Flipping the Classroom Along the Other Axis

HorseFeathers, Groucho Marx
“And I say to you gentlemen that this college is a failure. The trouble is we’re neglecting football for education.”—Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff

These two stories on the seismic changes underway in education could be footnotes to the post “Witch Hunt or Reformation?” but they seem to stand well on their own.

Anya Kamenetz writing for Fast Company recounts a note from Coursera’s Daphne Koller on putting the student first, a trend that will no doubt gather into an avalanche. The enrollment figures alone for Coursera and Udacity make an interesting statement regarding the numbers of people gravitating to alternative forms of education.

“From their experience teaching 100,000 students in ‘massively open online courses,’ Two groups of Stanford professors founded two rival startups, Coursera and Udacity, in 2012. Udacity’s Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun created all their courses in-house, while Coursera’s Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng partnered with leading universities to present their best professors’ stuff across all disciplines.

‘Our cardinal rule, our touchstone was ‘what’s the best for the students,’ says Koller. ‘Stanford alone? Or multiple top universities? Computer Science or all subjects? The choice was clear cut.’

By the fourth quarter of the year, Coursera had 33 university partners, over 300 courses, and 1.6 million students; Udacity had 14 courses & just 112,000 students.”

In the second story of note Salman Khan of the Khan Academy went on record with his vision of a new university – a self-paced learning environment, based on a flipped classroom model, that fosters engagement and doing in conjunction with guidance from accepted masters in the subject area. Interestingly Khan embraces the portfolio as the metric of achievement, not the exam or credit-hour.

Alisha Azevedo writing for Wired Campus:

“In a chapter titled ‘What College Could Be Like,’ Mr. Khan conjures an image of a new campus in Silicon Valley where students would spend their days working on internships and projects with mentors, and would continue their education with self-paced learning similar to that of Khan Academy. The students would attend ungraded seminars at night on art and literature, and the faculty would consist of professionals the students would work with as well as traditional professors.”

Further on:

“Although students would not be graded in the imagined university he describes, they would compile a portfolio of their work and assessments from their mentors.

‘Existing campuses could move in this direction by de-emphasizing or eliminating lecture-based courses, having their students more engaged in research and co-ops in the broader world, and having more faculty with broad backgrounds who show a deep desire to mentor students,’ he writes.”

Peter Thiel gets a nod as well from Khan in the Wired Campus post.



Kamenetz, Anya, “Coursera Co-CEO Daphne Koller On Putting Students First“, Fast Company, 26 November 2012.

Azevedo, Alisha, “Khan Academy Founder Proposes a New Type of College“, Chronicle of Higher Education, Wired Campus, 29 November 2012.


Getting Out Of The Way In The Classroom

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and Inverted (or Flipped) Classrooms have been attracting a lot of attention in education and training circles, but two recent experiments performed far from the rarified heights of North American campuses and training centers, are causing many to stop and reassess what it means to learn and, more importantly, what it means to learn when we are devoid of formal structure. If you have ever spent time wondering how humans learn naturally or informally you might be obliged to spend some time musing over these findings. I refer specifically to the “Hole In The Wall” experiments of Sugata Mitra and to Nicholas Negroponte and the One Laptop Per Child’s adventure with solar-powered tablet computers in Ethiopia.

In the case if Mitra, Wikipedia provides a summary of the “Hole In The
Wall Experiments”:

“In an experiment conducted first in 1999, known as Hole in the Wall (HIW) experiments in children’s learning … a computer was placed in a kiosk created within a wall in a slum at Kalkaji, Delhi and children were allowed to use it freely. The experiment aimed at proving that kids could be taught by computers very easily without any formal training. Sugata termed this as Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). The experiment has since been repeated at many places, HIW has more than 23 kiosks in rural India. In 2004 the experiment was also carried on in Cambodia.” -Wikipedia

More to the point, perhaps:

“This work demonstrated that groups of children, irrespective of who or where they are, can learn to use computers and the Internet on their own using public computers in open spaces such as roads and playgrounds, even without knowing English.” -Wikipedia

Mitra has a couple talks at TED (see below) where he describes the experiment and some of the results. They are worthwhile viewing if for no other reason than the sidebar comments from Mitra on what the kids learned, the degree to which they took the experience and the feedback he got from them on the technology.

