Thursday, October 15, 2009

Active Learning in Science and Engineering

According to wikipedia:
Active learning is an umbrella term that refers to several models of instruction that focus the responsibility of learning on learners.
These days it is a teaching buzzword. Big time.

If you are a teacher and not employing active learning techniques, then you are a stubborn, old-school, ineffective, uninspiring, bumbling idiot. There are entire journals dedicated to enhancing student engagement using these "active learning" techniques.

To be perfectly honest, I do read this literature and find a lot of it fascinating. This site (Felder's webpage), for example, is chock full of interesting ideas.

My problem with it originates from the obsession with employing active learning techniques, especially in science and engineering.

In many social science classes, opinion is as important as fact, which facilitates a natural two-way dialogue. For example, what you think of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" is perhaps as important as what an expert thinks about it. Both opinions are "valid" - even if they are diametrically opposed to each other.

But the same cannot be said of Newton's third law.

You can't have an opinion about it. It is what it is. And this very fact reduces the number of meaningful avenues for increasing student participation.

Another confession.

I actually like teaching, and my courses usually review well, both with students and with peers (which is important because it is easy to win a popularity contest by making a course "easy").

My favorite teachers, themselves, have been old-fashioned role models. A common denominator among them was passion, super-smartness, depth, humor, and genuine love for being challenged by a newbie.

Those are things you can't fake just by reading the latest educational literature. Sure one ought to try to make a class interesting.

But sometimes, passion + humor + depth automatically transforms into "interesting".

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