Rather Than Reinventing Education By Teaching A Million People At Once, Can We Perfect Teaching One Person At A Time?

from the educational-challenges dept

We've written a few times about innovation in education, and I've pointed out that I think the real breakthrough opportunity is in figuring out ways to get "students" to teach the subject matter themselves. As I noted, it was only once I had to teach certain subjects that I fully understood them -- because my students kept probing and asking more questions, which forced me to go beyond "just getting by" with my knowledge of the subject, and to dig deeper and gain better understanding. And it feels like there's an opportunity to use technology to make that possible -- and to somehow flip the equation, so that education is less about being "lectured" and more about students learning by teaching themselves and each other.

So, I found it fascinating to listen to a recent episode of economist Russ Robert's EconTalk podcast, in which he spoke with economist Arnold Kling about the future of education, based on Kling's recent article reviewing what educational technologies he thought were overhyped, and which really had a chance to change education for the better. In the discussion, they raise this same concept of learning by teaching, but the key takeaway was slightly different: it's that so much of the focus on technology in education today is figuring out how to take a lecture or a lesson and distributing it much more widely to many more students.

You can understand, in theory, why that seems desirable. After all, if you can find the absolute best teacher of a subject, wouldn't it be great to allow anyone and everyone to sit in on his or her lectures? But, of course, the problem with this scenario is that it assumes that it's from the lecture that we learn -- and there's little evidence to support that across the board (that's not to say that people don't learn from lectures, but it may not be the key aspect of learning). Instead, Kling suggests, the true breakthroughs come from more personalized situations in which a teacher and a student work together though a problem.

And, of course, Kling's optimism is in the idea that such customized and personal teaching may be more possible with technology today -- allowing for more adaptive learning. But, for the most part, all the big stories we hear about technology in education seem to be about just reaching more people, and he worries that this is the wrong approach. From the article:
To put this another way, I believe that the future of teaching is not one-to-many. Instead, it is many-to-one. By many-to-one, I mean that one student receives personalized instruction that comes from many educators. To make that work, technology must act as an intermediary, taking the information from the educators and customizing it to fit the student's knowledge, ability, and even his or her emotional state.
I do think that this doesn't exclude those broad distribution efforts, however. In fact, he more or less admits this in the podcast, in talking about the Khan Academy which we've written about before. While initially he suggests that he's not that impressed with that kind of thing because it falls into that "one to many" approach, he later admits that when you use it as a teaching aid to flip the equation so that lectures are done at home at your own pace, and classroom time is used instead for problem solving and greater one-to-one interactions between teachers and students, the results are much better.

No matter what your opinion on this is, if you're interested in the future of education, I highly recommend giving a listen to the podcast discussion between Roberts and Kling.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 12:30am

    While we're on technology for teaching...

    The question comes down to "how is the spreading of lectures (as videos) different to the spreading of textbooks (apart from price)". Qualitatively, I don't think it is different. In both cases, it comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of what learning is.

    Learning isn't churning through content. Learning is about being able to do new things. If nothing else, it requires an engaged attempt at a new activity, followed by evaluation and feedback as to the quality of the attempt. (If this sounds vague, I'm trying to stay general).

    The learner doesn't need to be told whether they are right or wrong. They need to be told what things worked well, what things needed improving and what things they should work on.

    An online lecture can't do this (nor can a textbook).

    What they are useful for, however is as sources of alternate viewpoints, alternate explanations and content delivery that can be paused and rewound (particularly useful when you get to that "wait. what?" moment. I always try to find appropriate online lectures and reference them for my students - they are a helpful adjunct - but they are not a substitute for what you can do with a real live person. (Disclaimer: I've never lectured to a group larger than 170 before).

     

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  2.  
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    The eejit (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 3:26am

    Re: While we're on technology for teaching...

    I've never lectured in a group larger than 170 before

    See, this is also an important point - at that scale there's far less time per person to actually engage your audience at a semi-intimate nature of the class/gig/whatever.

