John Hawks posts a reference to an article in MacLeans magazine about undergraduate teaching. John supports a style of teaching that emphasizes "hands-on" experience over learning about theory [The Problem with Stem, A reason for practical genomic education].
Like many critics of education, John thinks that traditional lectures are old-fashioned and inefficient. I tend to agree with him on this point—we can do a much better job of education in a classroom setting. However, I part company with many critics who go overboard in rejecting traditional lecture formats as a way of communicating information. For example, I note that this style is readily accepted in many other contexts. John Hawks gave a talk last week n Madison that I would love to have attended [I would so go to this if I were in Madison]. There are all kinds of other public lectures that people pay good money to attend—we filled an auditorium when PZ Myers acme to town. Traditional lectures are very common at scientific meetings because nobody has figured out a better way to hear what an expert has to say.
The death of lectures has been greatly exaggerated.
Let's look at the article in MacLeans magazine [In conversation: Alison Gopnik]. Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley (USA).
Q: What’s the traditional approach to learning at a university, and how does it square with what experts know about how people learn?Like I said, I don't want to defend traditional lectures because I think there's often a better way of teaching university students in classes. I strongly suspect that Alison Gopnik gives medieval-style lectures whenever she talks at meetings or gives seminars at other universities. There are times when it's worthwhile for students to hear the opinion of a respected expert in spite of the fact that we have printed books. If there weren't some value in this, then nobody would invite Alison Gopnik to give a talk.
A: The traditional way of thinking about learning at a university is: there’s somebody who’s a teacher, who actually has some amount of knowledge, and their job is figuring out a way of communicating that knowledge. That’s literally a medieval model; it comes from the days when there weren’t a lot of printed books around, so someone read the book and explained it to everybody else. That’s our model for what university education, and for that matter high school education, ought to be like. It’s not a model that anybody’s ever found any independent evidence for.
Q: What’s the best way for people to learn?There's a bit of false dichotomy here. I can think of at least three possibilities: (1) traditional lectures, (2) non-traditional classroom learning, (3) learning by exploring. I want to address the assumption that "learning by exploring" should be the "modern" way to educate but I don't want anyone to assume that I am defending the medieval lecture as the only alternative. Okay?
A: When we actually start to look at the fundamentals, it seems children learn by exploring—by experimenting, playing, drawing inferences—and there’s every reason to believe the same is true for adults. The really remarkable discovery we’ve made is that that kind of exploratory learning isn’t just the purview of scientists but seems to be very, very basic. We all have the capacity to function the way scientists do. The other kind of learning that we see, not so much in preschoolers but in school-age children, is what I call guided apprenticeship learning, where you’re not just exploring and finding out new things but learning to perform a skill particularly well. A person who’s learning that way will imitate what an expert does, then modify what they’re doing based on feedback. That’s the way you learn how to dance, play a musical instrument, learn a sport. We have reason to believe that’s something that kicks in and becomes particularly important in adolescence, when people are learning specific skills. So the point I would make is that if you look at the way we do a lot of undergraduate teaching, and I’m including myself in here, we don’t really do either of those things. There’s not exploratory learning, there’s not guided apprenticeship. An awful lot of undergraduate teaching still has this model of lecturers who get up and try to be entertaining and talk about whatever they’re doing, and students who sit in a lecture hall and take notes.
Let's take evolution as a case study. There's a lot to be learned about population genetics, selection, random genetic drift and speciation. Students come into university classes with a lot of misconceptions about evolution and a proper, critical-thinking, approach requires that we deal with those misconceptions. For examples, is it true that science supports intelligent design creationism?
Alison Gopnik is describing a pedagogical approach that may work well for kindergarten students but there's a lot of stuff you need to learn that you can't get from playing with Lego and collecting bugs in the local pond. The world is full of important ideas (theory) that you just can't discovery on your own no matter how many frogs you dissect.
It all sounds great, doesn't it? The best way to learn how to dance, play the violin, or play tennis, is to practice, practice, practice, under the guidance of a mentor. Who's going to argue with that? But is that what university education is all about? Skills are important but by the time you get to university it's time to put away childish things and grapple with big ideas. There's a reason why we say that the purpose of a university education is supposed to be about learning how to think, not how to do. There's a reason why we want to teach critical thinking instead of how to perform skills.
Q: How do you know a different model, one based on inquiry and exploration for instance, would produce different results?That's really fuzzy thinking. Any teacher who tells their students that they can't explore ideas and challenge basic concepts and principles isn't doing their job. Why can't you have classrooms where the students discuss ideas among themselves? Why can't students read books and articles and discuss the conflicting ideas they discover? You don't have to work with your hands in order to think effectively. If that were true, then Stephen Hawking would be out of a job.
A: A couple of recent studies show that preschoolers do something very different if they’re exploring a toy to figure out how it works than if they think somebody’s actually giving them the answer. In a nice experiment that was done at MIT, they gave children a toy to play with that could do lots of different things. You’d punch something and it squeaked, you’d push another button and something else happened, and so on. In one condition the experimenter came in and said, “Oh look, I’ve never seen this toy, let’s see what it can do,” and then bumped into it and it squeaked. In the other condition the experimenter said, “I’ll show you how this toy works.” In the first condition, the children then spontaneously explored everything else the toy could do. Whereas when the experimenter said, “I’m going to show you how this works,” the children just did exactly what the experimenter did, over and over and over again. The findings suggest that children and, presumably, adults, learn quite differently when they’re learning in this spontaneous exploratory way than when they’re learning from a teacher. Now, there are good things about having a teacher who just narrows the range of options you can consider, but there’s also the danger that you’ll wind up just essentially imitating the teacher.
(Let me pause here, and make one thing clear. One of the goals of education in biochemistry is to prepare students for a career in biochemistry (graduate school). In most cases this means you have to acquire some proficiency in a lab. For those students, learning skills are important but they're still secondary to learning principles and concepts.)
Q: There’s perennially a hue and cry that this generation of university students is less prepared or inferior in some way to students in years past. Do you find that?Agreed. I think most university professors would agree. The question before us is how do we teach students to become intellectuals. Is it by playing with squeeze toys?
A: I think the biggest difference, and it’s sort of ironic, is that they’re over-prepared, especially at elite universities like Berkeley or Harvard or McGill or Toronto. Because there’s insane pressure on high school students to achieve and get into college, by the time they get here they’ve already got a mindset: “All right, it’s absolutely imperative that I get an A+ on every single test and I need to know what I have to do to achieve that.” But what we want in students is creativity and a willingness to fail. I always say to students, “If you’ve never at some point stayed up all night talking to your new boyfriend about the meaning of life instead of preparing for the test, then you’re not really an intellectual.” The issue—and this is actually much more a problem in the United States but even in Canada it’s true—is we’re selecting a group that has gone through so much pressure to get to university that they don’t have that wide-ranging curiosity that’s a really important part of having an intellectual life.
There seems to be some inconsistency here. I agree with Alison Gopnik that you will get more out of staying up all night talking about the meaning of life than by attending traditional lectures that are badly done. Is she saying that the all-night session is just another version of exploratory learning? If so, why does she always use physical hands-on examples to support her case and why is she so down on the classroom experience?
The bigger question is whether it's true that the best way for children to learn is also the best way for university students to learn.