If that’s the goal, what’s the best use of class time? is a question at the heart of Understanding by Design. The question, which I often ask in workshops, was newly prompted in a slightly different form after I recently watched a few videos on Newton’s Laws from the Khan Academy website.

As you may know, Khan Academy is an online site with hundreds of free lessons and exercises now being used all over the world. It was established by Sal Khan, a former trader, based on his successful tutoring of family members. His ambitious agenda is now supported, in part, by Bill Gates. (You can read more about it here.) The idea is compelling: a comprehensive set of free videos, supported by exercises and some game-like incentives, for students anywhere in the world, available any time. The videos are charming in their low-key low-tech way, not much more than good lectures supported by simulated chalkboard lines, arrows, real-time drawings, and formulae.

The impact of Khan’s work is radical, however, in light of the essential question. Let’s rephrase it slightly: Given our goals, what’s the best use of time when you are in class in school? And what’s the best use of time out of class, with Internet access?  Khan’s radical answer – correct, I think – is that information learning is now best done outside of class; class time is too limited to waste it on lecturing in a world of vast high-quality Internet resources. Given the goal, say, of problem-solving, then the answer to our Essential Question is suddenly obvious: the best use of class time is group problem-solving and troubleshooting, based on the basic information learned online; it’s a waste of precious time to have students listen, once, to a lecture available only once; where they lose the vital opportunity to work with others in teams to better engage, explore, argue, and understand.

Eric Mazur, Physics Professor at Harvard, had this epiphany over two decades ago. He stopped lecturing and started devoted class – with 200 students – to small group problem-solving with instant feedback – initially via index cards, now onscreen via those “clicker” systems. You can learn lots more about his methods here and success here.

At around the same time of Mazur’s aha, I heard Doug Heath, Haverford psychology professor, at an ASCD workshop in 1989 make the same point about class time. His solution was that “ancient” technology, the VCR. He videotaped all his Psychology lectures over time; then, he stopped giving lectures in class. Students wanting to see the lectures had to go the Library where they were on reserve. His only rule was that you had to go in pairs and discuss the lecture(s). Class was devoted to discussion of the lectures, research findings, and experimental design and debugging.

The deeper lesson is a moral and civic one, as my daughter, Alexis Wiggins, makes clear in her excellent analysis of her Socratic Seminar experience in a recent Kappan article (channeling an idea that goes back to Piaget and Dewey).  School can really only develop moral maturity in students if learning in class is designed routinely to be routinely collaborative and goal-focused instead of isolated and competitive.

So: What are your goals for the year? What, then, follows for the best use of class time if those are your goals? How might you podcast, video, or otherwise archive all your lectures and free class time up for more goal-related activities? Think it through for yourself; better yet, in the spirit of the idea, raise the question in a future team, department, or staff meeting.

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