Learning to learn, teaching to teach

The modern university has largely broken down teaching and learning into simple variants of three credit hour courses.  This has made teaching manageable, since following this format professors can be allocated singly to a one-term subject course.

It’s an efficient way to allocate human resources and drive relatively larger flows of students through classrooms. That efficiency has moved university education out of the realm of privilege available for a few to providing success for the many.

As a result, during the time allocated to these three or so credit hours courses, students typically occupy a classroom or laboratory and are taught a subject.  There’s usually not a great deal of time for them to linger, reflect or question, all of which are important activities for learning. At the end of the allotted time for the lecture or lab, it’s not unusual to have another student cohort waiting to enter the space for a different class with another professor.

Students from the class that has concluded leave the room for another activity, or proceed to another classroom or laboratory to focus on a different, sometimes unrelated, subject. An algebra class might be preceded by one in history and followed by another in microbiology. Immediately following the class, there’s little if any discussion or reflection of what was just taught.

Consequently, boom boom boom, students move from class to class, much like products created on an assembly line.  It’s an efficient use of resources which improves classroom usage and student throughput, and the lower cost leads to greater access to higher education for our society.  But, wait. Is assembly line learning the best possible method for students and their future occupations and evocations?

Real life learning differs from this traditional university model since real life learning occurs through experiences. For instance, a recipe is often the basis for experimentation when we learn how to cook. We digress from a recipe, finding alternates for the spices and herbs that are missing from our pantry. We alter the proportions of required ingredients, cut down on or add butter or oil, replace yogurt with coconut milk or applesauce, and so on.

Our resulting meals are integrated wholes. We typically don’t serve just a single dish but offer our families and friends wholesome meals that include greens and vegetables, starches, proteins, desserts and beverages. A good cook also requires plenty of practice.

Typically, when we practice, we solve puzzles over and again. Many of us have solved the puzzle of lobbing a ping pong ball repeatedly over a net while facing many different types of serves and volleys. We have learned the best way of driving safely in a rainstorm or over snow.

Practice involves spaced repetitions that make us better at applying our learning. It allows us to figure out the basics – the things that we must understand to solve a specific puzzle. The cook learns through repeated practice the many ways by which a tasteless or burned meal can be avoided. By solving many related puzzles, like the right combinations of starters, mains, desserts and condiments in a meal, that cook builds a transferrable survival and employable skill.

The learning that sticks involves these sorts of integrated experiences, which typical short classroom lectures cannot always provide. Important learning also occurs outside the classroom. Regrettably, many students don’t avail of opportunities to participate in a student club or a team. By foregoing such out of classroom learning – the kind that sticks, builds transferrable skills, and promotes citizenship and community – these students wilfully opt out of important opportunities that can significantly improve their futures.

Should we continue to teach students discrete isolated topics in typical classrooms just because we’ve figured out the best way to deliver the one–professor and many–student class, or because it is financially efficient? Or should we instead teach students in an integrated manner so that they learn how to solve complex real world problems?

At McMaster Engineering, we’re building new paradigms of teaching and learning. Professor Robert Fleisig asks our first-year engineering students to create solutions that can improve life within our community. Our faculty members teach in flipped classroom where students first watch a lecture online and read texts and then come to class ready for discussion. Of his flipped classroom, Professor Mohamed Bakr informs students, “My rule is to guide your learning experience (from the sage on stage to the guide on the side).” All his lectures are available on YouTube.

We offer an entire information technology program through blended learning in Walter G. Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology. Our new biomedical engineering program will include integrated biomedical design projects through which students will learn engineering ethics and professionalism, design and graphics, computation, and materials.

My colleagues and I are committed to improving student learning by overcoming the constraints that fiscal budgets, history and culture have placed on us.

Why do we do this? Because of our mission: To educate engaged citizen scholars who will transform our world.

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