The evidence is in, and passive learning is decidedly passé – and maybe even unethical. According to Clarissa Dirks, that is. Referring to a growing body of evidence that students taught with active learning techniques learn better, Dirks recently told Nature News that “at this point it is unethical to teach any other way.” However controversial, her words carry weight. Dirks is a microbiology professor at Evergreen State College, and co-chair of the US National Academies Scientific Teaching Alliance, an initiative to reform undergraduate STEM education. She literally co-wrote the book on Assessment in the College Science Classroom.
According to the Nature News article, “Why we are teaching science wrong, and how to make it right,” Dirks may have good grounds for her assertion. Last year, an analysis of over 200 studies of active learning in STEM fields conducted by researchers at the University of Washington found that active learning techniques reduced the number of course failures by about one-third.
Active learning also holds promise for stemming the tide of students who transfer out of STEM disciplines. About 60% of all U.S. students and 80% of minorities and women who enroll in a STEM field switch to a non-STEM field or drop out, Nature News reports.
While the article deals with college instruction, switching from lectures and reading to active, project-based learning (PBL) can help students of all levels learn and retain concepts better over the long term. Consider that after two weeks, we humans remember 90% of what we do, 20% of what we hear, and 10% of what we read.
Encouraging new research based on IAT’s Project-Based Inquiry Science™ (PBIS) curriculum also shows that PBL can even out learning inequities across gender and ethnicity, which could lead to increased retention rates among these demographics.
The Science of Teaching Science
Teachers need to update their methods and align them with “the science of how to teach science,” Steven Novella, M.D. (@stevennovella) of the Skeptics Universe podcast said in a recent episode. Novella, who is also Assistant Professor of Neurology at Yale University, agrees with Dirk’s opinion that “the evidence is such that not incorporating active learning [is] so unscientific it’s actually unethical at this point.”
Referring to the evidence reported in the Nature News article, Novella said he would have preferred to see objective measures of assessment, rather than “relative measures” like grades. Still, students who pass tests with flying colors don’t always make good scientists. Nobel Prize winner and physics instructor Carl Wieman found that his graduate students “had done really well as undergraduates, but couldn’t do research,” he told Nature News. Specifically, the students were challenged by problem-solving, which is central to the scientific process. While the students memorized facts well, as researchers they also needed to be able to ask their own questions, form hypotheses, and design experiments. Wieman now supports discipline-based education research (DBER), which aims to synthesize research on undergraduate teaching and learning in the sciences.
“DBER clearly shows that research-based instructional strategies are more effective than traditional lecture in improving conceptual knowledge and attitudes about learning,” a report published by The National Academies Press states. “Effective instruction involves a range of approaches, including making lectures more interactive, having students work in groups, and incorporating authentic problems and activities.”
Teachers need a new, scientific approach to education, according to biologist William Wood. They “should develop their lesson plans in the same way as they design experiments,” Wood told Nature News. Wood works out of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is co-director of a U.S. National Academies workshop series for biology teachers. “Instead of following a textbook or syllabus, they should start with a clear goal — the concepts and skills that they want the students to learn. Then they should choose the instructional methods that will achieve that goal, as well as the methods they are going to use to assess the students’ progress.”
So What’s the Holdup?
With all the evidence and helpful resources out there, why aren’t more K-12 educators using active learning? Control is an issue for some teachers. Hands-on activities require a good deal of classroom management, and can lead to unanticipated questions. Switching pedagogic gears undoubtedly requires adjustment.
Time can also be a concern. In a comment on the Nature News article, Patricia LiWang wrote, “While I am willing to believe the data that ‘active learning’ is great, I can never square that with the fact that I am expected to cover about one chapter of the book for every 3 hours of lecture. So if we spend a fun half-hour pretending to purify a protein in class, how am I going to teach the other 20 concepts in the chapter?” But while some classes may cover fewer concepts, students will have a better grasp of the ones they do learn.
Reaping the Rewards
Judging from educational outcomes, feedback from teachers, and anecdotes from students, the initial challenge of switching to active learning methods is worth the rewards.
Westfield Vocational Technical High School in Massachusetts (voted one of the top STEM high schools in the country by US News & World Report), for example, recently celebrated a remarkable 0% dropout rate after implementing IAT’s project-based Engineering the Future™ curriculum.
Why? Partly because many students feel positive about active learning. Reflecting on his experience as a science student, Nazri Kamaldin commented that “[s]cience is a team sport. If you’re a neuroscientist or a soft-matter physicist, you have seminars, colloquia, luncheons — places you can go on campus to meet with like-minded people and trade best practices. What I can say is that learning science is as much a team sport as teaching it. Back in school, I enjoyed the investigative approach to learning – as seen above – a lot more than having a teacher teach straight out of the textbook. It took a bit longer, but we learnt better – and enjoyed going through the whole process. Some people do learn better on their own and mastering the material does require some reading time. When we make learning more of a social endeavor, we get more students motivated to learn, better learning outcomes and more students having a good time.”
Active learning can also be rewarding for educators. Teacher Shawna Stea says that she loves working hands-on with her students. In contrast to Patricia LiWang’s comment, she says PBL “puts many skills [together] and does many things at once, so it’s very efficient – I love it.”
“The younger generation…do[es] not want to sit in a classroom and listen to a lecture,” Novello said in his podcast. While this may also be historically true of other groups of students, the current generation has grown up with social media and an increasingly interactive environment. Novello says that students expect – and should get – socialization in the classroom.
Scott Brown, a 9th grade physics teacher, agrees that active, problem-based learning (PBL) is a great way to engage kids. Brown says that with the Active Physics™ curriculum, students are “up doing the things, and making the connections themselves as they go…students are starting to ask their own questions,” instead of sitting at a desk, taking notes, and looking bored.
Cutting to the chase, teacher Shawna Stea says working together “is a huge 21st Century skill.” Getting an early start with PBL will help this generation of students hit the ground running when they reach the workplace.
Science, technology, engineering, and math are already powering the 21st Century, and we’ll only become more dependent on STEM skills in the future. Educational inertia could very well leave the U.S. and its future citizens behind in the global economy.
What do YOU think? Is passive learning unethical? Let us know on the #ActiveLearning hashtag on Twitter or in the comments section below.
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