Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Today, in another class we were discussing a current discussion in the engineering education field. What should we focus on teaching, core knowledge or practice/solution of problems? My response was that you cannot have one without the other. You first need to learn the basic concepts before you are able to apply them and find solutions. You need to transfer the knowledge of basic concepts to the students; you could employ different teaching techniques. For Robert Talbert the lecture would not be one of them. He sees lectures as good for “covering material” but “terrible for information transfer.”

I’ll take the role of the devil’s advocate and say that without lectures, how are we going to provide the copious amounts of information for them to ‘learn’ and later be able to apply in problem solving. Talbert says: “Resorting to a lecture because I need to “cover material” is just an admission that I didn’t design my course well. If that’s all the lecture is for, put it online so students can at least pause and rewind.” How do we know we are serving the students well by doing this? Maybe internally motivated students will do this. Will externally motivated students benefit from this? There is a proverb that says: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Certainly, lectures are not a perfect; one size fits all solution for teaching. They are another tool for us to transfer knowledge. There are many other tools that we can employ to motivate students and keep them interested in the topic and wanting to learn more outside the classroom. Like Mark C. Carnes mentions about president Obama in his article, “No one can say that the future president of the Harvard Law Review (and of these United States) was not college material.” Who knows if we are motivating and teaching a future leader of our country, but we are definitely teaching the young minds that will have the future of our country. We should do our best to keep them engaged and effectively transfer knowledge to them.

10 thoughts on “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

  1. Edwin, after reading the blog post, my question to you would be: Do we really need to transfer copious amount of information to students? And even if we transfer huge amounts of information to students, What’s the guarantee they will acquire the required skills to apply that information to solve problems? I argue that they will not be able to apply the information learned through lectures unless they process it in their own minds. And lectures do not help processing information in students minds. Moreover, students might not be engaged while they are sitting in a lecture. This will lead to them forgetting the information they heard in the lecture. I think we need to focus on what the student does in class in order to ensure they are actively engaged in the learning process. I recently wrote a blog post on the importance of being engaged in the learning process: http://ashish-dss.blogspot.com/2015/09/i-do-and-i-understand.html. This will elaborate on what I am trying to say.

  2. “Boring” lectures – copious amounts of material – if a student is bored in a class, does not find the material particularly interesting or useful, it is entirely possible that student is in the wrong class, the wrong major. Perhaps a student that finds mathematics uninteresting and dull should not be taking engineering courses. Perhaps it’s not a matter of lecturers not engaging students on an individual level, but a matter of a student not feeling engaged with the lectures because that individual has chosen its classes poorly.

    1. I think there is a little bit of both: it is true that some students land in the wrong major, because they are just following on father’s footsteps or because of peer or social pressure. But it is also true that a good professor can bring to life a course that would otherwise be a nightmare for a large amount of students. However, I see your point: we put most of the blame on poor learning on teachers, while it is obviously a shared responsibility with students. There also needs to be some student stamina and determination to study. It takes two to tango.

  3. Sometimes, we can’t apply the same set of criteria for different classes and different students. I think if the materials in the classes are basic and core knowledge, instructors probably have no choice but cover the materials. Also, for different students, we should use different methods to help them learn. Self-motivated students, in fact, are more likely to expect instructors to transfer information. For the students who have less internal motivation, we as teachers should explore their interests and motivate them to learn, which means that covering materials may be not suit for them.

  4. I love the chicken and egg analogy! (I also love devil’s advocates). Your central question — ‘What should we focus on teaching, core knowledge or practice/solution of problems?’ is aptly formulated and I agree that you cannot have one without the other. This reminds me of a dilemma I had between core science and engineering. My feeling is that the core scientific theories — be it pure math or pure physics — are almost always motivated by real world problems. Math is thus a language or a tool to solve engineering problems. So for me, the problems should inspire the desire to attain core knowledge. I also feel there really aren’t any ‘fundamental truths’, all of our knowledge is actually contextual, and the context must always come first.

  5. Hey,
    I really love this post, mainly because i was thinking of writing on the very same thing. Quite frankly lectures are still important in the transfer of knowledge. combining lectures with other tools to keep students interested is what we need to look into.
    Good job!

  6. In engineering education, a lot of lectures are associated with labs. Labs that have physical involvement reinforce the learning and extend information transfer. Years later, students may reflect that the labs are what they remember the most. We need to consider behavioral, cognitive, and situated learning in the teaching methods.

  7. You make a good point by discussing the need to cover the basics so that you apply them and also about the need to motivate students. However, I think that a lecturer should be able to put his personal touch on the material and where it is applicable so that the students can connect with it and not being lost with the tedious details. Students need to see the bigger picture to understand the importance of the basics they are learning.

  8. Even if it was you just playing devil’s advocate I do agree with your point regarding lectures being another tool for learning. I feel like it shouldn’t need to be said, but while pushing for alternatives to try and engage every student is great that does not mean we have to replace lectures entirely. That is the vibe I’m getting from some articles we read as well comments. It’s just another tool that can be used. It probably shouldn’t be the only tool, but like you mentioned the other tools that can be used outside the classroom it can be one tool used inside the classroom.

  9. I definitely agree. It’s really hard for me to see an effective way to totally separate the lecture from the transfer of information in some subjects. Some of these points that he lists I see as actually being really fundamental types of information that make lectures really important to some courses: modeling thought processes, for example, could be considered the goal of some math or engineering courses. You make a good point that both core knowledge and practice are necessary. Maybe we need both in an effective classroom.

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