Teaching … is essentially a transformational activity, which aims to get students to take charge of their learning and to make deeply informed judgments about the world. This book also challenges us to examine the institutional conditions that support or undermine this more ambitious view of teaching. In this sense, it urges a transformation of the conditions of teaching.— Richard F. Elmore, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership.[xi]
— David A. Garvin, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, 8.
If active learning is such a good idea, why is it so seldom seen?
Powerful forces sustain the traditional teacher-centered approach to education. For simplicity, these forces can be grouped into three general categories: political and institutional barriers, epistemological barriers, and practical barriers.
[Question: which category of barriers are you most interested in removing?]
- Political and institutional barriers. Administrators perceive active learning as an expensive proposition (i.e. small, intimate classes and low student-teacher ratios). [This can be solved with good design. How do you get active learning with large group of students? Start by hiring a good architect.] Incentives often point in the wrong direction: they elevate research over teaching, or suggest that little is to be gained by excellence in the classroom. Experimentation with unfamiliar teaching methods takes time, and, especially at secondary schools, time and energy are at a premium. Most instructors are already spending long hours, both in and out of the classroom, grading papers, preparing exams, reviewing lesson plans, and meeting with students. They have little time left for wholly new efforts, or for the emotional involvement that is required in active learning. This approach demands a willingness to meet students on their own terms and to get to know them as individuals; both responsibilities exact a heavy emotional toll. Moreover, school systems and state universities are often subject to tight centralized control, with governing boards that dictate content and regulate instructional practices by imposing standardized tests or uniform requirements. In such settings, the traditional teacher-centered approach is clearly the path of least resistance for many instructors.
Students are often equally uncomfortable with the new approaches. From the students’ perspective, active learning is risky: it requires a change in roles and responsibilities, but with an uncertain payoff. Especially where these methods are rarely or partially practiced, students tend to resist their introduction, fearing that they will learn less in their classes. After all, the argument runs, if the teacher speaks less, isn’t less information being conveyed? And won’t learning be correspondingly reduced?
- Epistemological barriers. Followers of the traditional model and believers in active learning hold fundamentally different assumptions about knowledge, the learning process, and the role of education. On the surface, the disagreement appears to be about the day-to-day details of classroom management; in reality, it reflects opposing premises and educational philosophies. Thus discussion is confused, the underlying issues are obscured, and resistance to the new model persists because it is far easier to change methods than it is to alter fundamental assumptions and beliefs.
What are the core assumptions of the teacher-centered model?
What are the core assumptions of the student-centered or active learning model?
- sees information transfer as the primary goal of education;
- assumes that facts and concepts can be learned without experiencing or directly applying them;
- insists on the primacy of content and subject matter
- regards the classroom as the instructor’s private preserve (not open to observation or criticism)
- instructors are the hub around which the classroom revolves
- focuses on skill development, the integration and use of knowledge, and the cultivation of lifelong learning;
- wary of “inert ideas … that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.” (Whitehead)
- gives equal weight to process and classroom climate
- sees teaching as important enough to be subject to the same standards of oversight, assistance, and review as scholarly research
- grants students far more authority and autonomy than in the traditional model
There are more epistemological barriers: the Pygmalian Effect (Rosenthal). What you get from students is what you expect. Instructors who were told that their students were unusually talented produced better results than instructors who were told that their students were average or mediocre, even when there was no real difference in student mix. Apparently, instructors were communicating their prior expectations through inflection, tone, and nonverbal behavior, and students were responding in kind.
Similar results are likely when instructors merely go through the motions of active learning. Students will quickly sense a teacher’s lingering doubts; and absence of real interest in their comments, perhaps, or an uneasiness when some point in the lesson plan does not emerge spontaneously in a discussion. If the instructor lacks faith, students will wonder why they should trust themselves to an unfamiliar and unproven approach.
- Practical barriers.
- EVALUATION. It is difficult to measure and document the success of this approach, especially over the short time span that most schools, colleges, and universities use for evaluative purposes. Many of the desired objectives—creativity, willingness and ability to continue learning, enthusiasm for education, greater personal initiative and self-direction—emerge slowly and tentatively over time; they are hard to detect with the usual standardized tests.
- LACK OF CLEAR PRECEPTS FOR PRACTICE. Teaching of this sort is exceedingly hard to do. It requires a shift in the role, preparation, knowledge, and skills of instructors. Yet relatively few reformers have dealt with such operational matters, or have translated their lofty goals into the gritty details of classroom management. For the most part, they have argued educational philosophy, rather than effective implementation.
- LACK OF PRECISE TERMINOLOGY, a vocabulary for talking cogently about the teaching process
- MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS about active learning persist, for example, the view that active learning is identical to the Socratic method, that student-centered discussions are unstructured bull sessions, that active learning eliminates the instructor’s responsibility for mastering content, or that facts cannot be communicated successfully using this approach.
Teaching can be compared to selling commodities. No one can sell unless someone buys … [yet] there are teachers who think they have done a good day’s teaching irrespective of what pupils have learned.— John Dewey, How We Think, 35.
— David A Garvin, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, 4.
…the most eloquent critiques of the teacher-centered approach date back to such master vintners as John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, Jean Piaget, and Carl Rogers. Their concerns are as timely today as they were when they first appeared.
Objections to the traditional model can be grouped into three broad categories: cognitive, philosophic, and pragmatic.
- Cognitive concerns arise because of the shakiness of the traditional model’s assumption that students can assimilate and retain information independent of its use. A number of studies have found that, when lecturing is the dominant mode of teaching, students forget as much as 50 percent of course content within a few months. … Retention, it appears, increases markedly when learning is solidly anchored in the experience and interests of students.
