Two rules for teaching in the XXIst century

Education in the XXth century has been primarily industrial: organize the workersstudents in groups under the supervision of a managerteacher.

We all have been in such systems for so long that we take it for granted. How else is anyone to learn? Maybe some can learn differently, but most can’t because they are unmotivated and lazy, they lack the critical skills to differentiate right from wrong on their own and they can’t assess their own level of expertise. At least, that is what I’m told, but I think it is unfair.

To me, this is like saying that we have to keep long-time prisoners in jail because they do not know how to organize themselves when given their freedom.

Indeed, if students who went through years of schooling cannot learn on their own, if they cannot assess their own progress, and if they generally cannot organize themselves without supervision, schools bear part of the blame. We enroll students in supervised and regimented systems where they are constantly told what to do, constantly tested by others and where they have to follow rigid rules as to what they should learn. It is no surprise that many students cannot work on their own when they leave school.

There are a few broken individuals who will never become adults. They have to be kept in check all the time because they could not survive on their own. But if they constituted the essential part of the human race, we would have gone extinct a long time ago. Our ancestors had to be incredibly resilient because human beings spread throughout the globe like no other animal species.

To put it bluntly, most people lack autonomy precisely because we have carefully beaten it out of them. I have two young kids and they are crazy. One of them is building a castle out of paper in his room. The project is huge and complicated and he has worked on it for days, on his own, without anyone telling him what to do. He made mistakes (which he explained to me) and he had to fix them. How often do schools let students embark on self-directed projects? Almost never.

My sons are not exceptional. Like other kids their age, they behave in unconventional ways, trying crazy things on their own, having crazy thoughts on their own. Eventually, with enough schooling, they will settle down and do as they are told in a more reliable manner. They will become very good at following directions.

How good will they be at emulating someone like Steve Jobs, who repeatedly broke all rules? I fear for them that their sense of initiative and wonder will be killed by the time they finish their schooling. (Thankfully, I am a crazy dad with crazy ideas, so maybe I will mitigate the damage.)

Hence, as a teacher, I reject the industrial model as much as I can. I believe that, in an ideal world, we would not need any teaching at all. There is hardly anything you can’t learn through an apprenticeship. For example, if you just helped out Linus Torvalds for a couple of years, you could become an expert programmer. In fact, I suspect you would fare much better than if you just took programming classes.

The problem with apprenticeship is that it scales poorly. How much patience will Linus Torvalds have for kids who hardly know anything about computers? How many could he coach? Would he want to have kids over at his house while he is coding?

We still use the apprenticeship model in graduate school. But to accommodate most students, I still haven’t thought of a better model than setting up classes. But should the classes be organized like factories with the teacher acting as a middle manager while students act as factory employees, executing tasks one after the other while we assess and time them? I think not. My teaching philosophy is simple: challenge the student, set him in motion, and provide a model. I try to be as far from the industrial model as I can, while remaining within the accepted boundaries of my job. I have two rules when it comes to teaching:

  • Focus on open-ended assignments and exams. Many professors are frustrated that students come in only for the grades. Probably because they focus on nice lectures and then prepare hastily some assignments. Turn this problem on its head! Focus on the assignments. If your students are not very autonomous — and they rarely are — give several long and challenging assignments (at least 4 or 5 a term). Do make sure however that they know where to get the information they need. Provide solved problems to help the weaker students.

    However, keep the assignments open ended. We all like to grade multiple choice questions, but they are a pedagogical atrocity. In life, there is rarely one best answer: assignments should reflect that. In some of my classes I use “programming challenges”: I make up some difficult problem and ask the students to find the best possible solution. Often times, there is no single idea solution, but multiple possibilities, all with different trade-offs. Quite often the students ask me to be more precise: I refuse. I tell my students to justify their answer. Over the years, I have been repeatedly impressed by the ingenuity of my students. Many of them are obviously smarter than I am.

    What about lecture and lecture notes? They are secondary. In most fields, the content, the information, is already out there. It has been organized several times over by very smart people. Books have been written on most topics. There is a growing set of great talks available on YouTube, Google Video and elsewhere. Your students do not need you to rehash the same content they can find elsewhere, sometimes in better form. Stop lecturing already! Just link to what is out there and encourage your students to find more using a search engine. Only produce content when you really cannot find the equivalent elsewhere. Please link to material beyond the grasp of most of your students: they need to know the limit of their knowledge.

    The famous software engineering guru Fred Brooks agrees with me:

    The primary job of the teacher is to make learning happen; that is a design task. Most of us learned most of what we know by what we did, not by what we heard or read. A corollary is that the careful designing of exercises, assignments, projects, even quizzes, makes more difference than the construction of lectures.

    For my years as a student, I hardly remember the lectures. They were overwhelmingly boring. And I soon learned that even if a teacher was remarkably able and he could give me the impression that I understood everything… this impression was quickly falsified when I tried to work the material on my own.

  • Be an authentic role model. Knowing that someone ordinary, like your professor, has become a master of the course material means that you, the very-smart-student, can do the same. That’s the power of emulation.

