This was written by Arthur Camins, director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.
By Arthur Camins
Some intended learning sticks with us, some slips away into oblivion and most hovers somewhere in between. The determinants are nuanced and complex. In all of the current enthusiasm for so-called flipped classrooms and the wonders of the Khan Academy’s online lectures these distinction are often overlooked.
Part of the flipped idea is appealing and based on what is known from research in the learning sciences about the social nature of learning: Use class time to maximize learning that comes from active problem solving and the social interaction among students and between students and teachers. [Flipped classrooms have students learn their lessons at home via videos and other materials and do ‘homework’ in class.]
However, not enough attention is being paid to sorting out what is most effectively learned through reading, from listening to a lecture and from active social engagement in problem solving. Questions about the cognitive impact of listening to a lecture alone while being able to stop and replay, about whether students take advantage of that technical capacity, and under what circumstances are too often glossed over.
Little attention is given to the affective domain of learning.
A key idea is that there are some really great lecturers and that technology can make them available to vast numbers of students. But it is not really that simple. I’ll share my own experiences to make the point.
I’ve spent my professional career exploring the learning advantages of active engagement in science investigation, but I appreciate the power of a terrific lecture or book. My experience is that both lectures and reading can be powerful, but only in context.
What is it about a great lecture that leads to learning? I attended the University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate between 1968 and 1972 where I experienced the power of two great lecturers. It was a terrible and wonderful time of conflict and hope as the Vietnam War and civil rights movement swirled around us. Like most young people I decided on which college to attend for vague reasons and without a clear idea about what I wanted to study or pursue as a career. What I did know was that I wanted to make a difference in the world and be a participant in the social and political struggles of my time.
Then, I attended the lectures of two very different history professors, Harvey Goldberg and George Mosse. I don’t remember much detail all these years later. But I do remember my intellectual and emotional response. They inspired me in three ways.
First, they taught me that understanding the historic dynamics of social change could provide insight, but not a road map for current struggles. Second, they inspired me to want engage in the careful, deliberate discipline of an historian … and to have integrity about interpretation and claims. Third, they made we want to teach history, because understanding the past and the disciplines of the historian could help students make sense of their world and equip them as change agents.
Goldberg was a mesmerizing storyteller. Over 40 years later, I still remember him whipping off his thick black-rimmed glasses, leaning deliberately forward and then launching into a vibrant recreation of pivotal historical moments, laced with thoughtful interpretation. He was so popular that hundreds of students who were not even enrolled in his course filled the standing room only balconied lecture hall with rapt attention. So too, Mosse used his lectures not just to tell the story, but to highlight ambiguity and to challenge us to not accept facile interpretations that suited our political preferences. That was the learning that stuck, while memory of the historical facts slipped away.
However, a substantial portion of these lectures’ power came from the shared social experience. We were there together to figure out our world so that we could be actors in changing it. The stickiness was the result of connecting the subject matter to what mattered to us as a group.
In fact, Goldberg’s lectures are now available on video. But, good as they were, would they have had such power if we had had the technology to listen to them at our leisure in the privacy of our dorm rooms? Maybe listening to the live lecture together, but replaying them alone or in a small study group for the nuances would be productive. At the very least, the cognitive and affective benefits of various permutations need further exploration.
Life is subject to serendipity and as it turned out I became neither an historian nor history teacher, but rather a science educator. Once again, I gained both expertise and inspiration by being part of groups of teachers, professional developers, curriculum developers and administrators trying to understand how science learning (and now engineering too), fit into the larger picture of children’s lives and our society.
Along the way, authors inspired and helped me sort out ideas, from Thomas Kuhn, Jacob Brownowski and Steven Jay Gould to Linda Darling-Hammond, Dylan William, Carol Dweck, and Phil Schlechty. More recently, Diane Ravitch has been a powerful example that people ideas can evolve in the face of new evidence. My learning path was not “efficient” and certainly extraordinarily difficult to measure. Some of the learning was sticky and some slippery. The sticky parts came from making meaning in the context of shared communities of purpose.
As a college student, I was part of a community trying to make sense of history so we could engage, organize politically and have an impact for the better. So too, my current science and engineering colleagues help make my new learning stick because together we are trying figure out how to make science and engineering learning meaningful and memorable for students. In both cases the power is in the connection to larger social purpose. The slippery parts come from — well, lousy memory, irrelevance and lack of use.
In fact, I’m a fan of the real learning advantages of technology and especially the power of formative assessment. But, in all the enthusiasm for the powers of technology and measurement, let’s not loose the sticky powers of inspiration, community, and meaningful use. The latter cannot be commercialized, but they do matter most.
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