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

5 Responses to The Joy of Inquiry-Based Learning

  1. COD says:

    Classroom size and better materials are not going to make a difference as long as we are stuck in the model where a central body decides what is important for every kid to know. IMHO, the ability to read well, the ability to write well, and math up through about Algebra I and geometry are all that should encompass the “core curriculum.” Given that foundation, and time to explore their interests, many kids will find their own “ah-ha” moments.

    But that would require essentially trusting the kids, and giving up on trying to measure everything from teacher effectiveness to student learning with standardized tests. I’m not holding my breath.

  2. James says:

    I’m not sure that “learning scientists want more inquiry-based learning and adherence to constructivist principles” is a very well-supported generalization. See for example Daniel Willingham’s regular posts on cognitive psychological research, which reference studies by lots of other scientists focused on how learning works. Two wrinkles to constructivism:
    (a) the theory that we construct our own knowledge applies to knowledge from all sources (e.g., we construct knowledge even when we read books and attend lectures). It would be interesting to test retention rates after “aha” moments that happen while listening, watching or reading, to see if there is a similar effect.
    (b) at least some studies on project based learning find that, due to the increased cognitive load of having to do the project, their are difficulties in reaching the right conclusion (e.g. finding a pattern in a project on prime numbers, and drawing the conclusion that the pattern applies globally) and in storing the learned generalization in long term memory. In other words, those kids who don’t end up having an “aha” moment during the project will do worse than if there had been no project.
    One promising alternative with good generalization and retention rates is the use of worked examples led by the teacher with participation by a large proportion of the students in the class.

  3. Eric Horowitz says:

    I’m not sure I would agree with your conclusion. I think eventually we’ll come to understand that any system which relies on a large portion of the class to voluntarily participate and leaves the teacher in front of the room is not a good one. Personally, I think we’ll end up with every kid having a computer tutor programmed to their exact skill level, witht a roaming teacher to help with misconceptions the cognitive tutors can’t solve (at least for math and science). That would be vastly superior to any project or inquiry systems we have now.

  4. James says:

    Agreed re eventually. For now though, part of the solution has to involve a focus on what can be done in the classes we have, as they are currently set up. If there are approaches (like worked examples) that work well even for low performers in average size classes, those approaches should be preferentially implemented over approaches that show less success.

  5. Dan says:

    One small addendum I would add is that constructivism says that people learn by constructing their own knowledge — it is the way we learn, not a way we learn. It is a theory of learning that doesn’t explicitly prescribe any particular design solution.

    Constructionism on the other hand suggests that one profitable way of helping people learn is to have them create things of which they take personal ownership. A promising approach in many situations, but clearly not the best solution to every learning problem.

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