Common sense tells us that the 'safe, passive' approach is more appropriate for disseminating information, procedural matters and factual recall. It is often whole class 'prescriptive' teaching and 'shallow end'. On the other hand, if we want a deeper understanding to be gained and we need children to 'engage brain', as one of my old colleagues used to tell her children, we need to employ more 'active learning' where the teacher 'does it with' the children rather than 'doing it to' the children. They need to 'explore inside their heads' and make sense for their self, to construct meaning from what they see, do and are told (a very Piagetian concept).
The above is sometimes referred to as 'brains-on' as opposed to 'hands-on'. These two are not mutually exclusive; it is even more effective if we have 'brains-on' as well as 'hands-on'. This 'hands-on', 'brains-on' can be seen throughout the curriculum including exploratory play, Scl, Mai, History, Geography, to name but a few. In my opinion every subject requires 'hands-on', brains-on'.
Many children are not used to problem solving or independent working and find it very difficult to begin with. It is even worth practicing the thinking skills one at a time with 'mini explorations'. We often approach primary Scientific Enquiry in the same way when we wish to improve our children's observation skills or recording skills, for example. We need to begin with mini sessions on how to start looking at a problem or considering a situation.
Where do we start? What information is given? Where do we want to get to? What do we need to find out to help us get there? Once children have learned to raise their own lines of enquiry then they are ready to move on to the procedural aspects such as gathering evidence or argument; analyzing evidence or argument; interpreting the evidence and coming to some conclusions or presenting a case.
These are higher-order thinking skills and involve a progression that must be taken a step at a time, where each process needs to be practiced and learned. We often assume that children will figure it out for themselves, which some exceptional children can do, but for the majority of children, teachers are needed to help them make sense for themselves.
Teachers use a raft of techniques to achieve this objective: they tell; instruct; coach; demonstrate; model; explain; explore with them; lead them, and at times, leave them to discover for themselves. As I've said before, it's not 'rocket science'; these are strategies that can be seen every day in thousands of classrooms. Many teachers seem to apply the right approach at the right time intuitively; in fact, the truth is probably that they are experienced and reflective teachers. Beginners need to start simply and purposefully and apply a range of these techniques to help their children make sense for themselves.