Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Socratic road to more of the same? A series on Education, part II

Still catching up on what happened while we were gone.  It was good to be disconnected in many ways, but it does make plugging back in a bit time consuming.  In keeping with our theme of yesterday on ways to learn, we focus today on a story we missed on NPR a few weeks back on how lecture classes don't work.

Teachers have been lecturing for millennia, the story reports, and it has never been terribly effective.
“Before printing, it was very difficult to create books, and so someone would read the books to everybody who would copy them down,” says Joe Redish, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland. He points out that the word “lecture” comes from the Latin word meaning “to read.”
Redish is trying to change the way college students are taught. He says lecturing has never been an effective teaching method, and now that information is so easily accessible, lecturing is a waste of time.
“With modern technology, if all there is is lectures, we don’t need faculty to do it,” Redish says. “Get ‘em to do it once, put it on the web, and fire the faculty.”
Students who do well in lecture classes are the students who would do well with any method, including self-teaching.  But most students can't pay attention long enough to grasp all that's being taught, and most professors know too much about their subject to be able to communicate it to beginners.

The solution?  According to physics professor Eric Mazur at Harvard, it's to take a peer learning approach.  He has his students read the material ahead of time, answer some questions online about it before class to make sure they've done it, and talk to each other during class to iron out any confusion, and the professor then uses the Socratic method -- questions, and discussion -- to reinforce what they've learned.

The first goal is to teach the basic concepts, and once students understand those, they're much better prepared to put what they've learned into practice.  Professors generally try to convey both with the lecture format, but the kind of rote memorization, without real understanding that the lecture/exam format encourages doesn't prepare the student to actually use the material, never mind retain the material long-term.

Ironically, the Socratic method is the original pedagogy (in known history of western culture).  It involves active interaction.   So why have we invested, and continued to invest, in expensive research on 'education' and how and what to teach, when we are if anything regressing, according to these stories?  And how much difference is there, really, between the current way--that, after all, has educated the vast middle classes over the last couple of centuries, when they had little other than apprenticeship education for all of history before that--and our cultures are so much better and more powerful than in the past?  Clearly the don't-learns exist but overall the system is teaching.  Otherwise, how do we have iPods, big-screen tv's, and electronic toasters?

The truth is perhaps that we don't need armies of people with solid physics knowledge.  If we're falling behind other countries, it's at the margins, not because the lecture system is bonkers.  After all, that's what they have in China and Japan, Russia and Eastern Europe, not to mention England and France etc., where our graduate students are largely coming from.

And, we believe we've read somewhere that even the august Socrates bemoaned how uninterested or unable so many of his students were.  Others in history have done the same.  And, after all, Socrates was so good that they made him drink hemlock for his contributions to society (this was, in a sense, for teaching sedition to young people by teaching them rhetoric by which they could argue even false points of view).

Socratic, interactive teaching does work if one keeps expectations realistic.  We've tried it with success in our own classes, though they were not in the hundreds in a large auditorium.  For that, for a middle class large-scale operation, you have to have large classes, or something less intensively interactive (and a model from elite Harvard isn't exactly relevant).

The real problem is not the lecture systems--informal peer-group and so on approaches will work for some, but in no way will it yield a nation of physicists here!  The problem is a lowering of expectations and standards, opening up universities to students who haven't adequate backgrounds--indeed, the acceptance of a pre-college educational system that leaves so many kids unprepared--and pandering to students with easy courses and high grades, so we can grab their tuition and pay the faculty to spend their time on their (our?) precious research.  But even were we to re-balance the system, we can only expect a modest increase in results, because that's all that large societies can achieve.  Still, small differences per student, in a big society, could make a major difference overall, even if not everyone waiting for a bus will be discussing muon half-lives.


Terry Salad said...

Sorry, but in my Anthropology classes, introducing the students to Australopithecines via Socratic method is a massive waste of time. I noticed one of the keys to success Mazur proposes is to have students do assigned reading first. Good luck with that! The main problem, I think, is students rarely do the assigned reading (except right before an exam). If they do the reading, a well-prepared lecture can be very good. I've seen some horrid lecturers in my time, and I make it a point to deliver as dynamic a lecture as I can. I have students thank me and comment on my class years later.

Holly Dunsworth said...

That my university lists my class as "lecture" right there in the catalog (as opposed to "lab" etc) and that the furniture is arranged for a lecture and is not conducive to discussions... it's very hard to do anything besides lecture during class time even though I do try.

Anne Buchanan said...

So, for any serious change to happen, the system would have to change -- it would have to be possible for Holly's classes to be listed as Socratic, e.g. -- but, students have to be willing to meet their professors half-way as well. Do the reading, do the thinking.

It's probably true that not everything can be taught without lecture -- calculus? But surely a lot more could be. But it's also true that there are great lecturers. As you say, Nick, you try to deliver dynamic lectures. To me that means you try to engage your students, and make them think. More power to those who can make that happen -- with whatever method.

Terry Salad said...

I agree that not every class can be taught with lecture. Socratic method is likely more effective in upper level or graduate classes. For introduction classes, I think perhaps it can be used sparingly with some lecture at most. Socratic method requires students to be prepared, which seems a tall order these days. Not all students are so lazy, but on a given day a good number will probably think "let others answer."

Holly Dunsworth said...

I'm tending to move away from agreeing with you Nick. I still think that lecture is a necessity with some things. (Although whether all those things need to be "taught" by a prof is another question.) Up until this year I had always lectured through an overview of primates in my intro class. This year I tried something new. Most students had probably not done the reading but it worked well anyway. I gave all students a handout of the major groups and the traits we needed to focus on. Groups were each assigned a group of primates and I gave them about ten minutes to prepare a spiel. Then I clicked through a slide show of photos of primates and had the experts explain to the rest of us what we should know about these animals. All groups went beyond the handout (using their prior knowledge and prep to some degree) and they also inspired discussion about some unfamiliar traits. It was hugely better than me standing there and lecturing, no matter how engaging I would possibly be on the topic.

Holly Dunsworth said...

As reward, I've been assigned the huge hall for next semester with stadium seating... not conducive to group work at all. Back to the drawing board.

Anne Buchanan said...

We've done the same thing, had students present material, even when it's new to them, and it works well. And leads to discussion in ways that the professor presenting doesn't.

To encourage them to read the material ahead, they are asked to write a page or two about the reading and hand it in. This works, too. I think Mazur quizzes them on the reading before class. Same idea. It's not impossible to get them to read.

And, well, Holly, at least you can lead them in group cheers.

Ken Weiss said...

I've had the range of experiences. Sometimes it works, sometimes less so. Of course Socratic approaches can't really be done in large classes, at least in the usual way. I've had work groups work very well, or flop badly (too often the participation or skill is uneven within or among groups).

I guess the bottom line would be that if you can keep the students' interest, you knowledge can be conveyed. If there was a perfect method, maybe we'd all know it by now.

And of course universities who pull faculty away from teaching (to do research or get grants, etc.) undermine even the effort much less enthusiasm of faculty to try, and encourage drier lecture format--even, in many cases, largely presentations of the faculty member's latest research presentation at some meeting....

Terry Salad said...

An interesting approach Holly. And, one that appears quite effective. Although, it is not strictly Socratic method, so I stand by my feelings that Socratic is not necessarily easiest or best in some situations. Anything that gets students engaged and talking is good. There is surely more than one way of doing that. Perhaps we are all playing to our various strengths.