NARRATOR: This is a production of Cornell University.
CARL HOPKINS: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Cornell University lecture series. My name is Carl Hopkins in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.
Today's speaker is Dr. Robert Duke, who is a Chair Professor of music and human learning at the University of Texas in Austin. His career began with an undergraduate and a master's degree in performance music at Florida State University and also at Indiana University. And he then went on to earn a PhD in music education from Florida State.
He has been involved in music performance and in music education at a variety of levels, including private instruction, grade school, high school, university, and with children at risk in the juvenile court system. At Texas, he's been a Professor of Music and Director of the Center for Music Learning and founder of the National Forum on Research in Motor Learning. He is a keen observer of human learning, and he has worked hard to understand the process of instruction as it relates to its effects on the learning.
One of the themes he will tell you about today comes naturally to anyone in his field. And that is if you want to get good at music, you've got to practice, practice, and practice. Development of motor and procedural skills is achieved only by making and correcting mistakes through trial and error. But this is also true for other cognitive skills that we profess to teach at places like Cornell University.
I met Bob Duke last fall in Austin at a biomedical research conference for minority students and realized that his lecture on effective principles of teaching would apply not just to music, but broadly to all areas of learning beyond just motor performance and procedural memories. In his book, Intelligent Music Teaching, you can substitute the topic of an area of your choice. It could just as well be intelligent biology teaching, for example.
So we are assembled here in the biotechnology building, and we are at a moment, a threshold of making exciting big changes in our curriculum of teaching. And what better time would it be to invite someone like Bob Duke to come to speak to us about his insights on learning and intelligent teaching?
His talk today, "Why Students Don't Learn What We Think We Teach," I'm sure will be interesting to all of you. And after the lecture, you may join us with Dr. Duke for a wine and cheese reception in the atrium. Dr. Duke.
ROBERT DUKE: Thanks so much.
Thank you. And thank you for that generous introduction. I appreciate that very much.
It's a privilege to be here. This my first time on the Cornell campus, and I'm very happy to be here. I've met a lot of lovely people. And I want to thank Carl and his colleagues for inviting me and the university lecture series for inviting me.
As Carl told you, my talk today is about learning. It's not about teaching. And the reason that I differentiate those two things is almost all discussions I see about refining, redesigning, reconfiguring curricula in universities and colleges around the country focus much more on the teaching part than on the learning part.
And one of the things that's been a motivating force in my own thinking and my own research in the areas where I do research has focused on how learners think, how their thinking changes over time, and what are the conditions that are required for them to develop a deep understanding of the subjects that they're studying.
Obviously, my title implies that generally, students don't learn what we think we teach. And I think anybody who has gone through whatever set of lectures with a group of students and then had the opportunity to discuss with them what you thought was the meaning of your lectures has had revealed to you the fact that they didn't necessarily understand what you think they understood so well.
And there are a number of reasons for that that, to me, are quite interesting and instructive for us in terms of how we can best plan to teach people in the courses that we meet with them at the undergraduate level and the graduate level, too, for that matter. I'm going to put up a slide with some of the questions that are my least favorite questions to hear from students in an undergraduate class.
The last one is my least favorite of all. No, really, we just goofed around. It's better you didn't come.
Now, I want to suggest to you that we teach students to ask questions like that. That's not a genetic predisposition we're looking at up there. Students learn to ask questions like that, because it's adaptive to ask questions like that.
And one of the reasons for that is how we evaluate and how we assess whether students actually come to understand the stuff that we think we've taught them. Like it or not, I'm sure the students at Cornell, like the students at Texas and like every other campus in this country, are riveted on how they're evaluated. They're very concerned about what's going to constitute a grade for them. What kinds of things will they need to demonstrate, what will they need to show, what will they need to do to generate a grade?
It's understandable that students would have that focus, because grades matter for many things in their lives. It determines whether they're going to get financial assistance. It determines whether they get into a good graduate school. There are lots of things that grades influence.
But if that's true, and if that's even not a malleable aspect of their thinking, the advantage that all of us have is to organize what we do with students in a way that the things that they do to produce a grade are the things that we're convinced are the most meaningful and substantive and important aspects of the discipline.
One thing I often ask my colleagues when we're talking about issues related to this is I ask them to think about if another colleague who didn't know them could only see the examinations that they gave in their classes, would that person understand what they think is the most important aspects of the discipline that they're teaching in that class?
Now, we have a wonderful group of colleagues on our campus. It's called an Academy of Distinguished Teachers. And all these people are very good scholars. And we're also all very good teachers. And when I talk to even my colleagues in that academy from time to time and I say what do you really care about students learning from you, almost all of them talk in very high-minded terms.
They say, well, I want students to be able to think clearly. I want them to be able to reason. I want them to be able to criticize things effectively, be able to synthesize information. And then I say is any of that stuff on any of your tests-- well, no, I don't have time for that, because they need to learn to balance these equations.
Well, see, how are students then going to come to think that that's the most important thing if you don't get credit for that? If the stuff you get credit for is the stuff that's much less than what most of us would say is most important about our disciplines, then how do students come to believe that that's the most important stuff that they need to be studying?
And I think all these questions, if you were to translate them into more precise language-- let's take the how long does this paper need to be. When we set something up like that for students-- when somebody says, Dr. Jones, how long does this paper need to be, if I were to really express that in more precise language, it would be, Dr. Jones, how short could I possibly make this paper and still get the grade that I'd like to get in this class. So all of this is predicated on an adaptive way of thinking and building efficiency into my learning.
Now. We play into that, and actually, in many ways reinforce that, by not asking ourselves the question often enough-- when students leave our class at the end of this semester, or leave our degree program, or leave whatever course of study they're involved in, or leave this week's unit of study, what will they be like?
What will they think like? How will they confront new problems that they encounter? How will they deal with things that they don't understand? Do they have strategies to deal with that? And when you ask those questions, what you realize-- and all of you are in the biological sciences, I assume, but even those of you who aren't know that every one of our disciplines is built on a very small number of very fundamental ideas.
Now, if you look at a novice looking into a discipline that's as complicated as anything in the biological sciences or mathematics or business or literature or whatever it is, and they listen to an expert talk, most of their perceptions are based on the idea that we know so much stuff. We can remember so much stuff. And their thinking is, when I go to that class and I got a degree in that major, my goal is to know a lot of that stuff, too.
Now, the difference between experts and novices isn't that experts have developed a larger memory capacity and we can just put more bits into our storage space than novices. And so when our students look at us, and watch us give a brilliant lecture and call upon all these seemingly disparate ideas, and they think, good god, how do you possibly remember all of that? I couldn't possibly remember all of that. You know what? You're right. You couldn't possibly remember all of that.
But it has nothing to do with the inherent nature of your brain. It has to do with the fact that my information is organized in a way that's quite different from yours. Mine is organized around those fundamental, basic ideas that underlie all the aspects of my discipline. So the reason I'm able to retrieve information seemingly at will and seemingly effortlessly is because the paths to retrieval have been built into my learning those facts.
Now, what we do typically when we prescribe a course of study for undergraduates particularly, especially undergraduates who are taking courses outside of their own major, and they're taking whatever for non-majors-- biology for non-biologists, or history for non-historians, or whatever it happens to be-- many of those courses are planned by people who have advanced degrees in those disciplines.
And most of us, when we think about our skill level and our knowledge level and we imagine, OK, so how are we going to set people up to learn this stuff, we start with all the things that we consider you've got to know first before you could possibly do anything interesting. And that's what we teach in whatever 101 for non-majors.
And all of us have had experiences like that in our past educational histories. My most vivid memory is when I was in seventh grade. I took a geography class. That was the worst educational experience I've ever had in my life. We studied this big, thick book. It had Geography in big type on the front. I couldn't believe that somebody could write that many words about a subject so horrible as geography.
