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The 2013 Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) conference, which nearly filled the largest Science Center lecture hall on May 8, demonstrated wide interest across the University in improving pedagogy. Ever since HILT was launched in the fall of 2011, during Harvard’s 375th-anniversary celebration, it has catalyzed campus conversation on cognition and learning, course and curriculum design, classroom spaces, educational technology, assessment, and more, through an annual symposium and a series of innovation grants to faculty members. This second symposium—addressed by both the president and the provost, and attended by several deans among the audience of hundreds—suggested the variety and reach of educational experiments under way involving professors in every Harvard school, and their hundreds or thousands of students. Although the edX and HarvardX online ventures, formed in May 2012 and scaling up operations during the past year, have ridden a national wave of interest in massive open online courses (MOOCs), HILT, operating more quietly and less visibly, likely now engages more faculty members and students in efforts to enhance education in campus classrooms.

“Always Costly, Always Disruptive”: Innovation and Essentials

HILT director Erin Driver-Linn, the associate provost for institutional research, introduced the conference theme: what are the essentials of good teaching and learning at a time of disruption and innovation for universities? Channeling her husband, an architect, she drew an analogy to home renovation: live with what you’ve got, update the systems, redo the kitchen, open up the floor plan, or tear the whole thing down and rebuild. The process is “always costly, always disruptive,” she said—and may seem particularly so in education, which is firmly rooted in the work of prior scholars and teachers. Innovation and change seem risky and time-consuming, but they are rewarding and necessary. She cited Alfred North Whitehead’s 1916 essay, “The Aims of Education,” on the change from an enterprise “alive with a ferment of genius” to mere “pedantry and routine” in succeeding generations if not renewed. “Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful.”

At Harvard, Driver-Linn said, she discerned a spirit of innovation ranging from edX to new curricular and course offerings, from deans to students, and in the 50 or so local faculty experiments supported by HILT grants. Throughout, she explained, the aim was “innovation informed by evaluation and grounded in practice”: drawing on the faculty’s intellectual capital, insights from cognitive science, and support from the University’s leadership—and shaped not only by a commitment to analytical assessment but also by the surrounding educational culture of the institution. Innovation, she made clear, was a choice exercised by the participants. The conference aimed to identify the essential elements framing such choices, and the essential traits of the University that must be sustained even as it pursues change and improvement.

Provost Alan Garber put those innovations in the context of “a time of turmoil and uncertainty in higher education,” with threats to federal sponsored-research funding, tuition, and other revenues. “People are asking new questions within our campuses, and also of our campuses,” he said, ranging from whether schools are delivering high-quality education to whether their graduates are securing high-paying first jobs. In that climate, he said, universities had to ask whether they would take control of their own destinies, by posing questions to themselves. The gift from Rita and Gustave Hauser that funded HILT had enabled Harvard to “think in new ways about how we teach and how we learn,” and the faculty had demonstrated its readiness not only to “ask hard questions but to experiment.”

As the HarvardX leader, Garber said, he wished to underscore that online innovations were not a diversion from the educational enterprise within campus classrooms, like his own freshman seminar. “The future is not really about online education,” he said. “It is about rethinking education” using the best technology in the best ways to improve learning outcomes—an effort stimulated by HILT-spurred conversations across campus. Whatever the venue or means, the aim was to focus on “what we know about learning, how we can advance learning, and how we can do a better job.”

“Critical Thinking Is Really a Curricular Issue”: The Science of Learning

The three psychologists on the first panel addressed aspects of cognition and learning. Collectively, they emphasized the importance of practice and cumulative engagement with a subject in order to learn it, and of perspective on the part of teachers who need to know what their students don’t know—in order to help them learn.

Daniel T. Willingham, Ph.D. ’90, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, and author of the Science and Education blog, drew on various experiments to demonstrate that critical thinking—the desired outcome of so much learning and education—“is hard, it’s taxing” and “It’s not obvious that it’s going to pay off.” When presented with a problem, most people consult memory to see how things worked out in the past. An experiment demonstrated that students who took a semester-long course in structured logic in fact registered no gains in solving a standard logic puzzle. Willingham reviewed difficulties with the kinds of information a person might use in trying to solve a problem, and in understanding the hidden structure of the problem at issue.

