Today is the kick-off for the brand-new Harvard Initiative on Learning and Teaching (HILT). This is an extraordinary day at Harvard, part symposium and part working session to get HILT underway in earnest. The background: President Drew Faust and two of the university’s most loyal friends, Rita and Gustave Hauser, dreamed up a major new university-wide initiative to focus on the science and practice of learning and teaching. The Hausers gave $40 million to make the initiative’s launch possible.
The symposium opens with a welcome from President Faust and Erin Driver-Linn, the director of HILT, who describe the ideas behind HILT and its early activities, including a new grant program for novel learning and teaching projects. The first keynote session is on the science of learning. The speakers are extraordinary: the moderator is Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard professor of psychology with a deep interest in learning), and the presenters are Carl Wieman (a prof in the past, and now in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and a Nobel Prize winner), Roddy Roediger (one of the giants of understanding learning and measuring learning), and Steve Pinker (Harvard College Professor in psychology and best-selling author, of The Language Instinct and many other wonderful books). The presenters have been saying much too much to blog here effectively, so I’ll just go with one insight I took away from each speaker’s remarks:
- Banaji: many of our broadly-held myths about learning and teaching are wrong. Before we lurch ahead with innovative teaching activities, we need to “unlearn” our mistaken assumptions and ground new efforts in the increasingly helpful science of learning.
- Wieman: experimental modes of teaching in science, even by less experienced teachers, are demonstrably more effective at teaching material to undergraduates than the classic lecture format, even when taught by a more senior professor with positive student evaluations;
- Roediger: testing helps with learning. It’s much better to have students write, present, and take tests than to have them read and re-read material. Performance (measured, say, as recall a few days later) is greatly improved based on the amount of testing (practicing retrieval of material) done previously. This dynamic is known as the retrieval practice effect. (Also: news alert for students: cramming works! It is possible to improve recall over short periods by intense studying right before an exam. But that won’t mean you can retrieve the information later; you won’t, unless you’ve been repeatedly tested.)
- Pinker: we know that students may not remember the particular substance that we teach them in universities, but we do expect that they will learn certain analytical skills. We also hope they might have learned to write. As wonderful as The Elements of Style is, it should not be the basis for teaching writing today, Pinker argues. It is a charming book, but it is hard to come away with much useful advice (other than “omit needless words,” which Pinker agrees is highly worthy). Grammar is in fact cool, Pinker says, involving brain-work. We should teach writing as “convert[…] a network of ideas into a linear string of words,” which can mean sometimes selecting the passive voice instead of the active, for instance. “It’s hard to know what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” This is the primary contributor both to bad writing and bad teaching.
(I am moderating the second session, soon to begin.)