Kelley Holland writes, "To walk into a college classroom today is to take a trip back in time."
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That classroom structure has changed little since the late Industrial Revolution, when child labor laws and the shift from farm to factory work for adults brought more children into schools. But is passively absorbing information really the best way for students to learn today?
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"Our educational system is not broken; it's fundamentally obsolete," said Naveen Jain, an entrepreneur and education philanthropist. Jain believes the classroom as we know it was perfectly suited to conveying information when the world was a more static place. But with the pace of change accelerating in virtually every discipline, he said, "the classroom has to be about more than delivering information—a place where children come together in a group and solve problems in an interdisciplinary way."
Jain is describing active learning, where students engage in problem solving and group work using newly acquired information, and research shows it can dramatically boost students' retention of information. According to a study published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, students' average exam scores rose 6 percentage points, on average, in active-learning environments. The study, focused on students studying science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM subjects, also found that without active learning, a student's chance of failing increased by 50 percent.
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Another recent study, focusing on different sections of an introductory biology class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that active learning is particularly beneficial to African-American students and first-generation college students. All students' test scores combined rose more than three points in classes structured around active learning, but African-American and first-generation students in active-learning classes saw scores rise more than six points.
Active learning, however, requires that classrooms operate very differently. Although physical classrooms will likely continue to exist a decade or more from now, some classes will be held virtually. But whether classmates are meeting face-to-face or online, some experts say our new understanding of how students learn best may mean the demise of the classroom as it is organized today.