Now, I got through that class. Mr. Norcross was the teacher-- a very nice man, but just frightfully boring. I got through that class. And when I got to undergraduate school five years later, I went to a freshman mixer where you meet people from other majors and everything in the first week on campus. And I notice-- I'm talking to this guy. We're having a great conversation. He seems like a really funny guy, and I enjoy talking to him and everything.
And I look down at his name tag, and the guy is a geography major. And I thought to myself, good god, who so misadvised you to go into this field that was so bereft of anything of interest? There's a drop add period. Maybe you can change your major before classes start.
And of course, the more I talked to him, the more I realized that I had no idea why geographers went into geography. I didn't know anything interesting about geography. Because what I learned in Mr. Norcross' class is I learned the principal exports of Chile, and the altitude of Mt. Everest, and how many cattle there were on the cattle farms in Florida, and that was geography.
Now, no geographers think about geography that way. And somebody made the decision when they wrote the geography book that the interesting thing that geographers think about-- you're not ready for that yet. So what we're going to teach you now are the principal exports of Chile, and the altitude of Mt. Everest, and so on.
And I would argue that any class that students go into at the undergraduate level that's a non-major course that's their first experience to the subject, and they come out of that course thinking, how could anybody major in this thing-- it's because that's what they're studying. They're studying what somebody has decided are the preliminary facts that need to be known before you can begin to think like an expert in the discipline.
And what I hope to convince you of by the end of the hour today is that that's not a necessary course. It's possible to actually, at the very early stages of instruction, to experience what it's like to think like an expert. And that's what I want to go through with you today.
This is my favorite phrase that I've ever composed. And it's a powerful phrase, I think. And I'm suggesting to you, especially those of you who are involved in the redesign of curricula and those kinds of things, that every discussion of curriculum should begin with that question being answered. How do we imagine our students when we're done with them? When they're finished with this degree, when they're finished with this course, what are they going to be like?
Now, that question often isn't asked. Typically when we plan curricula, we plan curricula in a way that's more or less chronological, which makes sense in the sense that-- what do you do first, and what do you do second, what do you do third. And that seems like a sensible way. Except there's one problem that. We're not taking into account the fact that we have a limited amount of time.
We have 15 weeks. We have 45 class sessions, not counting whatever days off we have for various events or whatever, student absences. And in those 45 sessions on an MWF class, or those three sessions in a Tuesday, Thursday class, what's going to happen by the end of that? What are students going to be like at the ends of that?
And I just wrote a bunch of words that describe my favorite students. Now, I would love rooms full of people like that, who embody all of those characteristics, who are patient and meticulous or whatever the characteristics that you would put on your list.
But I reject out of hand that learners come from the factory like that. People learn to be meticulous or they don't. And they learn to be thoughtful about what they're doing, or they don't. And you know, and I know, if you were to follow an undergraduate around through a typical week of courses here at Cornell, you would see that undergraduate exhibit very different levels of all of those variables depending on whose room they were in at the time.
And there are some classes they walk in-- man, they're there on time. They've read the reading material. They've thought about what's going to be talked about that day in class. They've maybe going to a study session.
And other classes, they go in, they bring the Cornell Chronicle, and they sit in the back of the room, and they nod off. Now, it's the same student. So it's not just the student. There's some other variables that are producing whatever kind of behavior that we notice in what our students are doing.
A number of years ago at Texas, when I first went to Austin in 1985, about a year after I was there, the state of Texas decided that they were going to have a statewide organized teacher evaluation system for teachers in the public schools in Texas. And I was on some consultative committee to do this thing.
And so as we were starting to do this, I said, why don't we look at other states who have already done this and see what their systems look like. And of course, I was new to Texas. So I didn't know in Texas, you don't do that. We're Texas. What are we going to do, consult Rhode Island? Who cares what Rhode Island is doing.
So I said, if you'll indulge me, I'm going to go look at these things and see what other states have done. So I did. There were about 28 states who, at the time, had state-sanctioned, organized teacher evaluation systems. And I was interested to see what things got evaluated.
And basically, that's what went on all of them. Now, the configuration may be slightly different from state to state. The words might be different. But basically, when teachers get evaluated-- this is true in the '80s, it's true today-- that's the stuff that gets evaluated.
Now, on all those state-sanctioned evaluations, which of those six things do you think got the least attention when teachers were evaluated? Now, if I wait long enough, somebody will name all six of those, so I'm going to skip that, because I only have an hour, and tell you the answer.
The answer is the first one. Somebody said, you have a degree in math? OK. Check. Let's go look at your learning environment. Now, I know this is a horrifying thought to say, especially when there are undergraduates in the room, which there seem to be.
It's possible to get an undergraduate degree in something and not really understand it. It's possible to pass all your exams, to write all your papers, do everything that you're supposed to do, make A's, and really not understand a subject deeply.
And when I first started working with people who were preparing to be teachers-- not just in music, but in other disciplines as well-- my agenda, as I saw it, was to take people who were knowledgeable in their subject matter and teach them how to convey what they knew about to other people. And that was my gig.
And the more time I spent with that-- and this evolution took about 18 months to two years-- I realized that that really wasn't the overarching issue that I should be spending time on. Most of the teachers I was working with really weren't clear about what was important to be teaching in the first place.
It wasn't a delivery problem. It wasn't a communication problem. It was a problem in the way they themselves organized the subject that they were teaching. What were really the fundamental, underlying principles of the discipline that were most important to convey to learners?
And let me say a little bit more about what I mean about that. In order to teach anything effectively, you have to be able to imagine your subject matter from outside your expertise. One of the things that makes it difficult to teach something really well is it's hard to remember what it was like before you knew that really well.
All of us who had the harrowing experience of teaching our own children or someone else to drive a car know how awful that is, not because they are so inept as new drivers, but because we're so inept as driving teachers. And the reason for our ineptitude is we've so automatized so many aspects of driving that while we're driving a car, if someone were to ask us what is it that you're doing right now-- well, I'm driving. I'm just driving.
Now, of course, I'm controlling the speed of the vehicle with brakes and accelerators, and I'm signaling, and I'm directing the direction of the thing, and I'm adjusting the radio, and I'm keeping my grandchildren quiet in the backseat-- you know, driving. Now, if I'm going to teach that to somebody else, that's not a helpful conception for me to have.
So when my daughter gets in the car and it's time to start, I said, well, go ahead, start her up. With the key, turn the key. Other way. Yeah, it's going now. You can let go. Let go.
Now, just take that for a minute. As an expert in car starting, how do you know when to let go of the key? Now, see, for most of you, you're thinking, well, when it's time.
Now, if you already know, then that's probably enough. But if you don't know when to let go of the key and you're trying to convey it to somebody else, that's not very helpful information to say let go when it's time.
Many of you in here who are my contemporaries will recall when all of us were introduced to desktop computers in the late '70s and early '80s. And you remember that the manuals that were written for those machines at that time were written by evil people. Because they omitted central pieces of information that you needed to get the damn thing to light up.
You'd get the computer, it would be in the box, you'd open the box, look at the manual, and it would say step one, boot the system. Now, it's in the box. And I got this floppy disk, and there's a notch on it. And where does that go? Boot the-- what well-meaning human being would write, as step one, boot the system?
And you know what the answer is? Somebody for whom, since they spend every day with a computer, that's their first conscious thought. So what's the first thing when I-- I boot the system. And of course the keyboard is plugged into the CPU and the CPU is plugged into the monitor.
And of course the floppy disk is in. And of course the notch goes on the right, and of course that little lever needs to be down, and of course that red light should be on, it should be making that roaring sound. Unless you don't know any of that. And then that's simply mysterious.
