by Sylvain Comeau
John Bransford is an active-learning guru. The Centennial Professor of
Psychology and Education and co-director of the Learning Technology Center
at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Bransford told a Concordia audience
on Nov. 9 that the lecture model of teaching that still dominates North
American education is becoming obsolete.
Many students still believe that education is about a teacher telling
a student what to learn, what they should know. But we know that, even
in the lecture model, there is active learning. When you are listening
to a lecture, you are constructing your own interpretation.
Bransford is an advocate for going beyond the one-way delivery of information
from professor to student. He is the author of seven books and co-author
of How People Learn. His research into teaching methods and technologies
involves changing the curriculum at St. Louis and Nashville schools from
kindergarten to Grade 8.
He and his colleagues have developed innovative computer, videodisc, CD
ROM and Internet teaching programs, and even helped establish a middle
school in St. Louis based on the principles of active learning. He says
that such teaching strategies are a challenge to traditional assumptions
about the student mind.
Weve learned that the blank slate theory of learning
is not valid. Even infants have ideas about the way the world should work,
and elementary ideas about concepts like math.
Unfortunately, much education fails to take advantage of that base of
ingrained knowledge by requiring rote memorization as the main criterion
for success. Students tend to forget most of what they memorized soon
after the exam. Instead of simple memorization, I think it is crucial
for students to understand fundamental concepts; teachers should explain
the why of a subject. Thats a way of paring down the mile-wide,
Bransford believes that teaching should be learner-centred
in many ways, such as building on students existing strengths.
We need to build bridges to what people already know. For example,
people from foreign rural communities may not have had much opportunity
to acquire book knowledge, but many have a detailed understanding of anatomy
because they were hunters.
A learner-centred teaching environment involves challenge-based
learning, in which students learn by doing. Bransford displayed charts
that showed the energy levels of students, according to his research.
What makes students feel energized? They are most energized when
presented with a challenge, and least when they listen to a lecture. In
the lecture model, their level of excitement and energy only goes up during
In an ideal world, professors would be saying, Heres
a problem we need to solve, and I would like your help. But we also
need to develop a curriculum that demands this kind of collaboration.
Motivation is low among many students because they have no sense, beyond
their marks, of how they are progressing.
We know that your motivation goes up when you are involved in a
class and you are being shown a gauge of how your knowledge and understanding
of a subject is expanding. How well you memorized something is not such
Another problem is a divided attention span; students go from one lecture
to another with little context for the information they are expected to
After his lecture, Bransford was asked why the lecture mode became so
dominant in education if it is relatively ineffective.
I think it became entrenched simply because saying what you know
is the easiest way to teach. It is much more challenging and difficult
for professors to create a real learning environment. We find that it
is the tenured professors who are ready to rethink how they teach, while
the younger professors worry about how they will find time to do their
research, so that they can get tenure.
Challenging students is more challenging for the professors, although
its also more rewarding for both.
Bransfords lecture was co-sponsored by the Concordia University
Visiting Lecturers Progam, the Department of Education, the Centre for
the Study of Learning and Performance (CSLP) and McGill Universitys
Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology.