Balancing cognition and motivation in computing education: Herbert Simon and evidence-based education
Education is a balancing act between optimally efficient instruction and motivating students. It’s not the same thing to meet the needs of the head and of the heart.
Shuchi Grover tweeted this interesting piece (quoted below) that reviews an article by Herb Simon (and John Anderson and Lynne Reder) which I hadn’t previously heard of. The reviewer sees Herb Simon as taking a stand against discovery-based, situated, and constructivist learning, and in favor of direct instruction. When I read the article, I saw a more subtle message. I do recommend reading the review piece linked below.
He [Herbert Simon] rejects discovery learning, and praises teacher instruction
When, for whatever reason, students cannot construct the knowledge for themselves, they need some instruction. The argument that knowledge must be constructed is very similar to the earlier arguments that discovery learning is superior to direct instruction. In point of fact, there is very little positive evidence for discovery learning and it is often inferior (e.g., Charney, Reder & Kusbit, 1990). Discovery learning, even when successful in acquiring the desired construct, may take a great deal of valuable time that could have been spent practicing this construct if it had been instructed. Because most of the learning in discovery learning only takes place after the construct has been found, when the search is lengthy or unsuccessful, motivation commonly flags.
Some cognitive scientists have been railing against the constructivist and situated approaches to learning for years. Probably the most important paper representing the cognitivist perspective is the Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark paper, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.” I talked about the Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark paper in this blog post with its implication for how we teach computer science.
The conclusion is pretty straightforward: Direct instruction is far more efficient than making the students work it out for themselves. Students struggling to figure something out for themselves does not lead to deeper learning or more transfer than simply telling students what they ought to do. Drill and practice is important. Learning in authentic, complex situations is unnecessary and often undesirable because failure increases with complexity.
The Anderson, Reder, and Simon article does something important that the famous Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark paper doesn’t — it talks about motivation. The words “motivation” and “interests” don’t appear anywhere in the Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark paper. Important attitudes about learning (like Carol Dweck’s fixed and growth mindsets, or Angela Duckworth’s grit) are not even considered.
In contrast, Anderson, Reder, and Simon understand that motivation is a critical part of learning.
Motivational questions lie outside our present discussion, but are at least as complex as the cognitive issues. In particular, there is no simple relation between level of motivation, on the one hand, and the complexity or realism of the context in which the learning takes place, on the other. To cite a simple example, learning by doing in the real-life domain of application is sometimes claimed to be the optimum procedure. Certainly, this is not true, when the tasks are life-threatening for novices (e.g., firefighting), when relevant learning opportunities are infrequent and unpredictable (e.g., learning to fly a plane in bad weather), or when the novice suffers social embarrassment from using inadequate skills in a real-life context (e.g., using a foreign language at a low level of skill). The interaction of motivation with cognition has been described in information-processing terms by Simon (1967, 1994). But an adequate discussion of these issues would call for a separate paper as long as this one.
There are, of course, reasons sometimes to practice skills in their complex setting. Some of the reasons are motivational and some reflect the special skills that are unique to the complex situation. The student who wishes to play violin in an orchestra would have a hard time making progress if all practice were attempted in the orchestra context. On the other hand, if the student never practiced as a member of an orchestra, critical skills unique to the orchestra would not be acquired. The same arguments can be made in the sports context, and motivational arguments can also be made for complex practice in both contexts. A child may not see the point of isolated exercises, but will when they are embedded in the real-world task. Children are motivated to practice sports skills because of the prospect of playing in full-scale games. However, they often spend much more time practicing component skills than full-scale games. It seems important both to motivation and to learning to practice one’s skills from time to time in full context, but this is not a reason to make this the principal mechanism of learning.
As a constructionist-oriented learning scientist, I’d go further with the benefits of a motivating context (which is a subset of what they’re calling a “complex setting”). When you “figure it out for yourself,” you have a different relationship to the domain. You learn about process, as well as content, as in learning what it means to be a scientist or how a programmer thinks. When you are engaged in the context, practice is no longer onerous but an important part of developing expertise — still arduous, but with meaning. Yasmin Kafai and Quinn Burke talk about changing students’ relationship with technology. Computer science shouldn’t just be about learning knowledge, but developing a new sense of empowerment with technology.
I’ve been wondering about what (I think) is an open research question about cognitivist vs. situationist approaches on lifelong learning. I bet you’re more likely to continue learning in a domain when you are a motivated and engaged learner. An efficiently taught but unmotivated learner is less likely to continue learning in the discipline, I conjecture.
While they underestimate the motivational aspect of learning, Anderson, Reder, and Simon are right about the weaknesses of an authentic context. We can’t just throw students into complex situations. Many students will fail, and those that succeed won’t be learning any better. They will learn slower.
Anderson, Reder, and Simon spend much of their paper critiquing Lave & Wenger’s Situated Learning. I draw on situated learning in my work (e.g., see post here) and reference it frequently in my book on Learner-Centered Computing Education, but I agree with their critique. Lave & Wenger are insightful about the motivation part, but miss on the cognitive part. Situated learning, in particular, provides insight into how learning is a process of developing identity. Lave & Wenger value apprenticeship as an educational method too highly. Apprenticeship has lots of weaknesses: inefficient, inequitable, and difficulty to scale.
The motivational component of learning is particularly critical in computing education. Most of our hot issues are issues of motivation:
- Female and under-represented minority students don’t learn differently than the white and Asian males who dominate computing. But they’re much less interested in learning computer science. “Computer science isn’t that difficult but wanting to learn it is.”
- Many students (especially female students) enter computer science class with low self-efficacy (see ICER 2016 award-winning paper). If they don’t believe they can do it, it’s not surprising that they don’t.
- We have too few computer science teachers because it is hard to motivate teachers to teach computer science.
- Students want authentic, complex learning situations, which is why we tend to value CS1 programming languages that are popular in industry. They don’t want practice and abstraction. Anderson, Reder, and Simon point out that more complex learning situations lead to more failure and lagging motivation.
The challenge to being an effective computing educator is to be authentic and complex enough to maintain motivation, and to use scaffolding to support student success and make learning more efficient. That’s the point of Phyllis Blumenfeld et al.’s “Motivating Project-Based Learning: Sustaining the Doing, Supporting the Learning.” (I’m in the “et al,” and it’s the most cited paper I’ve ever been part of.) Project-based learning is complex and authentic, but has the weaknesses that the cognitivists describe. Blumenfeld et al. suggest using technology to help students sustain their motivation and support their learning.
Good teaching is not just a matter of choosing the most efficient forms of learning. It’s also about motivating students to persevere, to tell them the benefits that make the efforts worthwhile. It’s about feeding the heart in order to feed the head.