Learning Scientists and Classroom Practice

​By Judi Fusco

As I promised in the previous post, here’s a look at Tesha Sengupta-Irving and Noel Enyedy’s 2015 article. In this post, I want to take a closer look at one study that shows the kind of work learning scientists do in classrooms with teachers. 

Some teachers (and principals, parents, and others) question whether student-driven (open) pedagogies work for students; they worry if students are on their own, they might waste valuable instructional minutes, especially in math classes. However, by exploring data, discussing and debating, and constructing their own understanding, students in an student-driven, open instructional approach achieve the instructional goals of the course as well as students in a teacher-led (guided or instructivist) approach. In addition, and importantly, students seem to enjoy learning mathematics more when taught with an open or constructivist approach versus a guided approach. In their article, Sengupta-Irving and Enyedy (2015) discuss how important enjoyment is in learning, and why and how a student-driven instructional approach helps them learn.

In the study, students’ test performance was the same for both the teacher-led and student-driven approaches. So why don’t we just stick with teacher-led techniques? Why do we want to switch to more student-driven approaches? Sengupta-Irving and Enyedy, and many other learning scientists, don’t think it’s enough to create mathematically proficient students without helping them develop an interest (or even love) for the subject that the student-driven approach helps create. Learning without enjoyment seems like a lost opportunity that may prevent students from doing well in the future. The authors think if students learn and enjoy subjects, those students might want to go further in the subject and take more classes.  

Using Learning Science as the Foundation to Build Practical Classroom Practices
So what did the students in the student-driven condition do while learning? On their own, the students started with a discussion to explore the data, tried to understand the problem, and debated the approach or solution with peers. They also experimented and during their discussion “invented” an understanding, in this case, of statistics. They (hopefully) invent what the teacher would have told them during a lecture. While it may seem inefficient to let students invent, because, after all, we could just tell them what they need to know, but the discussion and inventing engages them, helps them enjoy the subject, and strengthens their learning.

After they have gained some understanding on their own in their discussion, the teacher has a discussion with the students and helps them learn formal terms. Exploring first contrasts to what students do in the the instructivist or guided condition where the teacher tells them the formal terms, a great deal of information about the problem, what the important concepts are, and the approaches they should take in solving the problem. In the guided condition, students are not given an opportunity to explore informally.

For a long time, learning scientists have known that “telling” students after they have the opportunity to explore and develop their own understanding is more effective than telling them before they have had that opportunity (Schwartz & Bransford, 1998). Sengupta-Irving and Enyedy employ this learning science principle and find that students do well and seem to enjoy the lesson more. 

One other issue that is sometimes discussed about student-driven approaches is whether students are off-task when on their own. It is true, student-driven classrooms are usually noisier than instructivist ones, but that’s because there is learning occurring—in my experience, I have found that learning is a slightly noisy phenomenon. The researchers looked at off-task behavior in the two instructional approaches in the study and there wasn’t a difference. They found more instances of off-task behavior in the teacher-led condition than in the student-driven condition and approximately the same number of minutes of off-task behaviors in the two conditions. I think it’s important to note that the teacher in this research reported that she was more comfortable with the teacher-led approach. Because of that, the teacher may not have used an open approach very often, and her students may not have been as familiar with an open approach–yet there was no extra off-task behavior. To alleviate concerns that student-driven approaches require more time to work, both instructional approaches used the same amount of time for the lesson.

I want to go back to the issue of enjoyment. If, after a lesson, students don’t want to think about it any more—because it’s boring, one of the terms the students in the teacher-led condition used to describe the lesson—then we probably have not done the best we can for the students. Sure, if we tell students about something, we’ve gotten through the lesson and are able to cross that topic off the list. But shouldn’t learning be something more than just an item on a checklist? What if learning was enjoyable and students left wanting more? Learn the same amount, in the same amount of time, with very little off-task behavior, and enjoy it = win-win-win-win. And, add the bonus that enjoyment can potentially help students in their future work and motivate them to continue their studies. I’d make time for that in my classroom.

I’d love to know what you think about the article and their findings. In future posts, we’ll talk about how to o student-driven approaches and hear from teachers who have some good tips. I’d also love to hear how you teach and what you’ve seen or experienced in your classroom. Below you can read more details of the study.

Sengupta-Irving, T., & Enyedy, N. (2015). Why engaging in mathematical practices may explain stronger outcomes in affect and engagement: Comparing student-driven with highly guided inquiry. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 24(4), 550-592, DOI: 10.1080/10508406.2014.928214.

Schwartz, D. L., & Bransford, J. D. (1998). A time for telling. Cognition and instruction, 16(4), 475-5223.

Details of the study
In the study, one 5th grade classroom teacher taught two sets of students the same mathematics topic, for the same amount of time, using two different approaches: open (student-driven; 27 students) and guided  (instructivist; 25 students). The teacher was more comfortable with the guided approach, but had learned how to facilitate the open method and taught one class of students that way. The data collected included written assessments of the student’s work (a test), a survey inquiring about the students’ affect during the lessons, and video of the 5 hours of class time devoted to the topic for each instructional approach. The researchers report three main findings based on the analysis of this data:

  1. Assessment data showed that when students were given the opportunity to explore and solve problems in an open way working with their peers, they performed just as well as students who were in the guided (instructivist) situation. 
  2. Survey responses indicated that students in the open condition enjoyed the lesson significantly more, compared to guided students. Also, students in the open condition did not express any negative affect statements, but guided students did. (“Bored” was one of the negative affect statements used by the guided students.)
  3. Video analysis showed that in the two conditions, the amount of time spent in interactions between teacher and students, and students working together, were very similar. For example, for both conditions, there was a little over 3 hours spent in whole class activity and about 2 hours spent in small group work; during the small group work, adults spent about 1.5 hours helping the students with the lesson or managing behavior. Off-task time was roughly equal in the two conditions: there were 18 off-task instances (involving approximately 11 minutes (out of 300 minutes) of adult intervention) for off-task behavior in the guided condition, and 14 off-task instances (involving approximately 13 minutes (out of 300) of adult intervention) in the open condition. 

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