Sunday, March 15, 2009

“Stop Talking and Let the Students Learn to Learn”

Recently, I noted an initiative at MIT to use computers and other high-tech equipment to make introductory physics classes less like lectures and more like hands-on experiences. Since then, I came across an additional, more fundamental perspective about technology-assisted learning. A 1986 essay by Robert T. Morrison of New York University, The Lecture System in Teaching Science argues that most teachers have yet to effectively use a 500-year-old technology: the printing press.

Morrison starts by describing the typical college chemistry class, where a professor lectures the entire time, continuously scribbling equations on the chalkboard as the students fill their notebook pages with whatever the professor writes and says.

Just as the bell rings, the lecturer, if he’s a really smooth operator, comes to the end of a sentence, a paragraph, a nice neat unit. He lays down his last piece of chalk — he knows exactly how many pieces the lecture will take — picks up his precious lecture notes, and goes out. The students, tired but happy, rise up and follow after him. Their heads are empty, but their notebooks are full.

Although a caricature, Morrison’s version of science class should be familiar enough. But how did things get this way?

What I’ve heard, and I imagine that this is correct, is that it started a very long time ago, when books were rare and very expensive, and the only way to transmit information was for the teacher, who knew, to tell the students, who did not yet know. And they would write it all down and take it away with them, like a bunch of scribes. Remember, scribes were very big in the Middle Ages.

Morrison goes on to advocate the “Gutenberg Method,” a teaching system that relieves students of scribing so they can focus on learning.

What does the Gutenberg Method involve? Simply this. You assign the students portions of the textbook to study before they come to class. When they come into the classroom, they are already acquainted with the material. You don’t waste your time, and theirs, outlining the course. You don’t waste time telling them that butyric acid smells like rancid butter, and that valeric acid smells like old socks, and other difficult intellectual concepts. The textbook has taken all that drudgery off your hands. You don’t waste your time doing what Frank Lambert calls “presenting a boardful of elegantly organized material with beautiful answers to questions that the students have not asked.”

The students have read the material, they have thought about it, and they have questions to ask about it. You answer these questions, or, better still, try to get them to answer their own questions, or get other students to give the answers. You ask questions. You have a discussion. If they’re slow to come alive, you take up points that you know give students trouble. You lead them through difficult problems. The entire class hour becomes like those few golden moments at the end of an old-fashioned lecture when a few students manage to rise above the system and gather around your desk....

What the Gutenberg Method offers, then, is two things, either of which alone would make it worthwhile. First, you have a better mechanism for the initial transmittal of information, one that is more efficient and more effective. Second, the big bonus and the reason for the Gutenberg Method in the first place is that you gain all that lovely class time for doing what you hardly get to do under the lecture system, and that is teach.

In other words, teaching—by a human rather than a book—is interactive. With interactive discussion, the teacher can probe what students do and don’t understand. The teaching is thus targeted to the gaps that remain after “book learning,” including helping students learn to learn: You learned it once from the book, now let’s make it stick.

This kind of teaching is good for students, but Morrison is writing for fellow teachers when he adds:

I think all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, indulge in wishful thinking. We lecture to students with the belief, the wish that they are learning. But we put off the moment of truth — the moment when we find out whether or not we’re really getting through to them — until the next examination: a week, a month, maybe longer. And even then, we are cushioned against any shocks we might get, such as finding out that a lot of them are not learning. It’s a written examination and, while we may grade the examination, it’s still a matter of marks on pieces of paper, just names and grades. But when you take the plunge into a discussion, you’ve moved from a theater to a swimming pool and you’re sometimes shocked by the cold water of reality. You find out, not next week or next month, but today, eyeball-to-eyeball, that some students have only the fuzziest idea of what you’ve been trying to put across.

If I’m choosing a teacher, I’ll take the one who wants this kind of immediate feedback and accountability, and who’d rather talk with students about a subject than lecture to them.

[The title of this post is the apt title of a paper mentioned in Morrison’s essay, George Adkinson’s “Stop Talking and Let the Students Learn to Learn.”]

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