Teaching Day at George Washington University

Today I was the second invited keynote speaker at GWU’s annual Teaching Day. The first keynote speaker was the legendary psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, famous for his studies of expertise and the finding that it generally takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to attain a world-class level of expertise (discussed in many books, but most famously in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers).

WP_20131004_003Professor Ericsson’s talk was fascinating, and deeply grounded in his research. He has studied a wide range of experts, from chess players to ice skaters, to violinists and pianists, to medical doctors, to school teachers…on and on. And no matter what type of expertise he studies, he finds that there is essentially NO evidence that talent is innate–no evidence that people become experts because they have a natural ability in the area. Instead, what he finds repeatedly is that anyone can attain world-class expertise if they invest the time. The reason why most people do not become experts, according to Professor Ericsson, is that it takes a LOT of time and effort to attain expert level performance. The type of practice that gets you there–“deliberate practice”–is effortful and demanding. It involves a lot of failure, which means you have to have a strong desire and keep going through the 10,000 hours of failure and intense effort.

In fact Ericsson’s research is consistent with the creativity research. Creativity researchers have found that every exceptional creator has invested the 10,000 hours of hard work and deliberate practice. The world’s top creators don’t just stumble into great ideas; they invest the time and they pay their dues. The bad news is that there are no shortcuts to creativity, no shortcuts to expert performance. The good news is that high levels of performance are accessible to all of us, if only we invest the time and effort.

WP_20131004_004GWU asked me to talk about “The schools of the future: Educating for creativity.” We now know a lot about how to teach in ways that foster creative learning outcomes. And it turns out that teaching for creativity is the exact opposite of what goes on in many university classrooms: big lectures where professors deliver information to students, who are expected to absorb the information, take notes and study them later, and then prove they’ve absorbed it by taking an exam. I call this uncreative style of teaching “instructionism”. In contrast, to develop creative graduates, we need to engage students in active learning, where they are working on a complex, real-world problem, designed by the instructor so that as they solve the problem, they learn the required disciplinary content knowledge. It works even better if the students work in teams, and if they develop visible products along the way. That way, they can receive frequent constructive advice and critique from the instructor and from their fellow students.

After my talk, I spoke with several different professors at GWU. I learned that many of them have developed research-based teaching strategies aligned with these learning sciences principles. In particular, GWU professors are using “learning assistants” and group project-based learning–in physics classes, and in biology classes. And they’ve documented impressive gains in student learning compared to the traditional lecture. I’m not surprised; researchers have found this over and over again (if you’re not convinced, Google “Carl Wieman Nobel Prize in physics” or “Peer led team learning”).

At the morning’s breakfast meeting about “The future of the university” we talked about the new possibilities opened up by the Internet, for example the possibility that physical campuses will go away, to be replaced by Internet-based lectures and exams. To date, too few of these new technologies are grounded in learning sciences research. I’m leading a new program at the University of North Carolina, with the goal of grounding ed tech innovations in the learning sciences. That’s the best way to help our students learn most effectively. I don’t know how the Internet will transform schooling. But I will make one prediction: One hundred years from now, no one will be lecturing any more.

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