More recently Nicholas Negroponte and the One Laptop Per Child organization (OLPC) have published results of what they see as a promising experiment in Ethiopia where solar-powered tablet computers were delivered to remote villages, preloaded with programs, and left to uncover what kids do with them. The main point in this instance is that there is no teacher, curriculum, or syllabus, just some software and a device to run it. The goal is to see if illiterate children will/can use the device to learn to read.

The articles referenced below give background to the experiment and preliminary conclusions to what was observed. The gist of it is:

“Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. ‘I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,’ Negroponte said. ‘Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.’ ” -MIT Technology Review

The results might seem astounding to anyone steeped in the dogmatic lock-step pedagogy of the classroom. Comparing results of earlier (some say failed) experiments by OLPC, a notable variation in this case is the conspicuous absence of a “teacher” in the process, leading many to wonder whether the secret rests in preparing the environment, creating opportunities to learn, and then simply getting out of the way:

“I believe the second experiment is working because nobody is there trying hard to figure out how the new technology should fit into the old model of teaching and learning.

And nobody is trying to frame the learning experience through superficial content that the kids just don’t care about.

…It’s letting the kids discover what’s in the boxes. And how to get it out of the boxes. And why the boxes even matter in the first place.

It’s setting a goal, establishing an environment to realize the goal, and trusting in the capacity of human potential. Student potential.

And sometimes, it’s just getting out of their way.” -Ben Grey, The Edge of Tomorrow

None of this calls for the elimination of teachers per se. It does comment on the overall design of a process many in teaching and training take as a given, and the role of the “teacher” in that process.

Wikipedia: Sugata Mitra
TED: The Child-Driven Education
TED: How Kids Teach Themselves
Wikipedia: One Laptop Per Child
Wikipedia: Massive Open Online Course
NYT: The Year of the MOOC – Massive Open Online Courses are Multiplying at a Rapid Pace
Feldstein, M., “Everybody Wants to MOOC the World
MIT Technology Review: “Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves
Doctorow, Cory, “Illiterate kids given sealed boxes with tablets figure out how to use, master, and hack them
Wikipedia: Minimally Invasive Education
OLPC News: “Who is to Blame for OLPC Peru’s Failure? An OLPC Intern Viewpoint
Grey, Ben, “We need to think very, very seriously about this

Flatlined During Class

This published finding may not be scientifically significant (N=1) for some applications, but if nothing else it does provoke a chuckle (and a tendency to draw general conclusions without enough supporting data simply because – let’s face it – we’ve all been there).

A study published in the IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering reports data from a wearable sensor attached to a student for a week. The portable sensor records the electrodermal activity of the wearer.

“Changes in skin conductance at the surface, referred to as electrodermal activity (EDA), reflect activity within the sympathetic axis of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and provide a sensitive and convenient measure of assessing alterations in sympathetic arousal associated with emotion, cognition, and attention.”

Note the times at which the student is at class (yellow underscore).

No doubt this demonstration will be adopted by proponents of the Inverted Classroom and other related high-engagement learning techniques as an illustration of why the traditional lecture or classroom should be avoided. It is gratifying to note that activity levels during labs (yellow-green) and while doing homework and study (pink and red) are elevated. But then again, upon further inspection the sleep cycle is pretty impressive too.

One can hope this is followed by further investigations and discussions on the physiological and psychological meaning of the EDA waveforms given that the primary purpose of the paper is to report on Poh, Swenson and Picard’s work on sensor development.



Poh, M.Z., Swenson, N.C., Picard, R.W., “A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity,” IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, vol.57, no.5, pp.1243-1252, May 2010. doi: 10.1109/TBME.2009.2038487

Download a PDF of the report here.

