Putting a student at the centre of their own learning seems like fundamental pedagogy. The Constructivist approach to education emphasises the need for knowledge to reassembled in the mind of the learner, and the related impossibility of its direct transmission from the mind of the teacher. Believe this, and student input into how they learn must follow.
At the same time, we know there is a deep neurobiological connection between the machinery of reward in our brain, and that of learning. Both functions seem to be entangled in the subcortical circuitry of a network known as the basal ganglia. It’s perhaps not surprising that curiosity, which we all know personally to be a powerful motivator of learning, activates the same subcortical circuitry involved in the pleasurable anticipation of reward. Further, curiosity enhances memory, even for things you learn while your curiosity is aroused about something else.
This neurobiological alignment of enjoyment and learning isn't mere coincidence. When building learning algorithms for embedding in learning robots, the basic rules of learning from experience have to be augmented with a drive to explore – curiosity! – so that they don't become stuck repeating suboptimal habits. Whether it is motivated by curiosity or other factors, exploration seems to support enhanced learning in a range of domains from simple skills to more complex ideas.
Obviously we learn best when motivated, and when learning is fun, and allowing us to explore our curiosity is a way to allow both. However, putting the trajectory of their experience into students' hands can go awry.
False beliefs impede learning
One reason is false beliefs about how much we know, or how we learn best. Psychologists studying memory have long documented such metacognitive errors, which include overconfidence, and a mistaken reliance on our familiarity with a thing as a guide to how well we understand it, or how well we'll be able to recall it when tested (recognition and recall are in fact different cognitive processes). Sure enough, when tested in experiments people will over-rely on ineffective study strategies (like rereading, or reviewing the answers to questions, rather than testing their ability to generate the answers from the questions). Cramming is another ineffective study strategy, with experiment after experiment showing the benefit of spreading out your study rather than massing it all together. Obviously this requires being more organised, but my belief is that a metacognitive error supports students' over-reliance on cramming – cramming feels good, because, for a moment, you feel familiar with all the information. The problem is that this feel-good familiarity isn't the kind of memory that will support recall in an exam, but immature learners often don't realise the extent of that.
In agreement with these findings from psychologists, education scholars have reacted against pure student-led or discovery learning, with one review summarising the findings from multiple distinct research programmes taking place over three decades: “In each case, guided discovery was more effective than pure discovery in helping students learn and transfer".
The solution: balancing guided and discovery learning
This leaves us at a classic “middle way”, where pure student-led or teacher-led learning is ruled out. Some kind of guided exploration, structured study, or student choice in learning is obviously a necessity, but we're not sure how much.
There's an exciting future for research which informs us what the right blend of guided and discovery learning is, and which students and topics suit which exact blend. One strand of this is to take the cognitive psychology experiments which demonstrate a benefit of active choice learning over passive instruction and to tweak them so that we can see when passive instruction can be used to jump-start or augment active choice learning. One experiment from Kyle MacDonald and Michael Frank of Stanford University used a highly abstract concept learning task in which participants use trial and error to figure out a categorisation of different shapes. Previous research had shown that people learned faster if they were allowed to choose their own examples to receive feedback on, but this latest iteration of the experiment from MacDonald and Frank showed that an initial session of passive learning, where the examples were chosen for the learner boosted performance even further. Presumably this effect is due to the scaffolding in the structure of the concept-space that the passive learning gives the learner. This, and myriad experiments, are possible to show when and how active learning and instructor-led learning can be blended.
Education is about more than students learning the material on the syllabus. There is a meta-goal of producing students who are better able to learn for themselves. The same cognitive machinery in all of us might push us towards less effective strategies. The simple fact of being located within our own selfish consciousness means that even the best performers in the world need a coach to help them learn. But as we mature we can learn to better avoid pitfalls in our learning and evolve into better self-determining students. Ultimately the best education needs to keep its focus on that need to help each of us take on more and more responsibility for how we learn, whether that means submitting to others' choices or exploring things for ourselves – or, often, a bit of both.