The Principle, Strategies and Practice of Trial-Learning
Abstract This article points out that, the common “shining point”of various education reform experiments has been“Having Trials”. This argument is based on the rich implication and significance of the Trial-Learning principle. All educators and psychologists, ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign, stress on Trials, developing the principle from the theory of Trial and Error to that of Trial and Success. The carrying out of the new reformed curriculum appeals to Trials-Learning. It emphasizes the self-motivated learning, active participation and free exploration on the part of pupils or students. The unique essence of Trial learning is “Trials before Direction, Exercises before Instruction, and Learning before Teaching.” The procedure: “Guided by Trials and Beginning with Exercises”, during which various trials strategies are encouraged.
The word of TRIAL seems to be a common and plain one, but what it really means in connection of teaching could be profound and fathomless. After giving it a serious consideration in the 60’s and doing formal teaching experiments with it in the 80’s this century, I have been studying and practicing Trial Learning and Teaching for as long as more than 40 years, and with my study and practice, I feel and understand the significance and profoundness of it.
1 Trials Improves Human development and Social Progress
Trial Learning has been improving human societies and humanity itself. In the long historical course of human evolution, for their ever more successful survival, ape-like human beings and our remote ancient forefathers, right by Trial Learning, learnt to stand, to use fire and make various discovering and inventions, and finally learnt to become socially modern men and women and created so many colorful and exciting modern civilizations. Trial serves as prerequisite for invention and creation and as the steps to success.
Indeed any important and significant social change is an outcome of successful trials.(1) Trial is the prerequisite for invention and creation. The creations by all scientists and inventors, ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign, are started by trials. The case of Edison in America will serve as one of the best examples.
Trial is the step leading to success. All life careers or occupations, if aimed to reach any great successes, must begin with trials. No invention or creation can not proceed without trials, neither can a good job be done without trials. Thanks to our constant trials to necessary reforms, our societies keep making great progress as we hope.
2 The Idea of Trial Education Has a Long History, Educators and Psychologists, Ancient and Modern, Chinese and Foreign, All Stress on the Principle of Trial, from Thorndike’s Theory of Trial and Error to Chinese theory of Trial and Success
The idea and practice of Trial Learning and Teaching has been well known and emphasized in traditional Chinese education, with ancient Confucius and Mencius, and recent Tao-Xinzhi and Ye-Sengtao etc. as its great promoters and practitioners. (2)
In the history of West education, we can see that, great educators and psychologists, from Plato, to Comenius, Dewey and Bruno, etc, all emphasize that, playing a central role, students should learn first, learn through doing, and should be encouraged to try, to explore and to find by themselves. (3) Especially in the first years of the 20th century, in America Thorndike put forward the (learning) theory of Trial and Error, and then the famous theory of Stimulus and Response, based on his experiments with cats and operational boxes, (4) and Kohler the theory of Instant-Insight Learning, then Gestalt school in psychology on his experiments with gorillas and bananas, (5)
Thorndike believes that trials and errors are two basic forms of learning, and that animals learn through constant trials and errors which gradually lead to final successes, and during the course forms a connection between the environmental stimuli and right responses, with the learning result as the acquisition of that connection. The associationist learning theory thus created by him contributed to the development of educational psychology.
My research and experimentation of trials teaching, beginning in the 1980’s, have been applied the idea of trials widely in class room teachings in primary and high schools. It thus became a new teaching method, i.e. Trials Teaching Method, then improved higher unto a Trials Teaching Theory.
The essence of Trials Teaching Theory is to encourage students to learn in trying and to succeed in trying. The theory transforms the traditional Chinese teaching model according to which teachers instruct and explain first, and then, with everything made clear, allow students do exercises. Guided by Trials Learning Theory, teachers first put forward problems according to the requirements of textbook, then, on the basis of old knowledge, students study the textbook by themselves, discuss among fellow students, try to come to tentative solution to the problem through trial exercises with their own efforts, and finally teachers offer their specifically aimed instructions and explanations according to the difficult points emerging from students’ trials exercises and the key points stressed by the textbook.
We find, in the course of teaching experimentation, that students’ trials processes do not follow Thorndike’s theory of Trial and Error, but that under a certain teaching condition, students’ trials are directed right to successes and so the principle involved must be what human beings follow, that is, the theory of Trial and Success. Different from animals, human beings are self-conscious, have power of thinking, old knowledge structure, and in the situation of class room teaching, enjoy the guidance by teachers, model demonstration by textbook, mutual supplement and support among fellow students and learning transmigrations between new and old knowledge. The trials by students can be straight directed towards successes.
