Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 3

Revolution in Higher Education, coverContinuing with our reading of Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable (2015) (publisher; Amazon): this week we’re discussing chapter 3.

“Levity, Brevity, and Repitition” alters the book’s course by leaving technology behind and addressing the recently advanced science(s) of learning.  We explore short-, long-term, and working memory, P300 waves, the value of repetition, the Flynn Effect,  Bloom’s 2 sigmas and mastery technique, dopamine hits, multiple intelligences, motivations, and what teachers cannot and can control.

The brain and neurochemistry are the point here, and DeMillo notes that this is a controversial focus, since it leaves behind social contexts (1446).  While celebrating the science, the author is careful to hedge his enthusiasm: “[t]hink of this chapter as a short primer on how to wash your hands* before you start learning about learning and teaching – how to do no harm.” (1472)

A key takeaway is the claim that teachers control very little that matters when it comes to learning, except “repetition and emotional excitement” (1530). “[S]tudent aptitude… and the environment in which the student lives” are beyond a teacher’s ability to control (1693).  Yet with the tools they do have, instructors can flip the classroom (1615) and teach through mastery learning (1713ff).

That’s the face-to-face classroom.  DeMillo also sees data analytics and automated tutor(ial)s conducting mastery learning online (1663).  “[A]rtificial intelligence software can create a personalized experience, and billions of keystrokes can be mined to discover better ways of teaching and learning.” (1761)

Once again we read DeMillo’s passion and historical claims for what he dubs “the Revolution” in learning, which “for the first time makes it feasible to teach students to learn like the brain does.” (1761)

Only one major theme from earlier in the book recurs here, the ways higher education administrators face change.  DeMillo relates a story of a university president who asks his trustees to imagine never building another lecture hall. (1615)

A new theme appears, that intergenerational differences in terms of learning are opening up.  After introducing the Flynn Effect DeMillo hints that younger students’ brains may be significantly different from their elders’ (1683).  Or perhaps he wants us to feel his aspirations for changing up teaching in order to produce a boom in learning so great that students seriously differ from their instructors and administrators.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • DeMillo is very hard on big lecture classes: “if you were determined to design a method that would discourage [learning], you would invent the college lecture hall and its fifty-minute lectures….” (1428) “Unless the instructor can maintain au audience in a continual state of dramatic anticipation for the entire fifty minutes, there is simply no room for anything to flood neurons with dopamine.” (1596)
  • Starting a chapter (or anything) with Tom Friedman in a non-satirical way is not a good move.
  • The example of “lecture 14” is very powerful (1565ff).
  • Strange claim: “it is hard to imagine what intrinsic motivation human beings might have to learn music or philosophy – except for one.  Human beings are motivated by social rewards.” (1505)  I’m not sure if this is a science versus humanities attack, or a very dark view of why humans learn.
  • Here’s a major claim about public education discussions being way off base: “the smallest influence [on learning in Bloom’s experiments] was found in factors like class size, institutional governance, and state-level policies that seem to occupy much of the public debate over higher education today.” (1702)
  • DeMillo is strongly anti-multiple intelligences theory, which he considers to be “a fiction”. (1521)

Overall, this chapter complements what went before, adding a level of neuroscience to the platform of technology-enabled learning.  DeMillo is fleshing out his Revolution.

What do you make of it?

Next week, starting November 9th, is chapter 4: Technology Curves.

Would you like to follow along?  Simply snag a copy of the book from your library or MIT Press or the local bookshop or Amazon (etc.), and get reading.  I’ll post about each chapter at the start of each week, so you can add comments there.  I’ve set up a tag for all posts: demillorevolution.  Twitter’s also a fine place to chat (I’m @BryanAlexander).  If you’re into Goodreads, let us know so we can catch up (here’s me).

*The hand-washing note references nineteenth century medicine’s discovery of disinfection.

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4 Responses to Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 3

  1. jennycolvin says:

    There are a few statements at the start of this chapter that I marked with two exclamation points, my shorthand for “whaaaaat?” The first is central to where he takes the chapter: “A live instructor has no intrinsic advantage when it comes to teaching.” He moves from there into explaining why a huge lecture hall with classes of solid lecture are not conducive to learning, in contrast to the marvelous developments of teaching techniques such as Khan Academy.

    Where should I even start! For one, Khan Academy is typically used to teach practical skills – math, programming, etc – learning that is best approached through self-paced repetition. I’m not sure how to apply that approach to philosophy, to history. I am going to have a hard time fully debating DeMillo on this because I am a big believer in different intelligences/learning styles/strengths. They form the core of the work I do every day even as a supervisor of other people who work and think differently from one another. I would not be as effective without allowing for these differences! That’s where I’m coming from.

    But let’s talk about what advantages a live instructor might have. If he/she is interacting with the students throughout the class period, something I find far more likely than the hour-long drone he seems to be talking about, the instructor is able to quickly ascertain concepts that haven’t made sense. They may challenge a student on a point, explain another but most importantly I believe the instructor is in the room to help make connections. 14 with 13 and 14 with 15, which DeMillo seems to use as an absurdity but I see as a benefit. I learn better when I know how a new idea relates to what I already know, whether that is yesterday’s lecture, tomorrow’s homework, or my high school English class. Even in a Khan Academy scenario, there is a place for an expert/instructor. The parts that are self-learning are only part. I wonder why he doesn’t discuss this in this context. Perhaps his own arguments would start to unravel.

    The other tiny (!!) marking is his comparison of the “old way” of teaching with the “old way” we treated cancer, where in the past cancer patients actually died of “bad hygiene practices” until we found “more effective cures.” I am unaware of any cures for cancer, only more effective treatments. Perhaps the analogy can be drawn, that rather than letting education die a painful death, we can cut out the bad parts. DeMillo is in danger of cutting out the healthy tissue alongside the disease.

    • Superb thoughts, Jenny. Killer conclusion.

      The Two Cultures divide (STEM versus humanities) seems strong here. And it’s more ignorance than bias, perhaps, or silence rather than argument, since the interaction he describes works splendidly in the humanities: discussion, Q+A, role-playing, etc.

      I hear you about the live instructor. That struck me as a bracing statement. Still not sure what I make of it.

      Re: cancer treatments, DeMillo is talking about organization, not science. That’s the shift to team-based care. I think.

  2. Pingback: Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 4 | Bryan Alexander

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