On the Impasse Over Active Learning

            On May 14, 2014, Joshua Kim posted a blog entry on the widely read Inside Higher Ed website (http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/technology-and-learning/attempt-reframe-our-active-learning-debate#sthash.UPFX5bKu.dpbs) entitled, “An Attempt to Reframe our Active Learning Debate.” His piece had been occasioned by the critical reaction of some science, mathematics and engineering faculty to a recently released Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper, “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering and mathematics” (http://www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8410.full.pdf). Kim made clear that the debate on which his posting focused, the utility of active learning pedagogies, has been long lived. Higher education and teaching and learning faculties have advocated since the 1970s for increased student involvement in learning while some scientists, engineers and mathematicians, for just as long, have argued for insuring the transmittal of domain content, in ways that often require memorization, as a key pedagogical strategy. That is, this protracted argument within the academy concerning how to regard learners and how to teach them has now been underway for more than four decades. That it continues to create fresh disagreement and debate is testimony to the strongly felt views of those participating in it.

            I have personally followed this controversy for at least 20 years as I have sought to develop and deepen my own pedagogical understanding. For some years, too, I led a doctoral seminar that aimed in part to acquaint participants with various arguments concerning how effectively to open space for active student engagement in learning. In the interest of transparency I should note here that these experiences convinced me that individuals should be encouraged to take as much ownership as possible concerning their own education. That said, I think the reasons for the continuing dispute regarding this vital topic are important, as is the context in which it is occurring. Paradoxically, the ongoing inability of academicians to assume a more unified position concerning this question has indirectly and unintentionally reinforced calls by some people outside academe for commodification of virtually all university level knowledge. In my view, such would rob science, social science and the humanities alike of their most vital functions even as it would deeply erode, if not eliminate, the essential role that universities play in assuring a citizenry with the capacities necessary for democratic deliberation.

            This debate is especially salient for me now, not only as a result of reading Kim’s essay, but also because I have just completed a faculty development workshop on the topic of “mindful (active) learning,” at which the divide between engineers and scientists and all other participants quickly arose and continued throughout the program. Most scientists and engineers in our number (and the lone mathematician, too) argued that students simply must memorize crucial concepts, such as body parts and linear algebra equations, and take on faith that their importance will become relevant later. As one engineering participant argued, “They need to trust the system and just learn the stuff.”

            These constructs, among others in this view, are foundational and must be memorized if students are to move forward in their curricula. Accordingly, these faculty members argued that firm didactic control by professors of such curricular concerns is imperative and that there is likewise a key role for rote learning. In the same spirit, these scholars were keen to contend that their courses of study demanded much of students intellectually and that they therefore needed to ensure the transmittal of a vast array of relevant domain knowledge and so had little time for strategies that sought to engage students more deeply. In this view, the lecture format has long worked to convey vital information and it is doing the job now, so there is no compelling reason for change. In sum, for these individuals the question of teaching strategy was foundational to their understanding of their disciplines and of their self-understanding as professors in their fields. It constituted for each a vital epistemic claim or assumption.

            These twin assertions—that memorization is necessary and that the critical need to convey domain knowledge does not permit space for more learner-centered pedagogies—and the fact that they have changed little in decades suggest that the manner in which individuals are being prepared for their teaching roles in these disciplines has not shifted much during that period. Evidently, the watchword for pedagogy, if not curricula, in these disciplines is plus ca change. But that is surely not itself the significant question or challenge for the academy. Instead, the more interesting issue is why these individuals (if not also their disciplines) continue to resist a teaching and learning stance long since adopted by many in the humanities and social sciences (in principle if not always in practice).

            Part of the reason appears to be that these scientists and engineers see certain subjects as essential and therefore not within the rightful province of even the learner’s partial control. Alternatively, it could be that because these professors see these concerns as vital, that view colors their perception of learning strategies that appear to threaten their lone responsibility for these matters. Whatever the cause, all of the participants in the workshop from these fields saw the question of how these capacities might be acquired in a different way that allowed learners to comprehend immediately and more explicitly why and how this knowledge was relevant to their understanding and future professions, as an assault instead on the importance of the concerns themselves. That is, the “why” and “what” questions regarding knowledge acquisition were set into contest for these professors when no such argument had been intended by the workshop leader or the author of the text under consideration.

            As I observed above, I believe that the evidence is overwhelming that learners understand and retain more information more deeply when they can articulate why they are learning the materials with which they are grappling, and not simply seek to grasp what is being conveyed. And I am not certain that those pushing back actually heard this distinction in the discussion. What they seemed to hear instead was an attack on their disciplines (never intended or appropriate) and “tried and true” methods and they recoiled from that perceived criticism rather than embrace what could be seen as a creative and potential-filled possibility that might empower their learners and therefore ease, not complicate, their teaching responsibility.

            In short, so far as I could ascertain, a real exchange of views never occurred in this gathering. Clouded perceptions and epistemic-scale assumptions obscured the perspectives in play. Assuming that what I saw this week is indicative, it is perhaps easier to understand why this division has endured for so long. Nonetheless, that fact is deeply unfortunate for the conflict it represents and the creative teaching and learning strategies that have gone untried as a result.

            It is also ill fated for another reason. This continuing impasse within the academy concerning how to regard active learning reinforces another and larger cultural trend, for it divides scholars and disciplines at a time when higher education is already being pressed to package what it does as a saleable commodity and to be judged not by the capacities with which it equips its learners, including, vitally, critical reasoning and communication capabilities, but instead by its perceived utility against a market-derived mythos of vocational utility. This broader trend to commodify higher learning as just another good or service has lately gained strength among some elected leaders who have called for publicly supported universities to eliminate subjects not perceived as instrumentally useful in the marketplace in immediate terms.

            Importantly, the ongoing debate about pedagogy within the professoriate makes it more difficult for those advocating for teaching strategies that encourage students to share in the responsibility for their learning so as to maximize their opportunities to develop their critical reasoning and communication capacities to make their case. Enthusiasts argue that these teaching approaches are central to ensuring the sort of workforce that those attacking the humanities and arguing for commodification of knowledge now also suggest is necessary: individuals who can adapt to change, recognize opportunities, mobilize others to their causes and aims and possess the abilities to recognize social and economic opportunities and communicate ways and means to realize them to push society ahead.

            While both contending parties agree these attributes and goals are essential, those arguing for teaching via lecture and memorization tend inadvertently to reinforce the aims of people pressing for packaged learning by standardized examination of supposed “hard” facts. They do so by ignoring the reality that both scientists and other faculty want their students to possess and act agentially to contribute to society after graduation. Nonetheless, it is clear that these groups’ shared aspiration will never be realized by individuals who cannot reason critically and assess contexts effectively. In fact, advocating education as test taking has too often become a proxy for commodifying knowledge. Far from reflecting scientific inquiry, such arguments represent an ideology of scientism and an accompanying mythology that testing alone can measure critical reasoning capacities.

            Finally, a self-governing people must be deliberative in order to ensure prudential choices, protect freedom and avoid tyrannies of various stripes. Those who would rule themselves must evidence and practice the efficacy and critical capacities necessary to realize these aims. Neither is attained via memorization and standardized tests. Today’s policy emphasis on preparing for exams as the primary mode of learning erodes not only our citizenry’s capacity for critical thought, but also its ability to ensure self-governance. I hope that those involved in the long-running dispute concerning how students should learn can soon begin actually talking with one another instead of past one another so that together the academy can confront in a united way the far more dangerous attack on higher education and democracy represented by ongoing attempts to instrumentalize all knowledge and learning.