Improved from the theory of trial and error up to that of trial and success, the idea of trial is made widely applicable in the class room teachings in primary and high schools. In China the theory of Trial and Success, after 30 years of research and experimentation, has been proved by the teaching experiments participated by more than 30 million of pupils and students from primary and high schools.(6)
3 “Trials” as Common “Shining Point” of Various Exciting Teaching-Reform Experiments since the Age of Reform and Opening in China
With the spring breeze of China’s Reform and Opening-up, various teaching-reform experiments appear on a preciously unknown scale. Beginning in the 1980’s, up to now for more than 20 years, we have been doing much research of Trial Teaching and Learning experimentation and trying to apply Trial Teaching and Learning to human learning experiences on a large scale: on the level of practice, our work began with mathematics in primary school and then now has gone up to all subjects in primary and high schools, and at the same time extended to kindergarten and university levels; at the level of theoretical construction, we have developed from Trial Teaching Method up to Trial Teaching Theory, and all of this with about 600 thousand of teachers and about 30 million of pupils and students actively participating in the experimental practice. “Trial Teaching Method, since its appearance seven or eight years ago, bas been effectively practiced nationwide, with the rapidity and scale hardly known previously.” the famous educator Liu-Fonian comments.(7)
Interestingly, at the same time when the Trial Teaching Method research and experimentation is being carried out, many other teaching-reform experiments are also involving the idea and practice of trial teaching and learning in a certain way. For example, in Gu-Lingyuan and Qin-Pu Experimentation, “guidance by Trial Teaching and feed-back with correction” is emphasized and so is greatly advanced the level of mathematics in Qin-Pu Junior High School, Shanghai. The result of the research and experimentation is highly noticeable.(8)
The main goal of Wei-Shusheng and Six-Step Teaching is to build the abilities of self-learning and self-education in pupils and students, with the six steps being orientation, self-learning, discussion, answering to questions, self-assessment and summary. Here Orientation means putting forward questions for trials, Self-learning and Discussion mean that students try to solve problems by trial and error, Answering to Questions means guidance by teachers, and Self-assessment and Summary mean students’ self-evaluation of the outcome of their trial learning.(9)
The focus of Liu-Jinghai and Success Education is on the success and development to be achieved by all students. Here was first emphasized Success through Help, then Success through Trial and Success by Oneself, so well establishing a teaching model of Success Through Trial.(10)
The very core of Self-Help Learning by Lu-Zhongheng is self-learning, that is, first self-learning through trials and location of difficulties by students, and then guidance by teachers. Under teachers’ guidance, three books (textbook, exercise-book and key-book) are fully used: students are asked to learn by themselves, to do exercise by themselves and to correct by themselves, so fully experiencing constant trial learning.(11)
By Yang-Shi Experience in Jiangshu, we mean that obtained in Yang-Shi Junior High School, City of Tai Xin, Jiang Shu Province, where, with the teaching staff, hard wares and student resource of third-class, are produced first-class graduates, most of whom are able to enter top senior high schools, thus working a miracle in education. The main part of this experience is “learning before teaching, and doing exercises on spot”, that is, again, first self-learning and self-exercising through trials, then guidance by teachers.(12)
With careful analysis, we can find a common bright point among various teaching-reform experiments which are different from each other in many other aspects: learning through trials. The question why the similar results by different approaches should be seriously asked and considered by thinkers in the field of education.
4 Research and Application of Trial Learning Will Become “Hot Focus” in Education Researches
So the above mentioned question draws great attention among educators, ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign, and various teaching-reform researchers. We should give a serious and satisfactory answer to, by doing careful research, seeing the very nature through superficial appearance, and doing so finding a general educational rule.
I believe the fact that the similar results come from different approaches means that trial is the basic form of learning and that through it we are approaching the very essence of learning. The process of trial teaching and learning is in fact that of active engagement in learning by students themselves, serving as a learning method and as a learning strategy.
For more than 30 years, while actively carrying out research and experimentation of trial teaching and learning, we have been, with rich teaching practice and experiences, pushing constant theoretical development, from Trial Teaching Method through Trial Teaching Principle and up to the current Trial Teaching Theory. At the early stages experimentation-related research and analysis on teaching theory are emphasized; now further theoretical consideration of trial learning should be concentrated in terms of learning theory. Any teaching research project must often be renewed on the both levels of theory and practice and goes ahead with age in order to remain alive.
