Sunday, June 8, 2014

Under The Influence Of A Theory I've Never Known

By all accounts, Merlin Wittrock was a highly influential educational researcher. He was highly cited. His generative theory of learning was the sort of thing that his colleagues called revolutionary. When he died people wrote articles like "M.C. Wittrock: A Giant of Educational Psychology." And on top of all that, Professor Wittrock had a bad-ass wizard name. Suffice to say, he was a big deal in educational psychology.

He was best known for his generative theory of learning. In short, Wittrock's theory states that deep learning has to do with the strength of the relationships between pieces of information instead of their mere storage. But as you can see from the fairly baroque diagram at the top of this post, that's a significant over-simplification.

If you know nothing about education, then you might think that the acclaim for Wittrock's theory was enough for his ideas to spread through teaching. You might imagine all three-and-a-half million of us teachers hanging out by the cafeteria and just shooting the breeze about Wittrock's theory and how it's changing how we teach fractions or something. I'd be all like "Hey guys so 'Problem-Solving Transfer' is the obvious choice, but I'd have to say my favorite Wittrock piece is 'The Cognitive Movement in Instruction'" and then we'd all argue boisterously but with obvious mutual professional admiration.

Anyway, that's not what happened:
"Generative learning never took root beyond the confines of its academic subfield, and certainly not in K-12 classrooms." (Schneider, 164)
In Chapter Five of From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse, Schneider is interested in contrasting research that made it with research that didn't. You think that Gardner's Multiple Intelligences was destined for greatness? Check that against Steinberg's similar Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. So Bloom's Taxonomy was a winner, but what about Bloom's Second Taxonomy? Why didn't that stick?

Unlike research ideas that successfully made their way into the awareness of educators, Wittrock's theory umm fell like a rock. And it wasn't like he wasn't trying! He was leading professional development sessions for teachers. He tried to write articles distilling his work for practitioners. He spoke publicly and often.

What went wrong? Schneider lists the obstacles that Wittrock's theory faced:

  • Wittrock was at UCLA and didn't have the prestige that a fancier professorship would've granted. 
  • He did a lousy job turning his theory into bite-sized discussable, actionable principles for teachers. He tried, but he kept things subtle, abstract and detailed when they needed to be tweetable, down-to-earth and big-picture. Wittrock needed to go around saying something like "Project-based learning promotes lifelong learning" about his theory.
  • He was too faithful to his own theory. In order for the theory to take-off, there would need to be easy applications for teachers to tackle. But third-party professional development salesfolk couldn't spin anything out of generative teaching.
Schneider sees Wittrock's theory as a failed bit of research. It penetrated educational psychology, but not teaching. And, indeed, I'd never heard of him or his theory until reading Schneider's book.

But here's what I can't shake: I had heard of ideas like his. Further, they challenged and provoked me. When I came into teaching I definitely saw understanding as a matter of information storage. I thought that I could teach skills by some sort of repetition, making sure that the explanations reached ever increasing circles of students. Somewhere along the line I ended up thinking that what matters more is the network of learning, the strength of the connections and the way new information can be invited into that intricate web. 

I wish that I knew exactly where my exposure to these ideas came from. It must have had to do with reading "How People Learn." It also probably had to do with my exposure to the CME Project and thinking through the ways that informal problem-solving can be helpful preparation for more formal learning. Certainly Dan Meyer played a role.

Here's what I'm thinking: if Merlin Wittrock influenced educational psychology profoundly, then he must have influenced me profoundly. All of my influences are themselves influenced heavily by educational psychology, after all. 

This doesn't contradict Schneider's point, but it does challenge his emphasis. Throughout his book, Schneider has been judging research against its widespread recognition and popularity. The theory goes like this: in order to become wildly popular a piece of research can't be too challenging, difficult or complex. Of course, this means that its fidelity will be up for grabs, but the exposure will inevitably send some educators back to the research to engage with the ideas more seriously.

