Nature published a piece today that’s relevant to several of my discussions on this blog: “Why we are teaching science wrong, and how to make it right.” In short, it’s a demonstration of exactly what is wrong with the new active education movement. Let me be very clear that my negativity does not mean that I’m against the movement — active learning is indeed an advance over the status quo. This larger national movement is simply a small step in the right direction, one that can easily be skipped over towards the inevitable future of STEM education.

The article advocates gimmick in-class discussion problems. For example:

You’re innocently walking down the street when aliens zap away the sensory neurons in your legs. What happens?

a) Your walking movements show no significant change.

b) You can no longer walk.

c) You can walk, but the pace changes.

d) You can walk, but clumsily.

I’ll admit that I don’t know the answer to this, it isn’t my field at all, and it probably spawned interesting classroom debate. But what I do know is that these sorts of questions incredibly frustrated me back when I was a student, and it wasn’t because I was a particularly good student or successful with the status quo. My problem was one of relevance:

What’s the point of the question? I know we haven’t discovered aliens yet so I know this was totally contrived by someone thinking they were clever at the time and put forward the extra effort to think about it. I’m guessing we’ve never actually done this experiment on a real person, so I’m not sure that anyone decisively knows the answer. Is the point to show that I read the material and can ‘transfer’ and ‘apply’ the textbook content (according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, the gold standard of learning).

By successfully answering the question who am I better able to help? What am I better able to do? No idea. I’m reaching here, but may’be to more efficiently treat a soldier I watched get wounded from a distance? -That would’ve made a better question for what the instructor was trying to accomplish. But the problem is, there are endless questions that anybody could come up with that are more relevant to them.

What’s the difference between answers ‘c) pace changing’ and ‘d) clumsily’? These were the kind of questions that totally halted me on multiple choice exam questions when I was a student. What’s the definition of ‘clumsily’ and am I correctly applying it here? The reality is that depending on time frame, a,b,c,d will all be observed.

My very first in-class lecture was during my Junior year in Fluid mechanics, when the professor, who advocated more modern active learning techniques created the opportunity for students to give in-class lectures. My problem was determining the angle of a fluid-air interface in an accelerating reference frame. I created a problem more relevant to my 22 year old mind, “I’ve got a cup of coffee 1/4″ below the rim sitting in the cup holder of my Ferrari (only in my wildest dreams). How fast can I accelerate before spilling?” I was smart enough not to provide multiple choices. There are in reality many correct answers depending on the complexity of which you look at the problem, do you consider the rock of the body?, the angle of the cup wall?, surface tension of the fluid? Clearly just about any problem can be made endlessly complex by continuing to ask what if. What is certain though is that multiple choices give false confidence and false positives, or destroy confidence all together.

So let’s look back at the neuron problem. It classically teaches disconnections. It’s a classic artifact of a legalistic meme-set to education that the National Academies Scientific Teaching Initiative and other leading active learning advocates continue to proselytize. I remember sitting in a Plenary speech by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman at UC-Boulder in 2005 and being very much disappointed when he said along the lines of, “if you’re not teaching with clickers, you’re practicing bad teaching”. Clickers primarily allow multiple choice answers. However they, like mutiple choice questions, have their place. I’m not going to make the same mistake of saying an absolute without the violation of a physical law. We live in a complicated system with many complicated people and there will certainly be no one-size fits all approach for educators or students.

What is important though for new people entering the field of education, and one that the article hints at, is that your time in the classroom does not necessarily detract from your research. The solution and a likely future of STEM education is to connect your students to real clients with real problems that fit the context of a particular course/body of knowledge. This is a topic that we’re not going to finish anytime soon, so stay tuned…