I have recently read an article by Dolan and Collins (2015) which, one the face of it, is an excellent paper about teaching. However, by the time I had finished reading I felt quite cross. This was through no fault of the authors cited, but of what this paper represented.
Let us quickly review what it was that these authors said.
The paper opens with a clear statement, “Research on how people learn shows that teaching using active learning is more effective than just lecturing“. I think that few academics who have given any consideration to teaching would disagree with this. Given the mountain of studies that have contributed to the development of this realisation, the comment might even be considered as a statement of fact. Everything else being equal, active learning is better than passive learning. The ‘everything else being equal’ is of course the problem here as experimental controls are much harder to construct in educational research than they are in molecular biology.
The authors go on to give advice about four ways to improve teaching:
“Design a course back to front“. What these authors have referred to as ‘backward design’ is commonly referred to in the UK as ‘outcomes-led teaching’. This is now the norm in UK universities, though the blind application of learning outcomes is not without its problems. However, there is still an underlying tendency to think, ‘what should we teach them?’ rather than ‘what should they be able to do at the end?’. Either way, and whatever terminology is local to you, having an idea of what students will achieve cannot be a bad thing. So onto the second tip.
“Aim high – beyond just the facts“. Again, no real problem here. We know that if teachers have low expectations of their students, then the students will duly oblige and aim low. High expectations breed high level outcomes. A bit trite, but pretty much true – again, all things being equal. The key phrases come in the this section of text where the authors consider, “articulating how an expert thinks about the connections between ideas can help students learn“. This comment sums up much of the efforts of the concept mapping community over the past few decades, where we aim not just to articulate how experts think, but to visualise it too.
The third tip talks about posing “messy problems“. Again the authors have hit the nail firmly on the head. The world is not constructed by simple solutions to simple problems. The world is messy. Just look at the current global issues of political turmoil, economic uncertainty and the complex nature of climate change. None of these big issues have neat solutions. So the posing of messy problems is authentic and necessary. Students should be aware that once things get into textbooks, then the problems and related solutions are sanitized, and simplified summaries of what has transpired. So, yes. Let’s think messy. That includes the way we consider teaching. Better teaching is a messy problem, so the four tips offered within this paper are “ways to get started“, as stated in the title of the paper. They will not provide the full answer.
The final tip from these authors, “expect students to talk, write and collaborate“. Again, this simple statement summarizes a whole library of research. Talking and collaborating is what humans do. Imagine going to a research conference and being told to sit in rows and not talk to anyone while you were there! It would be the last conference you went to. So why have we imposed such a regime on students? We know that students learn from their peers and their understanding is enhanced by having to articulate their views – verbally or in written form. We hear over and over on the news how we are now a ‘connected society’, and yet in the classroom we have expected students to disconnect. Unfortunately, they have not disconnected from each other, but have disconnected from their studies. Hence, when I go and observe a lecture, rarely is there more than about 50% attendance. we drove them away!
So all in all, I have to thank Erin Dolan and James Collins for their paper, and for the clear way they have articulated these ideas. Hopefully, it will spark the readers of that particular journal to go and investigate these ideas further.
Or will it?
Here is where I got just a little bit angry and annoyed. The ideas summarised in this paper are not cutting edge. They haven’t just been discovered. They are ideas that are well-established in the educational research literature. Indeed, Bloom’s taxonomy (mentioned on page 2152) is now half a century old. The writings of John Dewey are now a century old, but still offer valid critique on today’s classroom practice. Would cutting edge journals consider publishing papers that open with revelations about the role of DNA in carrying the characteristics of the next generation? That is now an established fact. A given. And yet the value of active learning over passive learning has not managed to achieve the same level of acceptance. Educational innovation appears to have to cross the divide between disciplines and be rediscovered anew for them to be recognised. Biology is not alone here. Educational journals based in other disciplines are doing the same thing.
So the real question here is, “why is no one listening?”. Why do we still observe passive, rote, disconnected learning in courses that are overloaded with content that is designed to me memorized for later regurgitation?
To quote Helen Lovejoy (from The Simpsons), “Won’t someone think of the children!”
Dolan, E.L. & Collins, J.P. (2015) We must teach more effectively: here are four ways to get started. Molecular Biology of the Cell, 26: 2151 – 2155.