Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pseudoteaching on the Guided Inquiry Front

Last year, I spent about a week substitute teaching in a college physics course for pre-service elementary teachers.

For the week I was there, the class was well into learning about bulbs and batteries. In the course, groups of student work through materials in a somewhat self-paced manner. The instructor strolls around and discusses the students' investigations with them. Every once and a while the instructors do a formal "check out" before students can move on to another section.

One group was being "checked out" by me on a section about voltage, and I discussed with them the questions that the instructor had designated that I discuss with them. I don't remember the details. But I remember feeling that they had met some reasonable minimum standards for explaining why they had carried out the investigation, what they had learned, and what the results had to do with concepts they had learned prior.

As I was walking away, I kept listening (as I always do), and overheard them continue to discuss:

"So, is like current the flow of voltage? ...Like, you know what I mean? I'm trying to figure out what voltage is. And I was thinking that maybe voltage is like logs flowing down a river, and current is the flow of water moving those logs along."

"I think of it more like a train. Like, current is the train cars moving along, and the voltage is like the engine car, driving the train along."

"And so are the tracks, then, like the wires?"


"So what's resistance?"
The conversation went on for a bit like this. I was thinking to myself, "That's the problem with a preplanned checkout." The teacher gets the students to discuss what the teachers (or the curriculum) wants to talk about, but the students don't get to talk about what they really want to discuss.

The section of the curriculum was heavily focused on empirical observations and making sense of those empirical relations in terms of the model that the curriculum would have them develop. But these students wanted to talk about their own models–what is voltage like? Is voltage a thing like a log? Is current like a moving train? Is voltage like a engine car? How do I make sense of resistance?... They weren't intellectually concerned with what the curriculum was dishing out.

Later, at another table, I was doing another "check out". The group explained to me what they did and what they learned, but then I asked the students to explain to me what they had predicted would happen, and if the result had differed in anyway. They kind of shot some guilty glances around at each other, and one finally said, "Well, we stopped doing the predictions." Another one added, "It just confuses us to think about the predictions, especially if we are wrong."

Finally, at another table, I was walking and saw one of the students crossing out stuff from a prior page. I asked, "What are you doing?" The student said that they were erasing their prediction, because it was wrong. I asked them why they would go back and erase a prediction. The student responded that they didn't want to get confused with the wrong answer later when going over her notes or when studying for the test.

What does all of this tell me? Guided curriculum can be dangerous. These students were intended to be doing inquiry, but they we mostly just jumping through inquiry hoops. And I don't blame the students–they learned to do this in class because that's the hidden curriculum that was being taught:

The students in the first example had learned in class not to discuss certain aspects of their own ideas or models. In particular, they had learned not to talk about "What things are like?" This wasn't just because I was there. I actually came back over to this group and we talked about their models for quite a long time, and it was clear to me that they weren't having these kinds of conversations on a regular basis.

The students in my second and third examples had learned that their ideas were worthless (and confusing to think about).

The problem with (some) guided inquiry like this is the illusion of learning. Instructors doing these kinds of "check outs" can convince themselves that students are building powerful scientific models, but really students are just learning not to share any ideas that might be wrong, not to have conversations that they aren't supposed to have, and to hide interesting questions and insights that are outside the bounds of the "guided curriculum".

To me, this is pseudoteaching and pseudolearning at its worst, because students are not not learning. It's quite the opposite. They are learning that their ideas, questions, and curiosities have little to do with science and science learning (except that their ideas are usually wrong).

At the end of the day, if students are learning to avoid taking intellectual risks around the instructor, that instructor doesn't stand a chance of helping those students learn.


  1. Cue the applause. Great post that summarizes much of my experience with chemistry and physical sciences at a college level.

  2. I think that there are stages that good teachers go through on a path to moving from science as reading/writing the text to discussing, exploring, and learning from each other. Giving students experiences that allow them and you to learn and teach on many paths, so important! The transition period of THINKING you are doing inquiry based learning in the classroom is rough. But, truly you did, is so important. Not being afraid to readjust and rework your labs, rework your dialogue with students...sign of the best kind of teacher! Reflect, reflect, reflect...and learn, learn, learn.

    Excellent ideas from your post. Thank you for posting!

  3. I think that is very insightful about transition periods. I suppose I worry about instructors that get stuck in transition.

    I think you are also very keen to say that the best of kind of teacher is always a work in progress. A teacher is a learner who has committed to learning to teach. I think the openness to continually adjust and rework requires a degree of humbleness about one's teaching.

  4. Giving students some analogies (like current as flow of water and voltage as pressure) can make it much easier for them to develop their mental models. Requiring them to invent everything from observation is a misunderstanding of how inquiry-based learning is supposed to work. This sounded more like non-teaching than pseudo-teaching (that is, no one would really have been misled into believing that teaching was taking place).