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The dilemma of computers in schools July 22, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Early Childhood Education, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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From Dr. Joanne Orlando

In this post, Dr Orlando reflects upon the considerable investment Australian governments are making in placing computers in Australian schools, and suggests that the provision of the hardware is just a first step if we are to see a positive impact on student learning.


If you spent millions of dollars putting computers into schools, what do you think would happen? Do you think students will achieve better results in their learning? Do you think teachers will change their practice and adopt new ways of teaching? Do you think that governments will change the teaching and learning they expect to take place in schools?

Computers have been associated with developing the 21st century skills students will need for the future workplace. Late last year the Federal government implemented the Digital Education Revolution into Australian schools. This four-year initiative was the government’s response to capitalising on the benefits that computers potentially hold for student learning. In NSW this initiative has a budget cost of over $400 million (Federal government funding) and $25 million (NSW State government funding). It focuses on providing every Year 9 student and teacher in every Government secondary school in Australia with a laptop for the next four years.

Research to date however suggests that initiatives which focus primarily on resourcing schools with computers are not successful. Placing computers in schools does not seem to enhance student learning and achievement.

Teachers’ lack of performance or unwillingness to change is often given for as the reason for lack of success of initiatives which focus on resourcing schools with computers. This is however a one-dimensional response to a complex and important issue. It also does not provide insight into how we can actually make the most of using computers to enhance student learning and meaningfully prepare our students for the future workforce.

Schools are multifaceted and complicated environments. Expecting one new addition (computers) to change schools and raise standards is simplistic and unhelpful. Considering the complexity of the environments that these computers are being placed in will give us greater insight into reflecting on why teachers choose to use computers in their teaching in the ways they do (or don’t).  It will also support signposting where future planning might take place to facilitate future advancement and growth of the use of computers in schools that will support reaching the goal of enhancing student learning.

For example, a current and significant issue for schools and teachers is that while the government is resourcing schools with laptops they are simultaneously increasing pressure on teachers in terms of accountability. This is evident with the publication of league tables in high profile newspapers and the MySchool website. This accountability is linked to nation-wide standardised test scores. There is sufficient research to show that standardised tests encourage teaching which is traditional and teacher-centred. This of course is at odds with the creative software available on school computers and the use of these for the development of 21st century skills. Add to the mix other significant factors such as the diverse student abilities and experiences, and recent and significant changes to the curriculum.

The resourcing of schools with computers is a substantial beginning step for enhancing student learning. A second step now, if we really aim to use computers to their full potential to support student learning, is to contextualise computers within the schools and classrooms where they have been placed. Let’s not rely on the rhetoric about what computers are able to do. We need to shift our focus to thinking about and planning for how computers might be used in ways that are meaningful to our students and our teachers within today’s schools.

Joanne Orlando is a lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

Minimal Guidance and Direct Instruction July 9, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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From Dr José Hanham

Direct methods of instruction are often linked to the concept of ‘explicit teaching’. In this post, Dr Hanham argues that direct instruction is a very under-utilised form of teaching, which is clearly necessary to enhance understanding and learning independence, and to provide children with the foundations to be able to pursue more independent forms of learning.


Over the past five decades there have been many prominent educational thinkers (e.g., Bruner, 1961) who have hypothesized that students learn best through minimal instructional guidance. Minimal guidance generally refers to teachers constructing learning contexts in which students are encouraged to discover and construct essential information for themselves. This approach to instruction has taken various guises, including discovery learning and constructivist learning. In contrast to those who advocate the use of minimal guidance approaches, there are a growing number of educational researchers who suggest that novice learners learn best through direct instruction. This approach involves the teacher providing students with information that fully explains the concepts and procedures that they need to learn. In terms of student learning, which is the superior approach – minimal guidance or direct instruction?

The most reliable indicator through which to answer this question is to refer to the empirical literature. Evidence obtained from a range of highly controlled experimental studies suggests that direct instructional approaches lead to deep levels of learning (e.g. Moreno, 2004), whereas minimal guidance approaches tend to be ineffective and largely inefficient (see Mayer, 2004 for a review).

So why can minimal guidance be largely ineffective? Theorizing about minimal guidance instruction emerged at a time (1960s) in which we knew very little about the workings of the human brain and human memory. Current research on human memory suggests that our short-term memory, which is the component of our memory that we use to process new information, is very limited in capacity and duration. In fact, latest estimates suggest that most learners can only process 2 to 3 elements of new information in their short term memory at a time (Sweller, 2004). Research informs us that if learners are not given direct instruction when learning new information, they tend to engage in inefficient problem-solving process such as trial and error or means-ends analysis (Sweller, 1999). These problem-solving approaches impose a heavy cognitive tax on an already limited short-term memory.

Direct instruction, on the other hand, allows the learner to circumvent most of the limitations of short-term memory. For example, providing novice learners with worked examples rather than problem-solving exercises has shown to be a particularly powerful and efficient method for enhancing student learning. Because learners are provided with schema of how to solve a problem, they avoid having to engage in unnecessary trial and error processes.

To end, it is important to emphasise that direct instruction only works to a certain point. Once learners begin to acquire a sufficient degree of knowledge in a particular learning domain, providing these learners with direct instruction can lead to redundancy and expertise-reversal effects. It is at this point that learners should be provided with minimal instruction.


Bruner, J. S. (1961). The art of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31, 21–32.    Mayer, R. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist, 59, 14–19.  Moreno, R. (2004). Decreasing cognitive load in novice students: Effects of explanatory versus corrective feedback in discovery-based multimedia. Instructional Science, 32, 99–113. Sweller, J. (1999). Instructional design in technical areas. Camberwell, Australia: ACER Press.  Sweller, J. (2004). Instructional design consequences of an analogy between evolution by natural selection and human cognitive architecture. Instructional Science, 32, 9–31. 


José Hanham is a Lecturer in the Secondary education program at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. He specialises in educational psychology and youth studies.

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