Carts and horses

I have been worrying recently about engagement. A few things have come together. Firstly, David Didau wrote an excellent post on the topic that made me think. Then, following my piece on explicit instruction in The Conversation, a Sydney radio show broadcast a report on inquiry learning. In this report, inquiry learning was promoted by its ed school advocates as raising student engagement, particularly in science subjects. I have also been reading an excellent book by Eric Kalenze that attempts to diagnose the problems in American public education. Eric uses the metaphor of a funnel that is upside down. I am going to talk about carts and horses.

The logic that I wish to refute is as follows:

1. Inquiry approaches are more engaging than explicit instruction

2. Greater engagement leads to greater learning

3. Therefore, inquiry approaches lead to greater learning

I think this is the logic behind the comments in the radio report.

Firstly, the notion of engagement is problematic. What we actually mean is that students are thinking about something and find this motivating. However, thinking is impossible to observe and so we have to define it in terms of behaviours. This is a difficulty because you can be thinking and feeling motivated without actually doing anything at all. If we define engagement in terms of behavioural activity then those teaching approaches that involve more student activity will be more engaging by definition.

To see this in action, it is worth examining a study of ‘curiosity’; something often seen as concomitant with engagement. In this study, researchers presented children with a new toy in different ways. In the first condition, the researchers demonstrated how the toy functioned. However, they did not demonstrate all of the functions of the toy and yet they did not make this clear. In the second condition, the researchers pretended that they didn’t know what the toy did and demonstrated the same function as if they had stumbled upon it by accident. After both conditions, the children then played with the toy. Children in the second condition spent more time looking for other functions of the toy and were thus deemed more ‘curious’. The conclusion was that explicit instruction, which the researchers thought was represented by the first condition, was less effective at inducing curiosity than inquiry, which the researchers thought was represented by the second condition.

Firstly, the children’s behaviour is quite rational. In the first condition, they assume that they have been given complete information whereas in the second condition they do not. Furthermore, both conditions start with a demonstration of the toy which is pretty explicit. The difference is in how this is done. However, note the problem. Curiosity is defined as a behaviour; specifically, it is defined as participation in discovery learning. Therefore, by definition promoting discovery learning will promote curiosity as one is defined in terms of the other. You may think this is reasonable but what of the student who is inspired to curiosity by an interesting lecture or story? Is this not possible? Is it only truly curiosity if the student then goes on to do something?

Now let’s examine propositions 1 and 2. I think that there is an arts view of science from which we science teachers suffer. Those who never found science to be very interesting at school assume that this must be because of some fault that lies outside of themselves. Science is boring and so it needs to be taught differently. Real scientists don’t sit at desks; they do experiments. And so this is the answer.

Firstly, this will not necessarily be motivating for students. I am sure that most students will agree with a proposition to do more experiments but will they really enjoy filtering sandy water or melting ice more than a discussion about the dinosaurs, aliens or how to make explosives? It’s not a sure thing.

So to proposition 2: Does greater ‘engagement’ in inquiry lead to better learning? This confuses learning science (pedagogy) with doing science (epistemology). The two are not the same. Science is done by experts with lots of background knowledge, usually acquired through pretty traditional means. Students learning science in school are novices. We can examine the scientific method in order to highlight the difference between novices and experts.

When a professional scientist sets up an investigation, she will have a lot of knowledge about what she might be looking for; enough to develop and test a sophisticated hypothesis. She will know pretty much everything about the situation apart from the one thing that she wants to find out. And she might already have a good idea about what this will be.

A student conducting an investigation into something about which they know very little will struggle to form a good hypothesis. They will have little background knowledge – even if they’ve done a bit of research on the internet – and they will also have to deal with the novelty of all of the technical aspects of conducting the investigation. Taken together, this is unlikely to lead to the learning of any new science.

For example, I remember completing a self-directed investigation as part of my physics A Level. I enjoyed this a lot and I do think that such investigations have a limited role to play in science education. I took two solenoids and placed them side-by-side. I passed an alternating current through the first which induced an alternating current in the second. I then place various barriers in between them to see which ones reduced the current in the second solenoid by the most. I did not learn any physics from the process. I took physics knowledge into the inquiry; the same physics knowledge that I left with. I found aluminium to be the best shield (compared to paper and lead) and yet I couldn’t explain why.

More significantly, relying on engagement to deliver learning places the cart before the horse. As an experienced teacher, I can engage any class in activity quite easily but this will not necessarily lead to learning. Just utter the phrase, “Today we are going to make a poster about…’ and the majority of high school students will happily spend an hour engaged in bubble-writing and the rest. But unless they learn something then this is all pretty pointless. Isn’t it?

Placed the other way around, we can see the proper role of motivation. People tend to find getting better at something to be motivating. What is the difference between motivated high school science students and unmotivated ones? I suspect a key difference will be how much science they know. It is our role as teachers to set high expectations and hold students to those expectations. As their learning progresses and they start to feel more expert, confidence, enjoyment and motivation may come. The subject may even turn in to a lifelong passion. Of course, it also may not. But at least our young charges would have learnt some science.


10 thoughts on “Carts and horses

  1. David says:

    Just to add on re: engagement (something in the US we have being thrown in as an advert for more tech in the classroom), see the 2015 Brown Center Report on American Education (Brookings Institution): “How Well are American Students Learning?”

    Click to access brown_ctr_2015_v2.pdf

    “Programs designed to boost student engagement—perhaps a worthy pursuit even if unrelated to achievement—should be evaluated for their effects in small scale experiments before being adopted broadly. The international evidence does not justify wide-scale concern over current levels of student engagement in the U.S. or support the hypothesis that boosting student engagement would raise student performance nationally.”

  2. chrismwparsons says:

    Greg – I think one of the key difficulties we have now – which came out in the comments section of David’s post and his subsequent post – is a lack of any clarity regarding what we are all referring to as ‘engagement’.

    David’s take is that it is now completely taken to be synonymous with ‘enjoyment’. If children are engaged, they are having fun. As I pointed out, there is “being engaged with”, and “being engaged by”, and his belief is that it can only really mean the second of these things from this point forward.

    I think you’re still referring to the first meaning here – the point being that simply being engaged with an activity isn’t the same as learning, or even being engaged with learning. I’ve tried to unpick and move this idea quite a bit forward here:

    In your opinion though – is there any point in talking about engagement from this perspective any longer? Do we in fact need a new term to describe what we mean when we’re talking about whether pupils are indeed ‘engaged with’ or ‘engaged in’ something? (irrespective of whether they are enjoying it or not)

  3. Thanks for writing this!

    I haven’t read through the entire study yet, but it seems that from the description of Experiment 1 in the curiosity study which you linked to, there is no condition in which the adult explicitly tells students that there are other features of the toy that the adult did not demonstrate, and that they can play with it to find out what these features are (if they exist).

    That strikes me as a condition that would be important to test, given their conclusions. No?

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