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Friday, February 18, 2011

Princeton - A Learning Experience

I'm typing this post while having coffee at the Woodrow Wilson school on Princeton University's campus. I've been in Princeton over 3 weeks now and I'm absolutely loving it. I get up each morning, eat my breakfast in a ridiculous Hogwarts-esque dining hall then head off to class. I choose what classes I want to sit in on (and I usually try and pack in as many as I can). Last week for example, I attended lectures on Stochastic Calculus of Brownian Motion, Economics of Crime, Democracy in Architecture, Bridge Design and Entrepreneurship. This broad range of classes wouldn't appear unusual to any student studying here - they have a very general view of ‘education’ that I haven't experienced anywhere else.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Perhaps I should explain why I'm here in the first place.

I'm studying a PhD in ‘Education in Fire Safety Engineering’. As most of you are aware, Edinburgh already has a very well established fire safety program, but it's not perfect so it can be improved. The question is how? I could spend years trying and testing a range of different teaching styles, or I could just ask a world-class university how they do it.

I chose the latter.

Now, when I sit in on a class I observe student-teacher interactions and take notes on the effects of different teaching styles. Sometimes the students are engaged, other times they're asleep. After studying a diverse range of teachers, I'm beginning to see patterns emerge. It appears there are some fundamental things that if you do/don't do you'll lose your audience, no matter how good you think you are. I'll share some of these with you now.

Probably the most significant observation I've made so far, and from what I can see is the biggest motivator for the students, is choice. In every aspect of what they do here, students are given choice - they choose what classes they do, what subject to specialise in, what topics to present, what groups to work in. This seems to result in a lot less admin which is a bonus, but the real value of this is the positive impact it has on student's self-motivation.
The logic behind it is this: If you want people to be responsible, self-directed individuals, treat them like responsible, self-directed individuals. Having to make choices every day not only promotes accountability and responsibility, but it gives people the opportunity to improve their judgement. And in engineering, particularly in fire safety engineering where reliable data is hard to come by, good judgement is essential.

The second thing that has a huge impact on classroom learning is divergent questioning. From what I've seen/read in my research, most teachers ask convergent questions (i.e. the opposite of what they should be doing). A convergent question is better known as a ‘guess-what-I'm-thinking’ question. The lecturer/tutor may ask something like “what is the main purpose of a roof”. The question is trying to force students towards one answer, so understandably students are reluctant to answer. They realise that there is only one answer and every single other answer they could wrong. So in response to the roof question above, there'll be an awkward silence with students desperately trying to avoid eye-contact, followed by the lecturer answering his/her own question. “It's to keep the water out, obviously. Come on I asked you this question in the test last week remember? I asked, what is the purpose of a raincoat.” There is not really any point in asking convergent questions because asking someone to repeat something is not proof that they have understood it (as almost any teacher will tell you).
My suggestion is that if you want them to memorise a fact, just tell them the fact. Don't ask leading questions.
If you want them to think about something and really understand it, ask them to think. This is where divergent questioning comes in. If you want people to think, ask a question they can't get wrong, one that asks for their opinion. Such a question is phrased like this: “What do you think a roof does?” The students can come up with a range of ideas, and they're all correct. If they don't say what you want them to say, then it tells you something as an educator - namely that the students don't think the information is relevant. At least not yet.

This brings me to my third and final point, purpose. The purpose is the reason why your students are putting in so much of their time and effort to understand new ideas. Every rule in our society, every course in university, every word that's ever been spoken in a lecture has an underlying purpose - a “need-to-know”. Too often lecturers jump into complex methods before creating that “need-to-know”. It's like showing someone a path, without saying where they're going. No two people think the same way, so it's unlikely anyone else apart from you will choose the same path, it just won't make sense to anyone else.
It is often difficult to identify the purpose of a course, despite the fact that many lecturers think they've already done so. There is actually a straightforward test one can use to find a purpose - a reason - for everything. The test was developed by a five year-old - actually, every five year-old - and it consists of asking “Why?”…repeatedly. It's simple, they won't stop until you give them a valid reason, a purpose.

Just yesterday, I had the opportunity to test these ideas, or rather to ask someone else to test these ideas. One of the tutors here was running a tutorial where he was going to ask the students to discuss a lab they'd done the previous week. His idea was to choose a ‘volunteer’ to come up to the board and describe their lab to the rest of the students while he fired convergent questions at them (to make sure they covered all the material). The purpose was to make sure they said everything that might be asked in the exam.

See anything wrong with this picture?

I spent about 10mins explaining the theories above and he left enthusiastic about his upcoming class. Later on I joined him in his tutorial and listened to a full blown discussion going on amongst the students, each one eager to question and challenge each other's point of view. The class finished early, the students said it felt very “comfortable” and the tutor just looked shell-shocked. “That was so much better than last year!” he kept saying. “Thank you!”

I smiled and left. I felt good. After all, I had just improved teaching at Princeton University, even if it was only one small part of it.

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