The past years have witnessed the apparition of one of the largest educational revolutions of our time: many prognosticators trumpet how MOOCs and flipped classroom models are one of the most promising educational approaches of the last century. From every walk of life, individuals ranging from politicians to teachers to venture capitalists seem to be thrilled by the new doors opened by those innovations.
Paradoxically, those so-called “innovations” are incorporating none of the educational research produced over the past decades.
Educational researchers and National Academy Reports have argued for years that students aren’t simply vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. Students construct their view of the world using their prior knowledge, they actively integrate new information with their existing cognitive structures and they think critically about the content taught when given opportunities to do so.
In numerous controlled and rigorous experiments, educational researchers have described how “tell-and-practice” classroom instructions are well-suited for supporting memorization of facts and procedures but prevent students from developing critical thinking and transferring their knowledge to new situations. MOOCs and flipped classrooms are merely recreating the same pedagogical structure without questioning the scientific validity of this model.
The alternative is to put the “practice” in front of the “tell”. Learning scientists call this movement “Constructivism” because it emphasizes the fact that students build new knowledge in ways integrated with their existing cognitive structures.
This approach is notoriously difficult to implement. This is not about throwing students in a room and letting them figure things out by themselves. It takes time to carefully engineer good exploratory activities for learners. The pay-off, however, is worth the effort. According to educational researchers, students develop higher critical thinking skills and have a better conceptual understanding of an idea when they can explore a domain first and then follow a more standard kind of instruction (such as attending a lecture, watching a video, or reading a textbook chapter).
Our lab at Stanford supports this approach by developing technology-enhanced manipulatives and creating spaces in K-12 schools for creative exploration of science and engineering disciplines. We build “tangible interfaces” (i.e., physical objects augmented with virtual information) that support students’ explorations of a domain. Think of this approach like Lego kits on steroids, augmented with digital information that can be projected on them.
One of these systems, BrainExplorer, is an interactive tabletop learning environment that simulates how the human brain processes visual images. It features polymer reproductions of different regions of the brain and two eyeballs, spread across the interactive surface of the table and networked by infrared light and cameras. Students then use an infrared pen to manipulate and explore the neural network. By severing and reconfiguring the connections, students can see how perceptions of the visual field are transformed.
In a controlled study conducted in our lab, we found that, compared to traditional text learning, performance increased significantly with the use of these tangible, interactive tools. We found a 25 percent increase in performance when open-ended exploration came before text study rather than after it. Our results show that the participants who used BrainExplorer better remembered the terminology of the domain, scored higher on conceptual questions and were better able to transfer their understanding of the brain to new situations.
In addition to these published findings, we have been presenting follow-up studies at various academic conferences in which we use video instead of text and test different content topics other than neuroscience, such as mathematics and science. The results are always the same. The study buttresses what many educational researchers and cognitive scientists have been asserting for many years: the “exploration first” model is a better way to learn. You cannot have the answers before you think of the questions.
These findings flip the “flipped classroom” model – in which students first watch videos or read and then do projects in the classroom – on its head. Our results suggest both that students are better prepared to understand and appreciate the elegance of a theory or a principle when exploring the domain by themselves first and that new technologies, tangible toolkits and interfaces, in particular, are especially well-suited for that purpose.
With this series of studies, we are showing that research in education is useful and important because sometimes our intuitions about ‘what works’ are simply dead wrong. The flipped classroom goes in the right direction: we need less lecturing and more exploration. However, by failing to pay attention to the research, we were applying what is possibly a good idea in the wrong way. That’s why research in education is crucially important to improve our schools. Intuitions are good, but science is better.
– Bertrand Schneider, Paulo Blikstein, Roy Pea
Bertrand Schneider is a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Education and a master’s student in computer science.
Paulo Blikstein is an assistant professor of education and, by courtesy, of computer science.
Roy Pea is a professor of education and, by courtesy, of computer science.