I wouldn’t change a thing about my college years, yet I wonder if I would get even more out of it were I attending school today at my age instead of when I was in my late teens and early 20s. Studying to learn instead of studying to get a diploma changes the learning schema. The growing trend among retirees taking college courses tells me that perhaps the best learning comes when it’s exciting, uplifting, and fulfilling. I’m also thinking that this is part of the recipe that leads to greater overall knowledge.
There’s no telling when the critical tipping point occurs in each of us; the time when what we study seeps in and morphs into learning. There’s also no shortage of theories on how and when learning occurs. Jean Piaget, an early pioneer in this area, believed that simply growing up influences a child’s capacity to learn. The notion of staged learning makes sense.
Piaget reasoned that a child’s development occurs in phases—at a year-and-a-half, at seven, and then at around 12 years old. He believed that no matter how smart a boy or girl may be, he or she is cognitively incapable of understanding certain things before undergoing the natural psychological maturation process brought on by the passage of time.
Learning theories certainly have not ended with Piaget’s. They abound, and so do disruptive concepts on how to teach more productively and learn more effectively. These challenge traditional views on how, when, and where learning happens.
Nicholas Negroponte, for example—he of One-Laptop-per-Child fame—believes that the future of education is in games. His many disciples support this notion not simply as a childhood learning tool, but as a platform to teach people in the educational pipeline that includes professional development training for adults.
Anant Agarwal, who previously served as the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, is now president of edX, a serious project founded jointly by Harvard and MIT based on an online-learning model. Besides the focus on teaching, the research from the initiative is used to study how students learn and how technology can transform learning.
Western Governors University is yet another unique example of a learning institution that challenges traditional beliefs. It was founded by governors of 19 U.S. states as an online university aiming to expand access to post-secondary education. Last year, the online, not-for-profit institution became the country’s leading provider of master’s degrees in math education.
Although these projects challenge what was considered the norm, even traditional engineering education is taking on some unconventional means. Our cover story this month, “The Psychology of Insight,” written by the director of Diversity and Inclusion at Stevens Institute of Technology, describes a National Science Foundation program called ENGAGE, now implemented at more than 50 engineering schools. Its focus is on “evidence-based strategies” of engineering education. ENGAGE emphasizes integrating everyday examples into engineering courses, improving the teacher-student interaction, and developing visualization skills among students.
ENGAGE is one attempt at proving that a positive educational experience enhances learning and retention among engineering students. As the brick-and-mortar archetype of what a college should be begins to wear away, we realize that there are always better ways to teach and new ways to learn. The future of the workforce depends on challenging traditional perspectives, as well properly vetting the new ones.