Science of Learning: Flexibility and Lecturing

Science of Learning: Flexibility and Lecturing

Jesse Martin 30/05/2022
Science of Learning: Flexibility and Lecturing

I have written several articles about thinking and the evidence showing a lack of thinking in our students when they graduate.

I have also written a few articles about lecturing, one of the most dearly held belief systems in higher education. I will use the example of our beliefs in lecturing to talk about developing the higher order thinking skill of flexibility or open-mindedness.

Drawing heavily on the work of Diane Halpern, over the next few days, I will go over the necessary aspects of higher order thinking demonstrating how we might develop them in relation to our thinking about lecturing. From this, I expect that, as teachers, we will be able to begin to foster higher order thinking skills in our students.

Halpern identifies six attitudes toward thinking that must exist before anyone can engage in basic critical thinking. The first aspect that I will address is flexibility.

Flexibility is the opposite of close-mindedness. Close-mindedness is when a person's thinking exhibits rigidity and dogmatism. When presented with something different, they automatically go on the defensive, and usually without reason, defend the way they think with emotive and expressive thinking.

As I have championed the cause of The Science of Learning, the topic of lecturing is the topic that brings out the more rigidity and dogmatic thinking I would ever have thought possible among otherwise highly intelligent people. The reasons for not considering anything different than traditional lecturing never cease to amaze me – that’s not true, I have seen some of the most creative defenses ever imagined and have become somewhat jaded by the experiences.

Some of the reasons given for not considering the overwhelming evidence as to the ineffectiveness of lectures illustrates a lack of flexibility. “It worked for me, so why shouldn’t it work for my students?” This is just another way of saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” – one of the hallmarks of dogmatism. Another excuse is that lecturing is what drew the person to the field in the first place. Is that a reason to continue lecturing when the evidence so clearly shows that students hardly learn anything in a traditional lecture. When challenged on this excuse, one person responded with, “I don’t care what the evidence says about students not learning, I’m going to lecture anyway.”

Another display of rigidity is the response, “They never looked at my lecture, I’m good at it and my students love me.” I’m fairly certain that in the 1200 studies conducted on lecturing that demonstrates the almost complete lack of learning that there were some highly skilled and well-loved lecturers. The evidence says what the evidence says. This argument is akin to saying that global climate change doesn’t apply to me because I drive carefully.

Imagine your frustration if you studied, gained expertise, and taught in an area where you were constantly faced with students (or other professionals) who demonstrated a complete lack of flexibility in their thinking. Some of the dogmatism arises because of the low value that is placed, by our institutions, on learning. I know that all of the mission statements and marketing slogans make it sound like the sole purpose of a higher education institution is learning – student learning. We all know that the entire system is fixated around other activities and the requirement for teaching (the activity where learning is supposed to take place) is that the teacher doesn’t miss their classes without a good reason.

The only pressure put on higher education teachers is to ensure that the students are kept happy. I was teaching at a local college a few years ago and was using some of the learning techniques based on The Science of Learning. After the same student complained for the third time that I wasn’t teaching the same way everyone else was (reading the PowerPoint’s and telling them how to pass the tests), the department head and I had a frank discussion about what I was doing and how the small interventions I was inserting into the lectures would help the students learn. She then told me explicitly that my job had nothing to do with learning and that, as a business, if the college couldn’t attract students we would all be out of a job. Therefore, my job was to keep the students happy! You can imagine, that as a sessional instructor, I was never invited back to teach another class.

I’m not sure if that was close-mindedness or dogmatism on the part of the department head, but I was shocked, nonetheless.

We have a responsibility to explicitly teach our students to have an open mind and consider what is being taught, even if it means that it might go against something that they hold dear. If you find yourself frustrated when students are close-minded about material that they don’t want to believe, think about all of your colleagues who insist on lecturing, in spite of the evidence. How can we hope to foster flexibility in the thinking of our students when we refuse to engage in the practice ourselves? Teaching someone to think when we can’t or won’t think ourselves is all but impossible.

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Jesse Martin

Higher Education Expert

Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.


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