Pumping ions: "strenuous brain exercise" and its impact on results


Could an “active learning” approach combined with advances in technology mean an end to traditional teaching methods?

Our guest writer Alex Burghart MP is a former teacher and school governor. He was previously Director of Strategy to the Children’s Commissioner and a Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on social justice. He is an adviser to Tassomai. 

In July there was an argument in Glasgow. Arguments have, I understand, happened in Glasgow before. Unusually this one was started by a Nobel-prize winning physicist – Prof Carl Wieman of Stanford, no less. His claim, made (ironically enough) in a lecture to the Times Higher Education’s Teaching Excellence Summit, was that, as far as undergraduate science goes, “there is no point in lecturing any more”. Not all lecturers attending agreed. One suggested he was talking “horse manure”.

Wieman is one of the world’s big brains and he did not make his assertion lightly. This is an area that he’s looked into a huge amount over the past few decades - and published his comprehensive findings in Improving How Universities Teach Science (see also his short PNAS piece here). Having done so he likens faith in lecturing to pre-modern faith in bloodletting: “You let some blood out and go away and they get well. … You give people lectures, and [students] go away and learn the stuff. But it wasn't that they learned it from lectures — they learned it from homework, from assignments. When we measure how little people learn from an actual lecture, it's just really small."

The alternative lies in what Wieman calls an “active learning” approach. This technique dramatically increases scores for all students - it shifts the whole distribution curve of results - and reduces failure rates by about two-thirds. It obliges students to spend class time actively processing and applying information - rather than just receiving it. The use of electronic clickers allows teachers to receive feedback from students on what they have and have not understood - enabling them to identify and focus quickly on areas of weakness. (You can watch Harvard physics Prof Eric Mazur demonstrate the technique here.)

Wieman argues that such an approach amounts to “strenuous brain exercise” of the sort that allows students to improve the quality of their thinking to the point where they can become “highly expert” scientific thinkers. This is not a quick fix - it still takes a few thousand hours of work to get there, but get there you do. Active learning, done well, teaches you how to think.

Amongst the considerable take outs from findings such as these is how the availability of marvellously basic and cheap technology - in this case clickers - coupled to a laptop makes it much easier for teachers of large groups to nurture highly effective learning. Indeed Wieman’s work raises the possibility that webinars coupled to effective feedback loops could offer considerable, low-cost learning opportunities to huge numbers of people at all stages of their education. And, most of all, it renews the challenge to teachers to prize, above all else, evidence-based methods.

You can watch Prof Wieman’s THE lecture here.

 Alex Burghart MP