kitchen table math, the sequel: Do you need another example of the failure of discovery learning?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Do you need another example of the failure of discovery learning?

You probably don't, but I have another one from today.

It's from the local Children's Museum. Ours has a motto: "play to learn learn to play". We go because it's fun for my toddler, and he may even learn something from it some day, but only because I understand every experiment and instruct him on what's going on. The other kids are playing, surely, but none are learning.

The Children's Museum is a busy place most days. Typically they have 5 or 6 school field tripping classrooms present each day. The more people present, the less anyone gets anything out of it, because it's impossible to carefully control the exhibits well enough to produce a useful effect. The elementary kids there are a rowdy bunch, pushing buttons, flipping switches. They are discovering nothing. There is no one to help them learn anything at any table, so instead, they fiddle aimlessly.

In one room, they have a lot of water pipes. At one table, they have water pipes with valves. Done correctly, you can turn the valves and demonstrate:
1. sometimes, you can make an object rise without lifting it yourself--so the ping pong ball can start at the bottom of a pipe and be raise
2. sometimes, you can make an object that normally floats on top of the water get sucked down into a pipe--so the ping pong ball can be lowered even though it has no water pushing down from above
3. you can use these in conjunction to raise and lower ping pong balls in interesting ways.

But in all of my over a dozen trips to that exhibit, with more than an hour in that room per trip, only once did I manage to get the kids to set the valves in such a way to do the above, and tell them what they were doing, and why it happened.

Today was the rule, not the exception. I was trying to demonstrate how to get the ball to go down into the pipe by turning the valves so water would flow down and suck the ball with it. But a boy was interfering, constantly rotating the valve as if it were a screw (which it wasn't) so it would open/close/open/close/open/close.

I asked "what are you trying to do?" his honest response: "I don't know."
I then asked "would you like to try and do something instead? Something interesting?"

But I didn't succeed. I needed the kids to stop fiddling, and actually perform the experiment, recognizing action and reaction. Too many kids, too many controls to fiddle with. I fear what they learned was science has something to do with fiddling switches.

PS. Not only are there no instructors ever present, but the explanations on the exhibits are flat-wrong, and worse, they are irrelevant. In each case, there are a dozen things more interesting to say that could be pointed out, but aren't.


Laura said...

We just had a similar experience while visiting the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia--my kids had a lot of fun, but I wouldn't say they learned anything (despite the signs posted around all the exhibits insisting that the only way to learn about science is through "discovery").

My husband did manage to help a 12 year old boy who was frustrated that he couldn't get one part of an exhibit to work (you had to turn a knob in a particular way, so that the right side of the magnet inside it was facing the right part of a magnet on kind of a latch, in order to successfully push a ball up through a tube).

This boy overheard my husband explaining to our 6 year old how to work the knob, and asked for help--a few minutes later, the boy managed to work the knob successfully, and exclaimed, "finally!" (he had been sitting there for a good 20 minutes, off and on, trying to figure it out.)

Then, he walked over to his friend and said, "I figured it out!"

Apparently, his sense of autonomy was undamaged by the experience.

bky said...

We have a "discovery" museum in our town. When my kids were little we sometimes took them when we wanted to spend a whole lot of money to let them play in a real ambulance or with the water table. There are multimedia stations which are like talking DK books, plus a lot of demonstrations that I never saw anyone take the time to work properly. There is too much to distract a person if one thing does not immediately satisfy.

There was one station that had a round metal plate that you could sprinkle sand on, and a bow made from a bow saw with a tough nylon string. If you really finessed the bowing you could get the plate to vibrate and the sand would jump around, clearing out the active areas and accumulating in the nodes, the circles that had zero amplitude of vibration. Great, eigenfunctions. IF you knew what to expect you could make it happen. I loitered around and saw many people, kids and adults, sprinkle sand and many people saw away on it but no one ever got the pattern to appear. So that is a complete waste of time, space and money, but I bet someone somewhere got some kind of credit for designing it.

lgm said...

I think the value depends on the preparation that the teacher does, since most of the chaperones are clueless. It's hard to understand an exhibit if your background knowledge is vacuum and you can't comprehend the written material by the exhibit. I tend to have good experiences with scavenger hunt type of teachers...each kid has a list and a pencil and has to record some sort of answer to a question about an exhibit.

The hog wild field trips are useless, since it turns into a socialization game. I know I'll never enter the Liberty Science Center tunnel to the IMAX auditorium with a group of schoolgirls again...bad memories of ear-piercing screaming while chaperones just blathered on(and these girls were from a wealthy private school).

Catherine Johnson said...

Related: I've just read the high school newsletter.

The high school will now adopt differentiated instruction & high school classes will feature learning stations.

"...earlier this fall [teaching-learning facilitator X] worked with one English teacher on a lesson involving stations chosen by students; as part of an introduction to a play, they could either write a scene, construct a collage, write a mock interview of the playwright, or do a character analysis. "

Kids in 9th grade Honors English are making posters.

I might almost be OK with that if they were given any instruction whatsoever in how to create a good poster.

But they aren't. Graphic design skills are assumed, not taught.

I'd like to know how the high school explains grading policies in "DI" classrooms.

I think I'll ask.

$25K per pupil spending & rising.

Anonymous said...

Discovery is the intersection of; an appropriate experimental ecosystem, adequate prerequisite knowledge, open eyes, and a catalyst. For true discovery, the catalyst is your collection of failed prior experiments. For learning discovery (guided), the catalyst is the teacher.

When any of those four elements are missing, discovery is unlikely. In a classroom you see this at work hundreds of times a day. It's also true that the likelihood of having all of those things come together, at the precise moment needed in a contrived environment like a museum or classroom, is quite low.

This is why direct instruction has a better chance. It reduces the uncontrolled variables. It doesn't rely on a fortuitous intersection. It paves all the roads so that the only remaining unknown is the open eyes.