Category Archives: Education

Teaching Holistically

Finland is switching its educational paradigm. They are doing this to create a better learning experience for their students.

Only far eastern countries such as Singapore and China outperform the Nordic nation in the influential Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings. Politicians and education experts from around the world – including the UK – have made pilgrimages to Helsinki in the hope of identifying and replicating the secret of its success.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that Finland is about to embark on one of the most radical education reform programmes ever undertaken by a nation state – scrapping traditional “teaching by subject” in favour of “teaching by topic”.

There are other changes too, not least to the traditional format that sees rows of pupils sitting passively in front of their teacher, listening to lessons or waiting to be questioned. Instead there will be a more collaborative approach, with pupils working in smaller groups to solve problems while improving their communication skills.

In spite of doing an excellent job of teaching their students, Finland is actively charting a different route(phenomena teaching).

I think it makes sense to teach in a more holisitc manner. There is no need to exclude math, geography or any other subject when trying to learn a subject. The more mental “hooks” you can create in a topic, the better it is rememebered. I suspect that students seeing the practical application of math, geography, and science in understanding history may gain a better appreaciton for each of these subjects rather than learning things in isolation.

Early data shows that students are benefiting too. In the two years since the new teaching methods first began being introduced, pupil “outcomes” – they prefer that word to standards – have improved.

This seems a great deal more common sense approach than then “No child left behind“. This policy seems to rely on punative measure to create a nation of test takers rather than learners.

Lectures and Learning

I like to learn new things but, I wonder if lectures are the best way to do it. In the lecture format, the professor dispenses pearls of wisdom and we, as receptacles of this knowledge, gratefully imbibe the wisdom of our elders. I wish knowledge flowed this seamlessly.

In the inimitable phrasing of Slosson, “Lecturing is that mysterious process by means of which the contents of the note-book of the professor are transferred through the instrument of the fountain pen to the note-book of the student without passing through the mind of either.”

The Professor’s Lecture Notes Go Straight to the Students’ Lecture Notes

In real life, I just cannot absorb a lot of new concepts at once. My short-term memory is short and I can only juggle so many ideas at once. Taking notes almost feels like an act of desperation. I write frantically trying to capture every precious word while not really processing what is being said[^this is the antithesis of learning].

Trying to capture ideas as a float across the ether into your brain, but never having the opportunity to process the idea is painful and inefficient. It is like treading water next to a whirlpool. If there is one way to kill curiosity and interest – this is it.

Ideas need to be connected in your head; one building upon the other and for complex material if you miss one idea, your mind is swimming in sea of facts without any connections. When learning new material it is better to build a scaffolding of understanding, one fact at a time, rather than trying to reconstruct it later by filling in the gaps of a rather tenuous mental map.

An excerpt from the book Chalkboard illustrates the inefficiency of lectures

The true level of efficiency – whatever it is – cannot be very high since students who skip lectures suffer no ill effects when given instructor’s notes. This was the finding of one classic experiment. Groups of students viewed a 20-minute lecture – one group took notes while another group listened. A third group did not attend the lecture at all. Two days later, all students were given 25 minutes to study from a set of instructor’s notes before taking a test. Scores were the same, regardless of whether students had attended the lecture. In other words, the original lecture had been a complete waste of time.

Another study, with a similar protocol, arrived at the same conclusion with a 30-minute lecture followed one week later by a 15-minute review of instructor’s notes. Once again, the lecture was a complete waste of time. The authors concluded, “The present data raise a question about the function of the lecture itself. Since students who did not attend performed as well as those who did … the lecture per se may be a redundant vehicle for communicating substantive information.”

The live lecture format does not lend itself to repetition. Lectures are a relic from an era without books. It’s no use pretending we do not have books, computers, or the web. Why do we continue to use lectures as a major form of information dissemination? Are there ways to improve it ?

The best lecture experience that I had was when my friend would record a lecture for me once a week. I liked listening to the lecture and if there was a part that I missed, I could listen to it again as soon as I lost the thread of the discourse. My notes and understanding were better because I did not have to play “fill in the gaps”. I did not seem to miss the magical information transfer of the live lecture either.

I suppose one argument is that it is the student’s job to pay attention. That is absolutely true. Often repeated advice is to read the textbook before the lecture. That is great advice, but unfocussed reading accomplishes nothing. I think there is belief that learning occurs when information is passively presented or the act of transcribing etches the facts in memory.

Facts do not become knowledge without providing context and utility. Without knowing how and why you are learning something prevents turning facts into knowledge. There are better tools to use than the standard lecture format to create understanding.

I’m not the only one that has noticed that lectures really are poor form of information dissemination. In the 1970s David Hess Dennis and his graduate student Abraham alone developed multiple-choice test known as the force concept inventory [FCI]. This test was designed to explore students conceptual understanding of physics. Students took the test for the beginning of the semester. They were in a variety of classes with teachers using different teaching methods. At the end of the semester, they took the test again. The course only improved the test results by 14%. Most professors did not pay any attention to the findings. But, Eric Mazur did.

Eric Mazur started his career wanted to be an astronomer. But,

“focusing on the details, focusing on memorizing and regurgitation, the whole beauty of astronomy was lost.”

