An example of resistance to change in education: active learning and the lecture method

The American educational system can be dauntingly resistant to a change, even when there is overwhelming and compelling evidence supporting the change.

The survival of the lecture method – despite many volumes of research accumulated over decades saying it should be abandoned for active learning techniques – provides an example.

About twenty years ago, a colleague from another science department at FSU who had been involved in the writing of the original AAAS science standards told me that in a short period of time – maybe a decade – all science teaching in the K-12 schools would be based on active learning techniques.  And that once students taught in this way in the K-12 schools reached our universities they would demand that active learning techniques be used at that level as well.  In this way, the lecture method would become extinct in science classes at all levels.

I’m still waiting.

K-12 science teachers are still lecturing their students, now dressing their outdated practice in a name, “direct instruction”, that at least doesn’t sound like the discredited term “lecture”.  (Look up “direct instruction”, or “DI”, in Wikipedia, and you’ll find this:  “DI teaches by passive learning, in contrast to exploratory models such as inquiry-based learning, discovery learning or active learning.”  And that is apparently supposed to be a brag.)  Teacher educators still tell teachers-in-training that lecturing (sorry – “direct instruction”) is an effective teaching technique that should be a primary classroom tool.  At the college level, many students choose lecture courses over active learning courses because they got to college in the first place by earning good grades in lecture classes.  Parents like lecture courses for the same reason.  Academic advisors sometimes refuse to advise their students to take active learning courses because they are “too great a risk for the students” (apparently doubling student learning presents some sort of dire risk).  And of course some of my colleagues are relieved that many students still want to take lecture classes – so that they can run their classes using the familiar and comfortable lecture method.

There is even a White House report demanding the use of active learning in introductory college science classes.  It may be true that college students and faculty overwhelmingly approved of the Obama administration.  But when it comes to the instructional advice issued on Obama’s watch by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, that approval seems to disappear.

The new algebra-based AP Physics 1 and 2 courses were intended to drive high school physics instruction from the lecture model – which is dominant in high school classrooms – toward active learning.  So it should have been no surprise that the first AP Physics 1 exam administration in 2015 was something of a bloodbath, with a passing rate of only 38%.  Those of us who track such things were hoping that after the stick was used in 2015 that high school teachers would have gone for the active learning carrot.  So it was a bit discouraging that the passing rate for the 2016 administration was also 38%.  Since there was no significant improvement, it’s likely that there was no significant increase in the implementation of active learning techniques in the nation’s high school physics classrooms.  Another “win” for the lecture method.

The resistance to active learning techniques is even the subject of a paper in the present issue of Physical Review Physics Education Research titled “Student satisfaction in interactive engagement-based physics classes”.  The abstract begins, “Interactive engagement-based (IE) physics classes have the potential to invigorate and motivate students, but students may resist or oppose the pedagogy.”  And many students do.  After all, it’s not what they – or their parents, or their K-12 teachers – have been used to.  And change can be very scary, even when it’s clearly the right thing to do.

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  1. Pingback: Can the advantages of a SCALE-UP learning environment be reproduced in a distance learning program? | Bridge to Tomorrow

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