Your crime? “You are so 20th century, darling!” the police opine.
“Standing at the front, talking and asking questions is the industrial model. This, my dear, is the 21st century and students should be actively engaged in hands-on inquiry or project-based learning in order to develop critical thinking, creativity and collaboration skills, sweetie.”
Let me come to your defence.
Inquiry learning and project-based learning are nothing new. This style of learning was present and fully formed in the 18th century imagination of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Fast forward to William Heard Kilpatrick, a student of John Dewey who went on to head the Progressive Education Association in the United States.
In 1918, Kilpatrick penned his influential essay, The Project Method, in which he advocated for the educational virtues of a ‘purposeful act’.
If these approaches to education were meant to deliver a revolution then we should have had it by now. So what’s the problem?
Back in the time of Rousseau or Kilpatrick, we knew very little about the process of learning. Current theories, backed by considerable experimental evidence, suggest that two key components of the human mind are a very limited working memory and an effectively limitless long-term memory.
The working memory is roughly equivalent to our conscious minds and all academic learning – as opposed to skills we have evolved to learn like talking – has to pass through the constraints of the working memory. When presented with a complex project or inquiry, students are faced with too many things to pay attention to at once and this overloads the working memory.
And it gets worse. The limitations of working memory can be circumvented by knowledge held in long-term memory where no such limits apply.
Students who have lots of knowledge in long-term memory will therefore fare better in a project situation than students with limited knowledge and so these kinds of approaches have the potential to magnify pre-existing differences between more advantaged and less advantaged students – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
You can mitigate these effects by adding more and more guidance for students as they undertake an inquiry or project. If so, why not just go the whole hog and provide explicit, fully guided instruction, where key ideas are broken down into manageable chunks before being gradually brought back together as students gain expertise?
That is, after all, the traditional model.
One answer may be that the goals of education have changed. Instead of learning loads of facts, we want students to develop critical thinking skills and problem solving skills. After all, we have Google to find our facts for us these days.
This is flawed thinking. Firstly, we have already encountered the importance of knowledge held in long-term memory. You can effortlessly bring this knowledge to bear on problems in a way that you cannot do with knowledge stored somewhere on the internet.
And who, exactly, is proposing a bunch of facts curriculum, anyway?
Traditional subject disciplines are hierarchical, structured and sequenced, with the relationships between ideas examined, explored and tested. This is similar to the way we think the long-term memory stores these ideas as connected ‘schemas’.
When you think critically about critical thinking or problem solving, you also start to realise the central role of knowledge in these processes. It may be a useful heuristic to ‘try to see the argument from different points of view’ but you would first need to know that these points of view are.
Such reasoning has led Professor Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, to conclude that a general skill of critical thinking cannot really be taught. He points out that small children are able to think critically about topics they know a lot about and trained scientists can fail to think critically about topics they are unfamiliar with.
This may account for the fact that there is no large body of evidence from controlled studies that demonstrates the superiority of inquiry learning or project-based learning, despite them being around for a very long time.
If anything, the evidence suggests quite the reverse.
For instance, a recent study by the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK found a potentially negative effect of project-based learning on the literacy of disadvantaged students. However, this result was compromised because of the large number of schools that dropped out of the project-based learning arm of the trial.
And so I rest the case for the defence. Inquiry learning and project-based learning are so yesterday. The fashion police can switch off their sirens and you can get back to teaching.