Effective Teaching

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had an article about a conference at Harvard on teaching and learning. This was apparently newsworthy because it happened at Harvard. I have attended such conferences over the years that never made the Chronicle. But it raises questions about what on earth Harvard has been doing for the past century while other, lesser, institutions have been holding conferences to try to improve teaching and learning “delivery systems,” as we like to call them. The article begins with the following paragraph:

A growing body of evidence from the classroom, coupled with emerging research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, is lending insight into how people learn, but teaching on most college campuses has not changed much, several speakers said here at Harvard University at a daylong conference dedicated to teaching and learning.

Impressive, no? You bet. “Emerging research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.” Big words. Must be earth-shattering. Not really. What these people conclude in the end is that lecturing is not an effective method of teaching. This is especially the case since today’s students are less curious than previous generations of students. THAT I didn’t know! But I have always known that the lecture, where students sit passively and take notes only to regurgitate the information on a test and then forget it is not all that effective. For most people. My wife learned that way and still remembers most of what she was taught. It works for some who listen carefully and take good notes — and have exceptional memories. But studies done years ago showed that the lecture is the worst method to use in teaching. The student is passive and misses the majority of the material, as a rule. We didn’t need Harvard to tell us that.

So for the majority passive learning really doesn’t work. Consequently, conferees at Harvard recommend having the students write a good bit. This would work for large classes if the professor is willing to read what has been written and then engage the writer in a dialogue about the subject written about. Verbal exchange is essential. In small groups there is no substitute for the Socratic method — dialogue among students and faculty, with the faculty member(s) simply trying to move the discussion along rather than taking over and filibustering. The temptation to filibuster is strong, because those on the teaching end are convinced they know so much more than their students. But it’s not all about what we know. It’s about what happens in the student’s head. In order to get the thinking process started (especially in students who are not overly curious) one cannot beat the provocative question.

The best man I ever taught with — in a team-teaching situation — was very good at this. He asked his question and then just sat quietly waiting for the students to respond. If students are not familiar with this approach, it can take some time for one of them to speak up. The leader’s temptation is to jump in and answer the question himself. But that defeats the purpose and accomplishes nothing. Further, it’s what the students come to expect, since all their lives the teachers have done all the talking. But when they know they must say something, they will finally jump in. If necessary, the leader can ask a specific student a direct question related to the opening one. It’s all about asking questions and waiting for the students to respond. It can take time, and it takes patience and a willingness to keep quiet. But it works, though it is certainly not new, and hardly requires a conference at America’s “leading” university. Socrates knew all about it centuries ago.