How to set their minds alight;Curriculum

15th October 1999 at 01:00
Douglas Blane reports on new ways to hold pupils' attention

It could be a scene from the popular quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The technology is identical and the atmosphere equally tense. But the venue is not a TV studio - it's a high-tech lecture theatre at Strathclyde University. The host is not Chris Tarrant but Professor Jim Boyle. And the audience is not a random collection of smart alecs, but 50 Scottish principal teachers of physics.

The audience has already answered several questions correctly with their hand-held, infra-red transmitters. But this one is a teaser. Although pound;1 million is not at stake, teachers still hate being wrong.

"Time's up. Make your selection." The ditherers decide.

The computer processes the responses. The familiar bar chart appears on the screen and there is a murmur of consternation from the teachers. Half of them have selected one answer and half another. Twenty-five physics principal teachers have just got the answer to a physics question wrong.

But, Professor Boyle assures them, this is not a cause for concern. It is the starting-point of a novel and effective method of teaching developed in the US. Strathclyde's department of mechanical engineering has been using it for the past year.

"In this department we get very highly qualified students," says Professor Boyle. "But 40 per cent were failing first year exams and 20 per cent were dropping out altogether. Educational psychologists tell us the problem is too much reliance on passive learning in schools and universities. Children nowadays are used to multi-tasking: watching the TV, playing a video game and doing their homework, all at the same time. In a normal lecture we give them just one thing to do, so they get bored. We have to accept that and change our teaching style."

Two separate systems have been installed in Strathclyde's interactive classroom. PRS (Personal Response System) uses the hand-held transmitters and is relatively cheap - around pound;2,000 for a 50-seater class. But it only supports multiple-choice questions. Classtalk, on the other hand, is a hard-wired system allowing two-way communications. Each student uses a graphics calculator connected to a central computer. Both systems allow polling the class and monitoring the progress of individuals to be monitored.

But useful technology is just part of the message of today's seminar, and in Professor Boyle's view not the most important part. "It's the pedagogy we want to get into. We've been looking at different methods of teaching around the world. We've sat in large classrooms at Harvard and small ones in high schools. And we've been amazed by how involved it's possible for students to be."

The new approach, called "interactive engagement", needs the technology for large classes. But it can be practised in smaller classes without the hardware. The particular style Professor Boyle and his colleagues favour is called Peer Instruction. This method of teaching turns classes into a lively amalgam of lecture, tutorial and discussion group.

"This interactive approach doesn't suit all lecturers," Professor Boyle says, "because you have to be better prepared and able to think on your feet. Most of the students like it though. And it means they don't have to do as much work at home. The days of the lone student going away and reading notes, trying problems and coming to tutorials could soon be a thing of the past. And because individual responses are stored on the computer, we can follow every student's progress and intervene early if things go wrong."

Bill Samson, physics principal teacher at Greenfaulds High School, North Lanarkshire, is enthusiastic: "If you introduced what we've seen to schools, it would make a big difference to demotivated kids. Watch children's TV - it's all in your face, shouting at the top of your voice, multicoloured. As a teacher you can easily get so far removed from their way of thinking you might as well be an alien."

Shirley Wherrett of St George's School, Edinburgh comments: "I do think discussion is great - if you have the time. At Higher and A-level one thing I do is put them in groups for tests chosen at random. I get them to talk and produce one set of answers for each group. It works like a charm, and a group of weaker students can even do better than cleverer ones."

Mike Wilson of Alva Academy, Clackmannanshire, says: "It's easy to be negative about children in school nowadays, how poorly motivated they are and how reluctant to work. So it's interesting to hear about ways to overcome this. Just getting a chance to talk about teaching, and to think about the methods we use, is valuable."

Dr Wherrett wonders if such methods might suit Americans better than the more reticent Scottish personality. "When we went to the States," replies Professor Boyle, "we were certainly amazed to see students prepared to stand up and speak in a class of two or three hundred. But that just means we have to make an effort to get ours working together. There are ways of doing that."


Peer Instruction is a method of teaching devised by Eric Mazur at Harvard University. It works like this: Students prepare by reading a couple of pages on a particular topic. Then they come to the class and listen to the lecturer for a short time, until he poses a question to test their understanding. If a significant fraction of the class gets it wrong - anything up to 50 per cent - the class changes to group discussions in which the students try to explain their answers to each other.

This step improves understanding without any intervention from the lecturer. Students who have recently mastered an idea are often able to explain it better than a teacher for whom conceptual difficulties have long since disappeared. The lecturer eavesdrops on the groups and then involves the whole class in a discussion, which increases the proportion who understand even further.

He then moves on and the cycle continues.

l More information on Peer Instruction can be found at http:www.columbia.educugsappBTRESEARCHmazur.html

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