Jean Piaget, an influential developmental psychologist, argued that every time children learn something before they have the chance to discover it by themselves, they lose the opportunity to make sense of it on their own, and subsequently fully understand it.
Studying without a teacher gives you freedom and independence, and allows you to tackle the content more actively. At first glance, the so-called discovery learning seems like a great idea. The student explores, and the teacher is on the sideline observing.
Unfortunately, it’s bogus. Here’s why.
Short-term vs. Long-term Memory
The most important reason has to do with the limited experience of young people, but also with the way our brains work.
Experts have a lot of knowledge stored in their long-term memory. Because of this, they are capable to make effective connections. As soon as they receive new information, they can associate this information with what they already know, and place it in the right context. This allows them to use this knowledge again when necessary.
Because young people do not have much prior knowledge stored in their brain, they need to use their short-term memory more often than adults do. Humans can only store a limited amount of information in their short-term memory. Storing too much at once would mean overloading students’ memory, with the consequence of having difficulties in moving recent information from their short-term to their long-term memory. In other words, there is less opportunity for real, meaningful learning.
If you exclusively learn by discovering things by yourself, you might overlook important parts, focus on wrong techniques, or fail to store information in your long-term memory. Hence, pure discovery is recommended only for experts. The question therefore is: how do we become experts?
The Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson and the scientific journalist Robert Pool showed in 2015 that in order to get better at something, you follow a certain number of general principles, regardless of what you want to improve on. To put it simply, you need to practise if you want to get better at something. Ericsson called this deliberate practice: a highly structured activity with the specific goal of improving your performance.
The key behind deliberative practice is building up the ability to recognize patterns and reiterate procedures. This is the main difference between any expert in any field, and someone who just started learning a new skill. It’s why mountain climbers can conquer a mountain they haven’t seen before, and professional chess players can think many moves ahead.
This is exactly the reason why teachers are needed in the classroom. Educators are experts in their field of study – be it math, social sciences, or Indo-European philology. But more importantly, they are experts when it comes to the learning path and the experience of their students. When there’s someone present who knows the patterns, they can guide the learning process. Teachers give students learning advice on the best plan to tackle a specific problem. Jerome Bruner called this guided discovery, which is, in other words, discovery learning under the instruction of an expert.
Educational psychologists Paul Kirschner, Richard Clark and John Sweller acknowledged this and wrote: “Although unguided or minimally guided instructional approaches are very popular and intuitively appealing, the point is made that these approaches ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century that consistently indicate that minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process.”
Guided Discovery and EdTech
So, how do we become experts? By practising a lot, and by practising in the right way. Experts who guide us can help us figure out what the right way is.
But guiding a large classroom of students is harder than instructing one junior mountain climber. One of the most important reasons is that teachers often have 30, or sometimes more than 100 students to look after. In this case, education technology can help educators eliminate some time-consuming tasks, in addition to giving teachers extra information they can use to improve the learning experience of their students. The SOWISO learning environment for mathematics provides:
- Useful learning analytics
- Tailored feedback, even outside of the classroom
- Adaptivity (personalized learning paths)
- Interactive animations
Technology is not created to replace the teacher. In fact, the opposite is often the case: technology makes it easier for teachers to do their job, allowing students to be guided in their learning discovery. Edtech can remove many of the peripheral tasks which fill the everyday lives of teachers, giving them more time to focus on the individual needs of every student.
As Katie and Jeff Dun said in their Huffington Post article: “a computer can give information, but a teacher can lend a hand, or an ear, and discern what’s necessary for a student to succeed, and to want to succeed.”
This is why edtech will never replace teachers.
Let’s talk again soon.