Our older son, a second-year medical student, came over and joined us for lunch this weekend. He filled us in on some of what the school is planning for next year’s incoming class. For the past year, he has been the volunteer leader of a co-curricular study program called Case-Based Learning, in which second-year students mentor first-years in situational learning. They work in small groups, posing hypothetical situations appropriate to what they’ve been covering in lecture, with the first-year students mulling over the problem and coming up with a solution collaboratively. After being impressed with its success, the dean of the medical school met with my son to talk about how this independent study concept could be incorporated into the actual curriculum. He told us that, starting next year, many of the large lecture classes (which can include a couple hundred students) are going to be replaced with smaller study groups, where students will take turns learning specific skills or elements and then teach them to the rest of the students in their small group. The concept is that by teaching a new skill themselves, students will learn it better than if they’ve just heard someone lecturing them about it and retaining it just long enough to repeat it back on an exam.
My first reaction was to observe that it sounds pretty much like the patrol method at work.Unless adults impose the structure on them, Scouts don’t form a large class, like as a troop, and have someone lecture them on a specific skill – say, identification of local plants. Rather, patrols go hiking, making a game of spotting different kinds of flora and Scouts taking turns identifying and telling the rest of the patrol about each one. My son agreed, and added that his first exposure to the concept was indeed in youth leadership training that he experienced as a Boy Scout.
It seems that academia is finally waking up to the concept that this sort of learning can be more beneficial than having a professor lecture a large roomful of students for fifty minutes. A recent story by Eric Westervelt on NPR’s All Things Considered told of a Stanford University professor exploring new ways to improve undergraduate learning by getting them out of the lecture hall and into small groups where they are free to explore the concepts they’re learning, try different things, possibly failing but learning from the failure under the watchful eye of their professor. And when they fail, the approach is not to tell them the correct answer, but rather to lead them in discussion so they can figure out for themselves how to get from fail to succeed.
The concept isn’t being welcomed openly everywhere; much college teaching is still done by professors whose main emphasis is on tenure and research, but Stanford is using these small-group learning techniques in most of its introductory science and math classes with great success. However, Dan Schwartz, the dean of education at Stanford, laments that finding ways to guide instructors into implementing these techniques is not simple.
Perhaps one just needs to have a look at the patrol method and its small-group, self-guided discovery model, for the key to improving education from kindergarten through college. And we as Scouters need to realize the incredible learning resource we offer our Scouts each time patrols meet, and do what we can to support it and not get in the way.