For decades, educators have debated the merits of two different teaching methods: Direct instruction, which gives students the exact information they need to know, and constructivism, which guides students through information and encourages them to find the meaning.
The debate has gone on so long because research results are inconsistent. What if there was an underlying feature that could make either of these two approaches effective consistently?
Assistant Professors Lauren Margulieux and Ben Shapiro, along with colleagues from The University of Auckland, Northwestern University and McGill University, have proposed a new teaching theory called “multiple conceptions theory.”
The research team analyzed literature on four direct instruction techniques and four constructivism techniques to identify the most successful elements of each, and used that information to develop multiple conceptions theory, which they presented at the 17th Association for Computing Machinery Conference on International Computing Education Research in 2021.
Their teaching theory encourages teachers to give students the correct information about a certain concept, but also some incorrect information and empower different interpretations of that concept. Students are then asked to compare all of this information in order to gain a clearer understanding of the concept as a whole.
“Our theory posits that learners develop better conceptual knowledge when they are guided to compare multiple conceptions of a concept,” they wrote.
During their research, Margulieux, Shapiro and their colleagues identified five elements that lead students to a comprehensive understanding of a concept: Learning from other’s errors; explaining what they see as correct and incorrect information to themselves; drawing conclusions from the information provided; adding new, correct information to the foundational concept; and calling attention to incorrect information to advance their initial conceptions.
The research team also outlined suggestions for developing lessons that incorporate these five elements into curriculum, citing specific cases from the literature they analyzed. For example, to help students in an introductory programming class learn from common challenges students typically face, they were asked to complete a series of activities that showed incorrect conceptions from students who had taken that course before.
Margulieux, Shapiro and their colleagues’ presentation on multiple conceptions theory focused on the benefits for computing education in particular, but also noted that other science, technology, engineering and math (disciplines) can apply this teaching practice.
“We argue that by employing multiple conceptions theory and its associated instructional design principles, instructors and designers can help students to develop conceptual knowledge while employing whichever approach best serves their needs,” they wrote.
About the Researchers
Department of Learning Sciences
Lauren Margulieux is an assistant professor in the Department of Learning Sciences. Her research interests include educational technology and online learning, particularly for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. She focuses on designing instructions in a way that supports online students who do not necessarily have immediate access to an instructor or professor to ask questions or overcome problem solving impasses.
Department of Learning Sciences
Ben Shapiro is an assistant professor in the Department of Learning Sciences. His research and design integrate approaches from the learning sciences, information visualization and computer science to study how people engage and learn in relation to the physical environment and to develop new types of learning environments and experiences that support computer and data science education. He was previously a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute for Technology. He completed his Ph.D. in learning sciences as a member of the Space, Learning and Mobility Lab at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education.
Margulieux, L., Denny, P., Cunningham, K., Deutsch, M., and Shapiro, B., 2021. “When Wrong is Right: The Instructional Power of Multiple Conceptions.” In proceedings of the 17th Association for Computing Machinery Conference on International Computing Education Research (ICER 2021). Association for Computing Machinery, N.Y., 184-197. https://doi.org/10.1145/3446871.3469750.