02 February 2011

Floggings will continue until learning occurs

When a colleague said physicist Arthur Eddington was one of only three people in the world who understood general relativity, Eddington first said nothing. When told he shouldn’t be so shy, Eddington said he was merely trying to think of who the third person might be.

Today, more than three people understand general relativity.

But is there some proportion of people who could just never understand general relativity, no matter how hard they tried? Or photosynthesis? Or chemical bonding? Or geology?

One of the latest claims making the rounds about higher education is that students don’t learn very much. This is a rather extraordinary claim, because you would think that such widespread incompetence would have ground many professions (like physicians, engineers, attorneys) into the dust long ago. And I have to say that it is rather at odds with my personal experience, both as a student and as an instructor.

The response of some professors on some other forums to this surprised me. They basically conceded that students didn’t learn much. But it wasn’t their fault.

  1. Students don’t learn anything because because our classes are too easy.
  2. We can’t make classes more rigorous because more students will fail.
  3. Administrators, students, and everyone else will freak out and force us to dumb it down.

By way of analogy: “We can make more horses into racing horses by whipping them harder. A lot will crack under the punishment. But we have all these bleeding hearts who don’t want to see horses whipped, so we have to put up with poor results.”

There’s an underlying premise that it’s impossible that more than a few students can master some topics.

“Rigour” is equated with how many students fail to learn. That’s not necessarily rigorous; it might just be hard. You can make something difficult without adding any rigour. “Rigour” is about maintaining the standards necessary to achieve mastery of the material. There are often relationships between rigour and difficulty and number of students who fail. But let’s be clear: they are not the same things.

The problem may not be that people cannot learn the concept. The problem may be that they cannot learn the concept in 15 weeks through about 40 hours of lecturing. There are many things I did not manage to learn in an undergraduate class that are easy for me now.

Dr. Tae makes a similar point in this video. He talks about learning a new trick in skateboarding.

It would be ridiculous to say that because someone didn’t master a trick in 10 attempts, 5 days, or some other arbitrary time, that the person couldn’t ever learn it.

Perhaps, to use an agricultural metaphor that Ken Robinson uses, we are not giving out students a sufficiently fertile soil that will let them germinate. A few tolerant individuals might make it in crummy conditions, but how much more productive would it be if everyone was able to flourish?

Photo by fantasy prof on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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