Teaching labs by mistake

Teaching in ants with corrective behavior (Tao208, Wikicommons)

Teaching is not just about transferring information, it’s about making mistakes.
It is about making mistakes, repeatedly. It is very easy to think that simply telling someone something and them being able to understand and act on it is the best teaching. In fact, that is just transferring information. Part of the definition of teaching in animal behavior includes corrective behavior. Correction by definition requires a mistaken act to be corrected. So how can any animal or human for that matter teach if the student's first attempt is either correct or not assessed? How can simply telling someone a fact be teaching? Is there a meaningful difference between telling and teaching? It seems to me that the key element that defines teaching is that the student must first unsuccessfully attempt to do something (at least initially) otherwise it is just a transfer of information to be memorized. This distinction is most important in the science lab class where doing is added to the book work of the lecture material.

Science lab instructors should think about this. The counter-intuitive implication of the corrective element of teaching is that if your students are not failing then you cannot possibly be teaching. A perfectly run laboratory session where every protocol works is not teaching, at best it is transferring information. This perfect lab session can only provide your students with almost the same level of instruction that they would have gotten from a YouTube video. Teaching requires failed experiments, struggle, and effort to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. The real challenge when designing a laboratory section of a science course is to build in opportunities for failure and recovery, and to teach your students to interpret failure as a necessary step on their path to learning.


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