Do you ever get the impression that there truly is nothing new under the sun in education? Do you ever think that we end up re-inventing the wheel, year after year? Well, this American Radio Works documentary “Don’t Lecture Me” won’t disabuse you of those suspicions!
I promise, I sat down Monday night to listen to it with an open mind. Although it teased me that it would show me how lecturing in college classrooms is a complete waste of time compared to the New! Improved! Revolutionary! way to teach developed by some physicists, I came away with the valuable insight that I’m already doing these things, and I bet you are too.
First of all, did you know that lecturing to your students for 50 or 75 minutes in a monotone voice without permitting any student questions or interaction isn’t the best way to teach your subject? Amazing. This is what this program defines as “the traditional college lecture.” The takeaway point is that there needs to be active learning in the classroom, viz., expecting students to read books outside of class; asking students to write brief responses to their assigned readings in class; asking students to answer questions or solve problems when you are explaining key concepts (or “lecturing”) to them; and asking students to explain key concepts to each other during class. Did you know that exactly zero percent of college professors in “traditional universities” do this right now?
I’m starting to think that “the traditional college lecture” is, like the “typical professor schedule of working only 6 to 9 hours per week” and the “typical narrow, pointless faculty research agenda” and the “typical six-figure salary for tenured professors,” a myth invoked to trash us and our work with the specific goal of minimizing the importance of having an expert in a field as the instructor of record in most college classes.
Amazingly, no one in this program ever suggests that smaller class sizes and teacher:student ratios might have something to do with learning. Instead, a physicist at Harvard is described as a veritable pioneer of pedagogy for–hold onto your hats!–using clickers in his large, lecture-hall sized classroom and asking students to “discuss” a problem when there’s some controversy about the right answer and how to go about finding it. (Those of you who don’t teach at Harvard will probably wonder how effective peer explanations will be at “enhancing” student learning. I mean no disrespect to most college students–but it seems a little too slam-dunky to set up Harvard undergrads as our test subjects for the effectiveness of peer-to-peer education! It might be good to try this method at, for example, the University of Massachusetts and Salem State College to test it on a variety of student bodies. I’m just sayin’! )
This program’s neo-liberal heart becomes crystal-clear when you hear its denigration of research–which everyone knows makes all professors unavailable to students and does nothing whatsoever to enhance their teaching. Its glowing portrait of the University of Minnesota, Rochester is quite telling:
There are no lecture halls at the University of Minnesota Rochester. There are also no fraternities, no football team, not even a library – everything is online. If you want a book you can order it from one of the other U of M campuses, but only professors request them. Students get all the information they need through their laptops. There are about 100 freshmen and 35 sophomores. The plan is to expand the size of the class each year until there are about 1,000 students.
UMR does have a campus. To get there you enter a downtown shopping mall and take an elevator up. Most of the campus fits into the top two floors of the mall, where a food court and a movie theater used to be. The space has been renovated into offices, a commons area, a tutoring center and state-of-the-art classrooms.
UMR takes classroom design seriously. There is no “front of the room” as there is in a typical lecture hall.
“We removed the front so that we would move away from having one authority who disseminates knowledge,” says vice chancellor Claudia Neuhauser. The goal is to put the focus “much more on the students,” she says.
To see this philosophy in action, I visit a biology class. It starts with an assignment. The students have to write a multiple choice question based on the material they’ve been learning.
“You know you understand something when you can teach somebody else,” says the professor, Kesley Metzger. “So if a student can’t write a question, then it gives them an idea that they don’t fully understand the material.”
The students work in small groups to write the questions. All the furniture is on wheels to allow students to work together like this. Each group has a portable dry-erase board that students use to compose their questions. When they’re done, they hang their boards on the wall so the rest of the class can see.
What a relief to know that there’s nothing in books these students can use, and how little research they’ll be required to do, what with no library! The new classroom space sounds terrific and probably does permit more innovation in teaching–and lord knows, many of us are stuck with classrooms designed in the 1950s and 1960s. (And of course I’m completely down with doing away with the free farm club sports teams and fraternities.) But what’s this about the pointlessness of old-school lecturing?
Professor Metzger stops the class at various points to give explanations of certain topics or ideas, but for most of the class the students are doing the talking, responding to assignments designed to get them thinking and talking about the material they are learning.
All of the classes at UMR are designed to work like this.
“There may be a brief lecture at the beginning,” says chancellor Lehmkuhle, “but then [students] are given problems and they’re working on things together as teams.”
Oh–so there’s still lecturing, but it’s interspersed with stuff the rest of us do, too, in our 1950s and 60s classrooms. What’s the real goal of this model of higher education?
Metzger circulates around the room throughout class, answering questions and probing students’ understanding. She’s assisted by her co-instructor Andy Petzold. There are 48 students, and the instructors get to all of them during the hour and 40 minute class. Chancellor Lehmkuhle says this model is designed to work in classes with up to 100 students and he expects some classes at UMR will eventually be that size.
“It’s not the size of the class, it’s the contact with the students. That’s what we’re paying attention to,” he says. “You could have a class with 10 students and if the faculty member just lectures and doesn’t really interact with you very much it’s not any different than if you were in a class of 200 students. It’s how interactive you can make the environment.”
Yeah–all of those 10-person seminars with a faculty member who “doesn’t really interact” with the students are complete drags. Professor Pushbutton to the rescue!
There are also two types of professors at UMR. One group’s only responsibility is to work with students; they’re called “student-based” faculty and they’re not expected to do any research.
Andy Petzold is a student-based faculty member. When he’s not teaching classes, he works in UMR’s tutoring center, which is like a walk-in clinic where students can get help at any time during the day. Petzold says he may eventually pursue a more traditional faculty position, but this job is an opportunity to learn about teaching that he wouldn’t get at other universities.
The other group of professors is called “learning design” faculty. They are expected to do research not just in their discipline but in education as well.
“They’re actually tenured and promoted on their ability to do research on the learning of their students,” says chancellor Lehmkuhle.
That means for example that a biologist has to do research on how people learn – not something biologists traditionally do. But UMR is all about breaking traditions. Perhaps not surprisingly, almost all of the professors here are relatively young; it’s their first or second job out of graduate school. They came to UMR because they want to be part of a new way of doing things.
Actually, my guess is that “they came to UMR because” UMR offered them a job. And if they never had tenure or a tenure-track job, they’ll never know what they’re missing, will they?
I can’t imagine being expected to to “do research not just in [my] discipline but in education as well.” Then again, how hard can it be, when we already know pretty much how to design a wheel? (Add sparkles? Playing cards in the spokes? A bell that sounds like a kitty mewing?) We can laugh–but really, the charlatanism inherent in these hinky schemes should make us cry. I’m with Jonathan Rees–let’s all take a page out of Lydia Pinkham’s or Madame C.J. Walker’s book and slap a new and improved label on what we’ve been doing all along. Because, in spite of the limited time and resources the vast majority of us have been struggling with for the past several years, it’s what still works.