How deep is learn by doing?

The press seems infatuated about learn by doing. Today it is another small grant supporting college student education for ‘real world’ laboratory research.

Students learn more from doing than they do from listening … Observing animal interactions with the robots helps the students deduce the meaning of various communication signals. … “Robots are sexy,” Cassill said. “We are in a century where there will be a real serious interface between organic and inorganic technology.” … And undergraduates will be increasingly involved in the work. ” [Ryan Meehan, Associated Press. Robotic squirrel part of trend to improve undergrad research USA Today 21 December 2004.]

This is fine. It must be fun to play with Legos or other ‘make a robot’ kits and go out and watch squirrels. The results of the observations probably do contribute to an understanding of behavior. The question is the manner in which such activities contribute to the student’s learning.

In many respects, this problem has been a big issue in software development since the arrival of the personal computer. It is represented in the haggling about who could call themselves a software engineer. Anyone can code a software program and some ‘high school henry’ types have even made good money at it. What makes them different from a PhD in computer science?

What makes the offering of an institute of education special is its curricula and in the depth of its offering. A proper ‘formal’ education defines a specific goal (the degree) by setting standards for both the breadth and depth of activities that must be successfully accomplished to achieve it. It is a comprehensive and guided effort that has to make sense in its entirety to be effective for the student.

The MSM could do much better for showing how these ‘learn by doing’ grants fit into the broader scheme of a degreed education program.

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