The conventional way of teaching science has been through lecturing. The motivation behind this method was often the convenience that comes with it. In a lecture an instructor follows his notes or a book while the audience listens. Although questions are often expected, this rarely happens.
This method usually is not very compatible with experimental sessions, where students are asked to prove something through an experiment, because they are not trained to question their learning, but only to follow directions. This detachment between lecturing and the experimental training is, in my opinion, a reason why often there is very little excitement from the students over the sciences.
A consequence of this one-way of transmitting knowledge (from the teacher to the students) induces a high level of dry memorization by the students. The reason behind it consists in the lack of development of quantitative and analytical skills that comes with the traditional lecturing. As side effects, sciences (and in particular the physical sciences) are perceived as cryptic, difficult and requires a student to be "very smart".
To overcome such limitations, the physical science education community over the years has suggested that the "inquiry-based" learning provides a much more effective way of teaching the sciences because more it follows more closely the scientific method. This is indeed the true way of teaching problem-solving skills.
In a typical inquiry-based session, the teacher proposes a set of problems for the students to analyze and discover. Such problems or questions are approached by the students through a continuous and systematic use of questioning by a mentor, usually the teacher.
The idea behind it is that in science there is nothing written in stone, and the scientific progress is dictated by the curiosity that arise in trying to find answers to questions. In inquiry-based learning the goal is to drift the students from passively listening to actively solve a problem by continuing questioning.
There are several side effects. Questioning a topic stimulates the creative nature of children and helps them to grow an independent personality. In addition, it helps mystifying the typical stereotypes about scientists, since they can easily identify with them. Finally, it helps developing a strong analytical sense in them, which is useful no matter what career they will later purse in life (from the sciences to economics, from engineering to programming).
Inquiry-based learning however is not easy to implement. Teachers have been traditionally not very receptive about this method, since it is more difficult to implement. (Think for example how easier is to prepare a lecture than instead to go and guide a group of students to solve a problem).
In addition, all the material available is usually better suited to the conventional lecturing. PowerPoint presentations are reaching out schools and universities but more often they consists on prepackaged lectures and do not fit in the inquiry based teaching.
There is a substantial amount of literature about inquiry-based learning, of which I suggest: Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards and the work of the pioneer in the field, Prof. Lillian McDermott. Examples of inquired based learning can be found in "Physics by Inquiry" by L. McDermott.
OLPC Constructivism Learning
While inquiry-based learning is a well established and proven but still growing method, one has to wonder if it fits into the constructivistic approach that OLPC originally envisioned for the XO. If I am not mistaken the idea behind this approach is to have the children to explore and "work their way" to enrich their education, by simply giving them a tool and expecting them to master it. It may seem that the constructivistic approach has a structure similar to the inquiry-based learning. However there is an important difference.
While the role of the teacher is assumed not important by the constructivism, it is instead crucial in inquiry-based learning. The teacher is the guide through the learning, through carefully thought questions. This role is the same as the role of parents in very small kids. In addition the guidance provides structure to the learning process, so priorities can be given to some topics according to relevance, chronological development, etc.
The current vision for the XO is to allow their students to develop their skills with the use of the machine not necessarily while at school. This is not, per se, a bad thing. However unguided, undisputed, unchallenged use of it won't make it effective. For example, Etoys is a great activity for a child to create useful content. However in the current implementation it is merely a tool. My question is: how is a child supposed to learn about scientific phenomenon with this tool, without guidance?
The way I see it, someone (a teacher, or a more carefully thought activity based on Etoys), should provide the students with a challenge followed by further questioning that act as a guidance towards solving that problem.
The activity would be a precious tool towards the realization of this goal, but taken by itself, it would not be sufficient. Instead, an activity designed with continuous guiding through questioning would not need necessarily the presence of a teacher.
In a way, the teacher would be "built-into" the activity itself. However, as I said earlier, I do not see that happening in the XO, which so far as it is is simply a collection of unstructured tools.
I hope that local committees will pick up what OLPC is not. Carefully designed curricula for the XO is now crucial, and it should not left in the cold. Involvement of inquiry-based learning experts should be as important as the development of the platform itself. Their goal does not seem very different with that of the OLPC project. For this reason, this project would greatly benefit from their expertise.
This post was submitted by Nicola Ferralis. Want to share your OLPC-related ideas? Then write a Guest Post for OLPC News too.