At the moment, the most important task on our educational front is to greatly push ahead curriculum reform in basic education. Here the key element, for teachers, is to renew idea of education, and for pupils and students, it is to renew learning method. Trial learning is what is to meet the requirements of current reformed curriculum standard. To change students’ learning model is the important content of this curriculum reform, that is, to improve active learning, active participation and free exploration from the perspetive of students. Therefore trial learning can be counted as one of the ideal learning models. Active research and application in practice of trials learning is needed by the new reformed curriculum standard and by the prospectus of having a new generation to be developed for the 21st century.
5 Trials Learning Is an Idea and Method of Learning Characterized by Student’s Active Trials, Emphasizing the Self Teaching, Active Participation and Free Exploration on the Part of Students
Trials learning is an idea and a method of learning formed under the guidance of the idea of Education by Trials, and it emphasizes the important role trial plays in learning activities. Trial is the basic form of human learning and the real learning must be a kind of trial learning wrought with certain personal meanings. To learn how to learn means trial learning and no possibility of learning to learn without trial learning. Trial learning model is opposed to receptive learning model with the following four main differences between them:
1) Student’s position is different. In receptive learning, the student is passively posited, passively receiving teachers’ instruction and everything dependent on teachers’ insinuation. On the contrary, in trial learning model, the student is placed in an active position and practices trial and error. Here the process is the process of willing learning and active exploration by student her/himself;
2) Teachers’ roles are different. In receptive learning model, the teacher talks and the student listens, the teacher asks and the student answers, and the teacher gives problems and the student solves them: the teacher is too dominant in class. Different from this, in trial learning model, the student is encouraged to do trials first, freely trying to work out ways of solving problems and only when the student meets with difficulties or makes some errors, does the teacher come to give guidance to her or him: the teacher plays the roles of an organizer, a director and a co-operator;
3) Learning methods are different. In receptive learning, much attention is paid to mastery of assured knowledge and the student learns usually by listening to the teacher, learning by rote and mechanical exercises. But according to trial learning model, the student generally goes ahead by studying textbooks by her/himself, enquiring and discussing among fellow students and manual handling, exploring on internet and other trial learning methods.
4) Mental processes with learning are different. In receptive learning, the student only tries to directly internalize assured knowledge and arrange it in her or his already existing cognition structure, always putting stress on the learnt results. On the contrary, in trial learning, the student must, on the basis of already obtained knowledge, and through her or his active and explorative processes of trials and errors, try to come to conclusions and so finish the internalization of knowledge by her/himself, thus integrating the conclusions into new cognition structure and in so doing not only emphasizing learnt results, but also, or more, paying attention to the process of exploring trial .
Though trial learning and receptive learning are mutually opposite models, they can supplement and permeate each other. As one American author points out, meaningful receptive learning is different from mechanical receptive learning in that according to the former, much attention is also paid to students’ active and willing attitudes in learning, with emphasis that students should actively internalize into their subjective cognition structure the assured subject knowledge well organized and presented by their teachers. This idea is worth our consideration and consultation.(13)
Trial learning is a kind of active learning, also a kind of exploring learning and a kind of discovering learning. Trial learning is carried out when students try to find learnt knowledge through trials and errors, and this is a kind of guided discovering learning. Trial learning is different somehow from the discovering learning practiced in West cultures in that trial learning pays more attention to the teacher’s directing role and the model role of textbook, sparing the students the much time otherwise wasted in their blind exploration in disorder.
We believe that, for pupils and students in primary and high schools, trial learning is more practically effective and fit for the style and characteristics of their learning. DISCOVERING is more one of scientific categories, and TRIAL-ERROR more a learning-related category. Let students have trials, only for solving an issue in textbook and possibly with difficulty, but still can achieve the expected results by jumping trials. Also in the process of trials and errors, teachers can play a more effective role as a director, textbook a better model role. Old knowledge works a more effective transmigrating function, with a better supplementing function among fellow students and a more efficient aid by electronic teaching technique, and all of this is supposed to provide advantageous conditions for students’ successes through trial and error. Apart from this, trial learning can lead to successes, but also reasonably means probable failures, so students are not loaded with a too heave burden and therefore must be more tolerable and flexible and so more of humanistic spirit.
6 The Characteristics of Trial Learning: Trial before Direction, Exercises before Instruction, Learning before Teaching; Working Process: Always Led by Trials, Beginning with Exercises and Learning, and Adopting Various Effective Trial Strategies
Rather different from receptive learning, Trial Learning has its distinctive characteristics, with the following operating process:
1） Finding the Problem to Be Solved through Trials
This is the very beginning of trial learning and also the motive for active trial learning by students. Trial learning is an active learning process with the main working line of finding problems and then solving them. The problems to be handled with trials are usually worked out by the teacher as required by textbook, but can be figured out by higher-graded pupils or students themselves.
