Back to Kindergarten

At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard

February 08, 2009

A recent article in the New York times reports the following: "After years of debate and research, M.I.T. has replaced a large introductory physics course with smaller classes that emphasize hands‐on, interactive learning." It seems that large lecture‐based classes were found to be ineffective. The introductory physics course typically had as many as 300 students in a large amphitheater, who took notes as the professor lectured and covered multiple blackboards with mathematical formulas. The result was poor attendance and a failure rate of 10‐12 percent.

Last fall, the large introductory physics lecture was replaced by smaller classes emphasizing hands‐on interactive learning within smaller groups of students collaborating together to run experiments and discuss the results. Sounds a lot like what I remember of kindergarten — less listening and more doing.

The initial results are encouraging, with a higher attendance and a failure rate down to about 4%.

The change was partly prompted by the work of a Harvard physicist named Eric Mazur, who spoke to the NY Times on the subject: "Just as you can't become a marathon runner by watching marathons on TV,", Professor Mazur said, "likewise for science, you have to go through the thought processes of doing science and not just watch your instructor do it."

If we look for parallels in the current approach employed by many to teach Lean Six Sigma Black Belts and Green Belts, we see a similar dependence on long lectures — well exceeding the capacity of the students to absorb — and not nearly enough practice. In the real estate business, there is a concept of "highest and best use" for a piece of property — in essence, the use which imparts the greatest economic benefit. Thus, a corner property at a busy intersection is best suited for high‐volume retailing ‐ like a gas station, convenience store, or restaurant. The high price of a property with good visibility and good access dictates that some uses just don't make sense, like a tailor or shoe repair store, or even a single family residence.

We should be thinking about classroom time like the corner lot: too expensive to waste on lecture. Classroom learning should involve groups of people in practice‐based and richly interactive activities — its "highest and best use" — as a "student‐centric" workshop rather than an "instructor-centric" performance.

Well‐designed blended learning models use e‐Learning for base instruction and practice, then re‐characterize the classroom experience as a workshop, based on simulations and other practice‐based exercises, while eliminating as much lecture as possible. One of our customers, Rolls‐Royce, made this transition for Lean Six Sigma Black Belt training a few years ago. It was a challenge for some of the instructors, who were used to following a Powerpoint script, and being the center of attention. One of the instructors, Stuart Swalwell, told me: This is really hard for me. I was used to knowing exactly what was going to happen. Now, we have groups of students working on exercises independently at their tables, and I've lost the control I used to have. It's chaos, like Kindergarten. But you know what, the students are learning a lot more!" Well said.