NPR has an interesting article about an informal study done by a Harvard physics professor which shows that after taking a semester of physics, students only understood slightly more (14%) physics concepts than before. These concepts were basic ones, such as the fact that, in a vacuum, everything falls at the same rate — regardless of size or weight. In fact, in traditional classes where students supposedly learn by listening to a lecturer talk, only about 10% of the students actually understood the material well. And likely, those 10% probably learned it (or would’ve learned it) on their own.
The reason we even have lectures may be outdated too: when universities first sprung up in the Middle Ages, textbooks were expensive. They still cost an arm and a leg, but back then, before Gutenberg and his printing press, they were unaffordable. So professors would verbally impart the wisdom contained in books, along with adding their own special spices, because that was the only practical means of knowledge transfer. Today, knowledge transfer is no longer a problem: the information itself is at our fingertips. But properly assimilating that information and understanding it — that is where classrooms can make a big difference.
In his classes, the aforementioned physics professor now has students read the material at home and do course work in small groups in the classroom. He puts up a question on a projector, asks the students to answer it, then talk about the answer. After this exercise, the rate of correct answers doubles, from 29% to 62%.
We’ve seen before that Socrates thought knowledge can only be gathered meaningfully via dialog, in which ideas are interrogated; that writing is to knowledge as a picture of the Dalai Lama is to the real man — a shadow of the true subject. But in a world of limited resources, while reading about the Dalai and seeing him on YouTube gives only an incomplete knowledge of the man, it’s great prep work for actually meeting him in person. Likewise, pre-reading class material is great prep work for actual classroom dialog during which most of the actual learning happens, but where time is very limited.