A Critique of Mayer, R. E.’s Should There Be
a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning?:
The Case for Guided Methods of Instruction
Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney
27 October 2007
This paper begins with articulating the main arguments that Mayer, R. E. raised in his published paper—Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning?: The Case for Guided Methods of Instruction, and then points out that there are many aspects worthwhile for us to reexamine and to critically review, including different concepts such as “pure discovery”, “guided discovery” and “unguided” in relation to an external concept “goal-free”. This paper ends with conclusions focusing on Mayer’s misleading concept and the further effort that he is supposed to give.
Mayer’s Arguments and Approaches
Mayer’s main argument in the paper is that guided discovery was more effective than pure discovery in helping students learn and transfer. To support this point of view, Mayer selects some research conclusions from 1960s to 1980s that are concerning discovery learning and report the comparative outcomes of guided and unguided learning.
To begin with, Mayer states that the one of the significant goal for the paper is clarifying the relationship between the constructivist views of learning and teaching. He objects to the “fallacy” that equates active learning with active teaching. He tries to move educational researchers’ attentions from hands-on activity or group discussion to appropriate instructional methods processing in learners, which is guided discovery as he explains and argues in the following sections.
Mayer then selects the study of Bruner (1961), Craig (1956), Kittel (1957), Gagne and Brown (1961) and Shulman and Keisler (1966) to conclude that students need enough freedom and guidance so that they can become cognitively active in the process of sense making and their cognitive activity can result in the construction of useful knowledge. Continually, Mayer integrated the examples and evidences from the research of Piaget (1970), Gelman (1969), May and Tisshaw (1975), Wallach and Sprott (1964), Beilin (1965) and Inhelder, Sinclair, and Bovet (1974) to promote the idea that children learn better when they are active and given productive directions. Furthermore, he uses the arguments and outcomes from several scholarly papers published after
Based on this, Mayer summarizes the shortcomings of pure discovery and emphasizes guided discovery is the best method for promoting constructivist learning since pure discovery so far has not been proved by good evidence to work.
Last but not least, Mayer analyzes the significance of the role of Psychology in educational reform and points out that the foregoing review interprets constructivism naively and is based on old evidence. He concludes that “the contribution of psychology is to help move educational reform efforts from the fuzzy and unproductive world of educational ideology—which sometimes hides under the banner of various versions of constructivism—to the sharp and productive world of theory-based research on how people learn”. (p. 18)
Could Be a Straw Man Argument?
The significant indication for Mayer’s view to be a straw man argument is the term of “pure discovery” and its interpretation in his paper.
There is strong evidence to suggest that “pure discovery” was seldom used around educational and psychological communities before Mayer’s paper, which is cited by those researching on discovery learning afterwards (e.g. Lavine, 2005, and Kirschner, Sweller and
Mayer tends to use “pure discovery” to define some phenomenon from previous researches. For example, in Craig’s (1956) research, the phrase of “pure discovery” doesn’t exist any where. Mayer has set up a “straw man”—using “pure discovery” instead of “independent discovery”—for easier further refutation. In Kittel’s (1957) experiment, there are three groups of students given different amount of direction—minimum, intermediate and maximum. However, instead of “minimum-directed discovery”, Mayer uses “pure discovery” again to report the outcomes.
It cannot be denied that using a set phrase may be more understood and easier to remember. However, “pure discovery” not only conveys a strong subjective preference but also misleads the readers on the previous researches from other authors. Differences still exist among the phrases “pure discovery”, “independent discovery” and “minimum-directed discovery”. If “pure discovery” replaces all other terms in previous researches, readers would probably consider that the previous researchers had have the position. Further more, if “minimum-directed discovery” equals “pure discovery”, then what about “guided discovery” used by Mayer? Does “guided discovery” equal the discovery with intermediate or maximum direction? It is hard to tell since the straw man has been set up and the readers have less opportunity to know about the facts.
Regardless whether the argument about pure discovery right or wrong, probably best if Mayor could give us a definition for this new term, which may help us to exam whether the scale of the concept include, overlap or exclude the examples used.
Can Guided = Goal-based? (Or Can Unguided = Goal-free?)
Evidence shows that Mayer, known as a Psychologist also researching on Cognitive Load Theory cooperated with other experts in this domain such as John Sweller, Paul L. Ayres and Wayne Leahy, prefers using more psychological testable theories and experiments to promote educational reform. In different occasions, he explained his ideas on Cognitive Load Theory (e.g. How to Reduce Cognitive Load for Multimedia Messages in American Educational Research Association 2004 Annual Meeting) and Guided Discovery (e.g. in the paper we are now reviewing).
However, these two domains may have something incompatible. Since it was predicted that a higher cognitive load should result in more errors (Ayres and Sweller, 1990) and it has been proved to be right later (Ayres, 1993), evidence shows that the presentation of goal-free problems, which automatically reduces the use of means-ends analysis that costs much cognitive load, can facilitate learning while helping learners find the correct solution path through the problem space (ibid). And, to large extent, teachers’ guiding is setting implied and exposed goals for students. Hence, according to Cognitive Load Theory, in order to reduce cognitive load, teachers should give more problems space to the students by reducing goals or even setting no goal (goal-free). To reduce the goals, teachers actually limit their guidance. As a result, less guidance leads to less cognitive load and more efficient learning for students.
If the above inference is right, it basically means that guided equals goal-based and unguided equals goal-free, which indicates that unguided discovery learning leads to more productive outcomes because it tends to be goal-free.
As a result, it would probably better for Mayer to explain such a paradox in ONE paper consisting both of Cognitive Load Theory and guided discovery learning, or we will not be convinced by his arguments.
It cannot be denied that Mayer has significantly reminded us that educational reforms should be based on convincing evidence rather than personal speculation like some teachers “applying” constructivism by promoting “pure discovery learning”. However, the concept and scale of the term of “pure discovery learning” could be clearer and the similar but not same terms should not be ignored. Further more, since Mayer is also an expert on Cognitive Load Theory, it would improve his work to be more convinced if he could utilize the theory to interpret on guided discovery in the future.
Ayres, P. (1993). Why goal-free problems can facilitate learning. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 18, 376-381.
Ayres, P. and Swleller, J. (1990). Locus of difficulty in multi-stage mathematics problems. The American Journal of Psychology, 103, 167-193.
Craig, R. C. (1956). Directed versus independent discovery of established relations. Journal of Educational Psychology, 47, 223-234.
Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., and Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.
Kittel, J. E. (1957). An experimental study of the effect of external direction during learning on transfer and retention of principles. Journal of Educational Psychology, 48, 391-405.
Lavine, R. A. (2005). Guided Discovery Learning with Videotaped Case Presentation in Neurobiology. IAMSE, 15, 4-7.
Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning?: the case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist, 59(1), 14-19.