Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Students learn what they need, not what is assigned

A friend recently wrote about her experience with the currently fashionable style of teaching where students are expected to reinvent mathematics.

She wrote:
So much attention is given as to why - and to having students figure out algorithms themselves. Some teachers feel this is a waste of time - time that could be used for the students to be practicing the algorithms and becoming more fluent.

I think that this is largely a waste as well. We cannot expect students of all abilities to recapitulate in 6 years the history of more than 2000 thousand years of thought by the best minds the earth has ever seen. To imagine that they can is simply ludicrous. To imagine that what they can invent in this short time and that they don't need the benefit of those great thoughts is similarly ludicrous.

At the risk of sounding self-contradictory, I also think that when the student owns the task of learning, they will learn enormously better than when the task is imposed. This does not imply that the student discover everything, however. It merely implies that they need to discover the need for the things that they learn. Students who need to learn something can learn from almost any source, even from something as currently unfashionable as, say, sitting quietly thorugh traditional lecture.

The last time I taught in the classroom was as a member of a two-person teaching team teaching a software engineering class on machine level programming. In the past, this had been done by lecture and assignment and was truly a stunningly boring class. On the first day, I turned the structure of the class upside-down and assigned the entire final exam. This consisted of a single question in the form of a task (to build a robot that would drive around as fast as possible following a line on the floor). I then passed out soldering irons, computer components and kits of lego parts and told them to get to work. For the record, I had never tried to build such a 'bot myself.

This tactic resulted, as you would expect, in panic. The students complained that they didn't know how to solder, that they didn't know anything about the computer I had given them and that they didn't know how to build robots. I told them that they would have to learn all this and much more and that I would try to help them find out all this information, but they would have to tell me what they wanted to learn. Early on, the questions were about soldering. Over time, the questions became more and more sophisticated. At the beginning of the class, we had a list of lectures that we wanted to give, but we held them back until somebody asked a related question. At that point we would have a vote among the class whether they would like to have a lecture on the subject or would rather continue work on the robots.

By the end of the semester, I was getting complaints from the department because my students were (voluntarily) spending so much time on my class that they were neglecting their other classes. Some were spending 40 hours or more in the computer lab and many had built remarkable contraptions little related to the impending exam. This enthusiasm translated into perfect line-following performance on sample lines.

But ...

What I hadn't told the students was that the final would (for the first time) involve a line that crossed itself. Essentially all of the robots would fail on this line because they hadn't been designed or programmed to deal with that case. The real exam was whether they could deal with the unexpected and redesign and reprogram their robots during the 3 hour exam period to succeed on the harder problem.

All students succeeded.

Moreover two thirds of the class came back a week after the official final to repeat it in front of a friend who flew down to see how the class had worked out. I think, but do not have much data to support the assertion that it is rare for students to ask to be allowed to put off summer vacation so that they can repeat a final exam.

The point of it all was that these students could learn vastly more than was expected of them if they just wanted to. They could learn this material almost effortlessly in a traditional setting where somebody (me) wrote illegibly on the blackboard on difficult and abstract topics. But previous classes with exactly the same lectures given by better teachers than me had failed abysmally. I think the difference was that my students felt that they absolutely needed to learn what was in the lecture ... indeed, they had to ask for the lecture before I would give it. They also felt very much the owners of their task.

In the end, the students felt that they had invented almost everything they needed. In fact, I had spoon-fed fed them almost all of the key material. I told them how to make motors turn, how to make lights turn on, how to assemble and load software and how to design a software project. That didn't matter because they didn't remember that. What they remembered was that they initiated their learning of all of the material. They owned the class. I was their assistant, not their master.

And they learned. A lot.


John said...

Great article! I have to think about how to apply your ideas to the next class I teach.

Regarding summarizing 2000 years of thoughtin 6 years, I think we face two opposite dangers. We could discourage students into thinking they could never have come up with anything they've seen in class. Or we could train arrogant punks who think that they understand everything and are intellectually superior to the people whose hard work they've seen summarized. We need to tell them they could have come up with some small part of the whole if they thought about it for years like their predecessors did.

Ted Dunning ... apparently Bayesian said...

You are right that there is a propitious mid-point between letting the student do nothing (and boring them to pieces) and requiring that they re-invent everything.

I would say that what I advocate is helping them invent their own desire and then providing resources to help them learn from the experience of the ages.

Anonymous said...

Any teacher that can inspire a thirst for knowledge and achieving a goal in a student is a great teacher, I salute you!

Ted Dunning ... apparently Bayesian said...


I would say that a teacher who did this once is just lucky enough to find a good approach. There are teachers who can do this repeatedly.

They are great. I was lucky.

ankugoel said...

Awesome article, methods like these can induce some good fun and challenge at the same time in learning.

One aspect that has frequently been neglected in education is putting people into different groups based upon their learning rate capacity on a particular subject. There are people who inherently learn faster than others. Then there are those that have a moderate pace and then the ones who are really slow but still can grasp the subject at hand.

I personally have found myself to be a moderate to slow learner but a better applier once learning is firm.