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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

what happens when you free students to learn

I was astonished by the depth and breadth of learning that the students brought to class today. Trevor assigned these 50-some juniors in groups of 4-5 to review a biomedical device implant case. The format was something called "grand rounds" in the medical profession. An individual reviews a patient case with salient facts and decisions and procedures administered. They were given the weekend to chose from among seven different cases, each approximately 100 words or less. We told them that after presenting the case (usually 1-2 minutes), they would be asked questions about their decisions in the case. Students from each group would be chosen at random to speak when it was their team's turn to present.

This is only the 6th day of class.  Without exception, each of the 11 presenters was able to answer a wide range of questions about the medical device that was implanted, the operating procedures, the post-operative risks, and the rational for their choices--using correct medical terminology throughout.  It was clear that they had freely researched far beyond the initial 100-word text to create a more complete and individualized understanding. They possessed a level of sophistication in their knowledge that was dramatically higher than in the past.

A big difference this year is that we have stopped lecturing at them almost entirely.

the humiliation method of learning

I've been thinking about what Pete and Liza said about learning physics since our meeting last Thursday.  They described it as the "humiliation method." They recounted the common occurrence of teaching freshmen physics: in every class, they experience a few "arrogant" individuals who believe they know physics when then in fact don't. The only way to "break" these students of this mindset is through "public humiliation," which Pete says is done in a playful manner. Pete asserts that this must be done in order to correct their misconceptions.

I keep thinking about this process. It occurs to me as violent. In fact, it is disturbing to me because it normalizes "humiliation" as part of the educational culture.