Monday, September 19, 2011

Don't Lecture Me

I told the boys this morning about a great program I heard on the radio last week. It is the story of some physics professors who realized their students were not learning the basics concepts of physics - even though they were doing well in the tests. Long story short their conclusion was that lectures were a very poor teaching method. If you think about it a bit this is pretty obvious. The term lecture comes from the Latin lectura, reading. From before the printing press, when someone had to read stuff out loud because you couldn't just get the book. Forget the impact of computers, the Internet, iPads, and smart phones. The educational system has yet to adapt to the printing press! Otherwise, what are professors still lecturing students when students could simply read the material on their own? Besides being medieval, lectures have other problems: research has shown that we learn better when we participate. When we are active. Research has also shown that our short term memory is simply not equipped to retain an hours' worth of facts after facts. And the list goes own...

Back to the physics professors, and, btw, I believe they did this 10+ years ago, they asked students to read the material (at their own pace) before each class (duh!). They used classes for problem solving in the following way: they wrote a problem on the board (or screen), they showed three possible solutions, and they asked student to pick one. Then students had to find nearby students with different answers and explain to them why they choose the answer they did. After a few minutes of this the students voted again. This second time around most students got the answer right. A couple key points:

- Students were much better at explaining the solution to other students than professors. Why? The students just learned the material. They could relate to the doubts and challenges of the students who didn't yet understand things. They also had fresh in their minds the process by which they got to understand the material. On the other hand, professors had learned the material so long ago they couldn't relate to the notion of not understanding it, much less remember exactly which doubts they had when they learned it or how they went about understanding the issues.

- The students that had the right answer normally convinced those that didn't - as oppose to the other way around. They had better logic on their side and more confidence. Plus many of the students with the wrong answer knew they probably had the wrong answer.

Some of the critics of this approach point out that the traditional lecture is more efficient and allows more material to be covered. Yet in the age of Google & Wikipedia, who cares about covering lots of material? All that maters is for student to grasp the key concepts and know how to apply them. The rest that can find online...

The kids could totally relate to all this and agreed the same applied to their classes. I wonder how much longer it will take for education to adapt to the development of the printing press!

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