The Black Box and Learning


One of my most vivid memories of a lesson in high school involves a class demonstration in my high school chemistry class (hooray for Mr. Emry!). Mr. Emry had a black box on the lab bench at the front of the room. The enclosed plywood box was painted black. There were holes in the front and back large enough for a marble to fit through, but there was no way to look inside the black box to see what was inside. Mr. Emry gathered us around the lab bench to watch what he did: he took a marble, shot it inside one of the holes in the front of the box, and the marble came out one of the holes in the back moving at a completely different angle. Mr. Emry told us to take notes about our observations while he shot the marble several more times at different angles while we took notes about where the marble entered and exited the black box. Eventually, he told us to go back to our benches and try to use our observations to make inferences about the shape of what is inside the box. Some students were able to make correct inferences and draw shapes that were very close to the actual shape inside the box because they did careful observations and note taking. 

I think I remember this demonstration because I’ve used it as a metaphor as a teacher. When I taught high school psychology, I talked about how the brain is like a “black box” in some ways because we have data about what goes “in” (stimuli, experiences, etc.) and what comes “out” (thinking and behavior), but a lot of what actually happens in the brain is still a mystery. We used that idea as a jumping off point to talk about how brain researchers try to look inside the black box of the brain (electrical stimulation, EEG, CAT, fMRI, etc.) But even with all this amazing technology, one of the central mysteries of brain research remains: how do patterns of chains of neurons firing in specific patterns add up to thinking, feeling, and behavior? We know a lot more than we used to about the black box of the brain, but there’s still a lot we can’t see. 

At the beginning of my teaching career, I thought of learning as a “black box problem.” I knew what I did as a teacher, and I could see what kinds of learning occurred as I asked students questions and saw/heard/read what they could do later. But I thought the mechanisms of learning were hidden inside a black box and impossible to observe or discover (side note: if you haven’t read Black and Wiliam’s “Inside the Black Box” article, please stop reading my blog post and just read that instead!) 

In some ways, I still think the black box idea is a useful metaphor for learning. There’s a LOT we can’t know about what is going on inside a student’s mind as they learn. But in other ways, I was wrong: cognitive psychologists know a lot about what’s going on inside the black box of learning, and these insights can be useful for teachers. I think we now have a useful model of what is inside the black box of learning: the basic memory structure of sensory memory, selective attention, working memory, encoding, long term memory, and retrieval (I wrote about that model here). 

Other related references:

I hope every teacher gets access to these kinds of “inside the black box” research findings much faster than I discovered them. I would have been a better teacher if I would have known about and had access to these ideas. 

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