Changing Education: M.I.T. Takes Big Step in Right Direction

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.

Narrowing Breadth

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.

Increasing Engagement

“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.

10 Comments
  • Teacher
    January 18, 2009

    This is the classic student who thinks he knows more than the teacher. You’ve had very little classroom experience, yet you make generalizations as to the nature of most classrooms.

    I think you’ll enjoy office hours as a college student, an opportunity to speak candidly with your professors.

    This all just sounds a little too biased too me, I’m worried you are going to go into life after high school very narrow-minded. In this way, you will be the one responsible for not learning, not any institution or societal norm.

  • Teacher
    January 18, 2009

    This is the classic student who thinks he knows more than the teacher. You’ve had very little classroom experience, yet you make generalizations as to the nature of most classrooms.

    I think you’ll enjoy office hours as a college student, an opportunity to speak candidly with your professors.

    This all just sounds a little too biased too me, I’m worried you are going to go into life after high school very narrow-minded. In this way, you will be the one responsible for not learning, not any institution or societal norm.

  • PeerReview
    January 19, 2009

    Max, a couple of comments.

    Learning is fun is not necessarily a good concept. This may come
    as a shock, but not everything in life is fun, or should be. For example, installing a new water heater, or mulching your landscaping. Something tells me that you think that is stupid comment. Your job, when and if you get one, will involve many things that aren’t “fun”. Waking up at 430 am, staff meetings, coming in on the weekends, these are things that are not fun that are completely necessary. How about something as simple as learning to do your taxes. Do the numbers w2 or 1040 have any meaning to you?

    Learning is fun may be the answer for you, but is it the answer for the 16 year old who has to raise their siblings because they have no parents or money? An effort to raise a generation of Americans who believes that they are entitled to a “fun” education, and a “fun” job may be extremely counter productive.
    Life isn’t about burkenstocks and organic smoothies or composting, it is about hard work and perseverance.

  • PeerReview
    January 19, 2009

    Max, a couple of comments.

    Learning is fun is not necessarily a good concept. This may come
    as a shock, but not everything in life is fun, or should be. For example, installing a new water heater, or mulching your landscaping. Something tells me that you think that is stupid comment. Your job, when and if you get one, will involve many things that aren’t “fun”. Waking up at 430 am, staff meetings, coming in on the weekends, these are things that are not fun that are completely necessary. How about something as simple as learning to do your taxes. Do the numbers w2 or 1040 have any meaning to you?

    Learning is fun may be the answer for you, but is it the answer for the 16 year old who has to raise their siblings because they have no parents or money? An effort to raise a generation of Americans who believes that they are entitled to a “fun” education, and a “fun” job may be extremely counter productive.
    Life isn’t about burkenstocks and organic smoothies or composting, it is about hard work and perseverance.

  • Daz
    February 12, 2009

    When I was taking those intro physics lectures as an M.I.T. freshman in 1964 — in the same lecture room mentioned in the article — I and the students I knew pretty much all thought this was a great course.

    The physics faculty had devoted a good deal of time, in the previous few years, to revising the curriculum — and it was time well spent. The lecturer was super-prepared, clear, and entertaining, sometimes punctuating the lecture with experiments on stage, or short films.

    I hope M.I.T. kept at least one physics lecture that students can choose to take instead of the new version of the course.

  • Daz
    February 12, 2009

    When I was taking those intro physics lectures as an M.I.T. freshman in 1964 — in the same lecture room mentioned in the article — I and the students I knew pretty much all thought this was a great course.

    The physics faculty had devoted a good deal of time, in the previous few years, to revising the curriculum — and it was time well spent. The lecturer was super-prepared, clear, and entertaining, sometimes punctuating the lecture with experiments on stage, or short films.

    I hope M.I.T. kept at least one physics lecture that students can choose to take instead of the new version of the course.

  • John H
    April 17, 2009

    good good

  • John H
    April 18, 2009

    good good

  • reader
    June 11, 2009

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  • reader
    June 10, 2009

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