But how many educators, in Schneider's vision, will end up engaging constructively with the research? How many will end up adopting the research in speech only, without really changing anything that they do?

Those are questions that are incredibly difficult to answer. But here are some more tough questions: Is there a path from Merlin Wittrock's writing to my understanding of learning? How many teachers were guided by Wittrock without knowing his name? How do we know that it's fewer than those that actually did something valuable with Bloom's Taxonomy

Still: it's easy to imagine a world where Wittrock was a more successful advocate for his ideas, and it's hard to imagine that world as a worse place than ours. Raymond: after five chapters and lots of hemming and hawing, I'm more or less convinced. What say you?

Raymond Johnson and I are reading Jack Schneider's new book, "From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education." This was Chapter Five, and Raymond will soon respond. Previously:

Chapter 1: Bloom's Taxonomy (Michael's post, Raymond's reply)
Chapter 2: Multiple Intelligences (Raymond's post, Michael's reply)
Chapter 3: The Project Method (Michael's post, Raymond's reply)

Chapter 4: Direct Instruction (Raymond's post, Michael's reply)


  1. I'm not sure what you or this author is talking about. Wittrock's theories weren't influential? Where the hell do you think "activate prior knowledge" came from? Did you not read the obits you linked in? People took his ideas to create the "constructivist" approach to education.

    He's far more influential on a day to day basis than the MI crap.

    1. Current constructivist theories aren't wholly based on Wittrock. Prior knowledge has a strong role in Piaget's writing, for example, and constructivist educators are more likely to credit Piaget or Vygotsky for their views. Schneider would likely also argue that if future constructivists impacted educators, then we ought to study how those later scholars ended up influencing practitioners, because Wittrock was a dead-in, influence-wise.

      No disagreement on the "MI crap", but I can see Schneider's point.

  2. Who cares what constructivist educators say? It was incredibly common for a classroom management prof to blather all sorts of nonsense about Piaget without really understanding it, while in the classes on adolescent development, you usually got the straight scoop. Ed school profs and instructors outside their field were often astonishingly ill-informed. Of course, I now recall that you never went to ed school, so it makes sense you never knew any of this.

    I never said he was wholly responsible for constructivist theories.

    Piaget explored how children learn, but he didn't have any success in mapping it out, and he rarely spent any time explaining how to teach. He didn't come up with the notion of "activating prior knowledge" as a teaching mechanism, as best I remember. He was the first person to argue that children used prior knowledge to learn, but his theories were vague and often disproved or at least challenged by Vygotsky. In the case of both Piaget and Vygotsky, they are popular in large part because they criticized and illustrated, but rarely got into the nitty gritty of "how", which is much harder and more controversial.

    Wittrock was far more involved in educating teachers, which is probably why he isn't as well-known and thus regarded as a "failure". But no, Schneider is wrong. Wittrock was successful, he was largely constructivist, and your understanding of his ideas without being aware of his name is typical for most teachers, since most teachers aren't well-versed in the history of ed psych.

  3. This is great stuff. I will wait for a kindle version of that book to come out!

  4. So apparently, you are now miffed that I have insulted your lack of ed school, as opposed to seeing that it may have something to do with why you think Wittrock had no influence. There are plenty of influential people who aren't necessarily known by name, and the fact that teachers know Howard Gardiner thinks there are multiple intelligences doesn't mean that he influences a single moment in their classroom. So when I read that you didn't know who Wittrock was, and couldn't even see instantly by his obituary that he was a major influence on teacher training, I was like oh, yeah, you didn't go to ed school. So you might not have seen the connection. But anyone familiar with ed school training reading his bio and who didn't assume that the university was blowing smoke, which is apparently your weakass excuse, would recognize that his work was important in teacher training. For one thing, Learning as a Generative Process is a not uncommon reading assignment. (It was in mine, although as I'm sure is typical, I hadn't remembered reading it until I found it in the reader.)

