Tuesday, May 22, 2012

No more lectures?

This past week I traveled to Chile using professional development funds from my Fulbright Grant. First I went to to Mendoza, and then caught another bus to Viña del Mar.
Students writing down guiding questions for the unit.
On my first day here we went to visit a school in a remote area called Quillota. I was a little bit apprehensive about visiting this school- I had been told that all of the students had been expelled from other schools and that this was a safety net of sorts. I later learned that they were expelled because of academic problems, no behavior issues. In fact, I found the students to be incredibly nice and open to my presence in the classroom.

Working hard
 At the end we took some pictures together, and the president of the student body (who happened to be in the class I visited), politely asked me if I could send him some pictures to remember my visit. Another thing: this school was basically empty save for desks, a blackboard, and a whiteboard that had seen better days. The room was very cold, way colder than my classroom ever is. Some students wore gloves and hats, and they all had sweatshirts or coats on. Despite these obstacles, the kids worked HARD at what they were doing and seemed really interested in the material. Speaking of which, the instruction was very traditional. I think that the teacher would be open to using different methods, but her lessons and methods seem to be dictated by the school. This seems to be a pattern here, and much of the difficulty in implementing reformed teaching methods lies not in convincing teachers, but in winning over the administration.

Class sizes are small so that the students can receive individualized attention

The entire class with their teacher
I actually came to visit the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María, which is in Valparaiso, practically next door. Though its name suggests differently, the university is not religiously affiliated. It's one of the top technical schools in Chile, and Hugo Alcarón is leading the charge as the university implements some fantastic reformed teaching methods.
USM is right next to the ocean in picturesque Valparaiso
The first step has been to renovate the classroom environments. Pretty much the only thing they use typical lecture halls for now is to give exams, though these will be utilized for some reformed methods such as Peer Instruction and Interactive Lecture Demonstrations down the road. The new classrooms are beautiful and nearly complete- a few details have yet to be finished, but the system as a whole is impressive.
A SCALE-UP classroom at Penn State. The facilities at USM are similar.
The rooms are designed around the SCALE-UP methodology developed at NCSU, which has also been implemented at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, where Hugo worked previously. The rooms are filled with massive tables that seat nine students (3 groups of 3). The tables are slightly out of round to encourage better collaboration. The tables are to be outfitted with netbooks in the very near future, and students can easily see the output from multiple projectors, which will soon be permanently mounted to the ceilings. The rooms are bright and airy and have terrific views. When we arrived before class started, Hugo had to ask other students who weren't part of the class to leave. More students came to the door during class and turned away, disappointed that the room was being used. Everyone wants to work in these rooms- they're very inviting and have whiteboards and other amenities that go a long way to encourage collaboration. There are multiple classrooms like this, which is a good thing, because ALL of the introductory physics courses are being taught in this manner. Other introductory courses in math, chemistry, and computer science are also being reworked to incorporate reformed teaching methods. Upper division courses are being overhauled as well so that students may eventually graduate without having experienced a single lecture.
Students at USM working in a SCALE-UP classroom
This is an immensely powerful idea, and I am blown away that the university has taken such ambitious steps to improve its students' learning. In fact, a push is beginning to extend these methods to all of the different USM campuses. The commitment that this takes is astounding, but I think it means a lot that the powers that be have recognized that traditional instructional methods simply do not work.

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