- Philosophic objections. The traditional model implies that the primary goal of education is information transfer. Facts, theories, and modes of analysis must be communicated so that each generation can build upon the successes of its predecessors. According to this view, knowledge lies at the core of learning, and that knowledge is best transferred from experts to novices via lectures.
Lectures are an extremely efficient method of transferring information. Even with low retention rates, they are a powerful tool… But lectures are of only limited value if the goals of education go beyond information transfer. The development of clinical judgment, the formation of critical skills, the shaping of artistic sensibility—such achievements are difficult to nurture through lectures. Preparing students to think independently is an enormous challenge. And if the goal of education is to help students grow as individuals and forge their own identities, the teacher-centered model has even less appeal. Rather than immersing students in learning opportunities, it floods them with facts. All too often, the result is loss of interest and deadening of curiosity.
- Pragmatic objections… Many students don’t like it. Students today are distressingly disaffected with formal education. For many of them, class time is more of a chore than a delight.
The improvement of teaching and learning in universities is an important matter. Its purpose is not only to provide students with a more pleasant and rewarding educational experience, but also to prepare them to take charge of their own learning and to participate in a society in which learning is a cooperative more than a competitive act.— Richard F. Elmore, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, xix.
The aim of teaching is not only to transmit information, but also to transform students from passive recipients of other people’s knowledge into active constructors of their own and others’ knowledge. The teacher cannot transform without the student’s active participation, of course. Teaching is fundamentally about creating the pedagogical, social, and ethical conditions under which students agree to take charge of their own learning, individually and collectively.— Richard F. Elmore, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, xvi.
— Richard F. Elmore, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, xv.
The ethical dimensions of teaching, David Garvin argues, usually take the form of dilemmas that require decisions but have no obvious right answers:
- valuing divergent questions versus keeping the discussion on track,
- acknowledging right answers versus encouraging deliberate discussion,
- publicly revealing students’ flawed reasoning versus correcting students’ understanding
- capitalizing on an individual’s feelings for the purpose of making a good teaching point versus respecting the individual’s personal stake
Teaching, it seems, is a struggle for mastery not only of content and craft, but also of self. Learning to teach is, in important respects, learning to view one’s own knowledge and expertise as instrumental to others’ learning, rather than as something to be displayed.
Good teaching, in the ethical sense, enables students to engage in intellectual discourse, to learn how ideas are shaped and used, and to articulate those ideals clearly. Knowledgeable teachers often slip into defining teaching as knowing and telling it all.— Richard F. Elmore, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, xv.
Practitioners of occupations requiring complex strategies of estimation and decision making acquire a large portion of their practical knowledge from observing and interacting with other skilled practitioners. … Although the social dimension of learning is critical to practical application of knowledge, we construct formal learning in schools and universities in ways that discourage social interaction. We emphasize individual cognition over social interaction, abstract manipulation of symbols over concrete application in practical settings, and generalized learning over applications in specific social contexts. As a consequence, learning in school becomes progressively isolated from the kind of learning that affects people’s competencies in real life. The problem for teachers is not whether students will learn when they are not in school. People are inveterate learners. Rather, the problem is how to construct learning in school so as to maximize its influence over learning in the world.— Richard F. Elmore, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, xiv.
…the acquisition and application of knowledge are fundamentally social acts.— Richard F. Elmore, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, xiv.
Discussion teaching, as defined and practiced by the authors, is essentially a systematic way of constructing a context for learning from the knowledge and experience of the students, rather than exclusively from the canons of disciplinary knowledge.— Richard F. Elmore, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, xiv.
Hence, when Roland Christensen argues, in his essay on questioning, listening, and response, that students should take collective responsibility for determining the direction of the discussion, and that teachers should enable that responsibility, he is acting on a belief that learning occurs when students actively form the relationship of new knowledge to its intellectual and social context.
— Richard F. Elmore, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, xii.
One insight from the current research is that all learning is contextual in at least three senses:
- new knowledge is acquired by extending and revising prior knowledge;
- new ideas acquire meaning when they are presented in a coherent relationship to one another; and
- knowledge becomes usable when it is acquired in situations that entail applications to concrete problem-solving.
These three meanings of context set a frame of reference for thinking about effective teaching.
Current research on human learning has converged on a few key ideas about the nature of learning and their consequences for teaching. These ideas are remarkably parallel with what the authors of these essays have discovered by studying their own teaching. In describing their experience with discussion teaching, they have tapped into a broader set of ideas that could have far-reaching consequences for the way teaching and learning are conducted in our society.— Richard F. Elmore, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, xiii.
The distinction between conventional pedagogy and discussion teaching also raises the question of what teachers should know about how students learn. Conventional pedagogy is essentially ideas about teaching disconnected from ideas about learning. To teach is to convey information; thus teaching consists of organizing and communicating content. We discover whether students have learned by seeing how well they are able to report back what we have told them; how they learn is not our concern.— Richard F. Elmore, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, xiii.
To the authors of these essays, on the other hand, knowledge of teaching depends on understanding how students learn. To teach is to engage students in learning; thus teaching consists of getting students involved in the active construction of knowledge. A teacher requires not only knowledge of subject matter, but knowledge of how students learn and how to transform them into active learners. Good teaching, then, requires a commitment to systematic understanding of learning.
David Cohen sums up conventional pedagogy as follows: ‘Teaching is telling, knowledge is facts, and learning is recall.’ (1989) …— Richard F. Elmore, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, xii.
In this [other] conception of teaching, the roles of teacher and student are easily reversible. Students teach each other, and they teach the teacher by revealing their understandings of the subject. Teachers learn by this process, not only by being exposed to students’ understandings of the subject, but also by steadily accumulating a body of knowledge about the practice of teaching.
In this view, teaching is enabling, knowledge is understanding, and learning is the active construction of subject matter.