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Tell or Ask?

That’s the question. It is foundational, the core belief, of how an educator describes and establishes his or her practice: do I tell or do I ask?

Shall I tell?

“Telling” as a vehicle of teaching has been around for some 900 years as the predominant method of transmitting knowledge. It found its prominence as European universities evolved, with a presumption of: “what I know is for you to find out - as, and when, I tell you.” (That’s not documented anywhere, but it’s a safe assumption that it was/is a common platform of thought.) The notion that the “uninformed” would be seated before the “informed” to receive their wisdom was not a stretch. Perhaps it even made a degree of sense . . . then.

Does it make sense now? Many folks would suggest that this traditional methodology of instruction, lovingly labeled “lecture,” or “direct instruction,” continues to be a viable, if not preferred, way of teaching. After all, we have an adult expert in the room who commands the nuances of the discipline of study. His/her academic preparation, and perhaps, if lucky, real life experiences, elevate this individual to an unchallenged degree of authority, and thus autonomy, regarding how the pertinent content should be offered.

I will tell you what you need to know. It's one way - me to you.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), statistical data clearly suggest that this is an invalid assumption, that kids benefit more from “asking” than from “telling.”

I’m guided to an article published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAC) in July 2014 titled “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics.” The title tells it all. Is there really a surprise here? Of course students who benefit from active learning opportunities will realize a boost in academic achievement. It shouldn’t take an exhaustive study to demonstrate the truth. Apparently, it did.

A meta-analysis of 225 studies that reported data on student examination scores and/or failure rates was conducted, comparing student performance in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses under the instructional approaches of traditional lecturing versus active learning. The results of this exercise were quite compelling. “These results indicate that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” Further, this analysis suggests that “active learning increases scores on concept inventories more than on course examinations.”

“The results [of the analysis] raise questions about the continued use of traditional lecturing . . . , and support active learning as the preferred, empirically validated teaching practice in regular classrooms.”

Let me attempt to re-state that in plain English: students learn more in active learning environments. This is demonstrated by their conceptual understanding and practical application of the content studied, beyond what their score on a standardized test might suggest.

Nay-sayers will argue that this meta-analysis was focused on undergraduate college students who are engaged in STEM fields of study, offering no practical counterpart for younger students or those working in other disciplines. However, I would argue that the findings of this analysis can be directly applied to students of all ages and in all areas of study.

This data confirms what we already know and what I have been preaching about in the four years of writing this blog.

  • Learning is constructed in the brain of the learner through their interaction with ideas and concepts in personal ways.

  • Children learn best when they are active participants in instructional activities, rather than passive, sponge-like observers.

  • Student engagement is a huge topic in educational circles. We know that kids are more likely to be engaged when they are active.

  • When kids are active participants in their learning, when they can be hands-on and manipulate what is being presented to them, they are more likely to become intrigued. When they are intrigued, their curiosity is more likely to be piqued. It is in the process of satisfying this curiosity that learning is allowed to occur.

  • When children are allowed to actively satisfy their personal curiosity related to a given topic or experience, they are more likely to become motivated to continue and to be invested.

  • Engaged, curious, motivated students will seek to connect the concept being taught to their personal lives and their interests. Once that connection is made, the entire experience becomes relevant.

Isn’t it interesting, if not odd, that we continue to choose tradition over data, that we ignore what we know in preference to what is familiar? Isn’t it perplexing that classrooms today remarkably resemble the classrooms of fifty to one hundred years ago - organized, managed and employing the same instructional approaches, even though the needs of today’s students require experiences that are resoundingly different?

Aren’t we mis-serving our nation’s children by stubbornly clinging to teaching practices of the past; teaching as we were taught? I’m convinced we are.

So, I return to the original question: Should I tell or should I ask? If we truly want kids to learn, if we are genuine in our aspiration of providing every child the education that he or she deserves, the answer to our question is clear. Consider the evidence, reflect on the data. We must do less telling and more asking, remembering a fundamental truth.

The person who is talking is the one who is learning.


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