I love when people send me articles about revolutions in education. Last week my husband, Justin, forwarded me an NPR story that immediately grabbed my attention — “Vermont Medical School Says Goodbye To Lectures.”
Next week, the Larner College of Medicine will start to phase out lectures for first and second year medical students in favor of a more “active” approach to learning. They plan to drop lectures altogether by 2019. Larner will be the first medical school in the country to adopt this approach to medical education.
Dr. William Jeffries, a dean at Larner and author of two textbooks on medical school lectures, said in the NPR interview, “The issue is that there is a lot of evidence that lectures are not the best way to accumulate the skills needed to become a scientist or a physician. We've seen much evidence in the literature, accumulated in the last decade, that shows that when you do a comparison between lectures and other methods of learning — typically called "active learning" methods — that lectures are not as efficient or not as successful in allowing students to accumulate knowledge in the same amount of time.”
Dr. Jeffries went on to say, “We're finding out a lot from the neuroscience of learning that the brain needs to accumulate the information, but then also organize it and make sense of it and create an internal story that makes the knowledge make sense. When you just tell somebody something, the chances of them remembering it diminishes over time, but if you are required to use that information, chances are you'll remember it much better.”
As more scientists and educators realize the importance of active learning and make the change to improve programs, the question becomes how long will it take for these methods to trickle down into elementary and secondary education?
What is the difference between active and passive learning? Active learning engages the student through discussion, problem solving, analysis and evaluation. Classroom environments that utilize active learning techniques often include working as part of a group, problem solving and case studies. In many active learning situations, students play a key role in determining how they will demonstrate their knowledge.
Passive learning environments most often occur when teachers dictate everything that happens in the classroom — from content to product. Students spend class after class taking pages of notes while the professor or teacher relays the content (often known as “sage on stage”). With little input into the learning process, students go home, decipher their notes and then cram for a test. The Larner alternative to lectures has students studying the material ahead of time, and then coming together in class to work in groups on real-world problems.
In the 1960s, Edgar Dale, an American educator, theorized that people retain more learning that comes from what they do as opposed to what they hear, read or observe. His “Cone of Experience” theorizes that people remember 10 percent of what they read, 20 percent of what they hear, 30 percent of what they see, 50 percent of what they see and hear, 70 percent of what they say and write and 90 percent of what they themselves do.
Musicians often talk about “muscle memory.” By practicing a piece of music hundreds of times (or more!), the musician’s hands and brain can play that piece without their having to concentrate on each note. Dr. Montessori also believed in muscle memory in the classroom. She knew that repetition and trial and error in the classroom made learning concrete and real for children. In other words, children and adults learn from doing the work, not being told how to do it.
Today, we know that each time we do something, our brain lays down a sheath of myelin. The more an action is repeated, the more myelin is present. As I often say, this is what allows us to drive a car, talk on the phone, talk to our kids and still get to our destination … our brain just takes us there. Active learning is what makes this possible.
It is exciting that the Vermont College of Medicine is taking this long overdue and worthwhile step. I hope that more schools (graduate, undergraduate, secondary and elementary) will see this example and begin to ask themselves how their environments could become more active. How can we better engage students and teachers in the learning process?
A request to all drivers: As students head back to school next week, please exercise patience and be courteous in and around school zones. It takes a few weeks for everyone to settle into a routine, and the safety of children is the most important thing. If you think the extra traffic may make you late for work, please leave a few minutes early.
Jessica Hayes is the director of The Montessori School of Fort Smith. Her column, Education Today, runs the second Friday of each month. E-mail email@example.com or tweet @fsmontessori.