Why Are We Still Learning the Same Way We Did 400 Years Ago?

A call for an evolved form of learning, with technology.

GUEST COLUMN | by Kavitta Ghai

One of the most comforting, and also chaotic, parts of being human is knowing that change is inevitable. We are quite literally programmed to always be evolving, down to the unconscious cellular level. It’s why we chase innovation in every part of our lives; we could have stopped at horses, but we knew we could move faster, so we kept at it until we had cars. Yet, now that we have cars we’ve decided that next up, we want them to drive for us. Our basic human drive (pun-intended) to evolve is expressed in everything around us. When you start to look at things from that perspective, all the sudden it’s exciting to imagine what we’ll think of next. For the sake of my bumper that has been acquainted with one too many curbs, I hope it’s teleportation. However, my point here is that we are all hard-wired to always want better for ourselves, both as individuals and as a collective species. It’s a universal promise that we will always have something better to look forward to.

What Happens When We Stop Evolving?

But if evolution is the very reason why we’re still around today, meaning that it’s as integral to us as breathing and eating, what happens when we stop evolving? I would argue that the best example of the consequences of halted evolution is the increasingly abysmal state of our American education system today. Since 1635, we have learned in the exact same way in the U.S.: an arrow that points from one teacher’s mouth to their students’ ears and ends there. One teacher that is in charge of relaying any and all information to their students, with the students expected to simply absorb it and magically become intelligent.

Even worse, our only way of testing their intelligence is to give every student a set of questions that determines how good they are at memorizing and not much else.

Now, I’ll ask you to close your eyes and imagine if every other part of our lives followed the same guidelines they did four hundred years ago. I rest my case.

‘…imagine if every other part of our lives followed the same guidelines they did four hundred years ago.’

So we’re all in agreement—education needs to evolve both quickly and sustainably. We’re not looking for quick-fix bandaids to control the symptoms of a broken system; we’re at the point where we need to eradicate it entirely and come up with a new way of providing an education that is both valuable and accessible to every student in this country. The answer must be realistic, cost-effective enough to be widespread, and able to be implemented almost immediately.

The Next Evolution of the Classroom

The punchline you’ve been waiting for is this: if teacher-to-student learning is akin to the horse, then peer-to-peer learning is the modern car. The next evolution of the classroom will be centered around students teaching each other. Why? Because in order to teach a concept, you must fully understand it rather than just memorize it. If a student can teach a concept to their peers, that’s how we know they’ve truly learned it. The best solution to this problem is the students themselves, and we have data to back it up. Research found that when students are expected to teach the material they’re learning, they retain the knowledge in a much more meaningful way, even to the point of being able to recall it more easily.

This psychological phenomenon of learning better when we are expected to teach afterward is called the Protege Effect. It’s so effective at inciting deep learning that it even works when a student is *pretending* to teach a concept to a fictitious peer. If you’re an educator and are reading this thinking, “Sure it sounds great in theory, but show me the actual learning experience design. Does this really work?,” then I am so glad you asked. Thanks to the incredible work of researchers David Boud, Ruth Cohen and Jane Sampson at the University of Technology at Sydney, this type of course design is well-documented and supported. 

It’s important to note that this doesn’t eradicate the normal role of the teacher, as they will still help guide and control the learning space, but it instead places a sense of responsibility within each student to be knowledgeable enough about the material to be an effective member of their classroom community. The goal must be to create a learning environment where students are encouraged to answer each other’s questions, solve homework problems through collaboration, and regularly engage in teaching each other core concepts.

The modern classroom should expect students to learn the material to the point that they’re able to teach it to the person sitting next to them, and then give them an opportunity to do just that. With the help of thoughtful tech in the classroom, this practice of ‘teaching to learn’ can be scaled easily through a class backchannel. Giving students a comfortable mechanism to teach one another and engage with their community can be critical to achieving success with this method.

A New Learning Everywhere

There are what feels like an infinite amount of reasons to make this the new learning standard everywhere. Students would, by default, learn the importance of community, public speaking, interpersonal skills, and leadership. Teachers would save time and reduce stress by spending less time teaching, and instead observing the students’ interactions to determine their topic mastery. Utilizing the right edtech has the power to make the execution of this course design realistic and easy to control.

Imagine the impactful outcomes of less testing, less grading, and less lecturing on both the student and the teacher. The vastly positive effects of this peer-to-peer learning environment being the norm in every classroom in the country cannot be overstated. We have a research-backed, realistic, and affordable way to bring our education system into the 21st century—this is an opportunity we cannot afford to pass up.

It’s time to bring this evolution in learning to classrooms everywhere.

Kavitta Ghai is CEO and co-founder of Nectir, a tool for higher education that encourages collaborative learning through connecting students in the same class. Nectir has recently started working with George Washington University, UC Santa Barbara and Michigan State University State University. Connect on LinkedIn.


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