2) Working Out the Strategy for Problem solution
After the problem being put forward, the first thing is not the teacher’s instruction, but instead the student’s effort at solution through trials. The teacher has not given instruction, so the student has to have trials to see how to get the problem solved, hence the proper name Trial Learning for this learning model. The strategy the student possibly adopts for solving problem through trials comes in various kinds as follows:
a Self-Teaching of Textbook The student should be directed to self-teaching of textbook in which there are, for possible solutions of the problem at hand, detailed instructions, questions as examples, texts and experiments, and so to get from the textbook the information for problem solution. Self-teaching of textbook, this is the key of trial learning and must be well mastered by students step by step.
b Cooperation and Discussion If self-teaching of textbook does not lead to problem solution, the student should be encouraged to seek help from fellow students and work it out through cooperation and discussion, which should always be encouraged.
c Manual Operation Some problems must be solved by students’ manual working, including experiments and learning instrument operations etc..
d Asking Questions and Seeking Advice For more difficult or still unclear problems, students can ask their teachers for advice. Asking and advice seeking must always be encouraged.
e Enquiring on Internet Making better use of modern educational techniques students can go to the internet for finding methods and information for problem solution. For some ill-equipped schools, the students can be encouraged to consult reference books and other written materials.
All the strategies above mentioned are what is required by the curriculum standards of all subjects in primary and high schools and therefore share the same idea between them.
3 ) Problem Solution
Having used various trial strategies, the student gets her or his trial result and the problem can be said to have been tentatively solved. But this does not mean the end of trial learning: now the moment when the student should make a self-assessment and self-judgment about the trial result. Who is right and who is wrong and what is left to be desired will be judged among fellow students and will be turned to the teacher for further direction and suggestion that is supposed to help students to form correct concepts and integrate the new knowledge into their already existing cognition structure and then further form a new cognition structure at a higher level. The whole process of trial learning is shown in the following diagram:
The process of trial learning is distinctively clear and can be carried out flexibly according to the principle of Trials before Direction and Exercises before Instruction. The detailed operation can be flexibly performed and students are encouraged to find their trial learning strategies: Trial Learning is an orderly, controllable and open-ended learning system.
Summing up, Trial Learning is in agreement with the self-learning process which will be continued by students after their graduation and entrance into vast social life and professional world, therefore it is in accord with the learning model required by the idea of life-span education. Students will, once they well master Trial Learning method, benefit much from it for their whole future life time.
The trial learning emphasizes students’ activity and spontaneity, but does not mean self-indulgent and casual learning and that students are allowed to do whatever they like to. Respect does not mean indulgency and self-motivated learning does not mean self-indulgent learning. .Trial learning still needs teachers’ directory roles.
Teachers should carefully design preparatory questions or problems to be solved by trials and get students ready for problem solution through trials. When students are deciding on their trial-learning strategies, the teachers should be with them, offering them necessary guidance and trying to understand their current working process. After the students have solved problems by trials, the teacher should direct them to make needed self-assessment and summary and go ahead for arranging further task of trial exercises. Teachers’ directory role is fully demonstrated when it leads to students’ fully functioning as independent subjects in learning process.
7 Let’s Be Courageous to Have Trials and so Be Creative: Trial Learning Should Be Extended to All Education Fields
Trial learning should not be confined to cognitive field, but should be extended to affects and wills domains. In trial learning, attention must be paid not only to the result of trials, but also to the process of trials, and the students should be led to experiencing the affects and wills involved in trial process. Teachers must activate students’ passion for the joy and courage of trials, and the students should be made to feel the happiness of successes through trials and to make due reflection on failing trials, to make firm their belief in successes, and to sharpen their wills to overcome difficulties.
Trial learning should not be limited to the category of intellect education, but must be extended to the ones of morality and physical educations. Teachers should not take all responsibilities and do all things for students in matters of classroom management, Young Pioneers team work, but instead the students themselves should take most of the responsibilities involved, including self management and serving others, participating social activities etc. and by so doing develop better sense of morality and good character. In physical education, students should be encouraged to make trials and, by themselves, achieve required actions and understand the essential sense of them.
Trial learning should be extended to family and social educations. In Chinese culture and society, parents and school teachers much spoil children, who, for most things in their life, are dependent on their parents at home and on their teachers in school, with neither need nor opportunities to make any trials. By holding parenting discussions or parenting training school, school authorities can improve the ideas the parents have about education of their children, encouraging them to leave more responsibilities, personal and social, at home and in or outside of school, and socially or let alone, to their young fellows, even beginning with their much young kids. School authorities can help establish better communities and social atmosphere for children to make needed trials in their social learning and daily life.
