Means ≠ ends

Student learning vs knowledge generation

Hey 👋

Sorry about the glitch last week… (it just had to be in the ‘efficient task design’ one, smh). One more dip back into a previous Snack before we open up a new series on teacher expertise

Big idea 🍉

'Means-ends' conflation is a pretty unintuitive concept (at least to me), yet it is responsible for some of the biggest rifts in education. As such, it's worth getting to grips with. Here goes...

One of the main aims of school is to create professionals who can further our understanding of the world. Who can critically analyse and solve a diverse range of problems within a specialist domain. Such as the scientist who develops a vaccine for a new virus. Or the artist who uses AI to create a novel visual experience.

However, just because this is a desired outcome of education doesn't mean it's the best way to get there. We must be careful about conflating the ends of school with the means of school. Why so?

Well, professionals use approaches such as inquiry, problem solving, and established protocols (such as the scientific method). They must do this because these are the only ways to generate new knowledge. And they can do this because they have lots of domain specific knowledge.

However, for learning existing knowledge, these methods are inefficient and error prone. Giving a student lots of experience with the scientific method isn't the best way to make them a great scientist. Without sufficient domain knowledge to steer thinking, discovery oriented approaches can easily overload working memory, frustrate our students, and generate idiosyncratic understanding and misconceptions.

Doing science or math(s) demands a different set of tools to learning science or math(s). The ends of school are not best used as the means. A better approach is to employ carefully constructed curricular sequences, precise explanation, practice with feedback, retrieval, and so on... what we might call highly guided instruction.

Note → I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't introduce students to problem solving in math(s), or the scientific method in science—it's vital that students learn how knowledge is created in various disciplines—just that we shouldn't use these methods as the dominant way to help students learn.


  • A primary goal of school is to produce professional problem-solvers and critical thinkers.

  • However, just because this is a desired end doesn't make it the best means of achieving this.

  • Highly guided instruction is more efficient for learning existing domain knowledge than discovery oriented approaches.

For more updates (including approaches to teaching self-regulation; a framework for judging the trustworthiness of educational research; and an analysis of the drivers of student non-attendance), check out Snacks PRO ⤵️

Here’s to a glitch-free rest of week.

Peps 👊