Saturday, July 6, 2013

Learning Through Inquiry

A lot of people like to tell me what is wrong with public schools in this country or how to fix education. It seems like most people think that they understand schools because they went to one. And when they do ask what I think, they will latch onto something that I say and then force that one thing into their existing mental model. This is perfectly normal, healthy even. Piaget calls it assimilation, and it is what we all do until enough cognitive dissonance builds up to cause us to reconsider our mental model instead of squeezing that square peg into that round hole over and over again. Happily, something different happened when I had dinner with my sister Lisa and her husband Chris last night. But let me back up a little.

Before meeting my sister and her husband for dinner, I had a lengthy conversation with my friend Ilya about my pitch. Ilya told me that I needed to paint a mental picture for my audience. What would it look like when students were playing my game? Would they be using for it homework? In class? When I told Ilya that Petri Dish was designed to be the primary learning tool for a cell biology unit and not something to supplement the main curriculum, he was surprised. This was something that I needed to explain upfront in my pitch because it would reframe everything that came later.

Now fast forward to after dinner (a lovely meal of beef with Chinese broccoli over rice). With dinner out of the way, Lisa and Chris settled in to give me their undivided attention. I started going over the pitch, but paused here-and-there to give some color commentary. When I reached the slide where I had decided to mention that Petri Dish would be the primary learning tool in a cell biology unit and not a supplement, I described the conversation I had with Ilya. Lisa and Chris were both surprised and impressed. They always envisioned educational games as something that you added to instruction, not something that you used instead of instruction. We talked a little about this, but our conversation stayed on a fairly abstract level. They understood what I was saying, but couldn't really picture it in practice for themselves.

Later on, I reached the slide that had been giving me the most trouble. In a standard cell biology unit, students learn about a cell's structure. All cells are surrounded by a cell membrane, and many cells contain organelles where specific cell functions are localized. Common organelles that students learn about are the nucleus (the "control center" of the cell), the mitochondria (the "power plant" of the cell), and ribosomes (where proteins are assembled). Students memorize this information and then move on. Even though students learn that earlier cells did not have organelles and that many cells today (such as bacteria) still do not have organelles, they never ask themselves why organelles evolved (what competitive advantage did cells with organelles have over cells without organelles?) or why cells without organelles continue to exist. If cells with organelles do have a competitive advantage, then natural selection would eventually lead to all cells having organelles. Instead, organelles are just presented as a fact of life. Many cells have them. Boom.

In Petri Dish, we take a completely different approach. Cells contain molecules that are able to perform certain functions. Given those functions, what can you do to maximize your cell's ability to survive and reproduce? Working within those constraints, students should be able to invent organelles and figure out when a cell should build them or not. When I told Lisa and Chris about this, Chris was highly skeptical. Surely you'd have to introduce students to the concept of an organelle before they could ever hope to invent one. Everything in my experience as an educator tells me that this is not the case, but I appreciated his skepticism. It told me that he fully grasped the import of what I was saying, and that he needed to see evidence that kids could do what I was saying... because he had never seen anything like it before. To him, it seemed beyond the capabilities of the typical student.

Another example like this in Petri Dish is the invention of predatory bacteria. I can guarantee you that a student somewhere is going to want to know, "Can I design a cell in Petri Dish that eats other cells." And my answer to that student would be: "You know what cells can do in Petri Dish. Can you figure out a way for one cell to eat another?" The answer is yes. You can design a cell that can kill another cell using the basic mechanics you are given (no additional mechanics need to be added). The question is: After your cell has killed a cell, how do you bring the molecules from the dead cell into your cell? Do you transport each unique molecule with a unique protein (ingestion and then digestion)? That's a lot of transport proteins! Do you break down the molecules into basic building blocks and then transport them in (digestion and then ingestion)? You'd need fewer transport proteins, but your cell has to do more work.

This entire process reminds me of playing Lode Runner when I was a kid. In Lode Runner, you control this dude that can run back-and-forth and drill holes to the left and right. You'd encounter this level and you'd say to yourself: "There is no way to finish this level with these basic game mechanics." But you'd know there was a way, and you'd analyze that level and test different strategies until you had figured it out.

The conversations I had with Ilya, Lisa, and Chris were a lot of fun. Assimilation is natural and necessary. If you don't assimilate experiences into your mental model, then you're not using the mental model. But in the absence of true inquiry, assimilation often never shifts to accommodation, where you revise your mental model. When I said that Petri Dish was designed to be the primary learning tool in a cell biology unit, it created enough cognitive dissonance that Ilya, Lisa, and Chris all began engaging in inquiry. It didn't create enough cognitive dissonance to get them to revise their mental models, but it sparked enough curiosity for them to ask questions and listen to the answers, which did lead to some mental model revision later on.

I've been wanting to have this kind of serious dialogue about learning and education for a long time now. It's nice to know that others are willing and even happy to participate if I can frame things and put them in an mindset driven by inquiry and not pure assimilation.

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