Ito, Joi, “A week of a student’s electrodermal activity”



Shut Up and Teach – Or – Why Science Says the Lecture Is a Bad Idea

The notion of replacing or limiting the venerable lecture has been visited in earlier posts (The Inverted Classroom and The Future of the Lecture) but it seems the topic is far from exhausted. Recent research in cognitive psychology published in the journal Science points to another dimension in the problem of lecturing, namely, that people (read: our brains) do not remember much of what they hear in lectures. This may come as obvious to many students and conference attendees alike but this time it’s coming from investigative scientists who have the numbers to prove it.

Backing up a bit, suppose you were asked to design and deliver a class or training session that had to maximize educational outcome – meaning, it had to work as a learning tool more to the benefit of the students than the teacher – no holds are barred, and you knew of a technique that resulted in an 80% improvement over the traditional lecture method. Would you use that method? More to the point, could you justify not using it? Well that is what Deslauriers, Schelew and Wieman found (see Science article below) when they compared the lecture with a more interactive class they designed to teach physics. All things being equal, if you supplant the lecture with a presentation that is designed to work more in accord with how most people learn, test scores go from 41% for the garden-variety lecture class to 74% for the interactive class. Pretty impressive stuff.

So what is the nature of the design of the interactive class? Put simply, research in cognitive psychology suggests that learners will get better results if they use what they have just been given right away. The theme: Deliver new information, play with it, use it to solve problems, evaluate mastery of the skills and concepts, repeat as needed. Deslauriers, Schelew and Wieman’s physics students were hit repeatedly with questions during class that they had to answer with clickers. Students frequently worked in groups where they were challenged to use their new knowledge to solve problems. Lastly, the students were evaluated in part using two class tests rather than the traditional single mid-term exam.

Let’s make it clear, pouring the old wine in a new bottle does not make it sweeter. Content matters. Doing homework in class and listening to lectures at night is not “flipping the classroom.” Recording lectures and putting them on YouTube or iTunes U is no solution:

“A University of Maryland study of undergraduates found that after a physics lecture by a well-regarded professor, almost no students could provide a specific answer to the question, ‘What was the lecture you just heard about?’ A Kansas State University study found that after watching a video of a highly rated physics lecture, most students still incorrectly answered questions on the material.” — David H. Freeman, Discover Magazine

Even in the best cases of well-thought-out well-designed interactive classes some likely criticisms remain. There is an issue with the Hawthorne Effect that needs to be retired, but personal experience suggests that these findings are not surprising or unusual, at least in kind. Another question that surfaces is whether this kind of interactive class lends itself to subjects like literature, philosophy, history or political science. What are the limits of the approach?

Finally, we have to ask why if there is so much evidence and personal experience against lectures do we persist in giving them? The answer might well be wrapped in four prominent qualities of the practice: 1) lecturing is easy and cheap to do; 2) we have been taught to accept bad lectures as normal (for well over a thousand years!); 3), they (certainly the live version) create an illusion of interactivity between the presenter and audience that is not supported in actual observation (see D. Clark below); and 4), they stand as proof by the presenter and/or the institution that the material has been covered and “delivered” to the audience.

Pragmatically, and for the reasons above, lectures inherently favor the presenter and the institution. Lectures originated in a time when books and information were both scarce and expensive and colleges needed to solve a problem of distribution. Closer to the modern era lectures appear to be supported by tacit agreement with the dubious notion that teaching and telling are the same thing:

“The problem is not with the lecture but with the idea that receiving information is the key part of learning.” — Dominik Lukeš

The notion that the lecture’s time has come is finally reaching the Academy. Educators like Graham Gibbs (see below) have been questioning its value for over thirty years. More recently university professors like Stanford University’s (formerly) Sebastian Thrun have had their own epiphanies on the matter:

Mr. Thrun told the crowd his move [away from Stanford] was motivated in part by teaching practices that evolved too slowly to be effective. During the era when universities were born, ‘the lecture was the most effective way to convey information. We had the industrialization, we had the invention of celluloid, of digital media, and, miraculously, professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago,’ he said.” — Nick DeSantis, Wired Campus

Dr Wieman likewise has his own concerns about his colleagues and the future of the lecture in science instruction. As recorded by David Freeman of Discover Magazine:

