Making lectures personal

The New York Times ran a story a couple weeks ago that finally made its way across my radar today (it's a snow day, so I'm working at home and have a few moments at lunch to troll about the Interwebs). It's particularly relevent, though, whether at the university level (where the article was focused) or at the K-12 level where I've spent the first two days of this week trying to really integrate technology into a set of elementary classrooms.

The New York Times ran a story a couple weeks ago that finally made its way across my radar today (it's a snow day, so I'm working at home and have a few moments at lunch to troll about the Interwebs). It's particularly relevent, though, whether at the university level (where the article was focused) or at the K-12 level where I've spent the first two days of this week trying to really integrate technology into a set of elementary classrooms.

The story talked about a shift from large lecture format classes at MIT and several other colleges to technology-enabled small group classes where the instructor and his/her teaching assistants acted much more as facilitators than one-sided lecturers. The large lecture classes were marked by poor attendance and high failure rates.

The physics department has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning. Last fall, after years of experimentation and debate and resistance from students, who initially petitioned against it, the department made the change permanent. Already, attendance is up and the failure rate has dropped by more than 50 percent.

The article went on to highlight students' increased retention and comprehension using the new technique in which small groups of students collaborate in a $2.5 million facility, using computers and interactive whiteboards rather than furiously writing notes while a professor lectures.

Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups.

Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.

Similarly, even with an infusion of technology in our classrooms in a K-12 setting, it's all too easy for teachers to simply let the computers do the teaching, especially with RTI software that adapts so well to student needs. Instead, teachers must learn to actively facilitate student learning using the computers and the data collected using the software.

It's a method that works as well for Harvard as it does for an elementary school. Get teachers directly interacting with students with a variety of technologies, get students working together, again collaborating via technological tools, and you're in business.

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