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Active Learning: a Danger to The Man?

Active Learning has been becoming a popular topic in education (Felder & Silverman 1988 and Prince 2004 for example). Indeed many perceive that a change, maybe even a revolution is needed, especially in the engineering classroom. In his Peer Instruction program, Dr. Eric Mazur promotes Active Learning through methods that engage the students by having them answer questions in class and then work with their neighbors to ensure that everyone understands the rationale behind the correct answer. Mazur reminds us of how we tend to have increasing difficulty explaining the introductory concepts in our fields as we dive ever deeper into our academic pursuits of that field. His solution for this, and for the discouragingly, boringly passive lecture classroom is Peer Instruction.
While Active Learning and Peer Instruction in particular, certainly have appeal as a radical change from the methods that seem to be failing today’s students, could these new methods be harmful to students in other dimensions? For example, the academic institutions are not only responsible for educating students in the academic content, but also the academic culture. Brown, Collin, & Duguid (1989) note the importance of “Authentic Activity” and “Cognitive Apprenticeship” in education. If students are educated through Active Learning methods such as Peer Instruction, is it possible that they will miss out on the cultural education? For example, many engineering disciplines have relatively rigid hierarchical structure. This structure is easy to teach with a lecture style presentation of materials. Additionally, if, as in Peer Instruction, novices are teaching each other, it might be difficult to teach the students how to think like (for example) physicists think. On the one hand these diverse perspectives might benefit the field, but it might also result in academics or even practitioners who are unable to relate to their predecessors. Again, if change is a goal, this might be a desired result, but certainly it would be difficult for those first pioneers.
Active Learning methods are enticing changes that offer a hope for improved engagement of students in their education, but as we investigate these methods, we should also consider the effects on the students’ education in the culture of their field as well as its content.

December 2nd, 2010 13:50

Very awesome points to raise. My collegiate experience was fairly group-based, which isn’t truly Peer Instruction in the way I used it at the high school level, but maybe similar enough for discussion.

I see some of the conflict you’re describing in the workplace even now at Big Corp. Many people here are heavily involved (invested?) in the hierarchical education culture, which can result in the first question in resolving a problem being, “Who knows about this system?” rather than “What can we deduce with what we know and our problem-solving skills?” There can then be some interesting political scrambling to be (or not be!) that Authority.

It also results in the disappointing disavowing of knowledge and a certain hopelessness in people’s perceptions of their learning capabilities. It’s the “You’ll always be better at that than me, so just tell me what to do,” syndrome. Also, the “Oh, just fix this one problem for me, it’s one-off [read: not 'real'], so it’s not important for me to really know how to fix it.” This is occurring even amongst developers (not managers to developers or developers to marketing).

That’s really frustrating to me as someone providing help. I want to engage with someone to solve their issue, not sit and think about it in silence and then hand them the answer.

Well… most days. :-)

Even though I was lectured a-plenty in college, I think the group work reinforced the idea that the project we were working on, right there in our hands, was the Authentic Activity, and that we’d better learn what we could from it. Not all the time, of course–we got some goofy stuff sometimes, and we were immature–but enough to get the idea set that this off-one project mattered.

That said, even in group-based work in college was full of people jockeying to be the Authority. Were we steeped in the academic culture? Probably. How much does personality and the confidence/arrogance of a bunch of people who’ve been told they’re “bright and gifted” factor into the building of the (hierarchical) academic culture?

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