It might seem a stretch to claim that experimental observations on how mice navigate a maze in the dark, in a laboratory can provide meaningful and actionable insights into how to improve the design of undergraduate science courses, but that is my claim. They provide a parable about what matters in education.
If I correctly understand the implications of the work from Markus Meister’s lab (Rosenberg et al 2021. Mice in a labyrinth: Rapid learning, sudden insight, and efficient exploration) one take home message is that mice learn remarkably quickly if the tasks they are presented with “make sense” to them, that the task reflects something they would be expected to master naturally. A dark maze mimics such a case, the exploration of an underground burrow system. Within this system they are challenged to find water (when thirsty) and their way home when they decide to go home. In these studies, the mice were tracked in the absence of human intervention; the mice were free to stay in their cages, or enter and explore the maze – and explore it they did, completely and efficiently. This reflects their spontaneous behavior. In other cases, the mice were mildly deprived of water. They quickly found a water source located within the maze and learned to remember its location. Even more striking, the mice were extremely efficient at finding their way back home (navigating their way out of the maze) when they wanted to, making few miss turns. They rapidly mastered these tasks and the progression in their mastery was often characterized by what might be termed a “eureka moment”, a point when their behavior becomes significantly more goal oriented and efficient.
The efficiency of their maze learning compares to what appears to be slow, tedious and ineffective learning of what are known as “two-alternative-forced-choice (2AFC)” tasks, tasks that can take months for mice to “master” ineffectively. These are “un-mouse-like” tasks that appear to be of little intrinsic interest to the average mouse.
It is difficult (at least for me) not to see an analogy with educational situations, although a number of factors combine to make humans students rather less homogenous than inbred lines of laboratory mice. Nevertheless, and since this is a parable rather than a logical extension of the Rosenberg et al study, we can speculate that students will be better at engaging with and mastering tasks that are seen as natural and interesting compared to tasks that they judge to be artificial, irrelevant, and in some cases threatening (e.g. exams). At the same time, we can see the importance of the eureka moment, the point at which a key insight into a task becomes apparent. Of course it is worth placing Archimedes’ eureka moment in context – after all
he had been asked to solve an important problem by Hieron, the king of Syracuse. The solution came to him while he was engaged in an activity (taking a bath) that displays the relevant physical principle, buoyancy, the key insight needed to solve the problem.
There are a number of lessons here. Perhaps the first is that exploring and patrolling underground burrows (the maze) and exploring the universe (science) are not so different – they can both be ‘naturally’ engaging tasks. But too often science (or rather courses in science, particularly required courses, come across as chores, to be completed. Their relevance to the students’ interests and goals may be unclear; in a well designed curriculum, their relevance is made obvious. But these are also not ordinary chores, they are “graded chores”. One wonders whether mice “punished ” for inadequate maze behavior might eventually choose to stop exploring mazes (or underground burrows).
Then there is the organization of the maze, does it reflect a real problem faced by mice, or is it an artificial task, meant to sort rather than teach? Does learning the maze help with other problems to be faced. Does the task focus on core and widely applicable principles or idiosyncratic features. Does the task loose sight of what matters? These are questions that can be applied at many points within the process of course design and delivery – when is memorization important (and there are times it can be useful) and when is it a distraction, often evidence of lazy course design. When is it important to let the student explore, encourage questions, provide useful, and perhaps more importantly provocative, socratic feedback that students are required to address, and either incorporate into their thinking or explain why it is irrelevant. My own conclusion from the parable of the mouse and the maze is to be mindful of what you want students to be able to do when you introduce facts, principles and tasks. Question the value of introducing details that could be deduced from over-arching principles, and don’t introduce material that you do not intend to have students apply. Avoid google-able insights.
Perhaps a real life biology laboratory example may be useful. When asked to generate a solution with a specific pH do you, as a sophisticated lab rat, sit down and calculate the amounts of all of the various compounds needed to produce that pH, or do you use a pH meter and titrate the solution? While there are situations where calculations are useful, for many (most) situations the pH meter approach makes more sense (assuming of course you can explain why it works, e.g. what amount of chemical you begin with, and whether you should add an acid or a base to produce the desired pH).
A lesson for instructors is that it is important to present science in the context of a coherent and compelling narrative, a narrative that provides an understanding of the implications and significance of the information presented, so that the answer actually matters to the student. This is a process that involves reconsidering content, and it can be difficult to disconnect from what and how you were taught. It requires that you, as the instructor, come to recognize ideas and principles you use when “doing science”. When you discover a dramatic disconnect from what you present to students and what you use when you confront a problem, it is time to redesign your course to make it a more interesting (and rewarding) maze.