Earlier this week, the Australian government released its plans to promote innovation. The statements made about education were fairly bland but this hasn’t stopped a host of commentators from filling in the gaps. For instance, when Tim Palmer of ABC radio asked Australia’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, how to arrest the decline in students studying science, Chubb made the following suggestion:
“Well I think you teach – I basically think you teach it, with respect to science particularly, teach it how it is practised. You think about the evidence that is available, you construct a hypothesis, you design an experiment to test it.
You learn a lot from the ones that work and you learn at least as much from the ones that don’t, and then once you’ve done your experiment you’ve got time to sit back and reflect on it as you design the next one. And we don’t allow enough time for that.”
This is fundamentally misconceived. There is a vast amount of research on the differences between experts and novices and one conclusion is inescapable: the way that experts extend a field of knowledge is not the best way for novices to learn the basic principles of the subject.
When a professional scientist generates a hypothesis then she has huge stores of relevant knowledge to draw upon. She might know of the results of similar experiments or of a theoretical framework into which a particular study might sit. She will not know exactly how her experiment will turn-out but she’ll have a good idea and certainly some concept of the various possibilities.
A science student, on the other hand, will have to start with a blank piece of paper. He will need to do research and yet the kind of things he will read about will be conceptually demanding. He will also need to attend to issues such as how to design an experiment to collect data and how to ensure a fair test. Due to the fact that he has little background knowledge to draw upon, he will need to process all of this at the same time. The result is that he will be overloaded and little learning will take place, particularly of the underlying science.
Paul Kirschner, a Dutch educational psychologist makes the point that:
“…how to learn or be taught in a domain is quite different from how to perform or ‘do’ in a domain (i.e., learning science vs. doing science)… experimentation and discovery should be a part of any curriculum aimed at “producing” future scientists. But this does not mean that experimentation and discovery should also be the basis for curriculum organization and learning-environment designing.”
But perhaps I’m missing the point. Chubb’s view was expressed in response to a question about increasing uptake. Perhaps learning through scientific inquiry is not an optimal way of learning science but that’s not the point. It might be a more motivating way to learn.
This idea suffers from a number of problems. Firstly, being frustrated and overloaded is not motivating. We can reduce the conceptual demands if we choose our investigations wisely but is it really motivating to be conducting investigations into which brand of paper towel is strongest when wet? Contrast this with the scientific ideas that children are often interested in; dinosaurs, the possibility of alien life, explosions, space. In comparison, it seems rather mundane.
There is also a problem with the assumption that increased motivation will cause greater science performance and lead to a new generation of scientists. Motivation and ability are certainly associated with each other but it’s not necessarily the case that this is because motivation causes increased performance. It could be the case that increased levels of performance lead to motivation. In fact, this is exactly what Canadian researchers found when they examined the relationship between motivation and achievement for primary school maths students.
If this is the case then we might expect a funky intervention to perhaps increase motivation initially but for this to wash-out in time. In contrast, if we want to increase long-term motivation then we had better focus on those approaches that deliver the greatest gains in achievement. And as Melbourne Professor of Education, John Hattie, has found, inquiry approaches do not do this as effectively as methods that explicitly teach content in an organised and coherent way.