I am Andrew Evans, PhD candidate in Philosophy and MA student in Mental Health Counseling at University of Cincinnati. I am working on a project to better understand the best ways to execute science education and outreach in K-12 settings. The goal of our project is to create a how-to guide for philosophers and other academics that want to get involved in science education outreach. This post covers a debate I have encountered in the literature between two different approaches to science education.

The main question is this: In the science classroom, who directs the learning? Is it the careful planning and attention of the teacher? Or instead, is it the curiosity and exploration of the student? These questions are hotly debated in science education and outreach literature. Some, like David Klahr and Milena Nigam advocate for a “direct instruction” approach. In direct instruction, the teacher has content to cover, and it is up to the teacher to get across that content to the student. Suppose a science teacher is doing a lesson on the solar system. Using direct instruction the teacher would give the students a map of the planets, teach the students about the different sizes and names of the planets, draw out the different paths the planets navigate around the Sun. The teacher would be successful if the students walked away with new knowledge and could apply that knowledge in the future.

“Inquiry-based” learning

Others, like Zeynep Isik-Ercan are skeptical of direct instruction and instead advocate for “discovery-based” or “inquiry-based” learning. Rather than having set content to cover and a regimented plan to get through it, the discovery-based instructor introduces students to a new idea or situation and then leaves them to their own devices. Students are encouraged to explore, collaborate, and create together. They make their own discoveries. A discovery-based teacher covering the solar system might give students different sized fruit that represent the different planets and have students match the fruit to a map of the solar system. Students may be encouraged to move in circles around each other like revolving planets. They may be taken to the observatory to look through telescopes and discover aspects of the solar system on their own. The advocate of discovery-based learning argues that this approach is better because the learning comes from the student themself—and when you discover something yourself you are better able to apply what you learn to different situations.

Not so fast, says the advocate of direct instruction. While it may seem fun and liberating to have students explore on their own and come to their own conclusions, it is argued that they do not actually come away with all that much in terms of transferable knowledge. Direct instruction advocates say that students who encounter discovery-based programming may get a spark for science, but they are not likely to have learned much actual science in the process.

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So, who is right? Who should guide the learning: student or teacher? Some have argued this is a false dichotomy. There are benefits to having students explore and discovery just as there are benefits to providing direct guidance and instruction. And there is no reason to choose between the two. Advocates of “guided play” for example stress the importance of combining both approaches. In guided play a student is given adult supervision and guidance, but also an opportunity for free play. We might imagine our science teacher instructing students on what pieces of fruit are best suited for what planets, showing them the way the planets navigate around the Sun, and then letting the students act it out providing guidance when needed.

Whatever your approach, it is important to remember that there are other ways of doing things. And your way of approaching science education and outreach may vary based on what your goals are. Are you trying to teach a transferable skill? Convey new knowledge? Get students interested in science? Encourage students to see themselves as scientists? The goal of your program should inform the approach you choose.