If you haven’t yet seen the brilliant film “Inception“, I highly recommend checking it out. It is probably the best movie I have seen in years.
What is Inception?
The process of inception is to place an idea in someone’s head so deep that they think they came up with it themselves. Since our brains can naturally trace foreign ideas back to their origin, for an idea to really “take,” you have to plant the simplest version of that idea, and hope that it grows into the real thing.
A Chemistry Example
If I tell my students that Robert Boyle discovered that there was an inversely proportional relationship between pressure and volume, a certain percentage of them will be able to regurgitate it back to me on a test. No matter how many practice problems we do, or how well we complete confirmation labs, the idea about the relationship between pressure and volume will ultimately be traced back to Boyle, or (worse) the teacher. The idea will be subject to the typical binge and purge of test preparation, and by the time the final rolls around, they’ll have to relearn Boyle’s law as if it had never been taught.
If, instead, I began a discussion with the following demo:
we now have a simple, engaging starting point upon which students can determine a qualitative relationship between pressure and volume, and ultimately derive a quantitative relationship through further experimentation. By introducing motivation and ownership, students can obtain a greater and more lasting understanding of P vs V without ever hearing the name Boyle.
Come on, Ms. Bethea. “Inception” is just a fiction movie
True enough. But there is a scientific basis to the effectiveness of inquiry and motivation on learning.
Brain research has shown that there is a limited amount of working memory that students can access and use. Without motivation, or an integration or synthesis of knowledge, small, disconnected facts are ultimately dismissed. If you consider that most people have 5-9 “working memory slots” available, poor Boyle, along with dozens of other seemingly random facts from other classes, will take the back seat to other things teenagers frequently think about in their daily lives. Like 90% of short term memory, it could very well be discarded within 24 hours.
When students are motivated, they are more willing to allocate more working memory slots to a task. Motivation increases ability to process, integrate and understand information. If multiple ideas can be connected through context, the working memory slots can be expanded. And when facts are given meaning, relevance, and context, students are able to more easily move these ideas into long-term memory. And, as DiCaprio’s character states, once an idea gets in there, like a parasite, it’s almost impossible to get out.
Teachers as Architects
It isn’t enough to merely stick a marshmallow man into a vacuum chamber and disappear into the shadows. The most difficult aspect of implementing inquiry is shaping the student experience so that it feels authentic, without being micromanaged. We have to guide our questioning without pointing them to an exact answer. We must introduce tools and techniques without implying a specified outcome. We must allow failures encountered to ultimately guide successes. We should make (or facilitate making) connections between previously studied topics. And as hard as it may be, we must resist the urge to lose patience and jump in to plant the full idea.
Our task as teachers is, in the context of full curriculum and standards, to figure out which ideas and topics are worthy of inception. Outside of course content, we can provide opportunities for students to shape their experiences in our classroom (student-made class rules and rubrics). We can model learning, rather than tell students exactly how to study. Students can be inspired to collaborate by observing our own successful collaborations.
Ultimately, we must create an environment where students feel safe and supported enough to direct their own learning.