    When Sebastian Thrun gave his open AI class at Stanford, tens of thousands of students enrolled. Sure enough, the Stanford badge played a role in the popularity of the course, but ultimately, it is Thrun himself, as a role model, that matters. He has now left Stanford to create his own independent organization (Udacity). Thrun must be confident about his success since he left his tenured position at Stanford, reportedly because he cannot stand the regular (industrial-style) teaching required at Stanford. One upcoming course is “programming a robotic car”. I have no idea how good the course will be, but it will be motivating for students to attend the class of the world’s top expert in the field of robotic car.

    The status of the teacher as an expert has always been important. However, the ability of people like Thrun to reach thousands of people every year through his teaching means that there is less of a market for teachers who aren’t impressive AI researchers.

Unfortunately, as long as I teach within a university, there are a few things I am stuck with:

  • Deadlines: Some students are able to go through the material of a class in 4 weeks. Others would need 16 months. Alas, universities have settled on a fixed number of weeks that everyone must follow. If you complete the course faster, you’ll still have to wait till the end of the term to get credit. If you need more time, you will have to make special arrangements. Of course, schools follow the factory model: we can’t have workers come in and finish whenever they want. But outside an industrial setting, I think that deadlines are counterproductive. If I take a class in computing theory and end up proving that P is equal to NP, but I end up my paper a few weeks after the end of the course, I will still fail. Meanwhile, the good student who followed the rules but showed a total lack of initiative and original thinking will go home with a great grade. What do we reward and what do we punish?
  • Grades: Grades are a very serious matter in schools. Denis Rancourt, a top-notch tenured physicist at the University of Ottawa, was fired after refusing to grade his students. (He would give A+s to everyone.) Grades are effectively the quality control mechanism of schools, where students are the product. Somehow, we have totally integrated the idea that we could sum up an individual by a handful of letters. It sure makes managing people convenient! It all fits nicely in a spreadsheet. Of course, students have adapted by cheating. Schools have reacted by making cheating harder. But I cheated all the way through my undergraduate studies getting almost perfect score in all classes. How? I discovered a little trick: at the University of Toronto, all past year exams were available at the library. If you took time to study them, you soon found out that, at least in the hard sciences, a given professor would always use the same set of 10 to 20 questions, year after year. So all you had to do was to go to the library, study the questions, prepare them, and voilà! An easy A. But it is all rather pointless. In theory, grades are used by employers to select the best students, but serious employers don’t do this. We use grades to select the best candidates for graduate school, but I doubt there is a good correlation between grades as an undergraduate and research ability. I know two top-notch researchers who have admitted getting poor grades as undergraduates. For years, I have served on a government committee that awards post-doctoral fellowships: I am amazed at how poor the undergraduate grades are at predicting how well someone might do during his Ph.D. Conversely, I have seen many graduate students who had nearly perfect scores throughout their undergraduate studies who are totally unable to show even just a bit of initiative. They do well as long as you always give them precise directions.

Credit: Thanks to Michiel van de Panne for the reference to Brooks’ quote.

Further reading: Making universities obsolete by Matt Welsh, an interesting fellow who left his tenured position at Harvard to go work in industry.

Note: Many people are better and more sophisticated teachers than I am. And the industrial model does work remarkably well in some settings. Yet I think that they the skills it fails to favor are increasingly important. We have to stop training people for factory jobs that are never coming back.

Daniel Lemire, "Two rules for teaching in the XXIst century," in Daniel Lemire's blog, January 30, 2012.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

22 thoughts on “Two rules for teaching in the XXIst century”

  1. Dan

    Thanks for for this valuable post. Most university teachers alas do not know how to teach effectively bc they have not been taught, and they do not leverage research results in pedagogy, cognition, learning, psychology, group dynamics, gender differences – this is a sad fact.

    For the interested pedagogue who would like to draw upon best practices (from designing the course backwards with end goals in mind, to syllabus, handling of problem students, assignment rationale etc) I recommend:

    1) McKeachie in his 11th edition (a classic) which focuses on techniques but has lots of references to empirical studies.

    2) My favourite case study book is “What the best college teachers do” by Ken Bain: – a longitudinal (15 years) exploration of exceptional college professors and what makes them ‘great’ (straight from the students’ mouth)

    If people are interested, I incorporated lessons drawns in a first semester programming course (cs 151 at Colby College in 2004-2006, sadly not online anymore) and a science of networks course (CS249b at Wellesley College in 2008 at )

    Have a great day

  2. Excellent, thoughtful post. You will be happy to know that as a student in the faculty of education at Lakehead University, I am learning all the things you propose here. There is a big push in public education, at least in the Ontario curriculum, for differentiated instruction and “student-centred learning”, where the teacher facilitates student learning rather than merely attempting to transmit knowledge by lecturing and testing.

    You face a slightly different situation in university. The limitations you point out are real. Also, I would argue that class size is a huge limiting factor in university: how can professors possibly teach students effectively in classes of 100, 200, even 300? I suspect the answer is that they can’t and they actually aren’t supposed to—the system is designed to weed out or fail a percentage of the class.

