Thursday, November 17, 2011

Medieval Teaching Methods

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?

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.
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.
Q: What’s the best way for people to learn?

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.
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?

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?

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.
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.

(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?

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.
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?

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.


  1. A colleague, Alison Campbell, has written on this topic, reviewing a research paper looking at different methods of teaching first-year biology papers:

  2. "Traditional lectures are very common at scientific meetings because nobody has figured out a better way to hear what an expert has to say. "

    Or because we scientists have yet to realize that what applies to student learning might also apply to our own learning...

  3. Rosie Redfield says,

    Or because we scientists have yet to realize that what applies to student learning might also apply to our own learning...

    Do you think that's true?

    Dear readers, would you like to go to a seminar where the audience split up into small groups to discuss among themselves whether arsenic can substitute for phosphorus in DNA?

    Or would you rather hear what Rosie Redfield had to say on the matter?

  4. I'd certainly want to hear what Rosie Redfield had to say! But I have been to some mind-numbingly (& bum-numbingly) boring lectures at scientific meetings. The ones I gain the most from are the ones where the lecturer is skilled at engaging the audience (& I've never heard him - wrong hemisphere, wrong continent - but I suspect PZ is one of these). And those presenters often move outside the 'traditional' lecture format to get their point across. So do I, when I'm giving public lectures - it can be as simple as asking questions of the audience from time to time.

    I'm reading a book on the visual curriculum at the moment. Unfortunately it's at home & I'm in the office, so I can't check the actual reference, but at one point the author says (echoing Rosie) that lecturers themselves were found to have much better recall of information if it was presented in a reasonably 'not-traditional' way. Certainly the evidence is there that 'alternative' methods work better for students.

  5. I rather listen to Rosie.

    But You are cheating Larry. Try this one instead (yes, I am also cheating):

    Would I go listen to WL Craig or discuss with others all the ways in which the cosmological argument is bullshit?

  6. The goals of a scientific meeting and the goals of a course for undergraduates are not the same. If the goal is to learn the results of recent experiments and to answer a few questions: nothing wrong with a lecture. But the lectures are mostly there to prompt discussions at the bar afterwards. They are an excuse to get people together for the real science.

    If you want to teach people how to think critically, talking at them might not be the best approach. Asking them to solve problems, frame questions, analyze data, etc, with timely feedback might be a better use of time.

    But of course there are times in a class when you just to have to say some things. Just don't pretend that because you said it, the audience has heard it. After all, how much do you remember from the lectures at the last scientific meeting you went to? Should that be the standard for our classes?

  7. That's it exactly, Barry. Data from year 1 physics students, for example, shows that retention of material taught using standard lectures falls off very quickly, compared with retention in students taught using the variety of techniques you mention.

  8. I take a radical position: 99% of lectures are waste of time. Read the damn textbook - learn more and save a lot of time. I haven't seen people learn much from lectures (other than memorizing what's important for upcoming exams) and I know that I haven't learned much of anything from lectures when I was undergrad. Moreover, in the age lecture notes, Powerpoints, and webcasts, there is no excuse for wasting everyone's time on lectures. (Yes, Larry, that includes scientific presentations because 95% of the information they present can be accessed and digested in 25% of their time if in printed form. E.g., if John Hawks were not speaking of anything that he hasn't already published in papers or his blog, I would see absolutely no reason to attend. And I'd much rather read Rosie that go and listen to her speaking).

    The case for hands on experience is graduate students I see in my daily life. They routinely come in completely clueless, barely remembering anything they had in high school and during their undergrad years (of course there are exceptions but they are exceptions). And then, given practical tasks that require a lot of undestanding of things, they learn. Sometime slowly and by trial and error but they DO learn, and learn well. And the chain of associations formed from that experience is so strong that they will never forget what they learned.

    The best way to learn electronics is to build a radio from ground up.

  9. "Okay you freshmen physics students, here's some hacky sacks and frisbees. Go out on the quad and figure out some laws of motion and gravity. If your satisfied with what you've figured out we won't need to waste time with Newton. This week pick a book about quantum physics and discuss with your partner...if you happen to pick a Deepak Chopra book, so be it."

