Some wise words from Alexander Graham Bell on life-long learning, or is it inquiry based learning?


I am a consumer of that much-ridiculed publication, The Readers Digest. From this magazine, I get many ideas for classroom Science discussions as well as silly jokes and amazing photography to share in those odd minutes whilst I am waiting for Jonny to find his pencil or Sally to come back from the office with a bandaid. Blessed with a slightly photographic memory and an extensive mental hard drive full of facts, I often summon up articles inquiring students may find useful for their projects. I would say to many academics, that when it comes to RD, ‘don’t be such a snob!’

A recent dip into the Digest uncovered an article reprinted from the very first edition in 1922. Entitled, ‘How to keep young mentally’, it expounds the ideas of Scottish inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. On reading, it emerged that the article was as much about inquiry based learning as intellectual or mental fitness. Dr. Bell said,

“The education of the mind is, after all, not a mere question of remembering facts which someone else gives us. The mind should conduct its own education
to a larger extent. And it cannot do this unless it thinks for itself. A mind that does not reason is comparatively useless.” (RD Classic Reads 2012, p124.)

Dr. Bell develops his discussion explaining the ‘Rule of Three’: observe, remember, compare. I googled “observe, remember, compare” and got over 4000 hits, all quoting Dr. Bell, but on subjects as diverse as politics, horsemanship and medicine. Without the speech marks, Google produced 31.5 million, so clearly a concept deeply embedded in learning processes. Look at this from 1941.

Dr. Bell’s is a great way to explain inquiry based learning to sceptical parents and reluctant teaching colleagues. Friends ask me about all the project work their children are doing and how it is so different to what and how we learned 30 years ago. I explain that with facts available at our fingertips, preparing children for the world is no longer about finding information but providing learning activities which promote its exploration, analysis and application. We want students to be able to link information and think about the whys, hows and what ifs. These are the roots of innovation.

I conclude that when parents are curious, unsure or sometimes even frustrated with inquiry based learning projects, educators can quote Dr. Bell and confidently advise that this is nothing new but possibly more relevant than it ever has been!


About vanessa hiser

Primary and Secondary Educator; Academic Psychologist; Counsellor; mother; netballer; lifelong learner.
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