    I think there is a separation in philosophy between K–12 education and post-secondary education. The former is public and, for the most part, mandatory: we want all students to be as successful as possible. The latter, on the other hand, can be private, and students choose to attend it for their own reasons. So some people will argue that because a student has chosen to be in university, it is up to that student to learn and pay attention, regardless of how the professor teaches. I think this is an absurd argument, but I see it pretty often.

    I suspect many professors, the same professors who grudgingly teach class only because it is a requirement of their employment and not because they enjoy educating young minds, see it this way. As the other Daniel points out in the first comment, the sharp line between university professors and K–12 teachers is that the former are not necessarily trained to teach. I am guessing this is an artifact of the way university evolved, with that “master–apprentice” relationship where a professor oversees a small group of intelligent, affluent students. That’s no longer the case, and if we are going to redesign post-secondary education, I think it’s worthwhile in looking at ways to redesign the process by which one goes from getting a doctorate to teaching a university class….

  3. There’s a great community of high school teachers trying to figure out how to deal with these issues (open-ended assignments, role modeling, grading, deadlines, etc.) Their approaches sound great even for the university level.

    Two of my favorites are Dan Meyer: “I would so much rather my students understood the value of turning stupid ideas into reality than the entire sum of Algebra”

    …and Shawn Cornally: “Students need to learn to self-assess, and this is only done by talking thoughtfully with someone who has more experience”
    (his TEDx talk is definitely worth watching!)

  4. As a somewhat recent student, I extend thanks to you and the commenters for making the effort to understand what does, and doesn’t, work in education. Especially in young grades a good teacher or a bad teacher can be the difference between a life long passion or aversion for the subject.

    One thing US schools got right, in my
    opinion, has been the relatively low time requirements. Under half the year in class, and then for ~7 hours. Learning in school moved at a glacial pace, but as a child I had plenty of time to explore my own interests.

  5. Those that are interested in a “better way” might find the story of the Subbury School Interesting.

    Peter Gray has provided a series of 4 essays relating the ideas incorporated into the Sudbury Valley School Model to ancient (and more recent) hunter-gatherer learning regimes.

    (The above link is to the fourth in the series on the importance of play in education- all four are well worth reading).

    Peter Gray has some additional essays on the importance of play in the education of children on his blog. Good reading for those interested in the subject.

  6. Dan,

    Although I am a long retired physics prof I still follow the educational practices. You comments here are about the best I have seen. Thanks for sharing them. I am passing them on to my colleagues.


  7. @Daniel

    Thanks. I don’t want students to have the right answers (that’s easy enough to achieve), I want them to build up an experience by encountering difficulties and finding ways around them.

  8. Very inspiring. Food for thoughts!
    I’ve been your student twice. I remember that you never answered my questions clearly. It’s been very frustrating at that time. But now I do understand. This attitude greatly helped me to develop my autonomy. (as you said in your article).

    Now we know the problem we are facing. So what is the resolution? Why no one has been able to write a good article about “HOW” we should learn creatively?

    Writing a recipe is against the principle to “break the rules”. But there is probably a way to develop our learning process and leaving all the possibilities opens. (I doubt that computers can help us on this).

    (Sorry for my English).
    Daniel, you are interesting as usual!

    Thank you.

  9. Hi Daniel, We have created an open, non-profit calendar blog called One Change A Day which will feature 365 blog posts from around education and mooc worlds. This blog will also tell a story of how new ways of connecting with each other online are irreversibly changing education. It will also be published as a shared artifact of everyone’s experiences in print and digital calendar format at the end of the year.

    We would love to include your post – with your kind permission. The calendar blog is using the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License licence. Would this cause any conflicts with your current publishing permissions at 2.0?

  10. Thanks Daniel for your helpful reply and clarification. There was a reason we chose non-commercial but I can’t find it in our meeting notes so will ask colleagues and reply back. We do have a copy of the Creative Commons compatibility chart but are feeling our way along at the moment.

  11. @Nicola

    Yes, it would violate my license because I want people to share my content using the same license I used. I specifically allow commercial use (so NC is a problem). I’d be interested in knowing why you want to prevent commercial uses.

    (To be clear, I allow people to use my content and *make money* from it. The condition is that they must allow other people to do the same. I think that’s fair.)

  12. @Nicola

    Of course, I could license this blog post to you guys directly using your license. Send me an email and I’ll reply with my agreement. I just want to be clear on what is meant by the CC license I use on this site.

  13. Hear, hear. At a job interview some years ago, I was asked my opinion of undergraduate education. I said that most undergrads had been broken by school and that our primary problem was to unbreak them by teaching & assessing them in real ways, rather than more exams on rote-learnt bullet points.

    Didn’t get the job, although there were probably other objections to me …

  14. Daniel,

    Thanks for pointing me to Udacity. At 72 I am in CSC 101. Previous (8 years ago) an attempt to work through SICP by myself gave me enough experience to easily see the structure, but being a lousy typist doesn’t help with syntax. Still, I am really enjoying it. Also trying to teach my 5 year old niece Scratch, and she catches on rather quickly.


  15. Couldn’t agree more. Any system will be gamed, what is needed is a non-system where attributes like trying, tenacity and originality are valued more than just the “correct”answer

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