    I happen to really like lectures. I have trouble reading. I almost didn't make it out of High School because of it and there isn't much chance of me making it into college at this point. I do go down to the University to listen to the free lectures listed on the calendar whenever I get the chance. If I don't have to read and I can just sit and listen, I can absorb it much easier.

  10. My thinking on this issue right now is really against my own interest. I'm a damned good lecturer. I have two courses of lectures on DVD and audio, and they do very well. I have great fun giving lectures all over the place, and I agree it's a good way to broadcast original information.

    But if my students can buy my lectures on DVD on sale for $69, why in the world should they pay college tuition to get the same thing? Lectures *are* a very efficient means of information transfer, so why do we price them as if they are inefficient?

    I will say that I presently give undergraduates a very different series of lectures than my DVD audience. But there's no reason in principle why I can't replace my in-class lectures with recordings, and thereby devote my in-class time to other styles of teaching.

    At a scientific meeting, a lecture actually may be a one-time production. If it were not immediately up to date and tailored to its particular audience, people wouldn't like it. That all takes much work.

  11. In high school, where I teach, solid lecturing would not be possible. There would be too much boredom and inattentiveness especially in larger classes would rise rapidly. So one has to mix a variety of things, a bit of lecture for a few minutes only, a bit of discussion, some problems or tasks to attempt and so on. Variety is the spice of life and education too perhaps.

    The best way to transmit information and skills is via texts or recordings as others have mentioned so that the students can review as they need, which may be why Salman Khan's Khan Academy is so popular - he doesn't seem wonderful to me in terms of "polish", but he is folksy and the students can keep reviewing, and videos are not judgmental of student efforts, as teachers are.

    True student centred learning is pointless, as very few of us can generate the insights needed and even those who can, like Newton, "stood on the shoulders of giants" and had to read their words and understand their ideas before augmenting them. It really is more suited to humanities, where all ideas tend to be considered equal and fact-free reasoning is more common, but in science ...

  12. 1. "Any teacher who tells their students that they can't explore ideas and challenge basic concepts and principles isn't doing their job." - No one is telling their students they _can't_ do this - the question is which techniques work for _encouraging_ it? Similarly, which techniques work for encouraging students to do the assigned reading and critically engage with it (which should be at least as important a learning experience as sitting in lectures)?

    2. One problem is that curricula tend to be very full (in terms of breadth / volume to work through) and simultaneously very light (in terms of depth of understanding required of the students). This does not encourage (and can actively discourage) exploring ideas and challenging concepts.

    3. Given how full curricula are and how limited contact time is, is it justifiable spending valuable contact time making the students interact with each other instead of with the instructor? (They can do this outside of contact time).

    4. For me, the best large-audience format for learning is a video lecture, where one can rewind and replay at will whenever you find your mind drifting. To me this happens many times per lecture, regardless of the quality of the lecture, with disastrous consequences. With a video, I can often achieve a thorough understanding of the material in as little as 150-200% of the lecture time. Reading is an ok second choice, and real time lectures are dramatically worse.

  13. It's worth not completely buying into the idea that little kids are these great exploratory learners, and therefore everything should be 'inquiry'. Little kids also happen to be ridiculously good at memorizing things, and actually enjoy it. Good teaching involves finding the best strategy for your goal for that day. Larry was dead on about using a mixture of approaches.

  14. Since retiring I have been taking courses at my local university. I've taken both large and small enrollment courses, the large ones done mostly by lecture, and the small ones both lecture and discussion. These have ranged from freshman level to graduate level courses.

    One thing I find troublesome with the discussion format is that I hate listening to an eighteen year old's fumbling attempt to explain a concept. I'd rather hear the answer from the expert -- the person teaching the course. That 18 year old kid might learn something in formulating an answer, but none of the rest of class does. It becomes just another ineffective lecture. Most professors do not have the skill necessary to elicit meaningful discussion in a large classroom setting. (Or, for many, even in a small classroom.)

    I have taken a few courses from humanities professors that were masters at eliciting discussion, but they were few and far between.

    An aside: It would do every academic a great deal of good if they were to take a course in a discipline remote from their own field of specialization. Become a student again and see what it's like on the other side of the lectern. It'll be an eye opener!