A cognitive scientist takes aim at the way universities teach
Just quit lecturing them
A cognitive scientist takes aim at the way universities teach
Alison Gopnik, a cognitive scientist and leading U.S. scholar, sees a lamentable irony in academic life. While universities are society’s hothouses for intellectual discovery and learning, she’s convinced the lecture—the standard method of teaching most students—is a distinctly poor way to pass on knowledge. Originating from the days when books were rare and a professor had to share their contents with students, it is outdated, she says. “The way people learn best is by effectively interacting with their environment,” says Gopnik, 50, who grew up in Montreal and is now is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Gopnik has more than a professional interest in university teaching—two of her three children currently attend university, and her youngest will next year—and she’s frustrated about the kind of teaching her kids are encountering. “There certainly isn’t any principled reason why the lecture should be the way of educating people.”
Human beings are hard-wired to learn by doing, explains Gopnik, who bemoans the widespread reliance—as much by herself as by fellow professors—on lecturing to undergraduates. “There is a staggering contrast between what I know about learning from the lab, and the way I teach in the classroom,” she wrote in an online symposium on reinventing college, hosted by Slate.com. “It’s no coincidence that modern science only began to take off when it abandoned [the lecture]. This is, literally, a medieval form of learning.”
The best learning takes place, Gopnik told Maclean’s, with what she calls a “guided apprenticeship,” when a learner tries different things as an expert provides feedback, much in the way sports and music are usually taught.
“People—including young children—seem to be designed to want to explore and experiment and interact with the things around them,” says Gopnik, whose research focuses on children and how they learn. “That kind of teaching is much closer to the natural way we learn,” she says. “It is puzzling,” she adds, “that those capacities for learning, which we actually know and understand a lot about, are so discordant from the things that we do when we’re explicitly setting about trying to get university students to learn.”
Still another irony, says Gopnik, is that many professors—the main attraction, after all, for students—admit their real passion is the research part of their work, not the lecturing. In fact, much of the teaching is farmed out to the “academic lumpen proletariat”: the adjunct teachers who are paid low wages and receive poor benefits. “Students are going to the great universities because their faculty are at the absolute top of their field. But the students end up being lectured by someone who isn’t actually good enough to get a job in the university,” she says emphatically. “It’s the shame of academia.”
Gopnik’s youngest child, who intends to study in Canada, as his siblings are doing, is in the midst of weighing the advantages of the top universities and their superstar professors against the better teaching programs of smaller institutions. Gopnik says he’s discovered that mid-sized schools, such as B.C.’s Simon Fraser University, offer more co-operative programs and courses where students are actively working and engaged than the
large, prestigious schools. “There’s this Catch22,” she says. “In some ways, those secondary universities are doing a better job than the prestigious universities, which is a terrible shame because there’s so much intellectual firepower at the big universities. The pity of it is that you want people to be having that experience and be interacting with the faculty who are the very best in their field.”
Canada’s universities are struggling to respond effectively to the combined whammy of imploding budgets and exploding student populations. Classes are large; and with hundreds of students, professors don’t have time to connect individually with them. At the University of Toronto, which proportionately has Canada’s largest classes, 10 per cent of first and second year students attend a class of more than 500. Overcrowding is generating increasingly desperate solutions, as seen earlier this winter at the University of Prince Edward Island. Not able to see everyone in a standing-room-only lecture hall, history professor David Weale offered students a grade of Bif they stayed away from his class. He told the media he wanted to make a point. Twenty of his 95 students accepted. Weale was swiftly suspended and later fired.
By gearing their welcome and services to their undergraduate populations, many smaller schools have distinguished themselves as the place to be for undergrads. At the same time, as the bulge of Ontario’s double cohort approaches graduation, competition for university-bound teenagers is heating up. In recent years, even the most prestigious univer-
sities, the city-sized ones like McGill and the University ofToronto, where undergrads traditionally have felt alienated and unconnected, have begun to consider how they can make the undergraduate experience more valuable. McGill, for instance, has introduced a new interdisciplinary program for first-year students on the origins of social and political ideas that includes both small tutorial groups and large lectures. The goal is to provide a setting where students are learning from world-class professors but are also part of a cohesive group.
Most Canadian universities today have centres that offer professors help with their teaching skills, which leads Julia Christensen Hughes, an organizational behaviour professor and president of the Ottawa-based Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, to be cautiously optimistic. But, she says, the barriers to dropping the lecture are many, as lecturing to a large class is efficient, if not effective. Plus, research, rather than teaching, brings enormous prestige to an institution, not to mention big government grants for cash-starved schools.“We’ve come a long way,” Christensen Hughes says. “But we have a lot further still to go.” Inertia is the main reason there’s been little change, Gopnik says. “Universities are incredibly small-c conservative institutions, and it’s very hard for them to change things that have been there for a long period of time.” It’s unlikely, she continues, that a large, established university like Berkeley, where she teaches, or McGill, where she did her undergrad studies, could make wholesale changes to the way students are taught. Still, she adds, “it’s dangerous for universities. There is a lot of resentment about the fact that faculty are spending their time doing research instead of teaching. If you integrated those two functions, the universities would be much more striving institutions.”
Gopnik recalls an introductory linguistics class she took at McGill in 1970. “It was the year of experiments and they decided to abolish all lectures,” she says. Professors handed out files that covered modules of learning. “There was a nice lounge with coffee; they worked out a schedule so that either one of the faculty or one of the grad students was there all the time. It was wonderful. It became a hangout; students would talk to each other, faculty would talk to the students. It was enormously sensible and very successful. For the students, it was challenging to be in a situation in which we couldn’t say to ourselves, ‘I’ve learned something, because I went and sat in the lecture room.’ We had to have actually learned something.”
For Gopnik, the ideal university would add a lab and a library to the McGill experiment. “You need to hang out in a lab, hang out in a library, and then have someplace where you can sit and talk about it afterward.” M
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