“But scientists who teach have proven reluctant to toss out the lecture, never mind the evidence that it doesn’t work. ‘They say this is the way it’s always been done, and it was good enough for them, so it’s good enough for their students,’ Wieman says. Were this attitude to hold in medicine we would still be bloodletting, in physics we would be trying to reach the moon with very large rubber bands, and in economics we would still be suffering major worldwide financial crashes. (Well, physics and medicine are advancing, anyway.)” — David H. Freeman, Discover Magazine

What seems certain is that we are on the foothills of a major shift in what happens in the classroom. What develops in terms of the effects on corporate, college and military training remains to be seen. After all, it might not result in a single universal one-size-fits-all form. How this upheaval in teaching feeds into distance learning and web-based training is another discussion that almost certainly has to rear its head. The resultant form of the instructional process is anybody’s guess, but what is certain is that whatever it evolves into, whatever we see as the best fit for our instructional purpose, teaching well will remain hard work.

Freeman, David, H., Impatient Futurist: Science Finds a Better Way to Teach Science

Louis Deslauriers, et al., Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class, Science 332, 862 (2011); DOI: 10.1126/science.1201783 (PDF)

Gibbs, G., “Twenty Terrible Reasons for Lecturing,” SCED Occasional Paper No. 8, Birmingham. 1981.

Clark, Donald, “Don’t Lecture Me” – ALT-C 2010.

Clark, Donald, “Lectures selling students short: evidence from ‘Science’

Lukeš, Dominik, “Putting lectures in their place with cautious optimism

DeSantis, Nick, “Tenured Professor Departs Stanford U., Hoping to Teach 500,000 Students at Online Start-Up

Deslauriers, Loius, Schelew, Ellen and Wieman, Carl, “Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class” Science 13 May 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6031 pp. 862-864


The Curvilinear Classroom – Is Linearity Optional?

AllThingsD Early Adopters ran a quote in their Voices section from an article at PCPro that reads like a page right out of Marshall McLuhan. Echoing McLuhan’s return of acoustic space and the role of the mosaic in everyday life, Dr Rosie Flewitt of the Open University comments on how the modern learner might be shifting from sequential linearity toward a simultaneous gestalt:

“E-learning experts argue that withholding computers at a young age could actually deprive children of modern communications skills. ‘One area of literacy that’s changing is the order in which things are presented – it isn’t linear, it’s organised spatially, and often some meaning is carried in the design, layout, images, sounds, movement, subtle changes in colour in a game – it’s all part of what literacy is in today’s world,’ says Flewitt. ‘These are fundamental changes to operational literacy, the biggest since the printing press.‘ ”

Naturally some question is left as to whether this effect is limited to young children as a group or if one can detect a tendency toward acoustic involvement among younger participants in college classrooms and corporate training centers. The main point, however, is that linearity might already be optional in the classroom, where new and different styles of presentation and involvement might be called for in order to better reach the audience.

To contrast Dr Flewitt’s comment on linear versus spatial literacy, consider this synopsis of McLuhan’s acoustic space by Library and Archives Canada:

“The key characteristic of acoustic space is that it engages multiple senses at the same time. It does not demand that objects be dissected to be understood; rather, the multiple parts co-exist simultaneously. To understand acoustic space, you must perceive all of it, not focus on one part. In other words, acoustic space demands that you apprehend figure and ground simultaneously, that the senses work together. McLuhan believed that oral cultures existed in acoustic space since their primary mode of communicating was speech.”

In this interview with Nina Sutton, Mcluhan explains the rise and dominance of visual space from the phonetic alphabet forward: McLuhan on Acoustic Space.

As a sidebar it is interesting to note that McLuhan eventually dropped the use of the term Global Village from his work preferring the term Global Theatre instead. Apparently Global Village goes back to the advent of radio while the notion of the Global Theatre is more a part of Sputnik, television and modern global communications.


AllThingsD: Early Adopters

PCPro: How Much Tech Can Children Take?

