“Old School Makes a Comeback”? Round Two

dictideaThis is (finally!) my second post in this series.  My goal remains to advocate a dialogue between conservatives and reformers, and in my first post I noted the continuing relevance of ‘old school’ teaching methods and philosophies.  Since then, I’ve seen a number of other interventions along the same lines.  This study based on student preferences sparked a storm by suggesting that students preferred good lectures over the latest technology, and led to not a few qualifications on the part of the authors.  This rejoinder reminded us all of the body of literature showing the ineffectiveness of lecturing under any circumstances.  And This one in the Atlantic takes an eminently reasonable middle ground in its agnostic advocacy of ‘lecturing’ as one tool in the kit of varied methods, that is most successful when used purposefully and skillfully.

Some of this healthy debate arises from the ongoing backlash against MOOCs and the Silicon Valley startup philosophy that underwrote the idea of online mass education.  This backlash was facilitated by Sebastian Thrun’s about face and his public confessions of over-optimism for technology.  I want to reiterate that it’s important to separate out the question of technology from the question of teaching techniques.  Neither side of the debate should be reduced to ‘either-or’ options.

As an advocate of learner-centred teaching, I think it’s possible to believe BOTH that lecturing is a less effective strategy over all for achieving learning goals AND that ‘good’ lecturing can make learning more engaging if done consciously and well.   In some ways, it’s unfortunate that ‘lecturing’ has become emblematic of conservatism, since I would argue that conservatism is actually much bigger than lecturing.  Conservatism is a whole approach to teaching and learning, and so it encompasses lecturing, but it also encompasses ‘tried and true’ methods like Socratic questioning, drills and memorization.  So, the focus should be on conservatism as a teaching philosophy and less on any particular teaching technique or strategy.

it’s possible to believe BOTH that lecturing is a less effective strategy over all for achieving learning goals AND that ‘good’ lecturing can make learning more engaging if done consciously and well.

What is the argument for ‘old school’ instruction as we experience it today?  I think it draws from 5 main premises.  In my previous post, I discussed two of those premises: 1) the focus on standards and 2) the need for mastery.  In this post, I’ll turn to the 3 remaining premises of conservatism:

3. Self-discipline is a necessary goal of education.  Joanne Lipman’s article notes the work of Anders Ericsson, whose work was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.  She quotes: “true expertise requires teachers who give “constructive, even painful, feedback”‘.

4. Failure is instructive.  A strict teacher will enable students to fail, to try again, and to learn ‘grit’ and persistence pay off.  Studies show that students with more persistence are more likely to succeed.

5. Rote learning and drills can be a means to enhance creativity, improve performance in basic skills, and encourage independence.  Therefore learning must be somewhat stressful and even uncomfortable and boring, to be effective.99951157

Let’s take each of these premises in turn:

3. On self-discipline: I am still waiting for the evidence that externally-imposed punishment is a more effective way to learn.  Much depends on determining what students know, what they are able to know, and what they can know with supports.  This means knowing the learner well, and committing to their learning, not to the teachers’ idea of an acceptable standard. I suspect that the ‘toughest’ teachers also know their learners extremely well, and know how far they can push successfully.  Self-discipline is cultured by offering supports and timely corrections when needed.  It means paying attention to what learners need and not necessarily what they want.

IMG_04264. Failure is instructive.  A recent study by Viktor Venkatesh sparked a storm by suggesting that ‘productive failure’ leads to deeper and more meaningful learning.  I would venture that a distinction be made between ‘punishment’ and the ‘natural’ consequences of failure.   Punishment, or failure for failure’s sake, is not the way that we get the best performance.  Imagine if we coached our Olympic athletes only using strict punishments for failure.  Athletes know the stakes, and they therefore seek out coaches who encourage them and support them through those failures and trials. This usually does not mean blanket praise, but a judicious use of supports to get the most out of one’s failure.  Failure without supports is like throwing someone into a river and expecting them to learn how to swim.  Such an experience may indeed make one persistent in the moment, but will that help them learn better, and will that persistence carry over to other tasks?

4. On rote learning: Lipman states of reformers: “Projects and collaborative learning are applauded; traditional methods like lecturing and memorization—derided as “drill and kill”—are frowned upon, dismissed as a surefire way to suck young minds dry of creativity and motivation.”  Indeed, there is a certain hostility to lecturing and to ‘drilling’ among advocates of constructivist techniques.  However, this unease is well-founded in the scientific literature, which in comparative studies has found that lecturing is relatively ineffective on a variety of measures of learning, including recall as well as understanding.  On this question, I would argue that there is a place for rote learning and memorization in education, and this place will likely remain for some time to come. As the Atlantic points out, lecturing has the upper hand in institutions of higher learning around the world.  However, if the goals of learning are deeper, if they involve mastery, the development of thinking, and the ability to problem-solve, then lecturing and drilling are less likely to achieve their stated goals on their own, when compared with alternative strategies. Learning outcomes should be the measure of effectiveness, rather than whether the process is stressful or difficult.