Find the original article here.
M.I.T. has just undergone a large change in the way it teaches many of it’s technical classes. The lecture format has been dropped in favor of more active approaches to learning. I believe this is undeniably a good thing.
I think there are two key changes here that this shift addresses, and one more change they would do well to incorporate. The important shifts are narrowing the breadth of the information in order to increase focus on the essential, and increasing engagement by filtering knowledge through an action oriented lens. But this approach still lacks the clear communication of why this knowledge is important in the first place. I’m not arguing that it isn’t important but communicating why it is important is an essential part in giving students the motivation to learn the material.
Teachers have a tendency to cram as much information as possible in the time they have rather than focusing deeply on communicating the key insights. All that information may be important but the dilution of the key principles makes the lesson overwhelming and decreases engagement and motivation.
In an article in the education journal Change last year, Dr. Wieman noted that the human brain “can hold a maximum of about seven different items in its short-term working memory and can process no more than about four ideas at once.”
“But the number of new items that students are expected to remember and process in the typical hourlong science lecture is vastly greater,” he continued. “So we should not be surprised to find that students are able to take away only a small fraction of what is presented to them in that format.”
Effective teaching needs to be consistent with how the brain actually learns. Absorbing the breadth of information that needs to be covered actually would be quite easy if the key concepts were communicated effectively first. Don’t try to understand a vast set of information by going through it in entirety once hoping the unconscious will miraculously synthesize a pattern. A much better method would involve learning the underlying pattern first. A lot of the information should now snap into place as most ideas in a class are just variations of the underlying pattern, and only require one additional step to achieve a deep understanding. But from my experience this is a major departure from how most teachers teach. There’s almost no flexibility in class because teachers have a fixed amount of curriculum they have to cover.
This has many parallels to current scientific understanding of the creative process. When the mind just tries to absorb everything and doesn’t know what it’s looking for it’s overwhelming and very little ends up being well understood. It’s like trying to write when you’re asked to write about anything. There’s simply too many things that nothing comes to mind. It’s much easier to be creative when you guidelines are defined. Creativity is working within restrictions. You need to know what to focus on. Asking clear, concise questions helps a lot. If you don’t know what you don’t understand first formulate a clear question. That narrows the confusion from a diffused feeling of understanding nothing to a specific topic that needs a little more attention.
“There was a long tradition that what it meant to teach was to give a really well-prepared lecture,” said Peter Dourmashkin, a senior lecturer in physics at M.I.T. and a strong proponent of the new method. “It was the students’ job to figure it out… The people who wanted to understand,” Professor Mazur said, “had the discipline, the urge, to sit down afterwards and say, ‘Let me figure this out.’ ” But for the majority, he said, a different approach is needed.
When you do that you are only going to engage the very top of the class for who the material comes completely naturally. But that cuts out a huge percentage of people who are very close to developing a deep understanding but just need a little help. The school system only works for two types of people. The student who is conditioned to accept whatever they are told and will do whatever is necessary to get the good grade and get into an Ivy league school. And the student who is so passionate about a subject that they are completely driven to develop a deep understanding of the subject. But often this type of student does well in only a few subjects and becomes a very narrow minded person early on.
M.I.T is taking real steps towards make learning a more active process.
“Just as you can’t become a marathon runner by watching marathons on TV,” Professor Mazur said, “likewise for science, you have to go through the thought processes of doing science and not just watch your instructor do it.” The new approach at M.I.T. is known by its acronym, TEAL, for Technology Enhanced Active Learning.
Not surprisingly, “younger professors tend to be more enthusiastic about TEAL than veterans who have been perfecting their lectures for decades.”
Wider Applicability of Purpose
Life is long. The most important thing schools need to instill is a lifelong love of learning. If your goal is ‘success’, and you measure it over the long haul then everything else should be secondary to instilling that motivation. We rush people through piles upon piles of information and almost never stop to tell them why they are learning all this information. We never give the breathing room for them to explore the knowledge. See what it’s useful for out in the real world. We rarely ever let them exercise creativity. School is about doing what your told and not questioning authority.
In talking with many teachers the thing that seems to be holding them back the most from becoming more creative and innovative is fear. They are afraid to give up control to the students. Not being able to predict what students will do with their time and whether they will use it wisely or laugh it off causes teachers to shake in their boots. There a few teachers who I’ve had who do have the courage to be different, and most of the time they’ve been more than rewarded with an incredibly engaged and enthusiastic class of students who look forward to coming to class and enjoy learning. How about that for a concept: Learning is fun.
The best way I know of to increase engagement and purpose is project based learning that interacts directly with the real world. This can stimulate desire, creativity, purpose and in the process create a better world. But I’ll save that for another post.