Library and Archives Canada: Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhanPlayboy Magazine (©1969, 1994) by Playboy. Download here in PDF: (mcluhan-playboy).


At a Loss for Words – The Future of the Lecture Might Be in Less Talk

Silentium - Latin for "Shut Up & Pay Attention"

A recent study from researchers Louis Deslauriers, Ellen Schelew and Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman suggests that the Methuselah of instructional technologies, the venerable broadcast lecture, might finally be showing signs of going the way of geocentricity and the four humors. Applying methods taken from the theory of “deliberate practice” by psychologist Anders Ericsson, the research team introduced a more interactive, discussion-based and assessment-oriented approach to a physics class that strongly implies major improvements to science and engineering instruction in general.

The setting for the study involves two groups of electromagnetics students (control: 267; test: 271) wherein both were given the same learning objectives and enjoyed the same pedagogical approach (but not the same instructors) for the first 11 weeks of instruction. On week 12, Deslauriers and Schelew (both of whom have limited teaching experience) jumped into the fray and according to the BPS Research Digest lead the test group utilizing “…discussions in small groups, group tasks, quizzes on pre-class reading, clicker questions (each student answers questions using an electronic device that feeds their answers back to the teacher), and instructor feedback.” And, what is especially important to note here: there was no formal lecturing. According to the researchers the object of the game was:

“…to have the students spend all their time in class engaged in deliberate practice at ‘thinking scientifically’ in the form of making and testing predictions and arguments about the relevant topics, solving problems, and critiquing their own reasoning and that of others.”

In contrast to the test group, the control group went on learning the same material in the normal (typically passive) fashion epitomized by classroom lectures for probably the last 900 years. The students, however, apparently noticed a difference. As quoted in the BPS review:

“Student engagement (measured by trained observers) and attendance in the control group was unchanged in week 12 compared with earlier weeks. In the intervention group, attendance rose by 20 per cent and engagement nearly doubled.

The critic or cynic might assert that the presenters were putting on a better show in the test case. What about student performance? On the first day of class after week 12 both groups were tested on what they had learned the previous week. In addition, as part of the preparation for the test, both groups were given all the materials used by the intervention group, i.e., the clicker questions, group activities and problem sets, and exercise solutions. The results are as striking as the jump in student engagement:

The non-lecture intervention group averaged 74 percent correct while the control group averaged 41 percent. Factoring out random guessing, the intervention group did twice as well as the traditional lecture students (the effect size being on the order of 2.5 standard deviations!). Not to be downplayed, student reviews rated the non-lecture approach very positively. Ninety percent said they enjoyed the process.

Jeffrey Mervis writing for the AAAS ScienceNow magazine quotes Wieman as saying:

‘It’s almost certainly the case that lectures have been ineffective for centuries. But now we’ve figured out a better way to teach’ that makes students an active participant in the process, Wieman says. Cognitive scientists have found that ‘learning only happens when you have this intense engagement,’ he adds. ‘It seems to be a property of the human brain.’ ” – Jeffrey Mervis, A Better Way to Teach?

Given the novelty of the technique and the overt nature of the study there has been some criticism of the results based on the Hawthorne Effect. The research team discounts this criticism on the basis that the intervention only occupied a small percentage of the students’ overall daily learning activities. Drilling a little deeper, psychology professor Daniel Willingham (as recounted in Carey below) cautioned that the study might not have been designed well enough to discern which of the factors introduced in the new classroom style account for the gains in student performance and to what degree.

In what might be one of the clearest victories for proponents of the Inverted Classroom the research team is optimistic of the result and reckons it can be generalized to a wide range of post-secondary courses. No doubt further studies can be expected. The study in question is supported by a $12 million dollar program to investigate new methods to enhance science instruction using research-backed methods.


Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., and Wieman, C. (2011). Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 332 (6031), 862-864 DOI: 10.1126/science.1201783

Carey, Benedict (2011). Less Talk, More Action: Improving Science Learning

Mervis, Jeffrey (2011). A Better Way to Teach?