     

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  3.  
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    Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 4:04am

    Motive

    You can understand, in theory, why that seems desirable. After all, if you can find the absolute best teacher of a subject, wouldn't it be great to allow anyone and everyone to sit in on his or her lectures?
    Maybe I'm a cynic but that seems way to altruistic a motive to ascribe to the research there.
    I suspect it's far more about money... If the lecturer can lecture to more people then you get to charge them all and get more money because the tech cost is going to be fixed and way less than another lecturer in the subject.
    Yes, I know in reality if you managed it then lectures become non-scarce and there wouldn't be as much money in it as you think, but I'm guessing it hasn't been thought through that far.

     

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  4.  
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    Chris ODonnell (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 5:56am

    I've pointed out that I think the real breakthrough opportunity is in figuring out ways to get "students" to teach the subject matter themselves

    2 million homeschoolers in the US have already figured this out. Make sure kids have the core skills they need to learn, reading, writing, and math up through about Algebra I and Geometry. Then get the hell out of their way and let them follow their interests. Both of my kids had advanced college level knowledge of the stuff that interested them while they were high school age, in subjects I know little about.

     

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  5.  
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    Bengie, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 9:42am

    Re:

    The biggest thing that I learned in college was how to teach myself. Lots of homework was research based.

    I am my own best teacher. It has taught me how to learn and how to recognize when I don't know something. It also taught me how to ask good questions.

    Teaching how to learn is much more important than teaching how to pass tests.

     

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  6.  
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    Scott, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 12:02pm

    Re:

    Spot on .... my wife and I are homeschooling our kids and this is one of the three reasons why. Another reason is to give them the tailored, focused attention that I think is an underpinning aspect of the many-to-one concept. Focus education on individualized outcomes at a pace that makes sense for the topic and student and teach the student how to teach himself in that context.

    It enriches the learning experience for both teacher and student.

     

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    John Fenderson (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 4:47pm

    Re: While we're on technology for teaching...

    The question comes down to "how is the spreading of lectures (as videos) different to the spreading of textbooks (apart from price)".


    There is a pretty large difference, though. Some people learn better one way over the other. For example, lectures are totally worthless to me -- I don't learn much from the spoken word, even if pictures are involved. Reading, however, is my ideal way. I can rapidly learn complicated things by reading.

     

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  8.  
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    Shirley Willett, Nov 3rd, 2012 @ 10:22am

    Many teachers to one student is ideal

    I have been a fashion designer with 3 corporations and 3 NSF engineering design grants. I started learning from experience in the industry in the 1940s. What I know has amazed everyone, because it is a little bit from many hundreds of people. And, oh yes, copying some taught me great technicalities. And, nothing from schools.

    Today I am a mentor of a handful of young designers, teaching them to teach themselves and learn from others discriminately, especially from their consumers.

    A side note, I wrote a few years ago against copyright in fashion design, and spoke on it at a copyright conference.

    Thanks Mike for your great "Techdirt".

     

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  9.  
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    Ollie Speraw, Nov 3rd, 2012 @ 11:21am

    Education

    I'm very much interested in improving the learning process over the obsolete methods we continue to use today.
    Hon. Ollie Speraw, Retired CA State Senator.

     

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  10.  
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    Ryan Laughy, Nov 4th, 2012 @ 1:34am

    Personalized Learning

    I teach at a charter school in northern California that, for fourteen years, has provided a personalized learning format to its students. Some home school, some attend the local community college, some receive individualized instruction, while others enroll in classes on one of our high school district's traditional campuses. Some classes are online, some are seat-based, and some are experiential. Our students get what they need when they need it, delivered by the instructor and in the format that suits them best. The "many-to-one" format is alive and well.

     

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  11.  
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    kacool (profile), Jan 29th, 2013 @ 3:07am

    Studies in the Future

    I believe to the advocacy of Khan Academy. It makes learning easier and knowledge is already available to anyone who wants to learn. I want to do more research and do some UK Dissertation writing about this topic.

     

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