18 August 2015

Problems with modern inquiry based methods: Better teaching in any subject, part 1

Problems with experiential, discovery, inquiry, and constructivist learning and teaching

In education, teachers nowadays are often taught constructivism and other modern inquiry based teaching and learning methods.  Those teaching methods purport to help educators teach children in a way that helps the kids construct their own meaning of what they are to learn.  One of the central claims is that meaning is constructed through experiencing, and reflecting on those experiences, on the basis of concepts and meanings learned previously.

By "modern inquiry based" teaching and learning methods, I mean the constellation of academic philosophies and folk understandings of experiential, discovery, inquiry, and constructivist learning and teaching methods.

What's frustrating is that the core understandings in modern inquiry based teaching and learning methods are not so much as wrong, but are just not very helpful to teachers.  Not helpful because the core pedagogical ideas basically only tell teachers that kids must learn from experiences and reflection.  Since we're not privy to see or control all the stuff that happens in the kids' heads anyway, therefore all the philosophically interesting parts of constructivism have no practical significance in the classroom.

So in the real world of teaching, that leaves only the practical teaching methods and activities passed down from teacher to teacher.  Methods and activities that may or may not be effective, since they're methods that are likely not experimentally validated scientifically.  Methods and activities many of which are only supported by a common sense, folk understanding of modern inquiry based pedagogy, which (to reiterate) basically has only one practical thing to tell teachers: that kids must learn from experiences and reflection.

We need more detail and structure to explain just how people learn from experience and reflection, otherwise we end up with the fluff that gets critiqued in the main stream as ineffective for training "basic skills" and "mastery".  That then prompts some people to petition in support of various traditional, basic skills, rote learning, "back to basics" education, and to step back from more experiential, discovery based learning methods.

Parents are right to demand better education for their kids.  In the wrong hands, teaching using methods that depend on giving students repeated experiences to discover and construct conceptual meaning from can often be ineffective and inefficient.  But the same can be said of traditional basic skills teaching methods too, although perhaps it's easier for a less skilled teacher to adequately handle the latter than the former.

I don't want to pile on, or expand on, the well deserved criticisms of common teaching methods and learning activities, many of which purport to implement modern inquiry based teaching and learning methods and pedagogy.  I cringe every time a teacher goes around saying how great their teaching is because of their use of project-based learning-by-doing authentic real-world experiential inquiry-based learning, only to then see that they're just substituting a few worksheets with a few labs that all have singular predetermined outcomes and pre-written fill-in-the-blank lab reports; or substituting with letting students play (and goof) around with a few robots, tinker and dabble with constructing a few parts of it, but getting from the experience no structured knowledge that can be expanded, scaled, or otherwise upgraded and applied in the future for serious use-cases.

Criticism is certainly important, but it's often too easy, and doesn't on its own move the ball forward, so to speak.

So in the next series of posts I've planned, I will give a more organized conceptual structure to explain how people learn effectively from experience and reflection. The same family of concepts that's helped me and others teach more effectively and authentically such technical subjects as math, computing science, and many other subjects, to elementary school through university level students.

I won't be focusing on any specific subject area, although I'll probably mention math in examples as it's a hard subject to teach well for many.  I'd rather focus on the foundational ideas so to help others figure out methods and activities that can work in whatever subject you want. In other words, rather than designing learning activities from first principles where "first principles" is just the overly broad thus basically next to useless slogans of "learn from experience and reflection", I want to expand on those first principles to some "second principles" to give a practical foundation for designing learning activities and teaching methods.