Monday, April 16, 2012


I often say facts are irrelevant. My wife (who taught school for over 30 years) always argues with me when I say that. I mean it, however. Facts are often disputed, even things we consider as facts.

I remember sitting next to a member of the New Jersey State Board of Education just before I was to give a speech. He was beaming with pride when he told me that finally the Board was insisting that kids learn important historical facts such as when the Civil War started. I was rather surprised and asked him when that was - when the first shot was fired on American soldiers by rebels?; when slavery was introduced into the United States?; when the North freed itself from the economic need for slaves and began to try and force the agrarian South to end slavery?; when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation?; when the first seven rebelling states declared they were no longer part of the Union but instead had formed The Confederate States of America? You can make an argument for all of these "dates." And it is totally unimportant, I think, to have to know them. Instead it is important to want to answer the question; to know how to gather information that might result in an answer; to know how to gather evidence necessary to answer the question; to sort thorough the evidence to reach a tentative conclusion or conclusions; and then to clarify the question and ask new questions in order to start this process all over again.

Many students tell me "It is easy to find someone's opinion about a topic on the internet but finding the actual facts isn't as easy." Correct. In fact we should be as skeptical of "facts" as of opinions. It is the thinking process that I see as critical for an educated person. If we merely dispense "facts" - our facts - then we fail as educators. If we only test for facts, we are doing our students a great disservice. We probably should not test for a knowledge of "facts" at all!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Lectures - Part 1

Big Lecture hall flled with students

Lectures have been in the spotlight recently.

Jeffrey R. Young writes that Michael Wesch, an anthropologist at Kansas State University, whom Young describes as "having been on the lecture circuit for years touting new models of active teaching with technology" is now "rethinking the fundamentals of teaching – and questioning his own advice." Young says Wesch now has :a new message" which is that it doesn't matter which method [interactive tools or the lecture] you use if you do not first focus on one intangible factor: the bond between professor and student."

Young then compares Wesch with Christopher Sorenson, a physics professor also at Kansas State, who "champions" the lecture approach despite the questions being raised about lectures as an appropriate method for teaching. Young quotes Sorenson as saying "The messenger, ironically, is more important than the message...If the messenger is excited and passionate about what they have to say it ... stimulates students to see what all this excitement is all about." Young contends that Sorenson believes "his job is less about being an expert imparting facts, and more about being a salesman convincing students that his material is worth their attention."

On February 15, 2012, three days after Young's article was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Daniel de Vise reported in The Washington Post that "The faculty at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has dedicated this academic year to finding alternatives to the lecture" in math, science and engineering. Mr. de Vise also reports that "Harvard University and even the White House have hosted events in which scholars have assailed the lecture." He goes on to report that "The lecture backlash signals an evolving vision of college as participatory exercise....The watchword of today is 'active learning.'

The lecture method is also being questioned at the secondary level as well as in college. On the same day that Young's article was published, Alan Schwarz, writing in The New York Times, reported that the schools in Mooresville, North Carolina have had to limit visitors to groups of 60 once a month to see the changes that have taken place with the introduction of new technologies, where "classrooms have moved from lecture to lattice, where students collaborate in small groups with the teacher swooping in for consultation...even though some teachers "resented having beloved tools – scripted lectures, printed textbooks and a predictable flow through the curriculum – vanish."

Lectures also appeared in the crystal ball of Alex Lindsay. He reported his vision of "The Future of Education" in a Google+ post on February 17, 2012. "Lectures the way we know them don't really exist. Most of school is divided into 4 processes: Movies, Games, Projects and Discussion." Discussions "are really global events: students attend from all over the world. Some are in theatres together, some are at home, some are in smaller event locations. Students at these events are of all ages...based on their achievement levels...Questions are posted and voted on by the group to percolate to the top and be discussed by the expert (or experts -- there are often people from given industries participating in these events). The events are productions, usually with intense graphics and TV-level production values."

In a similar fashion, Daphne Koller of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, in her New York Times essay “Death Knell for the Lecture : Technology is a Passport to Personalized Education” advocates the replacement of lectures with content delivered through video in “short bite size chunks.” She goes on to describe the forums that are part of Stanford courses now: Students can vote on questions” to be answered allowing “the most important questions to be answered quickly” which echoes Lindsay’s dream of global discussions with a similar feature. Knoll does not dream, however. She describes what Stanford is doing now and she believes that “by using technology in the service of education, we can change the world in our lifetime.”

So what do we make of this flurry of comments and discussions about lectures and their place in education? Let us take a closer look at what is being said.

Why are lectures useful?
Lectures are efficient in reducing the costs of educational institutions. They enable one •instructor to produce large numbers of credit hours. Since educational institutions charge for credit hours, lectures are “cost effective.”
•Lectures result in curated topics thereby limiting the time students have to spend on a particular topic. Of course, the curation sometimes brings charges that the curation is politically or personally motivated.
•Lectures often are effective in generating interest in a subject matter - “selling” a student, as Christopher Sorenson said, on the notion that certain subjects are “worth their attention.”

I would offer one comment here. First, it is interesting to note that in all of these musings on lectures, no one suggests that we have any evidence that lectures improve the learning of students.

Why abandon lectures?
•They are too long. Bite sized chunks are more appropriate for the short attention span of students.
•Students often find them boring and a waste of time.
Video presentations can break the limitations that lectures have since they are fixed in time and place.
•They often are not accompanied by activities which engage students in organizing, digesting, evaluating and using the information provided in lectures.
•They are not effective in promoting learning.
•The drop rate in lecture classes is very high.
•The information loss is great and immediate.

What would be better?
•A learning environment where faculty and students bond (Wesch).
•Video presentations (lectures, discussions) led by academics and practitioners (Lindsay)combined with active learning projects (Koller, Lindsay, Schwarz).
•“Flip classes” - classes where individualized instruction is provided in class preceded by video instruction delivered by technology (Koller).
•A system in which students vote on which questions and topics are “most important” and to be addressed first.(Koller, Lindsay)
•The use of products such as iBooks that combine audio, video, graphics, pictures and text into one delivery mechanism (Lindsay).
•Tutoring which Benjamin Bloom demonstrated in 1984 produces far better results than lectures (Koller).

What are the impediments to achieving a better replacement for lectures?
•Faculty do not like to change their delivery techniques. It is personally expensive to them in terms of time. In addition, replacing the lecture requires that faculty address questions they have not faced before such as what are the learning objectives they want their students to achieve and what techniques can lead to the attainment of those objectives.
•Technology plays a central role in all suggestions for change. The costs are often seen as a significant impediment to change.
•Tradition. Lectures are part of our culture and history - in schools, churches and other “cultural events.”

The discussions and debates about lectures and learning are underway. You should be joining them. As you do let me suggest that you first attempt to identify what the outcomes of education should be. I ask myself these three questions:
•What is it that I expect my students to know as a result of the learning environment I am creating and providing?
•What is it I expect my students to be able to do?
•What experiences do I want my students to have had? I am often asked why I include experiences in my set of learning outcomes since experiences are not outcomes. I do so because I believe experiences, especially those that involve regular and directed reflection, are important where the outcomes desired cannot be achieved in a short time frame but where we have evidence (or maybe just good hunches) that a set of experiences increases the likelihood that certain desired outcomes will be attained later in life. I think it is those outcomes that are the real reasons for classes such as Art Appreciation and Music Appreciation rather than the objectives that appear in the tests that accompany these courses: what composer?, what period?, what “school”?, and so on.

Start your thinking. Leave me comments. I will expand on my ideas in later posts. Be a part of that conversation.