under different names, such as ”innovative learning” or ”experience-based learning”.
In your most cited research article you argue that teaching methods where the teacher’s role is to take a step back in the classroom and let students search for their own knowledge are doomed to failure, as they ignore knowledge of how the brain works. While that is reasonable, one might think that the importance of teacher-led instructions decline as students become older and more knowledgeable?
– In my field, we distinguish between how novices and experts learn. The methods that are effective for the one often doesn’t work well for the other. Pupils, independent of their age, are novices and need a lot of instructions, something that experts can do without. To become an expert requires knowledge and a lot of practice to automate this and commit it to long-term memory.
– Take me as an example. I’m really just an expert in a field, educational psychology. In all other areas, my opinion is as good or bad as anyone else’s. In a different field, I will benefit more from good instruction than from discovering something on my own.
In Sweden, we have seen a decline in the amount of more traditional, teacher-led instruction during the last decades. Many argue that more modern pedagogy is good, as the education develops. Do you think that clear teacher-led instructions belong in a school in 2019?
– Yes. Why? Because students to learn more from it. The school’s purpose is to teach students. If there are teaching methods or instructional strategies that we know lead to better results and also make students feel a positive self-esteem – ”Yay!, I can do this!” – the school should use it.
– More constructivist pedagogy means that the students need longer time to solve problems, to learn to solve them, they make more mistakes and also get frustrated on the way. In the end, they learn less. Why use it?
It is sometimes criticized and called scornfully for ”pulpit teaching” (Katederundervisning).
– It’s a straw man. Standing at the pulpit is a method. This morning I held a lecture that way. Why? I lectured on a topic that the audience didn’t know anything about. Then it works very well. It is the most effective way for me to make efficient use of the forty minutes I have at my disposal. It’s as easy as that.
– But when I talk about clear teacher-led teaching, I refer to direct instruction, and it is not just to face a class and grind on. It’s about much more than that. Read Barack Rosenshine’s summary of important teaching principles. It is about, for example, starting each lesson with a short rehearsal, introducing new material in small steps, letting students first practice under guidance and the on their own, and testing the students often to see what they have understood and not for grades.
But we live in a new digital era, we can translate languages and look up facts with our phones that we carry around in our pockets, shouldn’t the school focus on anything but more traditional knowledge mediation then?
– Yes, we live in a digital age, but our brains have not changed in ten thousand years. We know this by studying old skulls. Because our cognitive functions work in the same way as before, I honestly don’t understand why we should do something different just because we live in a ”new time”.
– We also know that there is evolutionary primary and evolutionary secondary knowledge. The former is something we need to survive as a species. It has been evolutionarily ‘hardwired’ into how we think and develop. We learn this almost automatically without instruction, such as our ability to recognize our mother and communicate with each other and, thus, acquire our first language. The secondary is all cultural, such as how to read and write and use mathematics. That is something we need school and instruction for.
– The only problem is that many seem to believe that since we learned for our first language, which is evolutionarily primary, for example by playing, we also learn to write, count and speak other languages in the same way. But it is evolutionary secondary knowledge that we need instructions and schools to learn.
The rest of society has changed at a high pace. Just look at the health care, it is not possible to compare 19th century hospitals with thosewe have today. At the same time, many classrooms and teaching look exactly the same today. Shouldn’t school change more?
– Why? Many exaggerate the change in society, especially in our time. In fact, society changed more between 1900 and 1930, people went from using candles to electric light bulbs, from telegraph to telephone, from real instruments to phonographs to radio, from horses to cars. We have also learned to fly in airplanes – all in those 30 years.
– Compare it to developments between 1990 and 2020. What have we seen? Well, computers are getting smaller. No radical changes have taken place, which even leading economists have noted. We still go to the hospital to be operated on, even though the tools used by the surgeons have been improved.
However, do we really need to send the children to a school building several miles away every day if they still have access to the internet in their mobile phones?
– Then I have a question for you. If you read something on the internet that you don’t know anything about, how should you interpret it and evaluate whether the source is credible or not? Do you think you had managed to solve a problem in quantum physics in half an hour with your phone? Good luck, the answers are there! Go and do it!
Thanks for the offer! I understand that I would need more instructions than that to cope with it, but do I really need a teacher for it when there are lots of lectures and lessons in video format online?
– Yes, what about it? If you think putting something in a can and giving it away will work just fine, you clearly underestimate the importance of a good teacher who is able to get across to his or her students.
– See what researcher John Hattie has shown to be unique to expert teachers. They have deep conceptual subject knowledge and an understanding of the substance should be communicated as well as a deep conceptual knowledge and skills in teaching / didactics. Good learning requires good teachers who can adapted for the students. You can’t do this by posting lessons on YouTube.
The questions of homework and tests in the Swedish school debate is sometimes very intense. Many question the usefulness of it. Is there any reason to use tests and homework?
– Yes of course. There is something called Retrieval practice. It is about re-visiting what we’ve learned earlier which strengthens the memory of it; actually it helps to stop us from forgetting. Homework and testing are incredibly good tools for enabling that.
– Through regular testing we can counteract the effect of the forgetting curve. It is a theory that shows that we forget what we learn very quickly if we do not re-visit the knowledge quickly and repeatedly.
Hattie claims that homework does work, but that the positive effect is not particularly great for the younger students. Many also claim that homework contributes to increased inequality in school.
– This is probably because the students get too much homework or that the teachers do not do anything with the homework that the kids do. Homework does not work if you as a teacher don’t do anything with it. It should not just be ”ticked off”. If one goes through the homework and comes with feedback or tests the homework with a quiz then homework works.
