Feb 162012

The Post weighs in on the changing face of STEM degree education, with some decent observations from educators involved our classrooms. What’s notable about the article is what it misses, however, and that’s a valid conclusion. It slams lectures, promotes new-fangled active learning approaches (tossing a lot of fuel for the ‘technology is good!’ crowd along the way), and the author even quotes teachers who say what’s important is what goes on inside kids’ heads, not what they just observe. But that observation is made as if it is something novel.

It’s not.

Learning has always been about what’s in student heads, and especially in tough or advanced areas students benefit from the guidance of scholars who have already mastered the content. Mentors lead students – and their heads – on a journey to their own mastery of content. We are docents, guides, senior partners in the business of scholarship. Often this role has involved lectures. In fact, for purposes of competitiveness, a case should be made for lectures, since, if done well, you not only amortize the cost of a mentor over many deliveries, but you multiply his value by the engagement of many collaborators. Wouldn’t you want the best of some field being the one to lead young scholars to it? Smart students benefit from engaging other smart students in the classroom too.

The Post author observes that some kids drop out, some kids feel frustrated and some lecturers are pretty darned boring. All true! Unfortunately he then reaches false conclusions by extrapolation. A reader might believe that alternate approaches to engagement are necessary, that somehow all kids ought to be able to master this stuff (and would except for the lecture format), and more technology is critical in classrooms.

Let’s review what the Post author has not:

  • Gifted scholars will engage people independent of the class organization. A serious scholar who is engaged – and who lectures accordingly – might just get much better by having more tools available, but a poor or detached scholar who inflicts deadly lectures won’t suddenly engage by structuring the class differently, unless it is to get the weak link out of that chain. A better organization isn’t a substitute for a better scholar.
  • Technology is a means to an end, not the end. Same point as above: good scholars succeed independent of tools. Or maybe you think Powerpoint suddenly made us all better at presenting ideas, but if you don’t take the point yet, then go watch what a bad teacher can do when armed with Smart Boards in the local county schools. To really screw kids up, use technology.
  • Sometimes it should be hard. A Pollyanna reaction to having kids drop out begs the question of what might be getting dumbed down if somehow we can help all our kids to learn (for example) calculus or object oriented programming.

In fact, real scholars – obviously not people who write for the Post – might want to close the loop on this question of content delivery. Switching organization or leveraging new technologies might help retention rates, boost self esteem and maybe even send more workers to the tech industry (which is the real source of all this hand wringing – more worker supply means lower costs, which is good for business, though bad for people who just became a commodity.)

But are kids being educated well enough by these novelties? As well as before? Better? Worse? Knowing those answers seems pretty important. Otherwise we risk having large systems crash, buildings fall and medical conditions misdiagnosed by people who felt good about their learning experiences but perhaps didn’t get all the pesky details they might have had they listened to boring lectures instead.

How nice that smart people (mentioned in the Post) gave great experiences for students. I’m betting they gave great experiences before too. It would be wrong to conclude that the outcomes as reported depended solely upon the novel organization or technology as compared with the most important commodity of all: caring by skilled scholars. Let’s create business processes that incentivize that. Then all we need to do is get out of the way and let the learning happen.

 Posted by at 6:46 am on February 16, 2012