the value of relaxed discussion

I’ve written quite a bit, from time to time, on the value of doing more than simply lecturing to students. More than a few research projects have shown the value of group work, including problem-solving and discussions, for enhancing students’ learning and understanding in a subject. I was reminded again of this today.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been busy writing and delivering lectures in the area of molecular genetics, a subject that I’ve never taught before at this level. (I’m also reading Teaching what you don’t know by Therese Huston (2009), which has been both slightly alarming and pliantly encouraging.) I always make sure there are plenty of opportunities for questions & discussion in my classes, but now I’m just about teetering on the edge of making at least some classes a combination of discussion & small-group work, no formal lecture at all. I’ve been thinking about this for a while & the class I had this morning simply reinforced my thoughts on the issue.

Yesterday’s lecture was about various molecular biology techniques used in biotechnology, & it elicited quite a lot of questions at the time. At the beginning of this morning’s tutorial class, one of the adult students commented that much of what had gone on had pretty much whizzed by above her head; could I give a simple summary, she asked. The rest all nodded; yes, please! After a minute’s thought I pulled together what I thought were the key ideas – and then the discussion really took off. What were gene libraries? How did you access them & ‘read’ their ‘volumes’ (usually bacterial cells engineered to contain another species’ DNA)? What about cloning – could we/should we clone humans? No? Then what about other mammals? Bacteria? Where do we draw the line, & why? What are some of the ecological & evolutionary implications of developing transgenic crops or farm animals? What are the ethics associated with all this – not just the biological & technical prox & cons, but the social and ethical issues? It was an incredibly wide-ranging & stimulating discussion and I think most of us were sorry when our time came to an end.

As we left the room, one of the students said, "do you know, I have learned so much today! That discussion helped me make sense of yesterday’s information & I think I’ve got a much better understanding & appreciation of the issues involved." So, next time I teach this – or another topic with such potential for getting everyone involved in discussion, or a topic that I know will be challenging and where working on problems in groups will be helpful – well, I think I may just throw tradition to the winds 🙂

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