Teaching students skills, rather than merely facts

On Saturday, October 12, 2013, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, and his wife MacKensie Bezos, helped to launch the Center for Innovation at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. The Museum’s website introduces the Center in this way:

What does innovation look like? Who innovates, where does it happen, and how do great ideas evolve? To find out more, tackle a challenge in the Idea Lab, discover a Seattle-made invention in the Patent Tree, and check out cutting-edge concepts in What’s Next. Through lectures, special programs and changing displays, Seattle innovators will share their latest projects and invite you to take a look at the future as it unfolds. – See more at: http://www.mohai.org/exhibits/center-for-innovation#sthash.Nya7R3g3.dpuf

As an educational psychologist, I cannot help but admire this effort that models the very best practices in teaching and learning. For years now, academic research has been urging the education system to incorporate strategies that we know improve student learning. For too long, education has relied on a “top-down” approach, where experts fill the empty minds of students through lecture, and then ask those students to regurgitate those facts back on exams.

What educational researchers have found is that this model is fundamentally flawed in a number of ways. First, students do not enter the school situation with a blank slate. Rather, by the time teachers see their students, they have already developed conceptions of the world, pragmatic schemas for interacting with new information. A teacher’s job is not to spew facts, but to challenge students to question their constructed ideas, and to create progressively more complicated strategies for taking new information and integrating it with their prior knowledge.

Second, the secret to giving students the tools they need to succeed and remember the information we want them to have over the long term is to focus our energies not just on facts, but on skills. What our students need in the real world is not to become repositories of information, or to be good test takers. Students need great teachers to strengthen them into thinkers who can brainstorm, solve problems, and collaborate with others. Those are the skills that matter in real life. The Bezos Center for Innovation is providing a platform for visitors to interact with exhibits in ways that could inspire the highest forms of cognitive processing; namely, creativity and synthesis.

The days of stale lectures and memorization, when they finally disappear from the training programs our educators must complete to become teachers, will usher in a welcome phase of instruction that centers on helping our students be nimble of mind, and able to move our species forward with zest. The Bezos Center is a big step in that direction.

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