Dwyer, Liz (2011). Research Proves College Lectures Need to Go the Way of the Dinosaur

Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice

The Inverted Classroom

Failure to Connect – Social Media in Class Might Not Work

The Bandwagon

If you are thinking of using social media in a class to help build useful collaborative connections, retire the fears of shy students and introduce the same engagement you see in sites like Facebook, think again.  A recent study by the Lab for Social Computing at Rochester Institute of Technology suggests that the use of social media in classrooms might yield little effect in improved communications and enhanced connections between students. The study into the effects of social media was conducted as part of a course on the use of social media and tools. It included contributions from online learning and course management systems and discussion groups that were proposed to enhance instruction, improve communication and facilitate connections between the students and course content. The results indicate that poor social acumen in the face-to-face interactions might be mirrored in the (more) virtual social medium. What’s more, echoing teacher and educational social media researcher Michael Wesch, the RIT study suggests that the educational use of social media may have to be learned:

“…the educational use of social media may not counteract poor social connections that are seen in face-to-face communication or elicit the same impacts seen in the use of social media sites such as MySpace and FaceBook.”

Researcher and team leader Susan Barnes comments on the hopes and goals of social media in the educational environment relative to her team’s findings:

“Many social media advocates have argued that the use of these tools in classroom settings could greatly enhance interaction and learning and assist shyer, more reserved students in becoming more involved, as has been seen in other online environments. However, our findings show that the incorporation of social media had no measurable impact on social connections, to the point that students did not consider other members of the class to be part of their social network.”

The RIT research team plans to expand the study to consider different educational formats and additional social media applications in an effort to determine the effects and differences of social media from traditional classrooms. The intent is to help educational planners and instructional designers better use social media in course development and delivery.

“The issues surrounding poor social network construction within online educational environments points to greater opportunities to examine how technology and mediated software can be better designed to suit the types of communication and interactions desired by our students.”  – Christopher Egert, co-author

Jacobs, Stephen, Egert, Christopher A., Barnes, Susan B., “Social Media Theory and Practice: Lessons Learned for a Pioneering Course,” 39th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, T4J-1, October 18 – 21, 2009, San Antonio, TX.

Study Examines Use of Social Media in the Classroom

Want to Improve the Classroom? Use e-Learning.

Weighing in on the side of blended learning, Dr. Caroline Haythornthwaite of the Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, states that e-Learning may be at its best when used as a tonic to the traditional classroom.

“Compared to the more traditional educational paradigm – the broadcast model, where knowledge is delivered from professor to student from on-high – e-learning turns teaching and learning into a shared endeavor.”

Citing a shift in dynamics between her online and brick-and-mortar classes, Haythornthwaite sees that online teaching offers more immediate and engaging interactions with the students:

“With the online classes, I interact with my students more frequently, dropping into asynchronous discussion daily for a half-hour or an hour. With my traditional classes, I might see them once a week for three hours. If there’s a news article I want my online students to read, I can post it and discussion can begin right away. With my classroom students, if I e-mail them an article on Tuesday and we meet for class on Friday, that’s one of many things we might discuss. The impact isn’t quite as immediate.”

In online instruction the roles of student and teacher are modified. The teacher moves from pundit to facilitator and the student is urged to assume a greater active role in his or her tuition.

“Since there’s an emphasis on more learner-centric activities than traditional lecture-based classroom learning, the teacher is more of a facilitator in an online classroom. Not only does that enhance the collaborative nature of online learning, it also motivates students to be much more engaged and to take more responsibility for what they’re learning.”

Haythornthwaite doubts that e-Learning will (or should) replace traditional classroom instruction, asserting instead that it is best used as a complement to lecture and demonstration. Noting the move to open source course materials at places like MIT, Haythornthwaite says:

“No one stopped going to class when all that material was posted. It simply changed the delivery method and broadened the scope of knowledge available.”


Haythornthwaite’s Blog (includes many research papers)

E-Learning can have positive effect on classroom learning, scholar says

Cutting Class – Online vs. Classroom Learning

Do We Really Know How to Teach This Stuff?

