Saturday, January 17, 2009

Interactive science in college classrooms

Reading an article in this past week's New York Times on how the MIT physics department has been:

...pioneering teaching methods drawn from research showing that most students learn fundamental concepts more successfully, and are better able to apply them, through interactive, collaborative, student-centered learning...
and has accordingly replaced the large lectures of its introductory physics classes with:
...smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning...
my first reaction was alarm and dismay.

All too often I've seen how, in education, "research shows" not what science shows, but what educators want it to show. And all too often I've seen how "hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning" has watered down the math and science curriculum in grade schools, favoring the gregarious over the shy or otherwise unsocial. So now, whenever I hear these buzzwords, I flinch.

But how alarming is this trend, which, according to the Times, extends beyond MIT to include Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, North Carolina State University, the University of Maryland, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Harvard? The Times, of course, is not alarmed, but breathlessly enthusiastic--in the way of all recent articles about this kind of education reform:
Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups.
Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.
But, as I read, it occurs to me that college courses differ from grade school courses in ways that allow the best of both worlds: hands-on, experiential learning in the classroom, combined with abstract, linear learning (of the sort that many left-brainers prefer) outside the classroom, as students work through their textbooks. What's special about college classes, after all, is that, at 3 hours a week, the time students spend in class comprises a much smaller fraction of the overall time they spend engaging with a subject it does in grade school and high school. And, too often, the college lecture, however well-delivered, simply follows in lockstep with the textbook.

So, so as long as:

1. these modified courses cover the same amount of material as before, with the same overall rigor, and
2. students who work better on their own aren't forced to work in groups

these changes may actually be beneficial.

Unless they end up validating, and further entrenching, what our grade schools have done, in the name of "hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning," to math and science teaching--thus limiting the ability of American-educated freshmen to handle introductory college physics in general, whatever its incarnation.

No comments: