An ed­u­ca­tion

Bhutan Times - - Editorial -

The world can no longer af­ford to sup­port learn­ing sys­tems in which only the most ca­pa­ble stu­dents can thrive.

One of the sub­jects that peo­ple love to ar­gue about, fol­low­ing closely be­hind the ‘cor­rect’ way to raise chil­dren, is the best way to teach them. For many, per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence and cen­turies of tra­di­tion make the an­swer self-ev­i­dent: teach­ers and text­books should lay out the con­tent to be learned, stu­dents should study and drill un­til they have mas­tered that con­tent, and tests should be given at strate­gic in­ter­vals to dis­cover how well the stu­dents have done.

And yet, decades of re­search into the science of learn­ing has shown that none of these tech­niques is par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive. In uni­ver­sitylevel science cour­ses, for ex­am­ple, stu­dents can in­deed get good marks by pas­sively lis­ten­ing to their pro­fes­sor’s lec­tures and then cram­ming for the ex­ams. But the re­sult­ing knowl­edge tends to fade very quickly, and may do noth­ing to dis­place mis­con­cep­tions that stu­dents brought with them.

Con­sider the com- mon (and wrong) idea that Earth is cold in the win­ter be­cause it is fur­ther from the Sun. The stan­dard, lec­ture-based ap­proach amounts to hop­ing that this idea can be dis­placed sim­ply by get­ting stu­dents to mem­o­rize the cor­rect an­swer, which is that sea­sons re­sult from the tilt of Earth’s axis of ro­ta­tion. Yet hun­dreds of em­pir­i­cal stud­ies have shown that stu­dents will un­der­stand and re­tain such facts much bet­ter when they ac­tively grap­ple with chal­lenges to their ideas — say, by ask­ing them to ex­plain why the north­ern and south­ern hemi­spheres ex­pe­ri­ence op­pos­ing sea­sons at the same time. Even if they ini­tially come up with a wrong an­swer, to get there they will have had to think through what fac­tors are im­por­tant. So when they fi­nally do hear the cor­rect ex­pla­na­tion, they have al­ready built a men­tal scaf­fold that will give the an­swer mean­ing.

In this is­sue, pre­pared in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can, Na­ture is tak­ing a close look at the many ways in which ed­u­ca­tors around the world are try­ing to im­ple­ment such ‘ac­tive learn­ing’ meth­ods (see na­ture.com/stem). The po­ten­tial pay-off is large — whether it is mea­sured by the in­creased num­ber of promis­ing stu­dents who fin­ish their de­grees in science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics (STEM) dis­ci­plines in­stead of be­ing driven out by the sheer bore­dom of rote mem­o­riza­tion, or by the non-STEM stu­dents who get first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence in en­quiry, ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and rea­son­ing on the ba­sis of ev­i­dence.

Im­ple­ment­ing such changes will not be easy — and many aca­demics may ques­tion whether they are even nec­es­sary. Lec­ture-based ed­u­ca­tion has been suc­cess­ful for hun­dreds of years, af­ter all, and — al­most by def­i­ni­tion — to­day’s univer­sity in­struc­tors are the peo­ple who thrived on it.

But change is es­sen­tial. The stan­dard sys­tem also threw away far too many stu­dents who did not thrive. In an era when more of us now work with our heads, rather than our hands, the world can no longer af­ford to sup­port poor learn­ing sys­tems that al­low too few peo­ple to achieve their goals.

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