    Merlin Wittrock was an EL Thorndyke recipient in 1987. Piaget got the same award in 1976. Sternberg received it in 2003. Chall in 1983. BF Skinner and Cyril Burt won it as well in the 60s. In recent years Dweck and Dick Shavelson have won it. Gardiner has not won it. It's not just his peers at UCLA who thought he was a big deal.

    I offered the most likely reason why he isn't considered a big deal: unlike Gardiner, Sternberg, and Piaget, Wittrock actually trained teachers for the last 20 years or so of his career, and that is when he clearly put much of his theory into practice. He ran tons of training sessions, lots of professional development. Plenty of people saw his training and probably turned around and used it themselves.

    And really. It's not as if teachers routinely talk about papers. So the failure to do so in Wittrock's case is hardly unusual.

    The reason you know of his ideas is *not* evidence of some weird quirk, but rather evidence that he was successful and influential, if not particularly well known.

    1. I'm not miffed -- it just does nothing to support your argument!

      You assert that Wittrock had an enormous influence on teachers even though teachers have never heard of him or his theory. This is a very interesting claim and it goes against my gut and Schneider's analysis. You should give evidence for interesting claims!

      Here's what you've offered so far:
      1. The fact that I didn't go to ed school explains why I don't find it plausible that Wittrock was highly influential with teachers, since I certainly would've recognized his influence had I went.
      2. Wittrock won awards for being an educational researcher.
      3. Wittrock taught teachers, and is therefore not recognized by name.
      4. You heard of Wittrock in ed school.

      None of this is evidence that Wittrock influenced teachers. At best, this details a path whereby Wittrock could have influenced teachers without gaining any recognition for it. (2,3) and I wouldn't know about it (1). While it's interesting that you've heard of Wittrock -- and as Schneider points out in his chapter, it makes sense that this would be in the context of reading -- that certainly isn't evidence of widespread influence! That's one data point, sir. (Besides: if Wittrock taught all these teachers and his work is so prevalent in ed school, why doesn't his name stick? Are "Gard" and "ner" more memorable syllables than "Witt" or "rock"? See above: "Merlin" is a bad-ass wizard name.)

      So: what's your evidence that, though few teachers have heard of him or his theory, he's had an enormous influence?

      I think we can agree that "It would be obvious if you had gone to ed school" is a weak argument. I think we can also agree that "It's possible that he influenced teachers without getting widely recognized" isn't evidence that he did. The most obvious way to be influential is for people to know you and your ideas. Do you have evidence that teachers know (a) Merlin Wittrock or (b) Merlin Wittrock's ideas?

    2. "But anyone familiar with ed school training reading his bio and who didn't assume that the university was blowing smoke, which is apparently your weakass excuse, would recognize that his work was important in teacher training."

      Also what's particularly dumb about this argument is that both Schneider and Raymond Johnson have read this obituary and clearly also disagree with you. (Since "ad hominem" is like your favorite mode of argument you'll want to know whether they went to ed school. They went to ed school.)

      As always, it would be a lot more pleasant to talk to you if you didn't use "weakass" and "ignorant" and such and such.

  5. You know, you have to escape your little cocoon. I wasn't in any way mean to you until you started being silly, and even then I was mild.

    "At best, this details a path whereby Wittrock could have influenced teachers without gaining any recognition for it. "

    Yes. Nothing more. Now you want me to prove it. Why? I could care less about whether or not you accept this.

    I just went to read Johnson:

    "I think this is probably true; while teachers might only recognize Piaget and Vygotsky by name, the rise of the study of cognition and how we construct knowledge is the result of the work of many scholars, not just two. I think this falls under Schneider's concept of perceived importance: Piaget and Vygotsky seem important because so many scholars built upon their work, even if the scholars in that crowd remain nameless to us."

    I'm fine with this. In fact, I should probably read Johnson's posts over yours. He seems to be pointing out the obvious, which you missed.

    1. "Now you want me to prove it. Why? I could care less about whether or not you accept this."