Beyond "Hands-On" and Inquiry-Based" Science Education:
The Open-Ended, Transactional Classroom

Paul Grobstein
12 April 2006

Lansdowne Friends School and the Bryn Mawr College Center for Science in Society have agreed to work together on developing new approaches to elementary science education. On 27 February 2006, the Lansdowne faculty and Paul Grobstein had a discussion of the general sorts of directions their initiative might take. The following is Paul's reflections on that conversation, excerpted from a letter to those participating.

When we last met we did some serious talking and exploring on the themes of the brain as a scientist and science as story telling. That included, as I trust you'll remember, some playing with hard boiled eggs that called attention to the differences between observations and interpretations and the fact that each can affect the other. I thought it was a rich time together, one that helped us to begin creating a common agenda for elementary science education out of our different experiences. I hope you recall it that way as well.

Several specific things stick in my mind from that session, beyond what I had in mind going into it. Most generally, the conversation helped me to see more clearly what we would like to try and do that is beyond simply "hands on" or "inquiry based" science education. There is no question (for me at least) but that students learn more/better if they are actively involved in the learning process, both unconsciously and consciously and both physically and reflectively. And that certainly means a pedagogical style that begins with questions rather than with answers and one that involves doing rather than simply listening. But there is something more

The additional points that it seems to me emerged as we were talking were that good science education ought to be also both "open-ended" and "transactional". By the former, I mean not only that the questions one starts with should be immediately meaningful to the students but also that the questioning process should be valued in and of itself rather than treated by the teacher (and hence inevitably seen by the students) as a device to get to a previously conceived end. This means that the teacher needs to be willing and able to handle explorations that proceed in not only one direction but rather somewhat unpredictably in any of a number of directions. And, as we talked about, to take seriously the differing interpretations of observations that different students make, encouraging each to explore the implications of their own interpretations with new observations, rather than simply correcting interpretations.

This, of course, presents new challenges to teachers, but I think/hope we also came to the conclusion that it can as well "free" the teacher in a way that makes the classroom more interesting and satisfying not only to the students but to the teacher as well. The notion of a "transactional" classroom is key to this. The expectation is very much not that the teacher needs to become (super humanly) an "expert" in all the directions that inquiry might go, but rather than the teacher sees her/him self as also engaged in inquiry, ie as not an "authority" but rather as a skilled model for and participant in the inquiry process itself. The exchange between teacher and student is transactional rather than one-directional, usefully (and appropriately) shifting some of the responsibility for the process to the student. Moreover, students themselves can (and should), in this transactional mode themselves also become teachers, not only for the teacher but for each other. That students are diverse in backgrounds, learning styles, and skills becomes in the transactional mode not a further burden but rather an asset. The differences in how students observe and interpret becomes a valuable contribution to helping individual students learn to challenge and adapt their own observations and interpretations. In a transactional classroom, is not only okay but actually helpful for everyone (the teacher included) to discover ways in which they were "wrong".

In light of all this, maybe we want a new "buzz word", something that signals that what we're trying to do isn't just "inquiry based" and "hands on"? Maybe "exploratory" science education? Or maybe, since as several people suggested, it could go beyond "science", just "exploratory education"? But before we get carried away with this, I should note some of the concerns expressed too.

Science may mean exploration (or story telling) to (at least some of) us, but it means something more distinct to many other people, and we need to keep that in mind as we design a curriculum, to be sure that the experiences we provide will be seen by others (and by the students themselves) as something not only generally useful but also something interesting/relevant in particular realms as defined by others (future classroom experiences, careers, etc). And kids (at least some of them, some of the time) like "science" and things connected to it in many peoples' minds (like dinosaurs). And like to "know the answers". Do we have to give up all this? I don't think so. Exploratory education can occur in and around most any "content". As long as we ourselves are committed to the process, we can create a curriculum in which the "content" is recognizably science, without fully isolating it from other aspects of the curriculum but also without losing its identity as science as seen by other people. There is also no need to ignore what is appealing to kids at any given age, nor to prevent them from enjoying their usable knowledge. In fact, we could, as suggested, do more with the latter, by letting students be teachers for other students not only within one classroom but between classrooms. The trick is to help students see both what they are interested in and what they know as being always bridges to still more interesting things to find out about.

Another expressed concern that caught me by surprise is the notion that classrooms, particularly at early stages, have a "diagnostic" function, as well as a more straightforwardly educational one: that by requiring students to try and achieve in a range of specified tasks, one has a basis for detecting those who have particular problems in one skill area or another so they can be given special help. Would one lose this capability in an "exploratory" classroom, in which students are more encouraged to pursue their own inclinations? I think there is a legitimate concern here but one that shouldn't itself dominate a general pedagogical approach and can in fact be dealt with in other ways within the context of an exploratory classroom. I'd like to talk more about this one, while holding open the possibility that a more transactional classroom might even facilitate rather than detract form the diagnostic function.

Indeed, I'd like to talk more in general, both about what seems exciting about these new directions and what the potential problems are. I'm looking forward to more such conversations, both in the abstract and in relation to actual classrooms, both now and as we try and put some of these ideas into practice.

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