And when you start to think about your subject matter from that perspective and you imagine now someone is coming into your room, and a lot of things that we have come to believe are innate aspects of human perception are actually things that we've learned over years of practice, then what we think we need to be spending time doing with students changes.
And these phrases that I use with students that I work with all the time-- whenever I talk to faculty, I emphasize this as much as I can-- and I said this at the beginning of my talk today-- broad, underlying principles that are both intellectually interesting and functionally valuable.
Now, the intellectually interesting part, that speaks for itself. By functionally valuable, I don't mean that you can make money with it, necessarily, but you can think with it. They're ideas that allow you to understand other things that someone has not taught you about explicitly.
Now, I'm working with some colleagues of mine in an NSF grant at Texas right now where we're placing doctoral Fellows in the sciences in middle schools in Austin and in Port Aransas, which is down in south Texas, that are scientists in residence. That's their role.
And what they are trying to imagine is-- these students, these middle school students actually have an honest to God scientist in the classroom with him who does research every day. And they're planning lessons in collaboration with the regular classroom science teachers who are there.
But what's interesting to me is how little of their research expertise they're bringing to their thinking of the classroom. And one of the reasons for that is their underestimation of what their students already understand about the world and what they're capable of understanding about the world. And I'll flesh that out as we go along a little bit more today.
So when you get back to these things about fundamental skills of effective teaching, those six things up there really aren't six independent things. Because three of those things-- the ones that are still in white with the green arrows-- are actually one idea. Knowledge of subject matter-- that is, understanding the deep structure of a discipline and the goals for instruction and the assessment that allows you to determine whether students have actually learned what you think you taught them are actually one thing. And all those things are defined by the assessment.
Now, one of the reasons that students often find themselves riveted on trivia-- because that's what's associated with their grade-- is that the assessments drive them to think that. Now, all of you who have ever written an exam or graded an essay or a paper know that what most students are most comfortable about are assessments that are the least ambiguous.
I know exactly what I'm supposed to study. I will study that. You will ask me what you told me you were going to ask me. I will give you the answer I'm supposed to give you. And I get my A, and everybody is smiling.
But all of you know that the least ambiguous things about the subject are also the least interesting. They're also the least important. And one of the things that I talk to students about who are these doctoral Fellows working in the schools-- I was trying to find a succinct way for them to have a criterion that they would determine whether or not what they were teaching that day actually was interesting or had the potential to be interesting.
And the one that I thought about was that if you're teaching something that has to do with change, it's probably interesting. If you're teaching something static, it's probably not. So if you're looking at an example of some phenomenon and you learn a label for it, that's not an interesting thing. If you're learning what happens if you change some variable to some other variables that are in a system, that might be an interesting thing.
I'll just give you one quick example. One of the nice women who's one of the Fellows in this group was teaching a lesson on friction that she had planned in collaboration with her teacher. And somewhere along the way, somebody told these people they needed to have an interesting question at the beginning of their lecture to engage the students.
So this student asked the class of seventh grade she was working with-- OK, if you had a heavy block of concrete, and you had to push it for 50 yards, would you rather push it across an ice skating rink or a football field? And of course, their in seventh grade. They're smart. They said an ice skating rink.
And I saw the look on her face. She just went ashen. She thought, oh my god. That's what I'm supposed to teach you today. You already know that? So she was upset about that to begin with. That was the lesson.
So first of all, she was surprised that they would figure that out so quickly. But what the friction lesson involved-- and you know what's going to come next. Up on the board goes the definition of friction. That's kind of right. It's not quite precisely right, but it's kind of right.
And then there's a discussion about friction, and they started doing experiments in groups. And what the experiments involved was taking heavy metal washers and sliding them down 50-centimeter ramps that had wood on one side and foam on the other to discover-- like somebody didn't know this already-- that this goes slower on the foam than it does on the wood.
Now, here are these poor children with stopwatches timing multiple replications of this sliding washer. And I'm thinking, I don't know anybody who would see that and say, I can't wait to be a scientist. You know what I'm saying?
And I told you what I was talking about. I said, you're not inspiring people to be scientists. You're inspiring people to be scientist graduate students. Because no scientist would do that experiment. That's what you have graduate students for, is to have them go slide the washer down the thing.
But when I talk to the teacher and the graduate student who was in that class, I said, you can make that question actually interesting. What happens to the relative speeds on those sides of the ramps when you change the angle of the ramp? Because certainly, when the ramp is at 90 degrees, both washers are going to fall at the same rate. And when it's flat, neither one of them is going to move.
Well, now you've got something to take measurements about that might actually be interesting. And the video camera is panning around the room, and these children and these dyads are sliding these washers. It's just horrible.
And what's interesting to me is this woman who is very-- she has very good self-concept and very confident. I said, if you don't mind, I'm going to take apart your video tape in front of your peers, and we're going to talk about this lesson. So she let me do that.
And I wasn't sure whether I had been too strong with her, but I knew I'd been successful when two days later, I got an email from her. She said can I meet with you. And the reason I want to meet with you-- I'm supposed to be doing a lesson in two weeks on plant biology. And I wrote out the lesson plan.
As I was writing, I just heard you in my ear saying this is so boring. Why are you doing this? And a lesson started, as you would guess, with a vocabulary sheet that had definitions of terms of plant parts. And that's where we're going to start.
And so she came to see me, and we talked about that a little bit. And all those questions had to do with static things. What's the pistil? What's it look like? What's it do? Static.
So as we were talking, I said, what if you were to ask the question, why would a plant spend all the energy required to make a flower-- why would a plant do that? And if a plant has both male and female parts, why does it need another plant? What's that about?
And now suddenly, you're talking about change, and evolution, and adaptation, and you're talking about the animals that pollinate plants. And suddenly, it's an entirely different discussion.
Now, granted, you do need to know some terms, I guess, to talk about some of those things, but you don't need to know them first. And that's the question, is what's the sequence in which you have to learn the stuff before you can get to what's really interesting about the subject.
So I only have two central ideas today in my talk. One of them is-- I apologize for the psyche jargon in this-- learners construct knowledge. And what I mean by that is you don't give knowledge to people. People create knowledge by the way they think and use the information that they encounter.
All of us know that-- especially my contemporaries-- that up until the middle of the last century, the sine qua non in a criminal proceeding was eyewitness testimony. Somebody would say, I saw him do it. Well trial is over. Let's just go to the penalty stage. We saw him do it.
Until people started to realize, memories are not like tape recorders. In fact, a tape recorder is a terrible metaphor for human memory for lots of reasons. Because if you think about the tape recorder, that metaphor leads you to think, well, you wake up in the morning.
The record button goes on. You have breakfast. You experience whatever you experience during the day. When you want to remember that stuff, you rewind the tape, you go to the place you want to remember, and you play it back. It's a terrible metaphor for many reasons, one of the most important of which, the tape isn't blank.
Everybody who comes to every learning experience already has stuff in their heads. And what's in their heads influences what they learn. And the stuff that happens subsequent to that learning experience influences the stuff that they learn. So this is a much more dynamic process than we're just giving knowledge to people, and now they've got it, and we're going to use it a little bit later. It's a very, very different thing.
So that's my first idea. The second one is that tests teach. We typically think about assessments i education as a separate entity. We teach. We go through stuff. We present information. We have students interact with whatever it is we're doing, and then that's over, and then we give them a test.
And what I'd like to ask you to think about today is to blur that distinction between the teaching part and the evaluation part. And the evaluation part and the assessment part is actually all part of one experience that all has to do with developing how students think about a discipline.
Just to illustrate that point a little bit, I brought some data with me. This is a one semester learning curve for a typical undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin. Amount learned is on the y-axis, and time is going across the x-axis. So you know already, obviously, that there is midterm exams, and there is final exams.
