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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

It takes a teacher: Many students won't 'discover' science on their own



You'd think that science educators would "follow the science" about what works for students, writes Holly Korbey on The Bell Ringer. But Dr. Lin Zhang, a science education researcher at Providence College, tells her there's little research to support the assumption that "inquiry and discovery" are the best way to learn science.


"The game-based, exploratory learning, inquiry-based learning, discovery learning" models all "feature withholding answers and solutions from students," Zhang says. The Next Generation Science Standards encourage student-guided learning rather than explicit instruction.


Students are presented with exploratory projects in which they behave like amateur scientists, discovering natural phenomena, recording their observations and coming up with hypotheses. . . . The teacher doesn’t provide answers for students, but instead allows them to discover their way to often novel solutions.

It's supposed to make science "fun." says Zhang. But, in controlled experiments, "very strong data suggest students learn better" through explicit instructions. In large international data sets, it’s consistently and repeatedly reported the more you involve students in inquiry, the lower their science achievement is."


Explicit teachers "help students develop an understanding of the solution, then use the solution as an example to solve new problems, says Zhang. Students have a chance to develop the "high-quality content knowledge" they'll need to become successful STEM professionals.


If science is taught through games and play, students will struggle in college STEM courses, Zhang tells Korbey. Science and math are hard, and require "intensive learning and training, attention and repetition."


Zhang, researchers John Sweller, father of cognitive load theory, and Paul Kirschner, argue that there is “an evidence crisis in science educational policy.” Inquiry-learning advocates challenged their argument, writes Korbey. "Then Zhang, Kirschner, et al rebut the rebuttal here."


It's fine to ask novice learners to tackle "open-ended problem-solving tasks" after explanation and modeling by the teacher, they write. Instructors may use "‘active teaching’ methods such as asking many questions, requiring responses from all learners, and guiding student practice." But the explanation comes first.

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5 commentaires


Williamson Evers
Williamson Evers
03 juil.

Two articles on direct instruction vs discovery learning in K-12 science instruction: Cognitive objectives in a LOGO debugging curriculum: Instruction, learning, and transfer

D Klahr, SMC Carver

Cognitive psychology 20 (3), 362-404

The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction: Effects of direct instruction and discovery learning

D Klahr, M Nigam

Psychological science 15 (10), 661-667

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mrmillermathteacher
mrmillermathteacher
28 juin

It's almost like a certain section of the education field •wants• students not to learn.

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Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
25 juin

It's entirely possible, given the experience of teachers worldwide, that the pedagogy required for the successful learning of science in primary education (which is not always taught as a separate subject at this level, and less frequently tested), as represented in your photo at the top of your article, differs from the secondary teaching necessary to produce the top scores on PISA and TIMSS that Dr Zhang & her colleagues valorize.

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Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
27 juin
En réponse à

"Success" always implies value judgement; while fourth-grade TIMSS indicates stronger or weaker performance on its assessment, social & emotional virtues, such as joy in an experience of discovery, are less easily measurable, and yet are more highly valued in some parts of the world (for example, Europe) than in others (for example, China).

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