For the whole education field, where different aspects and dimensions are all related to each other, the fundamental concepts and ideals of education should be in accord with each other and even be integrated in a certain way and to a certain degree, and only by doing so, is it possible, all forces working together, to establish people’s spirits of endeavor and creation. The saying, “Be brave to try to be of creative spirit.” is generally accepted. On the wall of a classroom in a school, one finds a slogan:“Learn to have trials at your young age and when grown up, you will be a creative person.”Here the truth is clearly and briefly demonstrated.
8 The Trials Learning Is Scientific as Has Been Well Proved by Practice and Has Shown Its Strong Vitality. We Should Deepen the Research of Trials Learning and So Contribute to the Development of Chinese-Styled Education Theory
Developing from trial teaching method, through trial teaching theory and up to the current trial learning research, this is the logical evolving course of education theory. The scientific truth of trial learning has been proved with practices and is beginning to show its strong vitality, and so has been welcomed and accepted widely by teachers at all levels of education because of its characteristics of clear style, easy management and noticeable effectiveness. The trial teaching always leads to highly improved teaching quality, whether it is practiced in cities or rural areas, by experienced or new teachers, within one school or over a whole area.
Now we must take the chance of new reformed curriculum which is carried out nationally, to deepen research of trial learning, and have a new enquiry into the trial teaching process from the perspectives of learning theory and learning strategy. Trial teaching is a guided trial and the guidance and direction must be limited to a reasonable degree. Trials will be meaningless when the guidance is too much with teachers getting everything ready tor students and suggesting some easy hints whenever the students meet with some difficulties. Teachers must try to convert students’ passive trials into active trials and see that trial teaching process become real active and willing learning process on the part of students. The carrying out of the new reformed curriculum improves the further development of trial learning research and in turn trial learning can offer a better service to the new reformed curriculum.
Chinese education reform, since the age of Reform and Opening-up, is the richest and the most active educational practice all over the world, and has already led to many new theories, new experiences and new methods and models, and so appeal to enough attention and support from the field of educational theory. The basic education in China is the most advanced in the world and we must be assured of it and must not unnecessarily look down upon ourselves in this aspect. Let us begin here and have our TRIALS. Chinese educational theory must be characterized as Chinese-styled in order for it to go to the world. Becominging worldwide-meaningful and significant means being nationally-styled and meaningful first.
(Translated by liu-zhaoyong)
（1）see QIU Xue-hua,(ed.) Trials, Success and Development, Hubei People’s Publishing House, 1996.
（3）see Limingde and jinqiang,(eds.) Introduction to Masterpieces in Education, Fujian Education Publishing House, 1992.
（4）see Shi-liangfang, On Learning, People’s Education Publishing House, 1994, pp27-39.
（5）Zhangqi, Learning Theories, Hubei Education Publishing House, 1999, pp128-132.
（6）see Qiu-Xuehua,On Trials Teaching, Education Science Publishing House, 2005, pp165-169.
（7）see Gong-Cunyang,Zheng-Renzhou,Li-Xiuling, Gu-Lingyuan and Qin-Pu Experimentation, China Youth Publishing House,2001.
（8）see Gong-Cunyang,Chai-Zhenquan,Wei-wenfeng, Wei-Shusheng and Six-Step Teaching, China Youth Publishing House, 2001.
（9）see Chen-Dehua, Liu-Jinghai and Success Education, China Youth Publishing House,2001
（10）see Lu-Zhongheng, On Teaching through Self-Teaching Help, Liangling People’s Publishing House, 1998.
（11）see Zhou-Feng,(ed.) Elementary-Quality Education: Theories, Operation and Experiences, Guandong People’s Publishing House,1998, pp396-397.
（12）see Yang-Shi Junior High School of Tai-Xin City, Jiangshu, Focusing on Class-Room Teaching, Carry Out All-Round Elementary-Quality Education, in Wu-Wenkan, (ed.) Modern Schools of Teaching Theory in Foreign Countries, Fujiang Education Publishing House, 1990, pp205-213.
About the author:
Qui-Xuehua, born 1935 in chang-zhou, Jiang-shu Province, is now Special-Class Teacher of Jiang-Shu Provence, Honorary Professor of Primary and High School, Expert enjoying special subsidy by State Council, Chairman of the Association of Trial-Learning Theory of Education Society of China. He became a village primary school teacher, further studied at Department of Education in Eastern Normal University of China, in 1960 stayed there after his graduation as a teacher, and later worked as High school teacher and once a president of a teacher’s school. He has written and edited more than 270 books and has published more than 600 articles in education-related journals at home and overseas.