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December 6, 2001 Stop lecturing, start teaching, says American expert



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.

“We’ve 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. That’s a way of paring down the mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum.”

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.”

Learning-by-doing model

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 a demo.

“In an ideal world, professors would be saying, ‘Here’s 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 a gauge.”

Another problem is a divided attention span; students go from one lecture to another with little context for the information they are expected to absorb.

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 it’s also more rewarding for both.”

Bransford’s 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 University’s Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology.