Hands-on learning and Guided Discovery

hands-on learning

As a science teacher, it has always been my belief that science is a verb. It is a subject that must be taught by having the students do. Science teachers everywhere may agree with the statement as we all push our students to hands-on learning, project based learning, inquiry based learning and other such methods. While we push this way, others are pushing for more high stakes testing. We want to make sure that students are learning the specific content that has been laid out in our curriculum. We want to make sure that students are gaining the same common understandings. So here is the question, how do the two systems fit together? How can I have my students work completely hands-on and ensure that they are all arriving at the same common knowledge?

All of these methods that I mentioned are constructivist methods. They are methods of learning when the student is the active participant. The opposing methods are considered passive. These include books, lectures, and on-line presentations. So if a student is expected to learn actively, how should a teacher teach? Here we get to how the role of the teacher must change. Many of these changes have been around for a long time, and they don’t always work the way we expect them to. Back in the 60’s Bruner called for ‘discovery methods’. He wanted the learner to discover new rules rather than memorize information handed down by the teacher.
Bruner’s call to action resulted in researchers trying to identify the best method for learning. The researchers compared pure discovery (given the problem only) and guided discovery (given the problem and hints) to an expository group (given a problem and the answer). All of the results showed that the students in the pure discovery group always did worse than those in the guided discovery group.{See Gagne & Browne, 1961; Shulman & Keisler, 1966} They found the problem with pure discovery to be that students fail to integrate new incoming information with an appropriate knowledge base. The issue with the expository group is that students fail to actively make sense of the material. Active learning requires that students do both- 1. Integrate new incoming information with appropriate knowledge base, and 2. Actively make sense of the material.
I think that if we continue with the push for hands on learning and the teachers evolve to become facilitators we can have a meeting of the minds. We all agree that too much testing is too much and takes time away from the important job or learning. No question there! Some testing ‘can’ allow us to ensure equity in learning, so that all students graduate having learned the same rich content. All of this can be done with appropriate individual discovery and guided instruction. The key is moderation!
If you would like to read more about this topic:
Bruner, J S (1961) The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review.
31, 21-32
Gagne, R. M. & Brown, L. T. (1961) Some factor in the programming of conceptual learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 62, 313-321
Mayer, R.E. (1999) The promise of educational psychology: Learning in the content areas. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Prentice Hall.
Mayer, R.E. (2003) Learning and instruction. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Prentice Hall.

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