Minimal guided instruction

Using problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching is likely to be ineffective with novices. 


My last post explored the difference between novices and experts, demonstrating that they think and act very differently due to a contrast in their knowledge and experience in a subject area.


In Further Education, specifically in vocational areas, learners arrive with little to no knowledge/experience in their subject. Take Engineering, Automotive, Hair and Beauty and Construction for example – likely to have never been studied previously.  Then there are subjects where there may be prior knowledge/experience but many misconceptions, for example English and maths. Therefore, learners are arguably still novices when they join us…


The thing is, there seems to be an obsession in FE to teach learners as if they are experts. CPD sessions across the country are riddled with the promotion of minimal guided instruction methods such as: discovery based, problem based, experiential and inquiry-based learning. I get it, I really do. We are trying to reach an audience that is getting hdownloadarder to reach, so if we can make the learning interesting and give learners more autonomy, then we might just crack the problem…

‘You will assume the role of a Wella colour expert and figure out what is wrong with Deirdre’s highlights’


The problem is, we are not doing them any favours by doing this. Once learners have a solid foundation and begin to develop expertise, then these approaches to learning may be very effective, as they can draw upon prior knowledge/experiences to assist them with their learning. Novices on the other hand don’t have this knowledge and experience to draw upon. In fact, it is likely that they will have misconceptions about the subject that, when applied to a problem based activity, may result in further confusion.


Future posts will examine effective methods of guided instruction, but for now I introduce you to a paper by Kirscher and colleagues explains in greater depth why minimally guided instruction is not an effective instructional design for those with limited knowledge. I have attempted to summarise this visually below:


So to end my post. Many of our learners are novices and need guided instruction. When they are experts, we can reduce the guidance we give.

*Also, I’d like to add that I’m not completely averse to this type of instruction on occasion, when I feel that learners have sufficient knowledge.

Making maths work

Let’s face it, there are some learners that dislike maths. Unfortunately for them, unless they have the elusive grade C at GCSE then they have got to do it again in FE. Though I agree that engagement is important, particularly for those that have had negative experiences, I’m certainly not one for dumbing down – anymore (oh how I used to think of the ‘fun’ ahead of learning). My mantra ever since my eyes passed over ‘Why don’t students like school?’ by Dan Willingham is that ‘memory is the residue of thought’. Basically, we only remember what we think about. This in mind, gone from my classroom are the posters and leaflets, the working in large groups, and in are the paired activities, the focused discussion within pairs, the deliberate practise of new learning, and testing.

I was working with someone the other day whose GCSE maths class (these are FE students who failed in school) is going to be 4.5 hours in a single day next academic year. These learners are a combination of trainee hairdressers and chefs and sitting doing maths is a struggle, let alone doing it for 4.5 hours. “How can I focus them in a classroom for this long?” I was asked. Here are some of the suggestions I gave:


  1. Mixing and spacing the topics – The worst thing that this teacher could possibly do is to spend a whole 4.5 hour session on one, even two topics. Break it into shorter more manageable blasts on different topics and space the time between revisiting topics at around every 3 sessions (21 days). This way, the learners not only benefit from reinvigoration in the session, but also interleaving and distributed practice, both beneficial to long term retention.
  2. Regular testing – This doesn’t have to be about sitting and doing a written test. Get the learners using flash cards and creating their own quiz questions for one another. You might use technology to engage learners in the testing process (Kahoot, Socrative, Google Forms). If they’ve been seated for a while, try getting them to move to zones in the room as a response to multiple choice questions. Testing allows for gaps in knowledge to be identified and addressed, and it improves retrieval.
  3. ‘Why’ questioning – This is also known as elaborative interrogation and is an effective way at strengthening the learning.  Essentially,  pose some questions and ask learners to explain processes to each other, for example: Why is this the process for calculating…? Why are the brackets the first thing we calculate…?
  4. Practise – There will be times where learners need to practise. Build a routine into the session where learners have practice time. We are creatures of habit and knowing that this is part of the session will give a routine to the learning. Informing the learners of how important it is to practise in order to move from novice to expert (or at least grade D to C) is of great importance.


You’ll have noticed that I have a penchant for cognitive psychology of late. I will be sharing how I have tried to implement it in my own practice in the next post. If you have any ideas for our FE maths teacher, then feel free to share.

Coming out of my ‘secret teacher’ closet

Around 18 months ago, disgusted by the Ofsted Annual Review (2014), I decided to write back to Ofsted to put a few things straight about English and maths in the FE and Skills Sector. The Guardian immediately contacted me to see if I would like to write for them and I duly obliged. At the time, I wasn’t publishing under my real name as I had recently been in a bit of bother at work about my social media exploits (or not). For this reason, I remained anonymous and wrote the article under the ‘Secret College Tutor’ pseudonym.


At the time, I must have written what many in the FE and Skills sector were thinking, as the views and shares went through the roof. I decided to remain quiet for the most part (only telling my nearest and dearest). It wasn’t until Geoff Petty (an education inspiration of mine) re-tweeted the article yesterday that I realised how proud I am of what I put together, and it is for this reason that I am coming out and telling everyone that it was me all along.


You can view the article here. If you like it, continue to share. Also feel free to comment on this blog post.