Tailor problems to match children’s interests

Last Updated 25 May 2021, 01:05 IST

For education to be impactful, children need to appreciate the value of the tasks they engage in, for their own sake. Rather than embracing a utilitarian outlook, wherein schooling is prized only as a means to get admitted into college and then a job, children should be presented with tasks that they find intrinsically motivating. So in this article, I elaborate on how teachers may promote the skills of enquiry.

According to psychologist and educationist Deanna Kuhn, enquiry involves three steps. In the first, enquiry, children must be inquisitive to learn something new and be able to contrast that with “what they already know.” The second step of analysis entails examining the evidence they have gathered and interpreting it to see if it corroborates or refutes their original hypothesis. In the third step, students draw inferences. Finally, when children can appreciate how their thinking shifts as a result of this process, they have acquired metacognitive awareness.


Kuhn provides an example of a boat problem to illustrate these steps. Using a model of “a five-foot-long water canal” and a set of boats, students are asked to determine if and how any of the following features may impact a boat’s speed-- size of boat (small/large), weight placed inside a boat (present/absent), sail colour (red/ green), sail size (small/ large) and depth of water (shallow/ medium/ deep). Students are asked to do test runs by altering various features of the boat and water to determine which ones contribute to a boat’s speed and which are noncausal.

Students will first use a trial-and-error approach and form theories as they go along. Initially, they may vary multiple features at random, but gradually they will realize that they need to change the various features more systematically to find out which ones impact the speed of a boat. Undoubtedly, the process also entails they coming up with erroneous theories along the way, which then get corrected as they observe more instances of how a boat’s speed is affected by some features and not others.

Of course, if students are not interested in boats or the teacher cannot create a model canal, there are plenty of other options that teachers can use to promote similar enquiry skills.

Suppose, you tell students that they need to help a small company design a brochure that sells IPL merchandise at cricket stadiums during matches. The company has collected data on sales at previous matches and it would like advice on the most optimal brochure design. The company’s brochures differed along three dimensions: format (booklet/ foldout), colour type (colour/ B&W) and photos of cricketers sporting the merchandise (Jadeja/ Dhoni). By examining and analysing the data, students need to give recommendations for the most optimal brochure design.

Enquiry skills

On the surface level, the boat and the brochure problems may seem quite different. However, at a deep level, both require students to exercise enquiry skills by examining data.

For the boat problem, students have to first observe and collect data; for the merchandise problems, the data is given to them. But both problems entail analysing data by forming hypotheses and seeing whether the data corroborate or disconfirm them. Students are unlikely to solve these problems in one or two sessions. However, if they keep persisting in correcting and refining their theories as they encounter more data, they may start drawing inferences. And, as they get more adept at solving a variety of such enquiry problems, students may slowly start recognising what “enquiry thinking” entails.

Given that the boat and the merchandise problem are so different on the surface level, teachers can tap into an array of themes that cater to students’ interests.

Based on what excites them, students may collect and analyse data related to fashion trends, football, films, food choices or forest fires. Initially, teachers may coax students to limit their study to just one or two features. As students acquire more a sophisticated understanding of causal reasoning, they may work on more complex problems with multiple variables. Over time, they will also grapple with the idea that real-world problems often involve uncontrollable variables and thus have to be approached probabilistically. Black-or-white certainty segues into a more nuanced probabilistic reasoning.

If students become adept at enquiry, regardless of the domain of knowledge they are dealing with, it will hold them in good stead in any field they choose to pursue.

(Published 24 May 2021, 14:39 IST)

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