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Tell First, or Tell Later?

by Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist

A common misconception about inquiry is that it never involves explicit teaching. As Melissa Sommerfeld Gresalfi and Frank Lester put it, there is a belief that inquiry involves “sending children out with a trowel and a magnifying glass, in hopes that they will ‘rediscover’ foundational scientific principles” (2009: 266). Truly purposeful inquiry is far more complex than this.
Bruner (1996) envisaged classroom inquiries where experiences are carefully designed so that students can come to understand the underlying structure of conceptual ideas. This kind of more guided inquiry often does involve explicit teaching of information in the form of facts, formulas, algorithms etc., but the timing is critical.
The fundamental questions for a teacher planning a unit of inquiry are not whether to give students information. They run more like this: When should students come into contact with information? In what form(s) or representation(s) will the information prove most useful to them? What experiences will prepare them to be able to reexamine their prior understanding?—to extend, connect or sometimes completely reorganize their knowledge of a particular concept? How should the new information be broken up and sequenced to best help students grapple with it?
Researchers from Stanford University have recently conducted some research that helps shed some light on at least the first of these questions—when students should be given new information. What they found was that giving new information too early can “inadvertently undermine the learning of deep structures” (Schwartz et al., 2011: 759).
Schwartz et al. conducted a series of investigations with Grade 8 students learning the concept of ratio in physics. They wanted to know what the difference would be between students who were told the concepts and solution methods up front, and students who had to invent their own solution using the same materials before being explicitly taught the concepts and conventional problem solving methods.
Experiment 1
All students used sets of contrasting cases as the basic set of learning materials. The initial set of materials related to density. Students were given a set of worksheets based on a scenario where companies had to ship clowns to parties on buses. Low densities on the buses meant happy clowns being delivered to the parties and were therefore desirable.
One group of students was labeled the “tell and practice” (T&P) group. This group was given a sheet containing some everyday examples of density and a formula for computing density. These students then received a worksheet containing diagrams of buses filled with clowns from three different companies. They had to compute the density of clowns on each of the buses.
The other group of students, labeled the “inventing with contrasting cases” (ICC) group, received an instruction page containing a description of what was meant by an “index,” together with some everyday examples of indices. They were then asked to invent a procedure for computing a “crowded clown index” using the same worksheet with diagrams of clowns on buses as the other group had received. In subsequent days, both groups received exercises relating to ratio in the context of speed using similar pedagogies respectively to the density exercises.
A further difference between the two groups was that subsequent to completing the density exercises, but prior to starting the speed exercises, the T&P group received a lecture about the importance of ratio in physics. The ICC group received the same lecture, but on day 8, after completing the entire series of exercises.
What were the results?
• There were no significant differences between the groups in recognition of surface features of the problems.
• ICC students demonstrated a significantly better understanding of the deep structure underlying all of the exercise problems (namely that ratio was the common structure).
• ICC students demonstrated a significantly greater level of immediate transfer of their understanding of ratio to unfamiliar problems related to pressure in aerosol cans.
• ICC students demonstrated a significantly greater level of delayed transfer of their understanding of ratio to unfamiliar problems related to the springiness of trampolines. (These problems were given to students three weeks after the initial treatment.)
• Finding the underlying structure of the crowded clown problem improved transfer for students in both groups. The difference was that students in the ICC condition found that structure more often.
Experiment 2
The Stanford researchers conducted a second experiment in order to attempt to determine why the ICC students were more successful in determining the deep structure of the original crowded clown problems, and were thus able to transfer their understanding to unfamiliar situations.
They assumed that the contrasting cases were instrumental in facilitating understanding, but the cases alone cannot have been sufficient, as the T&P students also used the same cases. They hypothesized that the direction to invent a procedure caused the students to systematically search for a common deep structure they could base their index on. In order to investigate this they repeated the first experiment, but this time students were videotaped as they went about performing the exercises and the videos were analyzed and coded.
What were the results?
• In terms of development of understanding, the data in this experiment replicated the first experiment closely. There were no differences between the two groups on recall of surface features, but students in the ICC group showed a substantially deeper understanding of the deep structure and a far greater ability to transfer this understanding to the unfamiliar problems. Once again, transfer was highly correlated with noticing the deep structure in the crowded clown examples regardless of group. The difference was that the ICC students were far more likely to do this.
• Analysis of the videos showed that students in the ICC groups transitioned between the cases far more often than those in the T&P groups. ICC groups transitioned an average of 20.1 times compared with 6.0 for the T&P groups.
• T&P, who already had the formula, tended to apply it to each case separately and to work through the cases in a linear manner. This lessened their chances of noticing and comparing critical features of the cases, which could lead them to notice the underlying invariant structure of ratio across all cases.
• The advantages of the ICC treatment over the T&P treatment did not differ systematically for individuals based on their previous levels of achievement. Students with lower prior achievement levels benefited as much as their higher achieving peers.
What does this mean for our classrooms?
These experiments confirm the idea that careful consideration of when, how, and in what form information is presented to students is critical if our goal is deep understanding and transfer.
Allowing students to explore contrasting cases appears to be one strategy that supports students in noticing critical features and commonalities. This alone is insufficient, however. Another crucial element leading to understanding in these experiments was the directive to invent an index, which obliged students to work towards finding a single account or explanation for the contrasting cases.
In summary, inquiry is not a process where students should be given materials and allowed to fumble around till they stumble across important understanding (or more often, do not!) It is a process, which needs to be carefully structured in order to allow students to encounter information in ways that support them in building connections—both to their prior understanding and to other relevant information.
For further information and the references related to this study, email [email protected].

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