New Approaches to Education at Harvard

Dear Reader,

I wrote once before about a Harvard Magazine article detailing new approaches to learning that are being tried there. Now I find another such article that has sparked my interest. The article is called “Reinventing the Classroom,” and it was published in the September/October 2012 edition on Harvard Magazine and was written by Harry Lewis.

The article relates the experiences the author, a Harvard University professor, as he tried to develop a new class to teach necessary mathematical skills to computer science majors. Professor Lewis began with some beliefs about what a good class should look like. He says, “Every good course I have ever taught (or taken, for that matter) had a narrative.” He then goes on to say that “In the digital world, there is no longer any reason to use class time to transfer the notes of the instructor to the notes of the student (without passing through the brain of either, as Mark Twain quipped). Instead I should use the classroom differently.” I love that bit about passing the notes from teacher to student. That is what most lecture courses are, aren’t they? One person reads notes they have made; others write them down; there is little to inspire true learning, little that engages the mind.

Instead, Professor Lewis decided to have his students sit around tables in small groups. They would read and prepare and background material before class, but class time would be used for collaborative problem solving. He says, “A principal objective of th course would be not just to teach the material but to persuade these budding computer scientists that they could learn it. It had to be a drawing-in course, a confidence-building course, not a weeding-out course.”

If you know if you have read here for any length of time, I try to follow the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason who lived about a hundred years ago. Charlotte did not have any idea of the internet or the changes it would make. Nor can I think of a time when she proposed such collaborative problem-solving. But still I think she would have approved of this approach. Certainly, the demise of the lecture and the desire to engage the students would have met with her approval.

There is even something in Professor Lewis’ class which is analogous to Charlotte’s mainstay, narration. After working on their problems for a time, his groups must explain what they did to the rest of the class. He says, “This protocol provided an incentive for the members of the group to explain the solution to each other before one of them was called on.” Explaining what one has learned in their own words, this is the essence of narration, isn’t it? And in Charlotte’s view, this is how learning happens.

I also find an echo of Charlotte’s method in this statement: “I could have ‘covered’ a lot more material if I were lecturing rather than confronting, in every class, students’ (mis)understanding of the material!” Covering less material, but really taking time to learn wat you do cover is again something Charlotte would have whole-heartedly endorsed.

So I am pleased to see that Harvard is making changes. Though I also tend to tink “there is nothing new under the sun.”



2 responses to this post.

  1. […] the lecture– Her description reminds me of an article I read recently in Harvard Magazine which speaks of the professor reading his notes so the student can write them down and transfer […]


  2. […] in trying to build something new, come back to the principles Charlotte espoused 100 years ago; see this post). In practice, I think we homeschooling parents turn not to the educational research of our day but […]


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