I can’t say whether the only course I’ve taken in programming was taught well. This is partially the case because it was so long ago and looking back on it it’s doubtful that anyone had an idea about how to teach such a new subject. It seems in retrospect that the professors and graduate students of that era were trying to figure out how to program themselves, let alone teach programming to undergraduates. To give you an idea, the language I learned in class was something called FORTRAN.

Since then I have had to learn (to some degree) about a dozen programming and scripting languages. Some were for application development, some were for web development, others were for database systems, but all were a hard-fought climb up a learning curve of an unnatural new literacy. Since I am not a real “computer person” I have had to learn to program for practical reasons such as building new tools or to complete a project. This is to say, I have had to start learning new languages from the position of a neophyte – someone without much formal knowledge or skill – who nonetheless had a practical goal or objective in mind.

Often when working around computer scientists and engineers who program for a living, I would ask how to best go about learning programming. Invariably I was told that the best (and only) way to learn to program was to program. I think this was the result of my colleagues early experience and education. They read books on the syntax and rudiments of the language in question and started in on cobbling together simple lines of code that eventually grew to more and complex routines until they achieved a modest proficiency in the language and it quirks. And so did I.

As things progressed, and I added more computer languages to my list of things to learn, I started to suspect that I could climb the learning curve a little faster if I read lots of programming examples to get a good sense of the everyday grammar of the language and learn some of the colloquial shortcuts employed by experienced users. In a sense I began to suspect that learning a programming language was much like any other foreign language.

It seems professionals in the field of computer science are having some of the same concerns. Professor Mark Guzdial, of the Georgia Institute of Technology, writing in the blog of the Communications of the ACM, lays it on the line in the title of his post:

“How We Teach Introductory Computer Science Is Wrong.”

Basing this conclusion not only on his own experience but also on results from several researchers, Guzdial questions whether extensive use of programming exercises are the best path to teaching programming to introductory learners. That is, is it best to teach problem solving by problem solving?

Guzdial starts his critique of computer science instruction by citing research in mathematics education by Sweller and Cooper (1985). In it, Sweller and Cooper compare two groups of students both of which are shown two worked examples in algebra. An experimental group is given eight more completely worked out examples in algebra. The control group gets the same eight problems to work out themselves. Not surprisingly the control group takes five times longer to complete their assignment. Next, both groups get a new set of problems to solve. Ready for the ta-da? Drum roll please….

“The experimental group solves the problems in half the time and with fewer errors than the control group.” – Guzdial, 2009

In other words, the work-it-out-for-yourself problem solving approach was less effective by a long shot. And, as an aside, it should be said that this approach to instruction is common not only in computer science courses but also in subjects like mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering.

Other work by researchers Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) and Kalyuga, Chandler, Tuovinen and Sweller (2001) comment on this effect and help explain where and when problem solving is superior to worked examples. Guzdial quotes Kirschner (1992) in summarizing the state of the problem:

“After a half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners.”

Does this mean, as Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, that “the whole fallacy is wrong?” Have we been sold down the river educationally where training in computer science, physical sciences, mathematics and engineering are concerned? Perhaps not. What the studies do suggest is that relying primarily on learn-programming-by-programming, work-it-out-for-yourself, minimal guidance methods are not well suited to introductory learners. These methods are, however, better suited to learners who have already acquired some background knowledge and are therefore a better fit to intermediate and advanced courses.

“What’s striking is that no one challenges [Kirschner, Sweller and Clark] on the basic premise, that putting introductory students in the position of discovering information for themselves is a bad idea!”  – Guzdial, 2009

That is not to say “never” of course. What the data are saying is that it’s not the best principal approach for beginners.

In hindsight the findings make perfect sense. My original intuition that learning a computer language is like learning a foreign language was not far off the mark.

The data suggest that for a beginner, learning to read before learning to write is a more effective approach.


Kalyuga, S., Chandler, P., Tuovinen, J., Sweller, J. (2001), “When Problem Solving Is Superior to Studying Worked Examples,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(3), 579-588.