Now, there are a lot of things wrong with that as a model for learning. And one of them is that when you're here, and it's 2 o'clock in the morning, and you've got three more chapters to read, and the test is at 8:00, and you're out of coffee, and there's one little NoDoz crumb in the bottom of your thing, and you're trying to get through this thing, and you're reading the book, and you get to the part in the chapter that says for further interest, turn to appendix D, you don't think yourself, well, let me just take a moment and see what's in Appendix D.
You're note doing that. I've got to get through this stuff. This thing is at 8:00. I've got to get going. That's one of the things that's problematic about that.
The other thing that's problematic about it is-- you'll see, as Carl mentioned when he was introducing me today, there's very little opportunity to practice what you know. And typically, we think about practice as something that has to do with motor skills and procedural skills.
But I want to submit to you that intellectual skills also need to be practiced as well. All of us who are good scientists, who are good writers, who are good thinkers are so because we practice habits of thought that have become our way of dealing with problems, our way of generating new ideas, our ways of posing questions. And those habits have been practiced in us in the same way that we can teach students to practice them if we set up what we're doing in class in a way that allows that to happen.
I brought some local data for you. This is from November New York Times about the New York proficiency test in reading and math at the eighth grade. If this was actually my graph [INAUDIBLE] copy of the Times, I would have blown up the y-axis to make this look even more dramatic. But there you go.
So this is from 2002 since the beginning of No Child Left Behind. This is the test in reading and mathematics. This is the percentage of passing scores on those tests in eighth grade. And you can see that students are getting much better on their state tests in reading and in math.
These graphs down here are the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And those lines are essentially flat. So what students are learning-- and this isn't just true in New York. It's true in every state, or almost every state. What we're teaching children to do is do very well on their state exams. And whether that translates into a deeper understanding of the subject matter they're learning is-- how can I put it generously-- highly questionable.
But what it illustrates is that tests focus attention. They focus teachers' attention. They focus students' attention. So I'm not suggesting that testing is inherently a bad thing. What I am suggesting is that tests, however we conceive of that, ought to embody what all of us consider the most meaningful and important and substantive about the discipline at every step of the way. And I'll talk a little bit in the next few minutes about how that can happen.
I'm going to pose a problem to you as a demonstration. All of you have seen those problems before. So I'm going to ask you to think for a moment in your head and solve for x. And I'll ask for volunteers in just a minute. Don't say anything out loud.
OK. Someone want to raise your hand and volunteer an answer? Now I'm going make a teaching moment. There are probably 100 people in this room, many of you with advanced degrees. This is a problem that's typically presented for the first time in third and fourth grade. One person raised their hand.
Now, I got to tell you, every year I give the beginning lecture for the new faculty at Texas on teaching. And I put that same thing up there, and I raise the same question, and I get the same percentage of people who raise their hands.
Now, I want to make a teaching moment about this. A lot of you know the answer to that. So why didn't you raise your hand? And you know what the answer is? The same reason your students don't raise their hand in your class when you ask a question.
Because what all of you have learned in school is why take the chance. Because if I raise my hand and answer the question, what if I'm wrong? What if I said 3/8, and it's not 3/8? And then what would happen? Well, of course, the answer is nothing.
But for most of you, if, in fact, that happened-- you raised your hand, and I called on you, and you said 3/8, and it's not 3/8-- that would be the defining moment of your week. You'd be going to sleep on Saturday night staring at the ceiling and saying, my god, why did I raise my hand in that talk on Tuesday? You would still be doing that.
Now, that's a little bit messed up. And what it illustrates is that what happens over time in school is that what we teach very systematically-- absolutely unintentionally, but very effectively-- is we teach that error has much greater weight than it ought to have. And so what students learn is you know what my role is? Avoid error and avoid the risk of error. And this is true in all disciplines at all levels of school.
When I first started teaching, my first contractual teaching job, I was teaching music in Atlanta. And I had a high school band and orchestra, and I had a planning period every day. And being an enthusiastic and naive young teacher, I discovered that the elementary school campus next to the high school campus didn't have enough music teacher time for the kindergartners and first graders to get music.
So I said, well, I've got planning period. I'll teach during my planning period, which is pretty stupid. But anyway, I'm happy I did it. Because to be around young children that age, as all of you know, is thrilling. Because they're just so enthusiastic about everything.
And since the regular music teacher had the music room, I taught music off a cart. And I would roll my cart. It had a record player and a guitar on it. Remember, record is like CDs, only really big. And I rolled my records in there. And I'd say, well, it's time for music.
And the kids would just go crazy. Music, great! I'd say, what do you want to do? You want to sing today? Yeah, let's sing! You want to listen to music? Yeah, yeah! You want some Beethoven? Yeah, he's good! They were uninhibitedly, enthusiastically, undiscriminatingly positive about whatever it is I wanted to do.
And I could pose a question and say, I'd like someone to raise your hand in just a minute. Everybody's hand went up. They didn't know what I was going to ask. I don't care. Pick me.
Now, I've been teaching long enough for those very same children, who were five and six years old when I knew them first, have now grown into adulthood. And they've become my stressed, great, anxious, depressed doctoral students. And now I'm in a doctoral seminar. I say, I'd like everyone to talk for just a minute. Everybody looks at the table.
And I'm thinking, god, what happened to you? What took this bright, open, eager, pick me, I'll try, I don't know what I'm doing person and turned them into that? And the only common variable that I can think-- I ran through all their past experiences-- is they all went to school. And we took that and turned it into that-- learning. Look out.
Now, back to this again-- so you've ventured-- I appreciate your bravery in raising your hand. Would you tell me your name? Jean? So what's the answer, Jean?
ROBERT DUKE: Yeah, 1.5. So can you tell me how you got that?
ROBERT DUKE: Yeah. Say it.
AUDIENCE: OK. [INAUDIBLE]
ROBERT DUKE: Well, so what you're doing is actually-- and many of your colleagues are saying-- they're remembering from fourth grade-- invert and multiply. They're saying that. So you flip the divisor, you turn it, and then you cross-multiply, and you 6/4, and you reduce that, and you get 3/2.
Now, the question I always ask-- because all of you now, it's coming back to you now. The cobwebs are going away. So the question I always ask is, OK, so why do you invert the divisor?
And that's usually the response I get. I get crickets more so than I get in the first thing. And typically-- you all know that at some point, somebody explained to yo, maybe, what the rationale is for doing all of that. But it certainly wasn't an ongoing part of your thinking.
And you've all done hundreds of problems like that in your school experience. And only the odd numbered problems are in the back of the book, so you've at least done 50s of problems like that in your past experience.
And yet with all of that iterative practice, the underlying rationale for the algorithm you're following is not on your mind, because it doesn't have to be. Because if the goal of instruction is to get a roomful of people to get the right answer for x, then putting a lot of equations like that on a piece of paper with different numbers on them and having people do it again and again and again and again is a really efficient strategy.
The only problem is people can do that and get the right answer and not quite understand what they're doing, even though they get the right answer. And that's a central point that I invite you to think about as we go through this, is how it's possible to follow the algorithm, get the answer-- because the answer and the question are framed in ways that the information was presented to you-- and not really understand deeply the point that you're supposed to get.
So I have a little film to show you. This will just make you nervous. Forget it.
In this film-- and my sound guy is going to turn on the sound in a second. This is a series of films that's put together by the Annenberg Corporation. You can stream them online. The one I'm going to show you, the clip from the one I'm going to show you, is called Minds of Their Own. And it's a film about learning in mathematics and science.
And what the film attempts to illustrate is how it's possible to go through a course of study, understand everything that's asked of you-- because what's asked of you is asked in a way that you were explicitly taught to answer-- and then when asked to do things in ways that were not explicitly taught, you go back to your old way of thinking.
