Monday, November 22, 2010

Addendum to front-page accolades for hands-on classrooms

Skewing some of the comments on my last post are a couple of misunderstandings that seem worth going over in detail:

First, some have objected to my focus on the Philadelphia Inquirer article because its treatment of Etkina's physics instruction was, as with so many articles on education, inaccurate and superficial.  As I explained to one commenter, however, the article is all most of those who are involved in k12 education are likely to encounter vis a vis Etkina's teaching. In other words, the article's inaccuracies doesn't detract from its nefarious influence. Many readers with their own influences over k12 education will come away thinking that the best way to teach physics is to completely avoid lecturing and direct instruction. And it is precisely this premise that I want to critique--because it is, at once, so problematic and (as anyone who knows anything current trends in k12 schools can attest) so influential.

Second, a few of the comments evince what I like to call the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle. While it is generally true that either X is true or "not X" is true, it's not true that either "never X" is true or "always X" is true. So when I say that it's bad to never stand up in front of a class and lecture and to only use "discovery" learning, I'm not saying that I believe teachers should always stand up in front and lecture and never use discovery learning.

One commenter who does recognize this "excluded middle" is Mr R., who twice attempted to post his remarks, which for some reason never made their way into the comments section:
As a second year physics teacher I am still trying to find that
delicate balance between discovery (labs) and semi-lectures. I
sometimes wonder if that balance will vary for each group of students.
This would mean that there is never going to be a 'perfect' formula of
how much time should be used doing what :( If life could be as easy as
math and physics.

Having this said I see two major concerns using the 'only- discovery'

1) Time. We simply do not have the time to let students 'discover' all
the concepts, ideas, relationships, and formulas.

2) Related to the first is the problem of, as Noam Chomsky called it,
concision. This is an idea that the population is intentionally being
trained in not being able to understand complex and complicated
explanations or concepts.

Let's be honest with ourselves. How do most reseachers, and adults in
general, get information if not by reading - from lectures (listening->
processing-> developing). This is sometimes due to time but more often,
as in college, audience size. In a large society, people MUST be able
to understand and retain information from lectures.

When we don't lecture at all to our students or never require them to
retain any information from lectures, we are in effect training them to
not learn from lectures.

Without any evidence to support my claim, I believe that 12 years
of 'non-lecture' education will leave a student less competent at
understanding any lecture - physics or any other subject.

Sad is the day when there are no more lectures.
Thanks, Mr. R!


Anonymous said...

The ability to learn from lectures is developmental. This is so not just in terms of how long a child/student can attend to a talking head or talking head with slides; it's also true in terms of how the lecture is constructed. Young children being exposed to brief, developmentally appropriate explanations can count on their teachers' having considered all of what they're presenting from the child's point of view, which determines what needs to be said/presented and how it can best be conveyed. College students have (we hope) gotten to the point where they can benefit from hour-long lectures which don't have to be nearly as careful to make sure that everything that's presented is scaffolded on what the students are known to already know. By college, we hope that the process can look more like a teacher "thinking out loud" to show the students how s/he came to a certain conclusion or realized a particular concept; we hope that the students can be depended on to make some informational leaps and to have accumulated the necessary background knowledge.

Richard said...

Did you really just say researchers get their information from lecture?

Are you sure you know what research means?

ChemProf said...

What do you think a conference is? Researchers of course read the original literature, but they also get information from listening to others speak. Yes, researchers do original work, but we also get a huge amount of information from other sources.

Joanne said...

I'm an immigrant who went to college in the US. I was stunned in college when I met so many middle class suburbanites who couldn't understand the simplest concepts covered in class.

The idea that "the population is intentionally being trained in not being able to understand complex and complicated explanations or concepts" is spot on in my view. Too many children aren't exposed to complex ideas at a young age and expected to make sense of them. I see this all the time. There seems to be a tendency in American education to make everything as easy, fun and unchallenging as possible.

I wonder if a child who has not been trained to understand complexity at a young age will ever be able to deal with complexity as an adult. Is it one of those skills that is best learned by a developing brain (like a musical instrument or a foreign language) or is there a possibility that this can be taught to adults?