Kirschner, P. A. (1992), “Epistemology, practical work and academic skills in science education.” Science and Education, 1, 273-299.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., Clark, R. E. (2006), “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-based, Experiential, and Inquiry-based Teaching,” Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

Sweller, J., Cooper, G. A., (1985). “The use of worked examples as a substitute for problem solving in learning algebra.” Cognition and Instruction, 2, 59-89.

New Science Points To New Classrooms


In a note that could have been taken from one of Maria Montessori’s books, researchers in neuroscience, machine learning, education and psychology have convened to show that findings from a joint study suggest that “the prepared environment” might be supported by new scientific data.

The ‘prepared environment‘ is Maria Montessori’s concept that the environment can be designed to facilitate maximum independent learning and exploration by the child.”

Terrence J. Sejnowski, Ph.D, researcher at the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and co-director of the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (TDLC) at the University of California, San Diego, echoes Montessori in his team’s findings. As quoted in Science Daily:

“To understand how children learn and improve our educational system, we need to understand what all of these fields [neurobiology, psychology, education, machine learning] can contribute. Our brains have evolved to learn and adapt to new environments; if we can create the right environment for a child, magic happens.”

The cross-disciplinary research points to a new science of learning that might influence the way classrooms are organized and run in the future. In particular, three guiding principles (or concurrent processes) emerge from the study:

  1. Learning is computational
  2. Learning is social
  3. Learning is supported by neurological (perception-action) circuits

Research in machine learning and developmental psychology illuminate the computational complexity employed by learners who use statistical patterns and probabilistic models to infer rules of logic, relationships between words, syntax, and causal dependence between objects in the physical world.

Evidence that the three component processes happen concurrently is supported by the fact that learners do not calculate and compile statistical models of the environment
indiscriminately but throttle the process using social cues from the people around them. Further, animal studies point to the presence of certain neurosteroids secreted during social interaction that promote learning.

Imitation also comes into play as a key factor:

“Imitation [presumably from others in the environment] accelerates learning and multiplies learning opportunities. It is faster than individual discovery and safer than trial-and-error learning.”

In essence, a social context fosters learning.

Brain circuits that support both actions and perceptions are directly involved with learning. As seen in language learning, for example, there is a complex mix of imitative, computational and articulatory processes that come into play as learning proceeds that might be further facilitated or enhanced at specific developmental periods. In general, neuroscientists have determined that there is considerable overlap in the systems brought into play during learning that support both perception and action. From Science:

“For example, in human adults there is neuronal activation when observing articulatory movements in the cortical areas responsible for producing those articulations. Social learning, imitation, and sensorimotor experience may initially generate, as well as modify and refine, shared neural circuitry for perception and action.”

Finally, experts in machine learning and artificial intelligence are taking advantage of the recent findings in social learning, computational modeling and the plasticity of the brain to design software that monitors and uses social cues and environmental factors to enhance learning. In the future this software may be used in tutorial programs or embedded in instructional robots that are specifically “tuned” to enhance teaching practices in classrooms.


New Science Of Learning Offers Preview Of Tomorrow’s Classroom

Foundations for a New Science of Learning

New science of learning offers preview of tomorrow

From baby scientists to a science of social learning

Cutting Class – Online vs. Classroom Learning

Teaching College Courses Online vs Face-to-Face
Teaching College Courses Online vs Face-to-Face

A recent report by the US Department of Education will no doubt add fuel to an already raging debate over the virtues and deficiencies of online education. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning – A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies provides an extensive meta-analysis of data that compare the effectiveness of online versus traditional classroom approaches to instruction.

Designed to review over 1,000 empirical studies published from 1996 to 2008, the report focuses on studies that:

(a) contrasted an online to a face-to-face condition,

(b) measured student learning outcomes,

(c) used a rigorous research design, and

(d) provided adequate information to calculate an effect size.

The meta-analysis echoes results reported earlier, namely,

“… on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

The authors of the report explain their findings by noting that:

“The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes—measured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviation—was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face. Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se.”

A paucity of data for K-12 is noted in the findings, leading the authors to caution readers about generalizing the results to that population.

A copy of the full report in PDF format can be downloaded here.