Thursday, January 22, 2009

Not so collaborative learning

My husband's friends like to say that he attended MIT via correspondence school because he scarcely went to lecture. He retorts that, he did all the homework and showed up for the exams. His grades speak for themselves.

We were both surprised to learn from At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard that only 50% of students show up for freshman physics lectures. (Because he didn't go to class, he didn't know how many others also skipped lecture.)

I haven't seen the new method in action, but the data looks encouraging. We all know the old methods were not so great and needed improvement. I only want to warn that the new methods are not a panacea and are also subject to improvement.

When Iris was in second grade last year, she was more than a year ahead in math. There were two boys in the class with similar placement test results. We asked that they be clustered together so that they could work on third grade math as a group.

Be careful what you wish for.

Using the new collaborative learning techniques, the teacher told them to work together on problems and move on only when they all agreed upon the right answer.

We looked at Iris' workbook and were surprised to see that she had written down the right answer, then erased it to put down a wrong answer. I asked her why she did that.

It was more important to S to be right than it was to me. He wasn't going to change to my answer and I was tired of arguing. I wanted to go on to the next problem.

It wasn't working. She started going to the third grade classroom for math and eventually just stayed there for the whole day. She ended up skipping to the third grade mid-year.


  1. Grace embellishes my poor attendance record. There were classes I attended religiously, and others where I found the lectures completely worthless. I always gave every lecturer a shot the first few weeks of class.

    I did take heavy loads most semesters. I found that if I was falling behind in my schoolwork, the most dispensable item for science classes was lecture attendance. With time as a limited resource (and not willing to give up thursday pub night or friday movie night and the like), reading the text and solving problems had to take precedence. Problem solving was always the key to learning a subject, and the MIT physics project acknowledges this.

    Ultimately, education is about finding your own path towards mastery of material. If lectures aren't working for you, why waste your time?

  2. I had to laugh at Iris' answer for why she changed to a wrong answer. It may not have been good for her math education, but she clearly has already learned the skill of choosing which conflicts are worth the fight! This is one of those skills that you only really appreciate when you are forced to work with someone who doesn't have it. It is also something we spent about an hour on in the management class I was sent to last year.

  3. I think Iris learned some non-math skills in the process of being clustered with the other students though...

  4. It does seem that Iris learned some non-math skills while being clustered with the other students, and she got moved to a more appropriate level as well.