Engaging Students in Learning – David Helfand


Education has been about taking beakers of
information in my head and pouring bits and pieces of that information into your head
and asking you to regurgitate it on command to show that you have “learned it”. The brain is not designed for one-way communication.
We have a speech production centre and a speech recognition centre, right here on the left
side and they’re wired together and their designed for two-way communication. “So how about looking up here? If we look
her from the North Pole you can see it continuously.” And we’re designed for communication where
I can see your eyes and your reactions and I can be in a socialized environment and in
a reaction with you that’s going to be productive. And the lecture is the opposite of that. So that I think is the critical mistake that
most of our educational system is based on. What would you say is the main learning outcome
at a school like Quest, that may be different from other schools? The principle thing that employers say they
want is not people who write code faster or better accountants at filling out spreadsheets.
They want people who can write and speak effectively and persuasively. They critically want people
who can collaborate across departmental boundaries, I’m talking about in a firm now, to solve
problems for a company, and they want people who can think laterally and analytically and
can come up with creative solutions to problems. And those are the three things that our educational
system is built around. “If they don’t react well to it, we have to
figure out why and how we can change that.” “I want you to understand the system around
this and come up with secondary resources.” So our first two years is a foundation program. And which is not designed to pour little bits
of math into your head, little bits of physics into your head, little bits of sociology into
your head, little bits of english into your head. They’re designed to illustrate by having a
passionate PhD professor in the classroom, how a mathematician views the world, asks
questions about the world and then goes about trying to answer them. And how a physicist does that, and how a sociologist
does that, how an historian does that, and how a poet does that; because they’re very
different perspectives on the world. Our goal at the undergraduate level is to
have every student with the same degree, a bachelors of arts and sciences degree, having
been exposed to these different habits of mind, and have learned how to focus them on
a single interdisciplinary question that’s of interest and value to them, personally. Which inevitably, more closely mirrors questions
that people have to deal with in the real world outside academia. Doing away with traditional degrees and letting
students create their own question, what have you learned from the type of questions that
they come up with? “Well we do have a cadre of students whose
instinct is to save the world. And a lot of what our education is about is teaching them
that that’s not a very useful goal to have. It’s useful to be able to find problems, that
is to frame questions and then think about how you can make progress on that question. The questions tend to be interdisciplinary,
but some of them are very broad and some of them are very focused. The business model of a lot of our universities
are built on big class sizes, not 20 student seminars. How realistic is it for other schools
to adopt some of the approaches that you have here? Well if you look at the student-faculty ratio
here and the student-faculty ratio at some of the big leading research universities,
it’s not terribly different. So it’s really a matter of priorities and the deployment
of resources as to what you want to do. “There aren’t very many stars. These are stars,
there are very few.” Now some of the techniques we use, like I
did today, could be done in a 100 student classroom. There’s no reason we couldn’t configure the
classroom to have 4 or 5 people sitting around 20 different tables and working on a computer
simulation or something like that, that let’s them understand how to extract information
from observations of the world and build generalizable models of that that they can employ in other
actions. We have to engage students in the process
of learning. You could achieve that in much larger classrooms if you change the mindset
of what the purpose is. It’s not to have them, it’s not an answer
driven curriculum, it’s a process driven curriculum. What about majors? Should universities do
away with majors and have students design their own learning? I think we need, especially in Canada, a much
broader array of options for students. It’s the similarity of all the major public universities
that’s the problem. And so, no I think there’s some people who at 18, maybe, know exactly
what is it they want to do with the rest of their lives, and go and get trained to do
that in four years. But there should also be places where people
can go without knowing exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives and have
their minds opened up to different perspectives of the world, equipped with different intellectual
tools, taught how to collaborate and communicate and be made more effective people, more effective
citizens, and more effective parts of the economy.

1 Comment

  1. Christine Clement

    March 11, 2014 at 6:25 am

    This is brilliant thinking!

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