Between 2010 and 2013, Ofsted carried out an extensive survey of science education across nearly one hundred primary and secondary schools in order to support schools in implementing the 2014 new national curriculum. The report was entitled Maintaining Curiosity, and it concluded that the most successful schools visited during the survey prioritised child-led enquiry as a way to foster enthusiasm for science learning. Thus, just as physicians take an oath that commits them to ‘first do no harm,’ so the survey found that the best science teachers, ‘first maintain curiosity,’ in their pupils. This came in the face of a national fall in the number of pupils taking up science. The report also found that the majority of pupils decided whether they liked science or not in the last years of primary school. Consequently, it appears, primary science has been conferred the responsibility for making science appealing to young children, while at the same time ensuring they begin secondary school possessing adequate knowledge and understanding to engage with secondary science.
However, is prioritising an experiential, discovery type approach in science the most effective way to learn science? Do children learn best through ‘experience that is based primarily on the procedures of the discipline’ (e.g. playing at being investigative scientists), as Kirshner et al suggest many educators assume is correct (2010:78). Or is prioritising teacher instruction at the initial stages of acquiring new knowledge a more effective approach?
At present, the education profession is in possession of robust evidence concerning the role of long-term memory in learning. In the words of Clark et al, ‘long term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition’ (2012:9). Prior to this, memory was largely thought of as an inert storehouse of bits of information we may or may not recall, and having little or no influence on cognitive processing, or conceptual thought. What we know now, is that long-term memory is the seat of all experience and the bedrock of human learning. Those who deny this are ignoring decades of research into human cognition and ignoring robust, empirical evidence.
If we accept that the main role of education is to support the transition of the novice to the expert in a plethora of areas of learning, in anything from counting, adding up and reading and writing to playing netball or painting a portrait, then we must except what science tells us about how this evolution from the beginner to the adept takes place. What multiple studies have shown is that experts draw on information stored in their long-term memory as ideas and actions known as mental schemas, and much of this is so well embedded it is automatic, or unconscious. In the same way that you, the experienced driver, can get into your car and drive without thinking once about how to work the brakes, clutch or indicators, so the expert operates, often without using much working memory at all because of the strength of the knowledge rooted in their long-term memory.
Appearing outwardly to possess quick and skilful processing, experts are relying heavily upon a storehouse of knowledge, selecting what they need automatically because of the breadth and expanse of what they know about that particular field or domain. While it is true that the speed in which information is processed may differ between individuals, fluid intelligence is not the same as that which is crystallised, experts rely on expansive networks of information in their long-term memory, and not simply mental agility or skill, as we once thought.
Of importance here, is the fact that the beginner, in any area of learning, is different from the expert with the result that their learning needs also differ. All too often, this is ignored when teachers debate whether an investigatory, discovery approach is the best way to learn new science concepts. Frequently, the desire to engage and enthuse pupils by playing at being scientists drowns out the need for knowledge and understanding. Yet should these be set against each other? Is creating enthusiasm and learning the facts mutually exclusive for young children? Is there a way to ensure pupils love science, but ensure that this affection is not bound up simply in excitement for potions, explosions and fizzing test tubes? It is not difficult to create exciting scenarios where we hope pupils will ‘discover’ new concepts; children love running around with tape measures, magnifying glasses and making things pop and bang, but can they learn what they need to this way?
Cognitive science tells us that when processing new information within working memory it is highly limited in capacity, and may store information for up to around 30 seconds. This means that when children have to find out new information through a discovery approach, much of working memory capacity is taken up with processing all the extraneous information involved in the discovery experience rather than learning the new content. It is exciting and enjoyable doing all the investigating, it’s often colourful and messy, but at the end not much is transferred to long-term memory – little is learned. According to large bodies of research now, it is more effective for beginners to be given explicit instruction in new content until it is transferred to the long-term memory. Only then should they be given opportunities to problem solve with that information with less instructional guidance. This is not unlike learning to walk before you can run.
In addition, this is not just cognitive science that tells teachers this, there is anecdotal evidence also. Most teachers can recall science investigations children enjoyed immensely yet at the end, after all that cleaning up, the actual content had to be taught explicitly through instruction during that plenary session entitled, ‘this is what we should have found out’. This in itself isn’t wrong, but it is not the most effective use of learning time, or young minds for that matter. It’s just putting fun before learning and sometimes that’s OK, but, as Daniel Willingham’s much used idiom, ‘memory is the residue of thought’ asserts: we learn what we think about, and if children don’t think about the science, they won’t learn the science.
