Teach to do not to know

Last week a student came to talk to me. In the course of discussion he said that he learned a lot from a class in the business school here at Wash U, even though he wasn’t particularly interested in the subject. The problem was that the course required group work to solve problems, so he couldn’t help but be engaged.

Is it really that simple? If we simply have students do things they will learn and if we just try to teach information they will not? Is this why labs are more engaging than lectures? Is this why teaching is the best way of learning? Is this why the best teachers all use action?

Obviously this is not news. It is why I have my students write for Wikipedia and teach high school students. I imagine that even something as small as doing problems counts as doing. But how much doing is there in the big cell biology classes? In intro biology? In chemistry? We teach to know overwhelmingly. Knowledge is a lot easier to get and retain if we need it to do something. What if we accepted that it is impossible to teach to know if there is no action after the knowledge is acquired?

How many of the changes we need to see in education would come naturally if we always had to teach to do and not teach to know? One change would be in the extent to which we cover subjects. We could not feed students from the fire hose of all cell biology. They would have to choose something specific to solve, ideally something that helped them learn generally so they could get the information later as needed.

There are tons of problems out there. Let’s have our students solve problems related to the things we want them to know. Then they will learn along the way. It can even be fun. I wonder how much the students assembling the activities for Thurteen carnival are learning.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Teaching, The joy of teaching and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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