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What’s wrong with the way we teach

Alison Gopnik with some insightful comments on how we learn.

If you’ve never at some point stayed up all night talking to your new boyfriend about the meaning of life instead of preparing for the test, then you’re not really an intellectual.” The issue—and this is actually much more a problem in the United States but even in Canada it’s true—is we’re selecting a group that has gone through so much pressure to get to university that they don’t have that wide-ranging curiosity that’s a really important part of having an intellectual life.

What’s the best way for people to learn?

When we actually start to look at the fundamentals, it seems children learn by exploring—by experimenting, playing, drawing inferences—and there’s every reason to believe the same is true for adults. The really remarkable discovery we’ve made is that that kind of exploratory learning isn’t just the purview of scientists but seems to be very, very basic. We all have the capacity to function the way scientists do. The other kind of learning that we see, not so much in preschoolers but in school-age children, is what I call guided apprenticeship learning, where you’re not just exploring and finding out new things but learning to perform a skill particularly well. A person who’s learning that way will imitate what an expert does, then modify what they’re doing based on feedback. That’s the way you learn how to dance, play a musical instrument, learn a sport. We have reason to believe that’s something that kicks in and becomes particularly important in adolescence, when people are learning specific skills. So the point I would make is that if you look at the way we do a lot of undergraduate teaching, and I’m including myself in here, we don’t really do either of those things. There’s not exploratory learning, there’s not guided apprenticeship. An awful lot of undergraduate teaching still has this model of lecturers who get up and try to be entertaining and talk about whatever they’re doing, and students who sit in a lecture hall and take notes.

It may not be the best way to learn, but they are learning something, aren’t they?

I don’t think there’s any scientist who thinks the way we typically do university courses has anything to do with the best methods for getting people to learn. I think what actually happens at universities, and in our high school system as well, is that we learn how to go to school. That’s the main thing our children become good apprentices at. What, of course, we want in a university is for people to learn the skills they’re going to need outside the classroom. So having a system that had more emphasis on inquiry and exploration but also on learning and practising specific skills would fit much better with how we know people learn.