– Inequality can increase if you do not use the homework correctly. If you just send away homework to the students without having to go through them afterward, it is clear that those with more engaged parents at home get better results. But there is no reason not to give homework. If you don’t, the more socio-economically favored students are slightly disadvantaged if at all while the disadvantaged students have real problems!
What distinguishes an expert teacher?
– It’s important to point out that you can be an experienced teacher but still not be an expert in teaching. An expert teacher has deep conceptual knowledge of her or his subject area as well as a good didactic ability to reach out to her or his students.
– To achieve pedagogical expertise, it’s crucial that you have good insight into educational and learning psychology so that you know how learning takes place in the human brain. Knowledge of our cognition should be the most important part of a teacher training program.
Teacher education is sometimes criticized for focusing too much on pedagogical theories and too little on psychology. Is that a problem?
– If at the end of your teacher education you know in principle only Vygotsky and Piaget then you have no idea what teaching means. Then you are a pedagogue, not a teacher. Unfortunately, the quality of teacher education in the Netherlands is very low. The education is too short, the quality of the students who are joining is too low and the content too limited.
– Teacher students have never heard of important cognitive theories or effective learning strategies. For example, they do not know about cognitive load theory, or anything else that is incredibly important in understanding how our memory processes work and how learning takes place. They often also don’t have deep knowledge of their teaching subject.
The cognitive load theory can briefly be summarized by the fact that we humans have two primary memory processes: working memory and long-term memory. It is in the former, where thinking takes place, but at the same time it is highly restricted. In the long-term memory, we store everything we know, and what we get from it does not burden the work memory. In this way, it is important to have plenty of knowledge in the long-term memory, as it frees up precious space in the work memory. If the work memory is overloaded, learning is prevented.
Critics claim that this is just a theory among others. Does the theory of cognitive load really have as good a support as you claim?
– The only ones who think that the cognitive load theory is controversial are constructivists. But, of course, it’s just a theory just as Newton’s theory of gravity is just a theory. The theory of cognitive load is about how our cognitive architecture affects how we learn and how this interacts with instruction. There are possibly two thousand scientific articles that show that the theory generally holds. No matter what, we can say that it has not been refuted. Sure, there are other theories.
– The cognitive load theory can lead us to make wiser decisions about teaching methods in order to avoid overloading the students’ working memories. It’s really all it is about. Now this theory is considered the single most important for teachers to know.
– The constructivists’ theory, on the other hand, is an oxymoron, because constructivism is philosophy, not a theory of learning or a theory of instruction! Constructivism is a philosophy of how we see and interpret the world around us. This means that you and I interpret the world in different ways, as we have different views and see things in different ways based upon what we know and our prior experiences. That is of course something we cannot disprove. But it is not a theory of learning, and certainly not of teaching!
In Sweden, the curriculum debate has been intense in recent years. The curriculum places high demands on relatively young students to demonstrate skills such as reasoning, analyzing and investigating complex subjects. What is your view of that?
– It’s absurd! One cannot do it without subject knowledge. One cannot reason about anything without knowing the subject well. There is nothing like ”generic skills”, it is not possible to analyze something that you know little or nothing about. It is as impossible as playing football professionally without having basic ball control.
– Teachers should always, at all levels, focus on factual and procedural knowledge (knowing what to do in what order). Children are not small adults, they think differently. When they then acquire more and more knowledge, they can eventually understand and cope with more abstract thinking. A house building must begin with the foundation.
At the same time, many argue that it is important for school to teach pupils creativity and leadership?
– You can’t teach anyone to be creative. It is a character trait. These traits can be stimulated or inhibited depending on how the environment is designed. You can create an environment that facilitates creativity or flexibility or leadership but you can’t teach it. Subject knowledge stimulates creativity as it is about coming up with useful solutions. You can’t do that without first knowing the topic well.
It has been said that today’s students are so-called digital natives – they are grown up with smartphones and thus very good at managing technology.
– Research has shown that digital natives do not exist. One might think that today’s young people are good at communicating and collaborating because they are constantly using Snapchat or Instagram or Whatsapp, but the fact is that what they are good at is copying each other’s answers – not acquiring and sharing new knowledge.
Swedish school is one of the most connected throughout the OECD. Now the government has launched a strategy to accelerate the schools’ digitization, by for example imposing on all schools to buy in screens for all students. It will cost more than one billion USD. Is that a good idea?
– A computer is a tool. Used properly it might help, but used in a wrong way it can cause problems. What’s bad is to think that you can teach better with a computer.
– Research has shown that 50-70 percent of the students who have their laptops open in the classroom do are doing things other than studying or listening. And even if you don’t have your laptop open, 40 percent of the students state that they are partially or greatly distracted by the fact that other students use screens nearby. Students clearly learn more if they take notes by hand than on a computer because, since they write more slowly than they type, they have to process what they hear (paraphrase, summarize, outline, etcetera). Also, anything that distracts means that less attention is paid to teaching and most kids also have apps open while using their computers and they distract.
– If I had several billions to spend and I could choose to buy more computers or train teachers in cognitive psychology and how we learn, then I know what my answer would be. It is because I know that better teachers lead to more learning and I know that more computers do not.
International studies have shown that Swedish schools have major problems with truancy and disrupting elements during lessons. Many students say that they are disturbed every other lesson. Others argue that it is not necessarily a problem, as a lively environment promotes creativity. Do you have any comments?
– No, attention is more important. It’s so simple. This does not mean that everyone must act silently as mice, but the primary priority of all teachers should be to ensure that all students focus their attention on what is being taught. Everything that minimizes attention affects learning negatively. If you sit and watch the news and someone comes in to ask a question, and it takes thirty seconds, then you have missed thirty seconds of the news. Then you have learned less about what has happened. It is as simple as that.