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October 1, 2017
Vol. 75
No. 2

Perspectives / RX for Learning?

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    Instructional Strategies
      As we were working on this issue of Educational Leadership on problem solving, an interesting news story out of higher education cropped up: The Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont, a number of outlets reported, had announced that it was set to become the first U.S. medical school to eliminate the lecture format from its curriculum.
      As of 2019, the school's courses will instead be oriented around "active learning"—a method that many medical schools and university STEM programs have been increasingly utilizing. According to a Washington Post article on the shift, active learning in this context means "dividing students into small groups and having them solve problems or answer questions. In addition to improving retention, the approach more closely mimics the way work is accomplished in the real world."
      But rest assured: Doctors of the future will still have to learn content knowledge. Under the Larner model, medical students are expected to study course materials "in texts and online before class, then take a short quiz to gauge how well they've learned it," the Post notes. Only then do they break into small groups to explore problems and reason through solutions with the help of a professor.
      In explaining the move, Larner officials and other medical education experts pointed to mounting evidence that, at least in STEM courses at the post-secondary level, active-learning methods are more effective than lectures in engaging students and making information stick. There was also the related issue that many medical school students apparently don't even show up for lectures anymore.
      Medical school is obviously very different from K–12 education. But since it's a pinnacle of educational achievement in this country, it stands to reason that some elements of its instructional trajectory should trickle down to the K–12 level. Might not active-learning or problem-based instructional approaches, even if in limited doses, help enliven lessons and bolster subject-area knowledge in elementary and secondary classrooms? Couldn't such methods, as opposed to a continuous diet of prescriptive teaching, help schools get closer to cultivating more of students' whole minds (to use Sir Ken Robinson's terminology) and better prepare them for enterprising future pursuits—such as, say, medical school?
      Though they may have other areas of difference, I'm confident that all the authors featured in this issue would answer "yes" to those questions. Indeed, a central theme of the issue is that giving students well-structured opportunities for independent problem solving can help them broaden their understanding and learn materials in new, more contextually meaningful ways. It can also spur their creativity and capacity for innovation to a degree that sometimes surprises teachers.
      In the opening article—a helpful primer on the topic— Mark Wise and Jay McTighe discuss a New Jersey district initiative in which 8th graders spend a week at the end of the school year working in small groups to develop plans to address specific global challenges. From the descriptions of the projects and presentations—on, for example, addressing a regional water crisis, deciding on loan impacts in distressed areas, and developing an awareness campaign for a relief organization—it's hard not to sense the students' engagement in the work (even during the last week of school!). Equally important from the district's perspective is that the project gives students a chance to "transfer their [classroom] learning to new situations and problems" and build analytical and communications skills.
      Other articles highlight similarly impactful problem-solving approaches in math, science, technology, and even English. Many of them also address the challenges of planning and supporting such work so that it doesn't veer into rootless busywork. What the pieces have in common, to paraphrase Ronald A. Beghetto, is an emphasis on the value of bringing more "uncertainty into the classroom" and giving students space to "explore the features of a task or situation, generate possible ways to address it, and evaluate the viability of those possibilities." If provided such opportunities, as Cathy L. Seeley suggests, students are likely to learn more deeply—and perhaps be better prepared for their futures—"than if they were simply told what to do."

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      End Notes

      1 Bernstein, L. (2017, July 29). Medical school without the "sage on the stage." The Washington Post.

      2 See in particular: Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415.

      Anthony Rebora is the chief content officer for ISTE+ASCD, overseeing publications and content development across all platforms.

      Previously, he was the editor in chief of Educational Leadership, ASCD's flagship magazine, and led content development for the association's fast-evolving digital outlets.

      Under his leadership, Educational Leadership won numerous awards for editorial excellence, increased the breadth of its coverage and contributors, and greatly expanded its online reach.

      He was formerly a managing editor at Education Week, where he oversaw coverage of teachers and teaching policy, and played a key role in online editorial strategy. He has written and developed impactful content on a wide range of key K-12 education topics, including professional learning, school leadership and equity.

      As a content developer, his foremost goals are to empower diverse educator voices and raise awareness of critical issues and solutions in education.

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