A classic is my attempt at introducing eight-year olds to the the basic process of fossilisation (that animal remains get covered, infiltration and mineralisation would come later for them). I thought up an exciting scenario where pupils would learn about fossilisation by acting like real palaeontologists hammering and brushing pieces of plaster with toy dinosaurs embedded inside. The trouble was that in all that excitement, all that mental processing taken up finding a little dinosaur, and comparing their colourful dinosaurs with everyone else’s, not one child discovered anything about how remains might become fossilised. The only children who could explain anything about it, already knew about the process from outside school, from being taken to museums or even fossil hunting themselves, and what’s more, this group of children were all from privileged backgrounds. (This is also another argument against using discovery learning to ‘teach’ new material – it favours affluent pupils.)
Yet no doubt, I had provided a memorable experience for the children and I had raised their enthusiasm for science, but they learned very little. The wrong information was transferred to their long-term memories, if it was how fossilisation occurs that I wanted in there. If my aim was to make children love science then I achieved that, but I would hope that I could teach them some science too. In hindsight, I should have instructed them about fossilisation first so I was sure they understood it and it was there in their memory bank. Then I believe cracking open those pieces of plaster would have meant they used what they already knew to deepen their understanding – I think it would have been just as enjoyable too. This is how I teach now and enthusiasm is just as high, if not higher because pupils enjoy applying what they know and taking it further during investigations. Behind every, ‘what if?’ is a what.
‘Wow’ discovery lessons are common in primary science. Lots of emphasis is put on providing interesting contexts for learning and making the experience as exciting as possible. As Clare Sealy explains, in her excellent blog about semantic and episodic memory, it is semantic memory that is required to store that kind of non-instinctive, cultural knowledge that humans have developed over time and if this is over ridden by the more experiential, emotion content of episodic memory, then important learning can be lost. Learning is literally lost to all the sights and sound of experience, or the colourful dinosaurs and feeling like Indiana Jones.
The emphasis on pupils actively discovering concepts rather than being taught them first, relates to the constructivist theory of learning which asserts that learning is an active process where learners actively construct their own learning (which makes sense). However, as Mayer asserts, a constructivist view of learning does not necessarily have to translate into the constructivist view of teaching that has dominated education for so long, and with this preference for discovery learning with little teacher instruction.
According to the typical constructivist interpretation of teaching, approaches which emphasis teacher presentation, lecture or instruction are non-constructivist (and not in tune with the way children naturally learn), while active approaches, such as group discussion, debate and hands-on discovery type investigations are. As Mayer suggests, ‘the idea that constructivist learning requires active teaching methods is a reoccurring theme in the field of education,’ (2004:14). This theory, asserting that the learner must necessarily be cognitively active (who would argue with that) has then translated into a theory of learning where the learner must also be behaviourally active. In short, enabling pupils to construct their own learning can only be achieved through ‘doing’. This is an enduring fallacy that seemed to have dogged education for decades. We are literally obsessed with it. We don’t like children sitting still…at all. Pupils constructing their own learning is mistakenly bound to being behaviourally active.
If pupils are sat still listening in lessons this is most often associated with passive, nonconstructive, old-fashioned traditionalism. Many primary science educators find it hard to entertain the idea of children sat still in a science lesson. As said, this has much to do with our confusion as a profession, between children being behaviourally active and being cognitively active. Even though all evidence suggests that for new information to transfer from working to long-term memory the extraneous material associated with being behaviourally active needs to be limited, ‘doing stuff’ in science is considered that best way to learn new information.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that we have a duty to ensure pupils take science further in their educational career. By the time they reach secondary school we do not want science associated with the passive learning of series of facts; but we do want pupils to possess a knowledgeable love for the subject, otherwise they end up falling out of love for it quickly when they can’t access the content later. Science should involve practical investigation and enquiry, but we need to tread carefully when relying on discovery as the means for children to learn new information. We have to stop our misguided obsession with always having to make learning ‘fun’, even at the cost of learning. How about we make using learning fun? That would be better. And we have to stop thinking children have to be doing something all the time in science. Children can then go on to use what they have learned in order to, as Ofsted put it in the report’s key findings, ‘discover for themselves the relevance and usefulness of those ideas.’
Clark, R.E., Kirschner, P.A. & Sweller, J. (2012) Putting students on the path to learning – The case for fully guided instruction. American Educator.
Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R.E (2010) Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problems-based, experiential, and inquiry based learning. Educational Psychologist.
Mayer, R. E. (2004) Should there be a three -strikes rule against pure discovery learning? American Psychologist.