As Ellen Langer beautifully states: “The simple process of mindful learning, of actively drawing distinctions and noticing new things-seeing the familiar in the novel and the novel in the familiar-is a way to ensure that our minds are active, that we are involved, and that we are situated in the present.”
I definitely think that working my way from undergraduate to graduate school, learning has been a much more pleasant and active experience for me. Being in engineering, I think we have all experienced those professors which just write a bunch of equations on the board and finish the class with some examples which they might provide the answer to right away or during the next session! The main reason that I attended classes like this was to take notes so that I can go home and study from notes after class! This approach is the “top down” approach which relies on discursive lecturing to instruct students. I should say that I find this method beneficial for students who just want to familiarize themselves with the topics which are introduced in a course and maybe take the time themselves to dive deeper in the topics that they find beneficial to their life/work/research. This is the same concept as auditing a course. I definitely think that if we are taking courses for credit we should be very hands on with that course and not just familiarized with some concepts and methods of that topic. This ties well with the “bottom-up” approach which relies on direct experience and repeated practice of the new activity in a systematic way. Some of best courses that I have had in my life shared two common guidelines which I find very useful:
1) The professors always mentioned not to worry about the grade. This semester I noticed that all professors were required to put a grading scale on their syllabus! I do not know if this is very useful! Since it puts extra stress on the students and also all the professors ended up mentioning that they were required to include this grading scale on their syllabus and that they will curve the class to help students focus on learning and not theirgrade. So why include the grading scale on the syllabus?
2) They always tied the theory with some great life examples. As as example I took a decision theory course last semester and as part of the course requirement we had to learn how to play poker and participate in a poker playing session in class! I mean how much more hands on can we get with decision making?! Everyone had to consider their (and other player’s) probability of winning, and then figure out how much it is worth for them to bet according to their chances of winning in a limited amount of time! Not to mention that at some point emotions will get involved since you want to win so badly, or you have already bet so much that you have “nothing to loose”, or are pressurized by another player! You should also consider that other players might be bluffing! This tied very well with most of the topics that were introduced in the course and helped me adapt the skills that I learned to a real life example which could also be further adapted to trading stocks, important life decisions (i.e. at a personal or job level), etc.
I also think that redesigning your syllabus (which I wrote a blog post about last semester) is a fun and creative way for enhancing the learning process and making the class more active and interactive. Why not look back at our best learning experiences and try to adapt those methods to what we are teaching? Another example in my field (civil engineering) could include some hands on work, preferably in the lab with designing structures and testing them under various types of loads. Yes, I know how to design structures for bridges, houses, etc on a piece of paper. However this is just like another example introduced by Ellen Langer which was someone teaching you methodologically how to perform CPR on infants and adults. Now imagine that you are walking by a pool and you come across a 7 year old who needs CPR. What do you do? How do you adapt your CPR knowledge to this 7 year old?
As teachers, we should introduce concepts and theories, and design activities and group projects which allow the learners to engage in the content by exploring, debating, creating, practicing, and imitating rather than just receiving! We need to facilitate the learning process so that learners are prepared to adjust and adopt what they have learned to real life scenarios rather then teaching them to be mindlessly sequential. In this way learning will be fun and interactive and students will not think about what would be on the test but will think about the applications of the content that they are leaning.
Let’s not repeat history! Don’t be boring teachers! Be fun, be creative, be dynamic, be inclusive . . . !