So this particular thing is a wonderful interview with a high school physics teacher who was doing a unit on electricity. This is about five minutes of tape here. We ready in the back? Great.
-A lot of times, you like to think that what you're doing really got across. And a good deal of the time, it does, I think. Once in a while-- perhaps more than you'd like to think-- they miss crucial areas. There's some things that they didn't quite get as well as you'd like to think that they got them.
-What Edison came up with was a way of--
-To demonstrate why explanations sometimes fail, Mr. Carter agreed to let us videotape his lessons.
-So it would last for a while and give a fair amount of light.
-Jennifer is one of Mr. Carter's best students. Let's see how well she learns.
-So they came up with this little guy. And it's clear so you can see what goes on inside.
-Mr. Carter's goal was to explain that to make the bulb light, electricity has to flow through the filament in a cycle-- in through the base of the bulb and out the side.
-You have inside the light bulb, basically, enough things to make a complete electrical circuit. If you've got the electricity going in, let's say, where the threaded base is, it will go in through that wire that we looked at, up through the filament, through the filament doing its trick, and out the base.
And that's what electrical circuits are. They're loops. You have some wire? I'm going to give you four pieces of write, at least to start with, and then I'm going to madly start cutting some other pieces of wire.
It seems you can come up with a way to get all three of them on at once.
-Jennifer followed up what she was taught with hands-on activities designed to reinforce the concepts. Jim Carter spent almost a month covering advanced topics in electricity in addition to batteries and bulbs.
-Just remember, it's got to make a circuit. It's got to make a complete loop.
-We interviewed Jennifer one month after the lesson. Mr. Carter observed the interviews on a monitor in another room.
-If you had a battery and you wanted to hook up the battery to make the light bulb light up, what might you do?
-You just need some wire connected to the battery and to the light bulb.
-Could you draw for me how you would do it?
-Jennifer is concerned that without the equipment used in class, the bulb can't light.
-You can just show me how.
-Can I use something to screw a light bulb into? Because the light bulb is out.
-Like the thing you use in class, like this thing here? Why would you need this part?
-I don't know. It just won't work.
-Now here, you started twisting there. And why did you do that?
-Just to keep the wires in contact with each other.
-OK. Can we try to light up the bulb and see? I'll hold it for you. OK.
-Jennifer didn't light the bulb. But even more surprising was that the mistakes she made were exactly the same ones she made before the lesson.
-And then they both connect to the bottom of the light bulb.
-What happens if the wire gets too hot?
-Jim Carter's careful explanations had done nothing to change her mind.
-I'd like you to take a look at it, and trace those wires down yourself, and examine it carefully. It may be a little sharp on the edges there.
-Oh. I was wrong. Oh, wait a minute. One of them is connected to the side, to the meta on the outside. Here.
-Do you think that's important, that one that's out to the side?
-Jennifer finally realizes why her previous ideas are wrong and creates a new drawing that is 100% correct. And one of them to the side.
-Well, you said it wouldn't work last time. What do you think?
-I still don't think it will work.
-Could you draw in what you think you need to add to this to make the light bulb light?
-The little-- just a little case.
-For some reason, Jennifer still doesn't believe her drawing is correct and insists the bulb can't light without the socket.
-I'd like to try out the drawing that you did. I'll hold the light bulb, and I'll hold the battery, and you can tell me what to do.
-Hook one piece up to each end of the battery.
-But before we attach it, I want to know whether you think this is going to work or not.
-And why do you think it's not going to work?
-Because I think you need the pieces to carry the charge. I don't think it will work just connecting the wires to the light bulb.
-If it did work, if it did work, then what would you think?
-I'd fall off my chair.
-OK. Let's see what happens.
-Oh my god. It worked. I don't know. I guess you don't need the little pieces. That's probably just to hold it in.
[END OF PLAYBACK]
ROBERT DUKE: Now, I have to emphasize, that's one of the brighter students in the class. This isn't a student who's in the weeds. This a student who makes A's on all the tests.
Now, the point of that movie, as I'm sure you realize, is not that anything was explained badly. In fact, everything was explained very well. But what wasn't practiced was using the information that was presented in ways that hadn't been explicitly taught.
Now, if you imagine that in terms of a learner-- and again, I'll refer to something I talked about 30 minutes ago about the comfort level that comes with unambiguous evaluation, where you tell me exactly what you're going to ask me on the exam. I know precisely what to study.
I can predict the outcome of my performance, because I know what I'm supposed to be doing. And contrast that with assessments where you're going to ask me to do something that I've never done before. And the way I'm going to be evaluated is how well I can use what I know and use the things that you've shown me to solve a problem that I've not yet been taught how to solve. Now, that's a difficult tradeoff to manage. But it's one that changes the way learners think about the subject matter.
And more fundamentally than that, it changes the way learners think about what it means to be knowledgeable. Most high school students come to the university thinking that being knowledgeable means you means know a lot of stuff. But what differentiates experts from novices is not how much more the experts know. It's how differently the experts think about what they know. And that thinking requires deliberate practice in the classroom.
So if I flip this to one of my favorite writers about education, Alfred North Whitehead-- and many of you know of Whitehead because of his writings about mathematics. Whitehead, with Bertrand Russell, wrote probably the most important piece of mathematical thought since Newton. And quite a dedicated proponent of education in Great Britain, and wrote a lot about the educational system in Britain.
And Whitehead characterized the stages that learners progress through in a way that I think is useful, especially speaking to a mature audience like all of you. I always hesitate to talk about stages in anything, because when young learners think about stages, they think that one stage goes and then stops, and then the next stage starts. In 1749 on December 31 at midnight, everybody took a vote and decided to stop writing Baroque music and to start writing something else. But we all know that it's much fuzzier than that.
But what's nice about Whitehead's characterization about learning is he started with the idea that any motivation to learn anything starts with a phase that he called romance. And what his operational definition of romance is-- this is my term, not his-- is unrealistically highly positive.
And when we encounter anything new that's immediately attractive to us, I would submit to you that our views of that are unrealistically highly positive. We meet someone at a party, and we first see them across a crowded room, and they look so lovely and charming. And then we go over there and talk to them, and their voice is just lovely. And they have this thing they do when they laugh, and they're funny. And we think, my god, this is just wonderful.
And that romantic view is not realistic. We don't imagine that this person has bodily functions, and that they get sick, and that other things happen. It's just completely out of perspective.
And many students who come to the university in any discipline and think I want to major in whatever have an unrealistic view about being a professional in that thing that they think they want to major in, whether it's they want to go to med school or whatever it is that they want to do.
The thing that's nice about this is that if you imagine the initial stages of learning about anything, being romantic, and ask the question of what happens to that romance after you begin to become initiated into the actual practice of the discipline. And Whitehead described that second stage as one of precision.
Now, this visual metaphor of this open pipe that's really wide and spacious, and then it's this narrowing here, that's not Whitehead's. That's mine. But the precision title is apt. Because this is where you actually have to do things effectively and precisely and clearly. And you have to know stuff, and you have to be able to execute things. And this is where everyone changes their major.
And this is when, two weeks before the end of semester, when your advisees come in and say, you know, I think I may be in the wrong field. That's where they are right then. It's just like, I had no idea it was this hard to do this.
When I was a young child, my parents were avid watchers of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, who many of you in this room, I know, are too young to remember. But many of you, I know, in this room are old enough to remember.
And the band was led by a piano player named Skitch Henderson, who's still alive and a working musician in New York. And Doc Severinsen, as many of you know, is a famous trumpet player. He was a sideman in the band, and he would stand up in his garish clothes and play solos, and it was just great.
And I would stay up past my bedtime so I could watch the Tonight Show Band play. It was just the most spectacular thing. And I would watch Doc stand up and play, and it would look so effortless and fantastic. And I'd think, god, I want to play the trumpet.
And I was in fifth grade at the time, so it was about the time when my school was starting people beginning on instruments. And so I bludgeoned my parents so they took me to a music store and rented a trumpet. And I was so happy. And I got to the music store, got the trumpet. I came home, I went upstairs to my room, and started practice. I wanted to practice my trumpet. So I went upstairs. I started to play.
And I was up there about, oh, three minutes. And I remember coming down to finding my mother in the kitchen. This is so vivid to me. I remember the linoleum and the Formica-topped table with the aluminum legs. I can remember all of that. And I up to my mom. And I said, listen, we've got to go back to the music store. We got the wrong trumpet.
This one is broken. It doesn't have any high notes on it. It just has low, ugly, fuzzy. Maybe that was is more expensive. I don't know. We've got to go back. And of course, I had no idea what it took to play the trumpet. I just saw the romantic, lovely image of that.
But of course, if you're able to punch through that narrowness in the pipe and the precision stage, you get to what Whitehead termed generalization, which is a point at which you can actually do a little bit the thing that romantically attracted you to this thing in the first place.
Now, I have a little visual gimmick here to show you the way most undergraduates see new disciplines that they encounter. You want to do this? Oh, cool. Well, we're going to punish you for a long time. And then way out there in the distance, you will find something interesting. Trust me.
Now, of course, in order to make this more manageable, in order to keep the romance in the relationship with the subject matter, it's not an impossible task. And it doesn't require cheerleading on the part of the teacher. It requires the structuring of experiences such that those generalizations happen frequently.
Now, this is not one process. There's not one romantic stage, and one precision stage, and then generalization. And again, this is-- I apologize to Whitehead. This is my adaptation of his idea.
But really, that's an iterative process. As you encounter subject matter, you read a paper, and it's interesting to you. I'm talking about you, not your students now. And you go explore something about that. You might even do your own experiment having to do with something like that. And you find out something. And you work out the kinks in it, and you're frustrated, and then you punch through that, and you actually might discover something that's interesting. And that keeps you going.
Well, students can experience the very same things in classes. And we can actually structure them in a way that their frequency and their outcomes are predictable. So instead of having this, what we have in schools now where students come to a subject matter, and the first thing that happens when you're in a major-- what we have to do first is learn the prerequisites of that major. And what you learn are all the prerequisites of that major.
And now I'm going to refer you back to what I was talking a while ago about human memory and how human memory is organized. And after you master those prerequisites, what they have prepared you for is the next level of prerequisites. And this goes on for a while until you get to what I call affectionately the good stuff in the subject matter.
Now, the question I ask everyone to think about who's imagining redesigning a course or redesigning a curriculum is how long does it take to get to the good stuff. And the answer, inevitably, is not nearly as long as we make it out to be. The question is, how do you organize learning in a way that gets people attentive to that from the very beginning?
And the answer is, thinking from first principles again, what are the underlying principles of the discipline that make this what it is? What's most important that branches out and reaches to all aspects of whatever discipline we happen to be teaching, and can we introduce that effectively at the earliest stages of a student's experience, whatever it is that we happen to be teaching? And the answer is always yes.
And rather than having all those prerequisites have to be mastered a prior, now what we can change is we start with things having to do with the good stuff. And now we will elaborate those very fundamental ideas with more and more exemplars, more and more complicated problems. But all of that is centered on those very fundamental ideas that are part of the discipline.
In teaching music to young people, which I often refer to as a metaphor for teaching anything-- when I was a young kid-- when I was 16 years old, I can't believe how happy I was when I learned that there were parents in my neighborhood in New Jersey who would actually pay me money to teach their kid how to play the drums. I was thrilled by this. I owned a drum set. I could teach other people. I could get money for my car. It was just the coolest thing.
So I started teaching lessons. Now, I had no lessons in pedagogy. I didn't know anything. I just knew if I was going to play the drums, I knew what I wanted to learn to do, which was sit at a drum set and play.
And I don't know how many of you have studied music and have seen people who are studying percussion work on these little rubber practice pads that are not annoying to other people. But the best way I can think of to describe them is they're musically unsatisfying for someone who's playing on them. And I knew as a drummer myself, I didn't want to start on that. So why would I make these students of mine start on that? So I would bring them up to my room, and I'd sit them at my drum set.
And what we would learn to do first is I would put their right foot on the bass drum pedal and say what I want you to do now is repeatedly hit that bass drum so every stroke sounds just alike. So they would sit there go [MAKES DRUMMING NOISE]. Now, that takes two or three minutes before somebody can do that and really do it evenly and consistently.
And then I say, now, your left foot is on the high hat cymbal. That's those two cymbals that come together like that. I'd like you to push your foot down really fast, really make a really sharp click sound. So they go [MAKES CLICKING NOISE]. And that takes about three or four minutes to do that.
Now I'd like you to alternate your right foot and your left foot. Now, when I get to the alternation-- this is an important point-- the bass drum gets uneven and the high hat cymbal gets uneven. So I've got to spend time getting them back as even as they when they were doing them separately. Because what I'm trying to inculcate as a value is evenness and inconsistency. That's what beautiful music making is about. I didn't talk about that. We didn't have a lecture about that. I didn't write it down. That's just what I'm doing when we're teaching this.
So now they're going [DRUMMING NOISE]. Now I'm about five minutes into this lesson, now maybe six. And now put out your right hand. I put a snare drum stick in there. Close your fingers around the stick. Great. Hit that cymbal every time your right foot hits the bass drum. So now we're just hitting the right cymbal first, get those even. Now we're going [DRUMMING NOISE].
And of course, when we're doing that, the left foot gets uneven, the right foot gets uneven, because now they're thinking about this new thing. So I've got to bring all that back to where it was when everyone was separate, doing things evenly. Now take your left hand. Put a snare drum stick in it.
Now hit that snare drum between your legs every time your left foot hits that symbol. And now it's going [DRUMMING NOISE]. Now, again, we're up to about nine minutes of instruction now. So I've got to get everything even again, because we're going to a new thing.
Now, once they can do that, I'm sitting behind them. I've got a tom-tom in front of my legs, and I've got a pair of sticks, and I can play. So while they do this, I play a little Gene Krupa-esque tom-tom solo while they're playing the bass drum and a cymbal on the high hat. So they're going [DRUMMING NOISE], and I'm playing [DRUMMING NOISE]. And the kid is thinking, I'm playing the drum set! I'm playing it!
Now, of course, an observer looking at that would say, well, that kid is not doing-- he's not playing the drums, because you're playing all the spiffy stuff. I couldn't disagree more. What that kid is doing isn't nothing. They can make all those sounds happen evenly and in a coordinated way with me, and they're engaged in an honest to God music making experience. And the lesson is 11 minutes old.
Now, that's a very simple task. It's a very straightforward task. But in that small task, I'm able to convey all of the things that are most important about music making. And those things will come up again and again and again and again. Because those are, by definition, the things that define excellent music making. So that happens at the beginning. And now what we're learning is how to do more and more elaborate things and make those fundamentally important things happen every time that we play.
So if we ask about this idea and keep that metaphor in mind, what we're really talking about is starting with that romance frequently and having those generalizations happen throughout every day and happen on multiple days. So what happens in this-- which is a really important to think about-- is people become inured to longer and longer and more difficult and arduous precision stages.
So they're able to work at an experiment for weeks. Because in their history, they realize that tenacity and working toward something that's difficult and frustrating often results in a positive outcome. Now, if you have students who have very little experience with that or no experience with that, it's not surprising, then, that they would choose not to be tenacious with the work that they're doing. It would be an adaptive response not to be tenacious.
So if we imagine now how you set up students in a way that creates this kind of learning, even within a class period, across periods, across semesters-- so this experience of experiencing those opportunities to actually do something meaningful with the discipline is an ongoing part of what people do. It changes the way they think about the subject matter.
It also changes what their emphasis is on the subject matter, and not one of just remembering a lot of ideas, but instead, being able to think effectively to either solve problems, pose interesting questions, create new things. It's an entirely different way of thinking about the discipline.
Now, truth in advertising-- is this hard to do? It's really hard to do on the part of a teacher. This is harder than giving a lecture and giving scanned, graded tests. It takes more time. It's more effortful. And I can certainly understand that many people who are busy, who have a lot of stuff on their plates, would decide, look, I've got these lectures down cold. I know that the test tests what I want to test. And why am I going to mess with that?
And the question I would ask-- back to an earlier slide-- is what's your dependent measure for students really having learned what you think is most important about your subject matter? Because that, I would argue, should be the guiding decision-making principle for whether we're going to spend time on this or not-- is when we can imagine what the students who have learned well are going to be like, and then asking how many opportunities do we get to check in and see whether they're actually doing that.
So here's my last list of teaching a class that changes thinking. One of the things that that tape that I showed with the electric light bulb thing shows is that when learners come to an experience, even about a subject matter that they supposedly have no background in, they already have ideas that they've formulated on their own.
And so when we're presenting something to them, it's not a matter of they have nothing in there and now we're going to put something in there. We have to change their minds about some of the things that they've come up with. And many of the things that are in there are things that they've generated on their own. And they like them.
And to have to get to the point where they're dissuaded from that idea that they've practiced and rehearsed for a very long time and have become very fond of is a difficult task. So the first thing is really defining for yourself not only what's most important, but what's most far-reaching as far as thinking about the subject matter.
And then the second one is an important one that's often overlooked. Teach what you like. I had a colleague who retired at Texas a number of years ago. His name was John Trimble, one of the best writing teachers I've ever known. Just terrific guy.
But he always taught very small, intensive writing classes of 15 and 20 students. And his department chairman told him, look, you won all these teaching awards. You've got to teach a large lecture section of English 316K, which is a writing course about literature of the American tradition.
And we were having a drink one time, and he was complaining about how he had to teach this course, and it was horrible, and he just was dreading it. I said, look, what is the big deal? He said, I just hate Moby Dick. And I said, what are you talking about? He said, I just hate it. It's an awful book. I just hate Moby Dick.
I said, well, then don't teach it. He said, well, how could I teach a course about American literature? I said, because you don't like it, so don't teach it. You don't like it. Look-- dogs can smell fear. Undergraduates can smell boredom. So the idea that somehow you're going to drag these undergraduate students kicking and screaming through something that you can't even get excited about-- forget it. Just don't teach it. They'll be OK.
Now, when I give that opening lecture-- when I tell that story in the opening lectures to the new faculty, I know some of them are thinking, look, I'm an assistant professor, and I'm teaching whatever 101. And my senior colleagues are teaching 102. And when my students get to that class and they don't know something, they're going to say, who did you take 101 with? And it's me. What's that going to be like?
And the thing that I assure them off-- no matter what you teach in 101, that's going to happen anyway. So free yourself. Free yourself from that burden, and just teach what you like. Teach what's interesting to you.
And lastly, write the assessments first. And what I mean by that is you write how you're going to know at the end of the course that students have learned what you think is important for them to learn. Now, many people-- you want to insult a colleague, tell them you're just teaching for the test.
And I want to submit to you that teaching for the test is only a bad thing if the test is a dumb test. If the test really embodies what's most meaningful and important about the subject matter, then we ought to just be practicing the test every day, because the test is what's most meaningful and important about the subject matter.
Provide opportunities for varied practice. And that's self-explanatory. Each step that people do is an approximation of the end goal. And what I mean by that is that rather than thinking I've got to do these getting ready steps that will only later transform into what this subject matter is really about, that you imagine how I can make these getting ready steps like the end goal.
And finally-- really finally-- recognize a continuum of correctness. What students unfortunately think about when they learn is that there are right answers and everything else. And that's a bad way to think about anything substantive. Because there are all kinds of reasonably wrong answers that are important enough to be entertained and thought about and imagined.
How did you get to that, and what does that teach us about what the right answer is? But most students who come don't have that feeling about right answers and wrong answers. It's just there's right answers and everything else.
And then the really finally thing-- expects high standards of quality throughout. Typically, what's determined when we measure a students' ability to do something is how hard it is, how hard the tasks are that we asked them to do. So someone who's learned more does harder things, but doesn't necessarily do those harder things better than someone who does less difficult things.
And I'll just use an example to illustrate that. In music schools around the country, it is more valued to play really demanding repertoire not quite great than to play undemanding repertoire beautifully. Now, nobody would go and pay $45 for a concert ticket and hear somebody step all over themselves in the first half and go out out intermission with their friends and say, man, that guy sure missed a lot of notes, but wow, that music is hard. I can't wait to go in fot-- that's not valued anywhere except in school.
And likewise, knowing a lot about a lot of stuff that you really understand in a very fragile way is not inherently better than understanding a few things that you know about really deeply. And that's thought I'd like to leave you with this afternoon. Carl, all your colleagues, thank you so much for coming her. It's been a pleasure. I hope to see all of you again. Thanks so much.
Thanks very much.
CARL HOPKINS: We have time for a few questions.
ROBERT DUKE: And let me excuse people who need to go. Please don't be embarrassed. Just go.
AUDIENCE: Computers-- how is the increasing usage of computers in education, particularly to make students acquainted with material, actual knowledge and proxies for practice going to affect our way of looking at [INAUDIBLE]?
ROBERT DUKE: That's a great question. I'm often concerned by the fact that people expect technology to do more than it's capable of doing. Technology has never been a substitute for good thinking and presenting ideas clearly and having people practice ideas clearly.
To me, any kind of technology, whether it's chalk or a computer or anything, is advantageous if it's used in a way that provides different perspectives on what's being studied or different opportunities to practice. One of the things that-- any kind of computerized experiences know that all of us who work in anything that has imaging associated with it, we can allow students to see things that they wouldn't normally be able to see. We can show them movies and slides and other things with technology that they would never have access to without that kind of equipment.
So those kinds of ancillary things are great. But one of the things that even the most avid proponents of computer system instruction recognize is that what teachers are able to do is organize a series of activities in such a way that they're matched with what students are able to accomplish moment to moment.
A lot of computerized instruction, even though that-- the computerized instruction that attempts to do that, I think, is set up in such a rigid way that it doesn't provide the kind of flexibility that, in a room with other students, with teachers, the interplay between those individuals creates a different kind of experience than you would on a computer. As far as what that's going to mean in the future, I have no clue. I just don't have any prescient thoughts about that. Yes, sir.
AUDIENCE: You talk about learning in a continuum, and the test and assessment are very discrete. I think you never mentioned the idea of assessing the students in a continuous manner throughout the semester. How important is that? Because it's very easy to mess up a few tests in a semester if you are very clear in your thinking, because it just happens.
ROBERT DUKE: That's a great question. And if you don't mind, I'll repeat your question for people that didn't hear it. The question was asked about how frequently assessments happen and whether or not what I'm suggesting is that assessments happen throughout the course of the semester. And I'm suggesting exactly that.
Typically, for most students' experiences, assessments are high in magnitude and low in frequency. And I'm suggesting that the opposite ought to be the case. Assessment happens a lot, and no one assessment is that important.
Now, again, that's one of the reasons that that's harder to do and takes more effort on the part of a teacher. But one of things about-- that Carl and his colleagues and I have been talking about over the past couple days is this. And it's related to what-- when I put the slide up there with the math problem and nobody raised their hand except brave Jeanne over there. And that is that students now perceive-- reasonably so-- that the consequences of making mistakes on assessment are really severe.
And there's no way to reason them out of that. You have to practice them out of that. And the way to practice them out of that is to have experiences where they do things and get feedback about things where there are really no consequences that are important for making mistakes.
As all of us in here who are faculty know, when we're doing our own research, we spend most of our days confused. That's the nature of our gig. And if you were to ask students about their perception of what confusion is like, they want to be anything but confused. Confusion is inherently seen as a bad thing.
And what your job is as my teacher, damn it, is clear up my confusion. Because I know that you're going to ask me questions that I need to know the answer to, and I better not be confused when you ask me those questions. So part of the gig in learning about anything important and learning to do something well in relation to that thing that you're learning about is to be able to be confused productively. And right now, confusion, for most students, just creates anxiety because of the time pressures of getting the right answer.
So when you have more opportunities through the course of a semester for students to show what they know and reveal their misunderstandings, the tenor of the course changes. Because there's not the pressure at certain time points where everything is riding on this now. And this is a different kind of experience as a learner. Did you want to ask something else about that? Sure. Yeah, sure.
AUDIENCE: An immediate problem with this approach is that the assessment becomes subjective rather than objective. And again, objective assessments are much easier, because you can assign a number to a percentage. Wouldn't you agree?
ROBERT DUKE: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: And subjective assessments are like-- it requires honesty on the part of the instructor, on the part of [INAUDIBLE], the student.
ROBERT DUKE: The gentleman just raised a question about objective assessments versus subjective assessments. I almost never use those terms. And the reason is-- and this is a ridiculously broad statement, but I'll make it anyway-- all assessments are subjective. I made up the questions, for God's sake.
And the thing is, when people come to a professor who has a very elaborate grading system, and they say, Dr. Winston, what grade am I going to make in your class, and they pick out a notebook and say, well, let's see-- you have an 87 on the quizzes, and that's 30%. You have a 92 on the exams. Drop the lowest grade. That will bring me up to 94. And on the homeworks, you have-- and it goes through this litany of stuff. And close the grade book, and the student walks away as if somebody answered their question.
Now, who decided that the homework was 30%? I did. And who decided that you get to drop the lowest grade? I did. And who decided what stuff you had to do on the quizzes to earn any points? I decided all of that.
So really, the real answer to that-- when somebody says what grade am I going to make in your class, the honest answer is whatever grade I choose to give you. And the idea about objectivity and subjectivity-- there's an interesting thing about numbers, about human beings dealing with numbers. When we assign numbers to things, we start to treat the numbers like they're numbers instead of symbols that represent something else.
So we average them together, and we do things with them that you can do with numbers, and not thinking about what is that number representative of, actually. Well, you had this test, and there were 26 questions on it, and you got 80-something percent of the correct questions. But now it's just an 80. And it's just a number, and we start treating that like it's a number. Well, it's actually not a number.
It is a number, but it's not only that. It's related to this other stuff that you did. And the other numbers that are on that list of data represent different things. And the fact that we averaged them all together and that's meaningful is a little wacky, I think.
AUDIENCE: The point that you made about spending most of our day confused really resonated with me. I'm TAing right now, and I'm teaching a writing section. And I'm really trying to get home with the students that revision is really what you're aiming for. Revise, revise, revise. And I'm trying to convince them-- I've revised this manuscript I'm working on hundreds of times, and every time, it gets better. But the students really see this as this construction of this very linear wall. If you take one brick out, the whole things falls down.
I'm convinced that the problem with that is the shelf life of the assignment. That once I read it, it's over, and there's no consequences on the grade that I assign. They just want to get it done right. What are some ways around that that you would suggest on this framework that you laid out?
ROBERT DUKE: Well, I appreciate what you're saying about the writing issue. I'm not a particularly gifted writer, but I am a gifted editor. I can take my drafts, and given enough time, they look pretty good. But most students-- they only see stuff after I'm done with it, and they think it just started like that.
And that's true-- I'm sure all of you experienced this-- students who are new to science, and they read a journal article, and none of the confusion is in the article. Because all the confusions have been resolved.
And the idea of all the struggle that went on, and all the experiments that didn't work, that didn't make it into the paper-- that's not there. So they look at that, and they think, well, that's what science is like. It's clean and lovely. And everything I've done in high school promotes that idea.
But I would suggest that rather than having papers that, as you say, have a short shelf life when you're done with them, that papers evolve over the course of a course. It's not just a matter of writing something, and you work on it a little bit, and then it's done. But imagine a paper that has four different due dates with it. And every one of those due dates, it needs to be better in some way.
Now we're back to the question before about, well, who says what's better. Well, I do, because I'm the teacher. And even though one might say, well, how can you defend that if a student comes to you and says, well, you gave me this grade, and I think I should have that grade. You know what? I don't have any answer for that except to say I'm an expert, and I'm knowledgeable in this, and that's the way I see it.
Now, I tell you-- what's happened in universities throughout the United States, which is very unfortunate-- and this happens in secondary schools and primary schools, too-- is teachers have now begun to grade defensively. I only grade on things that, when a student comes to complain about his or her grade, I can say, well, it was supposed to be four, and you wrote three, so it's wrong, and that was a third of the thing. And that's it.
But as I said, the things that get evaluated like that typically are trivial. Being able to write a paper and having an affective paragraph that conveys an idea that's a little bit knotty, and you're able to do that in a way that's pretty convincing and clear, is a really interesting and important skill for someone to have.
But I have no idea how to assign points to that in any way that if a student says, well, why did you give me those points-- I can certainly describe why I like that paragraph or what I didn't like about it, but that's a very different kind of interaction than if I said, well, you got a 4 and it should have been a 3.
Let me just say one more thing about the writing stuff. We were at lunch-- I think it was lunch or dinner last night. I don't know. And something came up about when students get feedback-- almost always when students get feedback from a teacher or from a TA, it's associated with a grade.
Now, that conflates the idea of feedback in general and grading. If you think about-- if, as a teacher, the only opportunities you have to give feedback to students are opportunities that are associate with a grade, you have built in a disincentive for students to accept your criticism.
Because if I have a student who comes to me about their paper, and I gave them whatever points they gave it, because I thought their opening paragraph was problematic or whatever, and I want to explain to them why this opening paragraph-- how they could make this better-- a student who comes to me who lost points because of that doesn't want to know how to make the paragraph better. They want to come and convince me that the paragraph was actually better written than I thought it was so they can get their points back.
Now, I just want to take that off the table. I don't want to have that be the source of discussion. So I try to build in multiple opportunities for feedback that's not associated with the grade.
Now, many people who hear that initially think, well, you know what? Well, students are going to do it then. If they don't get any point for it, why would they even do it? That's underestimating what students will do. If there are opportunities to get feedback in ungraded settings that lead to better performance in grading settings, I promise you students will avail themselves of that. But it requires some planning and thought and different things like that.
CARL HOPKINS: I think we better let you take a rest. Thank you very much.
ROBERT DUKE: Absolutely.
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Research over the past two decades has deepened our understanding of the fundamental principles of human learning. Yet much of what we do in undergraduate education seems to effectively ignore these principles.
Robert Duke, professor of music and human learning at University of Texas-Austin, explains how learning theory can be leveraged to design more effective instruction and motivate students.
Introduction by Carl D. Hopkins of Cornell's Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.
The University Lecture fund was first endowed at the beginning of the twentieth century by Goldwin Smith, a distinguished historian of English birth who, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's phrase, wanted to "open an intercourse with the world."