Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Promising Classroom of the Future

We recently discussed an article by Virginia Heffernan in which she proclaimed that today’s classroom needs a make-over.
"A classroom suited to today’s students should deemphasize solitary piecework. It should facilitate the kind of collaboration that helps individuals compensate for their blindnesses, instead of cultivating them....The new classroom should teach the huge array of complex skills that come under the heading of digital literacy. And it should make students accountable on the Web, where they should regularly be aiming, from grade-school on, to contribute to a wide range of wiki projects."

The counterargument was made that solitary piecework is really where learning takes place, not in group "engagement" exercises. Soon after came an article pointing out that one school system was deep into high-tech gimmickry and discovering that their test scores were not improving. That was particularly embarrassing because nearby school districts using traditional methods were showing improvement. One data point does not prove an hypothesis, but it was supportive.

The Economist has provided another instance in which new teaching approaches can be evaluated. It has provided an article titled: Flipping the classroom. It refers to schools in Los Altos, California that are employing computer-based lectures and teachers tools to invert the normal teaching procedure. The lessons and software are provided by KhanAcademy. The traditional process is for teachers to lecture and explain in class and give students homework to practice their skills. The article uses the term "flipping" to refer to the inversion of this process. Here, students are expected to watch the lectures at home, where they can view as many times as they feel necessary, and then come to school and try out there skills in the classroom. Each student has a computer where he/she works individually on computer-based exercises. Meanwhile, the teacher has access to software that allows he/she to monitor how each student is doing. If someone is making errors or just not progressing, the teacher can go and provide some assistance. This one-on-one tutoring should be a very effective use of the teacher’s time.

The system seems to be working—at least the teachers and students are satisfied with the method. No quantitative measures were provided.

"For although only a handful of classes in this public-school district tried the method in the last school year, many other schools, private and public, are now expressing interest, and the methodology is spreading."

"Indeed, philanthropists such as Bill Gates have such high hopes for the new method that they have given money to KhanAcademy, a tiny non-profit organisation based in Mountain View, next to Los Altos. This means that the more than 2,400 video lectures, on anything from arithmetic and finance to chemistry and history, will remain free for anybody."

This approach appears to be an ideal way to learn science and math. A visit to the KhanAcademy website provides a list of the lessons available. This list is clearly dominated by math and science, although economics and finance are well-represented. One criticism of the method is that it does not work as smoothly with other subjects. That could be a result of the initial emphasis rather than a long-term deficit. People have used digital tools to learn all sorts of things. That is not new. What is new is the systematic application in the classroom.

One has to find this type of approach encouraging. Although the article refers to "flipping" as if something revolutionary is taking place, it really is just a more efficient implementation of traditional methods. Teachers still teach, and students have to learn through solitary concentration and practice. Perhaps another data point in support of my hypothesis!

One should remember that it is still the students who have to do the learning. Los Altos may not be providing a typical sample. I would be thrilled to one day read that students in our worst performing school districts were now aglow with enthusiasm and making great strides using this approach.

1 comment:

  1. I like the idea. It is amazing to me how little the digital information revolution has had on education so far. Using the best lectures on a subject and using human contact not to lecture but to be a teaching assistant both make sense at many educational levels - probably best to start at university level and work down to wherever the concept might break down.


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