Is it best to TELL and APPLY or STRUGGLE and RESOLVE?

The most common teaching sequence in the classroom is telling students the important principle or skill up front and then having students practise on a set of well-designed problems to confirm their learning through the application of their knowledge and skills. This approach has stood the test of time for centuries is a convenient and efficient way to deliver knowledge and skills. What we have discovered today is the realisation that this approach will no longer prepare our students for the opportunities and challenges of the future. The rapid rate at which technology is now replacing many jobs alerts us that jobs of the future require a different knowledge and skillset. It is argued that anything that requires a simple skillset which is routine, repetitious and even relies on knowledge, a computer and machine can do better. Recently, the very best quiz show contestants in the world were challenged to play a computer in Jeopardy (a general knowledge question and answer game). The computer won outright with very little difficulty because it had learnt Wikipedia back to front. The rapid speed of accessing knowledge is now available at a fingertip, so why do we insist on using the TELL and APPLY strategy as our major approach to learning?

An alternative is having students wrestle with a problem through a project or guided discover, the teacher withholding didactic teaching at first, lest it undermine the processes of discovery. The theory is that students first need to experience the problems that make knowledge useful. This is the STRUGGLE and RESOLVE approach. In this approach the students are involved in problem solving, reasoning, communications, analysis and critical thinking. It requires interactions with other students and teachers in dialogue and it will constantly require students to adapt to changes and circumstances.  These skills a computer cannot replace, machines cannot begin to replace the higher order thinking and capacity of the human brain. These are the important skills or competencies we expect of our students into the future.

But is the STRUGGLE and RESOLVE approach effective? Research shows that students’ initial recollection and test performance were the same for each approach, but long-term transfer was significantly better in the STRUGGLE and RESOLVE group. Why? The researchers believe it’s because telling-and-applying strategies prompt students to apply solutions, one problem at a time, which reduces their chances of seeing similarities across cases. Giving students the end-product of expertise too soon short-cuts the need to find the deep structure that the expertise describes and students are less likely to see the structure in new situations and they will fail to transfer. There is definitely a time for telling but it’s also important for teachers to help students tolerate the short-term ambiguity of not being told the right answer. Their effort to find out can improve learning and test performance in the long run.

“Practicing Versus Inventing with Contrasting Cases: The Effects of Telling First on Learning and Transfer” by Daniel Schwartz, Catherine Chase, Marily Oppezzo, and Doris Chin in Journal of Educational Psychology, November 2011

Dr Paul Rijken is principal of Cardijn College, a secondary co-educational school in the southern region of Adelaide with a total of 900 students and 120 staff. Marcellin Technical College is a campus of Cardijn College. It provides students in Years 11 and 12 with SACE, training and apprenticeships. It has an enrolment of over 120 students and 30 staff. Paul has been the principal at Cardijn College since 2005. He has a Ph.D. from Curtin University in Science and Mathematics Education. He is a Fellow of the Australian College of Educational Leaders.

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