AS DOES much else in the universe, education moves in cycles. The 1960s and 1970s saw a swell of interest in teaching styles that were less authoritarian and hierarchical than the traditional watching of a teacher scribbling on a blackboard. Today, tastes have swung back, and it is fashionable to denigrate those alternatives as so much hippy nonsense.
But evidence trumps fashion–at least, it ought to. And a paper just published in Science by Louis Deslauriers and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia suggests that at least one of the newfangled styles is indeed superior to the traditional chalk-and-talk approach.
Dr Deslauriers’s lab rats were a group of 850 undergraduate engineering students taking a compulsory physics course. The students were split into groups at the start of their course, and for the first 11 weeks all went to traditionally run lectures given by well-regarded and experienced teachers. In the 12th week, one of the groups was switched to a style of teaching known as deliberate practice, which inverts the traditional university model. Class time is spent on problem-solving, discussion and group work, while the absorption of facts and formulae is left for homework. Students were given reading assignments before classes. Once in the classroom they spent their time in small groups, discussing specific problems, with the teacher roaming between groups to offer advice and respond to questions.