Thursday, May 10, 2007

Even Harvard recognizes the value of smaller classes

In response to questions on class size, Joel Klein likes to rhapsodize about his great lecture courses in college. See this interview for example:

“When you enter college, when I went to college, you took some lecture courses, right, that were phenomenal, and they weren't 20 or 25 kids. And I think we should have a much more, if you would, a kind of mix tapered to the needs of the kids and what the class is trying to do.”

Recently at Columbia University, his alma mater, in another attempt to refute the importance of smaller classes, he made a rather bizarre observation:

"There were people here at Columbia who were wasting my time...One of the reasons those classes were so small is because everyone else had realized that those teachers were a waste of time."

Despite the fact that the analogy between Ivy league college students and the high needs (and much younger) population in our public schools is rather farfetched, I remember few great lectures in college. Instead, I recall dozing through all too many.

Now even Harvard has issued a new report that reconsiders the value of lecture courses. In an article in today's NY Times , Eric Mazur, a professor of Physics recounts how he

...threw out his lectures in his introductory physics class when he realized his students were not absorbing the underlying principles, relying instead on memory to solve problems. His classes now focus on students working in small groups. “

“When I asked them to apply their knowledge in a situation they had not seen before, they failed,” Professor Mazur said. “You have to be able to tackle the new and unfamiliar, not just the familiar, in everything. We have to give the students the skills to solve such problems. That’s the goal of education.”

1 comment:

NYC Educator said...

What's problematic, I think, is that people tend to grab onto teaching methods and say, "This works." Now that's fine, but they tend to make another step and claim, "Because this works, nothing else works."

I've been teaching for 22 years, and almost every September someone stands in front of me with the virtual Ten Commandments, something that works to the exclusion of everything else. It makes no difference if that same person, one year ago, claimed something else worked to the exclusion of everything else.

There are some people gifted enough to give enthralling lectures, but those people are far from the norm, and it's a preposterous approach, for the most part, for children.

But there are many different ways to involve kids. To say the workshop model, for example, works to the exclusion of all other models, is impossible.

I really believe good teachers find their own voices, just like good writers. I know great teachers whose approaches I wouldn't emulate, because they're not what works for me. I wouldn't impose my particular methods on them either.

It's very simplistic and unrealistic, though, to say every teacher must teach like this, whatever "this" may represent. In this respect, Klein and Co. represent no change whatsoever from their predecessors.