Spence Green

التكرار يعلم الحمار

I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

An Inquiry into Inquiry-Based Learning

without comments

The Exploratorium in San Francisco’s Presidio district attempts to teach through the presentation of dilemmas. One exhibit, for instance, is constructed from alternating copper coils, one of which is warm and the other chilled. The coils wind around a cylinder, with the warm coil starting on the right and the cool one on the left. A hand placed at each end senses only one of the temperatures, while holding the cylinder’s center combines the two sensations. The result is unexpected. The brain signals a burning pain, and the observer invariably recoils from the exhibit, only to discover his hands unharmed. The exhibit thus asks: you sense searing pain, but without cause. Why?

The inspiration for this institution is inquiry-based learning, which emphasizes involvement over acquisition:

Memorizing facts and information is not the most important skill in today’s world. Facts change, and information is readily available — what’s needed is an understanding of how to get and make sense of the mass of data.

The intent is to generate knowledge instead of simply accessing it. Knowledge manufactured from experience tends to last longer than facts inhaled through lecture or a passing encounter. This insight explains why reading a book–an active form of entertainment–is more beneficial than watching TV, which washes over the viewer. Literature demands at least that the reader supply his own imagination; television only presents the product of someone else’s.

The underlying aim of this method is to question assumptions, which are unnecessary in the presence of facts. There is no need to presume that the moon orbits the Earth, for instance. It does. Sadly, the act of assumption is usually unconscious. The ability to identify and manipulate preconceptions accounts for much of the intellectual tooling needed to develop unique and different perspectives. Why must a computer case be beige? Why should a rock song have two verses, two choruses, and a bridge? Why should art reflect nature? These assumptions are not fundamentally wrong, but questioning them has produced some satisfying results (the iMac, Dream Theater, and Cubism, respectively).

Nonetheless, one exhibit still repulsed me:

Beside the toilet, the curator posted this helpful observation: “Strong emotional associations with objects or people can make it difficult to act rationally around them.” Despite assurance of the toilet’s cleanliness, I did not bend down for a drink. Assumption prompted my hesitation: toilets are dirty; they are for waste, not sustenance. I stared for some time at the toilet, trying to control my perception of it. I failed. There is no need to linger on the power of emotion over reason, but this scenario explains the importance of the ‘first impression’. The emotional association created during those first few moments of encounter can be difficult to reverse. Although inquiry-based learning equips the mind to question assumptions, it cannot abrogate one truth: that reason does not account for the range of human behavior. The implications for advertising, product design, and the development of corporate culture–with anything social, for that matter–are broad.

Written by Spence

September 23rd, 2008 at 4:03 pm

Posted in Ideas

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.