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 researcher 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.

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