Nobel laureate Carl Wieman was already toying with ways to fix university-level science teaching in 2007 when the University of British Columbia came calling with an offer he couldn't refuse: a chance to test his theories on a grander scale.
The world-famous American physicist packed up and left the University of Colorado, arriving in Vancouver with fellow physicist (and his wife), Sarah Gilbert. About $10-million in donated funds awaited to launch the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative.
Dr. Wieman's central tenet is that "it's what's going on in the students' brains that matters," and that 20 years of cognitive science say those brains go farther in classes where students tackle tasks and problems together. It's the educational equivalent of crowd-sourcing and a philosophy gaining currency at all levels of education.
These ideas are not entirely alien to other universities across Canada, but the UBC initiative is the country's most co-ordinated and generously bankrolled effort. It is aimed at cracking a common conundrum, namely the creeping suspicion that the entrenched stand-and-deliver style of so many lectures is not grooming the kinds of collaborative, entrepreneurial, critical and adaptable students the world needs.
"The fundamental paradigm [has long been]it's what the person up in the front of the class is doing," Dr. Wieman said. "That's not what determines learning."
The key is less what students learn than how they learn it: The Googles of the world have decentralized knowledge, meaning the teacher's role is now much more about helping students assess information and apply it.
UBC professor David Jones admits he began to "feel bad" giving lectures, but even when he had fewer than 50 students, the class size made it seem "that was just the way it was." He tried to interact with students, but only a few regularly took part.
The Wieman Initiative changed his mind when it linked him with a science teaching and learning fellow to help him transform his upper-year optical physics course.
He started assigning the raw materials to be absorbed as homework, as well as short online quizzes before class to keep students doing the readings. In class, he presented students with activities and problems, had them split up any way they wished to solve them together, and offered help where it was needed.
Even he was taken aback by the results: Average test scores shot up 10 per cent and his half-full 9 a.m. classes swelled to 90-per-cent attendance. Most students praised the new style, but it was the fraction who hated it that reassured him he had done something right. Those were the people looking for the path of least resistance, Dr. Jones said, those who've "sort of figured out the system and don't want to change."
To try to prove the payoff is real, the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative experimented with two sections of a first-year physics course, each with about 270 students. A popular and experienced professor lectured to one, while the other was conducted much like Dr. Jones's class, with two inexperienced lecturers providing help and feedback.
The latter section also used "clickers" – simple devices resembling a TV remote – to let students key in their answers to the conceptual problems they were tackling, once at the outset, and again after discussing and debating it. The results are instantly tabulated and projected at the front of the class, allowing the professor to target widespread misconceptions.
Again, the "Wiemanized" class fared far better, scoring an average of 30-per-cent higher on a test of the material, and registering 20-per-cent higher attendance.
The new model is not without its skeptics, however. Jacob Bayless, 23, took two of the revamped courses and feels most students will do better in them, but found them limiting when he was picking up concepts quickly. The pace of the group "can be very slow," Mr. Bayless said, and he joins deans across the country in arguing it would be a mistake "to replace every course with that style."
The Wieman methods are deliberately low-tech in an effort to keep costs and resistance down, but some are convinced technology can be harnessed to further amplify the crowd-sourcing effect on learning – an area where more and more grade school classrooms are already setting an example.
The Wieman initiative's ultimate goal is to bring about a broader cultural change wherein professors and students act as partners in stimulating their collective thinking to the fullest extent. The expectation is that the more faculty members experiment, the more their colleagues will follow.
"Getting that [culture]to change is difficult," said Ms. Gilbert, the initiative's acting director. "With universities, there's often not that sense of urgency like at a company – that 'we're going to go out of business if we don't change.'"
Collaborative learning catches on with pupils
Grade 7 teacher Royan Lee is so committed to making learning collaborative, he won't call himself a teacher, preferring the moniker "lead learner."
He sees himself as guiding his English and math students at Beverley Acres Public School in Richmond Hill, Ont., in a space where they don't just do the usual group work, but constantly think together and critique each other.
His classroom is profoundly social and virtually paperless. Laptops, tablets, and smartphones – some belonging to pupils, some supplied by the school – link each learner to Web-based spaces where everyone interacts, not just the bold few who would have dared to raise a hand.
At times, Mr. Lee will pose questions such as, "Look at this picture: what equivalent fractions do you see?" and the pupils tackle them together in chat rooms or multimedia Web forums. They have also experimented with a Twitter-based "back channel," an ongoing stream of pupils' feedback and questions projected at the front of the class.
Even individual work is shared: Pupils submit assignments, notes and thoughts to networked personal blogs, forming digital portfolios they can all see and comment on.
"We try to learn out in the open," Mr. Lee says. "[My pupils]feel like they can't achieve the heights they want to without one another. … It's almost a method of crowd-sourcing understanding."
His pupils say their other classes have yet to follow suit – but hope they will. And any initial self-consciousness about scrutiny from their peers has passed.
"I don't think it's a big problem," says 12-year-old Kamran Rahbar Angikhteh. "You're sharing your work and other people can learn from what you did."