Doing it like a scientist

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One of the implications of Cognitive Load Theory is that inquiry-based learning is ineffective. When I make this point, I often provoke a response similar to Mike Ollerton’s response here:

The second point perhaps has some validity. No matter how many instances I can point to where it doesn’t work, I cannot rule out that there is a context where it does. However, it is the first point that has caused me to reflect.

There are two reasons why my own PhD research is different to a school student learning basic maths or science. I am further along the novice-expert continuum and so less guided forms of learning become more effective – this is the ‘expertise reversal effect’ from Cognitive Load Theory. I am also trying to answer a question which has not been fully answered before. If it had, it may be more efficient for me to obtain the answer from someone else.

Which strikes me as something of a key point.

I am currently working on my thesis and part of this is a lengthy literature review that attempts to summarise every major development that precedes and is relevant to my experimental work. It is interesting to note that those who advocate for inquiry-based learning on the basis that it is the way that real scientists, mathematicians, historians or whoever work, rarely seem keen to replicate the literature review component. There would be a major problem if they tried – the answers to inquiry questions posed at school are already known and so students would stumble upon them as part of any literature review process (if they are able to understand the literature, that is). I suspect it is also the case that although literature reviews are absolutely central to any genuine scientific investigation, there is a disjoint here between practice and philosophy.

Inquiry-based learning is essentially a modern incarnation of educational progressivism with its emphasis on natural learning through exploration and play. Insofar as the work of professional scientists matches this ideal, their example is useful to the cause. However, the highly artificial process of literature review is not something children do when they play or learn to talk.

I need to write about 80,000 words for my thesis, so you may be forgiven for thinking I must have found out a lot about the world, but this is not the case. Most of that is a literature review and a discussion of the methods I have used.

My main findings could be communicated relatively quickly and simply. I have tested the effect of the order of problem solving and explicit teaching under certain conditions. The theory of productive failure predicts problem solving prior to explicit teaching is a more effective order because problem solving primes students in some way for the explicit teaching (there are various suggested mechanisms). Cognitive load theory predicts the reverse order, at least for relative novices dealing with reasonably complex materials. So that’s what I have tested and I think I’ve designed a pretty good way of doing this. I will not communicate the results on this blog until they are published in a peer-reviewed journal, but, when I do, the overall findings will be pretty easy to communicate. You will be able to ‘learn’ them from a short blog post.

In contrast, arriving at these findings myself has been a nearly four-year project so far. That perhaps gives us an extreme example of the efficiency of learning from others when contrasted with discovering something for yourself. In some cases, where the required knowledge does not exist, discovery is the only option, but it seems perverse to insist on it in other circumstances.

If you want to read more on the difference between learning science and behaving like a scientist then I recommend this piece by Paul Kirschner.


6 thoughts on “Doing it like a scientist

  1. The ‘expert’ question was answered pretty effectively by Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Even experts don’t waste their time faffing around trying to discover what has already been discovered–unless, of course, they have good reason to suspect it might be wrong. Yes, the best scientists take nothing for granted, but if they had to question everything science would not have made the remarkable progress that it has.

    When we’re talking about novices, it’s pathetic that we need research to establish what has been painfully obvious in every other walk of life for a very long time: if you need your children, employees or whatever to learn to do a new task, you show them how to do it. To those of us who’ve spent a major portion of our working lives in what for good reason is called the ‘real world’, this is so painfully obvious that it’s staggering when you discover the extent to which it has been ignored in education. I once asked an apprentice what he thought of his school–I had a young son and was interested in the local schools–and he said “They don’t teach you nothing”. Clearly nothing about double negatives, but however perceptive he was, what the lad had discovered for himself was strictly negative.

    1. Indeed!

      During my PhD study I was doing ‘inquiry learning’, this was not because this was the most efficient way to learn a new subject, but because the subject I was researching did not exist yet. Once I obtained my results and wrote them down, it took another researcher only a few months to learn (well, review the articles I submitted for publication) stuff I had spent years on inquiring.

  2. to Greg Ashman

    The most important and simply stated part of the Paul Kirschner add-on (p150) seems to be this –

    “This focus is coupled to the assumption that to teach the process of science
    (i.e., the pedagogy), we can best confront learners with experiences either based
    on or equivalent to science procedures (i.e., the epistemology). This has led to a
    tenacious commitment by educators, instructional designers, and educational
    researchers to discovery and inquiry methods of learning which is based upon
    confusing teaching science as inquiry (i.e., an emphasis in the curriculum on the
    processes of science) with teaching science by inquiry (i.e., using the process of
    science to learn science). The error here is that no distinction is made between
    the behaviors and methods of the scientist—who is an expert practicing her or
    his profession—and those of a student who is essentially a novice.”

    Your comments ?????

  3. I really like your use of the process of literature review to illustrate the deficiencies with inquiry-based learning — in particular because it shows the importance of demonstrating and building one’s own expertise, as well as showing that one has developed a substantial research question.

    The funny thing is that the academics criticising you must have published many, many literature reviews with their names on them, so how could they not appreciate this point? The fact is (and I’m writing as an academic who teaches research skills to humanities undergraduates, reviews journal articles, etc.) most literature reviews are pretty bad. Writers use them very selectively to invoke the names of writers they agree with or think that reviewers will like. It goes without saying that the authors often haven’t read many of the works they cite. The lit review hence becomes a demonstration of the author’s allegiances rather than an actual investigation of the research problem. Another trick (it definitely goes on in education faculties and probably in many others) is to employ a research assistant or similar lackey to write the lit review for the named author, so that the author doesn’t even need to pretend to have read what they’re quoting. This tendency actually gets worse as academics get more experienced and set in their ways.

    Getting back to lower-level education: the students I teach (average to good middle-class students at a fairly prestigious university) really struggle with lit reviews. I think it’s partly because of their educational background. They spend most of their school years in a system which tells them knowledge and expertise isn’t very important — what the student knows is just as important as what the expert knows, you can look up anything you don’t know on Google, etc. (It is staggering to me how much emphasis in English classes is placed on the student’s quasi-personal response to literature, but that’s another rant.) Then, in the last few years of school, they hit very competitive forms of assessment where the most efficient and foolproof way for most students to succeed is to learn and apply very limited sources of knowledge — ie, what the textbook or study design says. Neither of these approaches privileges genuine research, and so they haven’t developed the skills required for a good literature review: persistent close reading, open-mindedness, the ability to compare and contrast similar but distinctively different works.

    So I think that the prevalence of bad lit reviews actually says something about how students learn and academic researchers work. On the other hand (not meaning to flatter without actual evidence, but…) PhD lit reviews are almost always the best quality, largely because the writer is given a fair amount of time to develop them and because a lot is dependent on how good they are.

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