He eventually became a physics professor and loved lecturing. He was sure that his students would do much better and did not have the problems that David Hess Chris had described. When he gave his students the FCI tests, they did not do much better.

Eric Mazur eventually created “peer instruction”. His method is well worth reading about. Essentially, he assigned material before class. The student then had to answer some web-based questions, ensuring that he has read the material before coming class. In class Mazur gave a very brief introduction to the concepts. He then gave a multiple-choice question. The student answered the question. Then he allowed the students to discuss the question with their neighbour. They are then allowed to answer the question again. So, even though this is a slower method of processing the ideas, he has found his students understand 3 times as much. I find it better to have had a more efficient funnelling system so even though there is a slower flow of knowledge into the bottle, at least the knowledge gets into the bottle as opposed to jerking off the sides and falling on the floor.

What I like about Eric Mazur,s system is that the students are given the “lecture” material before the class. Since they to answer a multiple choice questions based on their reading , they are more focussed because they have a goal or a problem than needs answering. The questions, if crafted well could also highlight subtleties in the material that may not be readily apparent.

The students are forming their mental scaffolding before coming to class. Then their learning is reinforced or corrected through discussions with their peers and the teacher during class. I also like its use of testing to reinforce learning rather that to evaluate learning.

This method is a lot slower that the traditional lecture, but at least there is no delusion that people are understanding the concepts rather than hearing the lecture. This system also uses the teacher’s expertise to the best advantage. A teachers job is guide understanding. They are better used to help students to use their knowledge rather than regurgitating the same knowledge on the blackboard.

The way to really learn something is to apply it to solve a problem.Nothing highlights knowledge gaps than trying to use your recently acquired understanding or explain it to another person. I can read about a subject online or in a textbook. The real use of a live teacher, is not the initial presentation of the material, but rather to guide the student into a more critical[^What information is truly relevant, in what order and under what circumstances.] evaluation of the material.

Khan acamdemy — YouTube To Reinvent Education

I was watching a Ted–talk, from Salman Khan. He was a hedge fund manager but had a radical change of profession. To aid his cousins he posted a few YouTube videos about algebra. His cousins preferred the videos of him, rather than interacting with him in person.

What Solomon’s cousins appreciated, was that they could repeat lessons when they had not grasped the material, instead of bothering him. I know I have been inhibited in interrupting a lecture because I was afraid of bothering the teacher or the other students over some “trivial” matter.

His cousins were allowed to develop an understanding of a new concept, before a new idea was presented. Not grasping one concept while a flood of new ideas is presented is a horrible feeling. It is like treading water in a jar. The water level slowly starts rising, but there is nowhere to go except to be crushed by the approaching roof.

In traditional classroom Swiss cheese gaps appear in knowledge because the teacher has to go at a determined pace even if the concept was not fully absorbed by the whole class. My own understanding of trigonometry and calculus is a testament to this. I can plug in the equations, but I lack a fundamental understanding of what I am doing.

Now, he has founded a nonprofit organization called, the Khan Academy. The Khan Academy Has over 2100 Videos And 100 Self-Paced Exercises Covering Everything from Arithmetic to Physics, Finance and History. YouTube also hosts the same videos.

These are not just lessons posted on the Internet. They are well crafted and expansive. Unlike classroom lessons, the website lessons are detailed and thorough. The teacher takes the time to fully explain what an equation means ie: 7x, means 7 multiplied by x or x added to itself 7 times.

The lessons can afford to be detailed because they don’t have a 45 minute deadline to meet. One of the frustrating things I’ve found the math equations for the things just seem to be missed – it the textbook and the lecture. They were “missed” because the teacher or writer thought it was to basic to include. But, there is nothing like stating the “obvious” and if the students are bored, they can skip ahead. More likely though, I think a student is likely to repeat those sections of the lecture that are problematic.

Salman is not trying to replace the teacher. His reasoning is if the kids could watch the videos at home, then this frees up the teacher to do homework at school. This was Salman’s fundamental shift of the education paradigm. By placing the brunt of lecturing to homework, the teacher is free to deepen the student’s understanding of the material by the application of the knowledge and concepts (ie:homework problems). The software used in schools also allows the teacher knows what video watched how many times they were repeated at if they were having problems with the problems. This humanizes the classroom and allows the teacher to spend quality time where it is needed. Also in Salman’s model, peer to peer instruction is encouraged.

Our current system does not allow for mastery of the material. If I did not grasp a concept in lecture, I would have to make a mental note to ask for clarification. But, more often I would promise myself that I would read up on it further. But, as more and more concepts piled up, these mental notes and promises disappeared in an overwhelming deluge of isolated facts without coherence and connection. Having lectures paced at my own understanding, would have meant that I had time to replay and grasp one concept before moving on to the next.

I would have loved to see something like this in university. Most of the basic lectures could easily be repeated year in and year out. As professors put more of their notes online the burden of simply copying words (as opposed to understanding them) disappears. But, I think it would be better to have an actual lecture with all attendant media. Education happens when teachers and students interact. “Lecture” time should be spent in trying to clarify concepts and applying knowledge, rather than trying to absorb new concepts in a one-size fit all monologue.

The Khan academy brings a fresh perspective and alternative to traditional education. I am excited enough with the material on their web site to try to fill in my own swiss cheese knowledge gaps.