The best way to overcome such challenges, he said, is lots of practice. Physics professors understand what kind of problem is being raised in a quiz; first-year students, even after a course, do not. The difference is practice. In educational terms, that means that “development of critical thinking is really a curricular issue”: looking beyond an individual course to the deep, recurrent problems of critical thinking in a field or discipline, and devising a curriculum that cumulatively teaches students how to identify and approach such problems. That is how memory is trained to be an ally. This insight implies that courses designed in isolation are likely to be ineffective, compared to thoughtfully sequenced courses as part of a larger curriculum—a challenge to departments and professors to go beyond individual units of instruction.

(Interestingly, professor of Romance languages and literatures Virginie Greene raised precisely this concern during a Faculty of Arts and Sciences [FAS] discussion of edX last winter, when she suggested that the proliferation of individual online courses might give short shrift to thoughtful sequences of learning. FAS dean Michael D. Smith, one of the leaders of edX and HarvardX, said then that online assessment tools might make it possible over time to determine precisely which learning sequences in a series of courses yielded the most effective learning.)

Katherine Rawson, associate professor of psychology at Kent State University, who studies learning from texts and strategies that promote durable learning, offered a different but complementary approach. She said that as students progress through K-12 education and beyond, they are increasingly asked to learn more content, and to do more of their learning outside the classroom—but they are given ever-less guidance about how to learn. Among the techniques students might use to learn material, those most deployed—rereading, highlighting texts, and so on—are decisively the least effective. Those that are most effective—self-administered testing (for example, she joked, via the “f” word—flash cards) and various forms of practice—are least used.

She offered evidence of the efficacy of “successive relearning” of foundational knowledge in a field: drilling oneself on concepts or new foreign-language vocabulary initially introduced in a class, for instance. The gains from various exercises (repeated sessions in a language lab, for example), evaluated on quizzes or subsequent examinations, were enormous: a demonstration of a kind of practice, although in a context different from the critical thinking Willingham analyzed.

Because students don’t use such techniques on their own, Rawson said, teachers have to help them do so. Her course study-guides identify key concepts and suggest a schedule for such practices, regulated by the students themselves, to help them master and retain material in a way that exam cramming has been proven not to do.

(Interestingly, both presentations suggest the importance of practice—for critical thinking, for acquiring knowledge of basic concepts—in a way that might be at odds with the model of course design in many research-centered institutions: the tendency to give students as much information and content as possible, the newer the better, in every course. Might less, but deeper, be much better for learning?)

Daniel Gilbert, Pierce professor of psychology, underscored part of Rawson’s message from a different angle. In an amusing illustrated lecture, he showed how his two-year-old granddaughter “hid” by covering her own eyes, assuming that if she could not see, she could not be seen. Piaget, he said, observed, “Children think everybody thinks like them,” and learn, over time, that this is not so. Diverse experiments illustrated that knowing the outcome of a problem or test changes one’s prediction of how others will behave or answer: a serious problem for teachers who are calculating what their students know or can grasp. In other words, Gilbert said, “Egocentrism goes away” with experience and maturity, “but it doesn’t get very far.”

What can one do to overcome this bias? “Not very much,” he said. People become conditioned by their context and knowledge. “I cannot ever fully invite you into my mind, I can’t ever fully inhabit yours,” in other words. Skillful teachers have to take that into account as they engage precisely in the task of trying to get something from within their own minds into another person’s. As Rawson might put it, teachers have to take the deficiencies in their students’ learning skills into account, and point them toward more effective practices.

“Strategic Patience”: The Art of Teaching

The second panel took a decisive turn from science, as Jennifer L. Roberts, professor of history of art and architecture (and chair of American studies), drew on the conventions of her discipline to make the case for decelerating education, introducing Internet-era students to the virtues of deep patience and close attention—attributes “no longer available in nature” as they experience it. She explained how she required her students to prepare an intense research paper on a single work of art, beginning with close examination of the work at painful length: three hours. The time is “designed to seem excessive,” she said—but students emerge “astonished by what they have been able to see.”

She proceeded to demonstrate the payoff by offering a mini art-history lesson based on her close analysis of John Singleton Copley’s 1765 painting Boy with a Squirrel. Vision—seeing—has come to mean instantaneous apprehension, she said, but  “There are details, relationships, and orders that take time to see.” During her first hour with the painting, she recounted, details emerged about the shapes of the boy’s ear and the squirrel’s ruff, the proportion of hand and glass of water (and the symbolism of the latter, an image Copley used only this one time), the folds of a curtain and the depiction of eye and ear. Over time, she elicited a story about philosophical empiricism, and Copley’s deliberate creation of a work he planned to send across the ocean for review and reaction in London—an early instance of “distance learning” as he sought training from the academic painters at the peak of the European art community. Given the communication speeds of the day, she said, “This painting is formed out of delay, not in spite of it.” In light of the sense of time and speeds of the day, the meaning of the work can be interpreted only at “the slow end of this temporal spectrum.”

For Roberts, these were some of the fruits of “teaching strategic patience” (what others today might call “time management,” she joked, or “patience engineering”)—and of giving students permission to slow down and exercise their unknown faculties. The challenge for a harried Harvard faculty member, she said, was to model this behavior without showing how frazzled she could herself become from the demands of teaching, research, and the rest of contemporary life.

Psychometrician Andrew Ho, assistant professor of education and research director of HarvardX, made the case for the role of testing and assessment in support of the art of teaching. In an era of rising criticism of tuition costs and demands for more value from education, he said, testing was good offense. He observed that it was difficult to plot with any certainty his own (hoped-for) improvement in teaching from year to year. And yet, he suggested that by drawing on the resources of the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning (newly under the direction of Robert Lue, who is also faculty director of HarvardX), offices of institutional research, registrars (who could provide information on the students in a class and their pedagogically relevant backgrounds and preparation), and assessment experts, faculty members ought to be able to devise pertinent, productive metrics of teaching performance.

The final speaker, Jonathan L. Walton—Plummer professor of Christian morals, Pusey minister in the Memorial Church, and professor of religion and society—delivered a stem-winding sermon on the importance of passion, and not simply expertise, for teaching. He told how his parents prepared for a fish dinner: his mother drove to the local Winn Dixie supermarket—but his father phoned a buddy, readied his tackle, drove to Florida, chartered a fishing boat, and, as often as not, after failing to hook anything, swung by the supermarket on the way home. His mother was expert, but his father was passionate, Walton recalled, and he learned far more from his outings with the latter.

Teachers’ obligations, he said, extend to helping students make the choice between “being” (a doctor, a lawyer) and “doing” (making something of their lives in service in the world). He quoted Hobbs professor of cognition and education Howard E. Gardner to the effect that “Conditions change, people change, and in the absence of continuous dialogue, received wisdom evolves into unreflective orthodoxy.” Expert teachers, delivering the orthodoxy of subject mastery, can leave a classroom of students sound asleep, as illustrated from Peanuts. (Interestingly, earlier panelist Daniel Gilbert had revealed that he often taught most vividly when he knew least about a subject—for example, the physiology of vision, where he was only a step ahead of undergraduates—and least effectively when the subject was social psychology, in which he has been steeped for decades.)

Concluded Walton, “Let’s go fishing.”

“Well-Intentioned People Are a Large Part of the Problem”: Innovation, Adaptation, Preservation

The final panel turned to the vexing issue of effecting change—and doing so in a context. UPS Foundation professor of service management Frances X. Frei said that the human drive to perform to high standards collides with deep devotion to others (children, students), making it difficult to achieve desired levels of excellence. “Well-intentioned, energetic people following their natural instincts are a large part of the problem,” she explained, showing a picture of an adored son as he violated all sorts of household rules. “I do not have the stomach to set high standards for him,” she said. “Thank goodness he has another mother in his life.”

Harvard Business School, she narrated, had found that its case method of teachingtalking about what you need to do—no longer suited all of the challenges students would meet, and that the student population it serves is no longer completely taught through cases alone. The new FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences in Leadership Development) curriculum for first-year M.B.A. students is focused on learning by doing—and grading is predicated not on individual test results, but on how well teammates perform in a fellow student’s presence and on fellow students’ evaluation of their peer’s performance. She explained that this innovation worked because it was designed to complement and reinforce the case curriculum

Harvard School of Public Health dean Julio Frenk surveyed his faculty’s centennial-year review and revision of its curriculum, predicated on adapting the best of several options for its use, rather than overturning its methods entirely. Instruction was being designed around competency-based learning, with flexible, modular, experiential units accommodating students at various times in their professional lives. And it embraced “blended” online and class-based teaching techniques. The mix of online and face-to-face instruction, he said, varied with the purposes, with more online teaching for “informative,” expertise-oriented learning, and progressively more personal instruction for “formative” (values and professional) and “transformative” (leadership) courses. He then reviewed the institutional challenges: colleagues (investing in faculty development); capacity (physical space, technology, finances, and so on); and culture (changing from language that describes a professor’s teaching “load” to give teaching a value equal to research; the rewards for teaching and research; and the school’s self-identification as a preeminent research institution).

The final speaker, Nan Keohane, was the consummate institutional expert panelist: president emerita of Wellesley College and Duke University, member of the Harvard Corporation, and now Rockefeller Distinguished Visiting Professor at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, where she teaches leadership. Drawing on her recent article, “Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century: Innovation, Adaptation, Preservation (PS:Political Science and Politics, January 2013), Keohane briskly listed attributes of higher education worth defending in the online era.

Among the features she said it would be “desirable” to preserve are:

  • institutional loyalty (of faculty, students, staff, and alumni)—in an era in which it will be tempting to star professors to sell their services elsewhere (to online-course vendors), and to students to assemble a course of study as they might browse through individual stores at a shopping mall;
  • the traditional undergraduate rite of passage to adulthood (leaving home, entering a new community, forming new networks and peer relationships, having experiences unique to that stage of life, and then moving on);
  • a sense of shared extracurricular activities not available online (sporting events, the arts, parties, community service, and late-night dorm-room bull sessions); and
  • the beautiful campuses and physical spaces that many institutions have built (along with their treasured collections in libraries and museums).

Among the” essential” attributes that must be retained if higher education is to serve the future, Keohane identified:

  • accessibility for all who are ambitious, curious, and prepared (lest students of lesser means are relegated to online learning, while a small elite enjoys richer institutions like Harvard and Princeton—replicating the WASP, male enclaves of nineteenth-century American higher education);
  • the canon of human achievements in every field (the arts, culture, science, mathematics—and not just in archives, but used in teaching and kept alive);
  • works in every field that are not classics (the tax records, deeds, letters, and artifacts of everyday life needed to understand human history—wisdom, knowledge, and folly);
  • “the marvelous symbiosis between teaching and research, for both teachers and students” (because so much research is prompted and guided by student questions, particularly from undergraduates, “who ask the most flippant and fresh and unusual questions”); and
  • “the community of teachers and learners” (where scholars can convene, learning from each other, virtually, but also, at least occasionally, in person).

The Way Forward

After Diane Paulus, director of the American Repertory Theater, led an interactive summing-up exercise, the conference attendees gathered in the large tent on the newly renovated Science Center plaza, the most ambitious of the University’s new “common spaces,” for refreshments, an “innovation fair” exhibiting nearly four dozen HILT-funded educational experiments, and concluding remarks by President Drew Faust.

She celebrated the bubbling up of conversations about teaching on campus during the past 18 months—more, she said, than during all her earlier academic career. Faust cited the importance of conducting these experiments with an eye toward both future extension and implementation, and assessment of their effectiveness. And—seeding further engagement with improved learning and teaching—she unveiled the new forms for the second round of HILT grants. “Spark Grants” aim to catalyze further innovation through twice-yearly rounds of smaller awards (up to 10 grants per year). “Cultivation Grants” will be much larger—from $100,000 to $200,000 per award, with up to five conferred annually, in an effort to scale innovations up at the level of departments, larger organizations, or schools as a whole. Details will be posted at the HILT website. (Although they were not mentioned at the conference, HILT’s full-time, doctoral-level research fellows, about to be appointed for the 2013-2014 academic year, will constitute an interdisciplinary cohort of scholars who can advise and collaborate with each other, faculty members, and Harvard leaders to deepen understanding of learning and teaching, apply research, deploy assessments, and advance the initiatives on yet another level.)

Assuming that HILT’s efforts to seed and support educational innovation flourish, Driver-Linn will need to find a bigger venue for next year’s conference.