The Joy of Inquiry-Based Learning
One of the more prominent theories about how people learn is called “constructivism.” The basic idea is that you learn better when you construct your own knowledge. And not bogus explanations — correct interpretations built from existing knowledge chunks that you know and understand. Constructivism is a large reason inquiry- or problem-based learning is so effective. When students figure something out for themselves, there’s a strong cognitive foundation for the new knowledge because it’s built on things they know, not things they were told.
But there’s also a simpler reason discovery leads to great learning. When you learn something through an insightful “aha” moment, you’re more likely to remember it:
The present study investigates a possible memory advantage for solutions that were reached through insightful problem solving. We hypothesized that insight solutions (with Aha! experience) would be remembered better than noninsight solutions (without Aha! experience). 34 video clips of magic tricks were presented to 50 participants as a novel problem-solving task, asking them to find out how the trick was achieved. Upon discovering the solution, participants had to indicate whether they had experienced insight during the solving process. After a delay of 14 days, a recall of solutions was conducted. Overall, 55 % of previously solved tricks were recalled correctly. Comparing insight and noninsight solutions, 64.4 % of all insight solutions were recalled correctly, whereas only 52.4 % of all noninsight solutions were recalled correctly. We interpret this finding as a facilitating effect of previous insight experiences on the recall of solutions.
The depressing thing about the importance of discovery is that there’s inherently a low ceiling in any classroom where a teacher must try to create an “aha” moment for 30 different students. There’s no way it can happen for every kid.
One thing that’s frustrating about the state of American schools is that even though nobody is happy with the classroom environment, there’s not a lot of momentum behind revolutionary classroom models. Teachers want smaller classes and better materials; reformers want more differentiation and improved technology; and learning scientists want more inquiry-based learning and adherence to constructivist principles. But even though there are a few promising initiatives (e.g. New York City’s iZone), you don’t see a lot of “classroom of the future” stuff going on. Obviously nobody wants their children to be guinea pigs, and there are also a lot of good reasons for teachers unions to oppose innovations that will drastically change the profession. But it would be nice to see marginally more financial or intellectual resources invested in schools doing highly irregular things with grade levels, learning time, academic subjects, and assessment. In general we should be attempting more things that could potentially make somebody say, “that’s a terrible idea.” One of them might lead to 30 kids having 30 “aha” moments.
Danek, A.H., Fraps, T., von Muller, A., Grothe, B., & Ollinger, M. (2012). Aha! experiences leave a mark: facilitated recall of insight solutions Psychological Research DOI: 10.1007/s00426-012-0454-8