Drawbacks to Learning By Doing

Sometimes it is not practical for students to learn every skill they need to know by actually performing them. We can afford to allow somebody to be a nursing assistant in the emergency room, but we cannot afford, in Groucho Marx's words, to allow that person to be an "amateur brain surgeon." Many tasks either involve too much expense or too much danger to actually let novices perform.

Furthermore, simply placing students in realistic situations is not enough. Such situations let students "try things out," but there are two kinds of trying things out to consider. The first is where one learns by fiddling around and seeing what happens, and the second is one in which a teacher, advisor, or colleague is available who can "look over your shoulder" as you take on a new role. This latter form allows a student to gain from the experiences and observations of others. It allows others to interrupt him and give perspective on what he is doing, sharing with him the experiences of those who have preceded him. In such "mentored role play," the student might never need to ask a question. His actions will precipitate answers. His mentor will wait until the right moment to tell the student what he needs to hear.

One drawback to real-life situations is that they often do not have mentors, in which case they leave out both teaching and history. Trying out a new role without advantage of a mentor can be a slow, frustrating way to learn. It can lead to bad habits or failure to synchronize actions. Teachers provide challenges, encourage risk taking, correct errors, and provide context. Apprenticeship requires the expert as well as the apprentice.

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