Learning’s Leading Edges

Left to right: Alan Garber, Youngme Moon, Lawrence Bacow, and Michael Sandel at the closing panel on “Looking to the Future”

The Harvard Initiative on Learning and Teaching (HILT), unveiled in October, was inaugurated in a symposium on February 3. More than 300 participants convened from all Harvard’s faculties—principally senior professors and deans—plus invited panelists with special expertise in the field. HILT is the fruit of a $40-million gift from Gustave M. Hauser, J.D. ’53, and his wife, Rita E. Hauser, L ’58, who attended the symposium and participated actively during the question periods (see “Investing in Learning and Teaching”).

In her welcoming remarks, President Drew Faust accented the connection between “thinking and making”—foreshadowing a theme of later discussions: how learning deepens when students have hands-on experiences with the material studied. Director of institutional research Erin Driver-Linn, a central organizer of the event, noted that the first year of Hauser support would launch many pilot studies across the University, and that HILT had already received 255 letters of intent to apply for grants.

Cabot professor of social ethics Mahzarin Banaji, facilitator for the first panel, on “The Science of Learning,” noted that many common beliefs about learning simply aren’t so—for example, that individuals have different ways of learning, so educators should match teaching methods to each person’s characteristic style. There is no evidence, she asserted, supporting the idea that such matching influences learning outcomes.

Nobel laureate in physics Carl Wieman, a pioneer in effective science education and associate director of science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted that although much is known (from cognitive psychology, brain science, and college classroom studies) about thinking and learning, this knowledge is almost never applied to teaching techniques. He cited a few research results that are well established:

  • trying to teach anything to someone whose attention is divided will impair learning;
  • unnecessary cognitive overload (jargon, complex figures) impedes the learning process;
  • covering a topic, testing, then considering the job done may not result in retention of what was learned; and
  • telling something to listeners who don’t process the information in some way will not create long-lasting knowledge.

Roddy Roediger, McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Washington University, described some of his research on college students (whom he called “the Drosophila of my field”). “You learn a lot more from exams than from reading material,” he said. Professors and students dislike tests, but frequent assessments outpace more study time as a way to retain information. “You need to practice retrieval,” he asserted. “There’s a huge benefit in doing this.”


The session on “Innovation in Higher Education” was facilitated by John Palfrey VII, Ess librarian and professor of law. Cizik professor of business administration Clayton Christensen opened with a question: “Why is success so hard to sustain?” In industry after industry, he pointed out, established companies like General Motors are dethroned by “someone who comes in at the bottom of the market with a simple, affordable product that people can afford, and then they move up.” (He noted that Toyota, for example, began not with the Lexus, but the Corona.) Given the power of online teaching, “now, higher education has a technological core, and so it is now disruptible” by low-end competition (see “Colleges in Crisis”). The University of Phoenix, he said, could show his lectures to 135,000 M.B.A. students, and was “spending $200 million per year to make teaching better.”

Cathy Davidson, Franklin Humanities Institute professor of interdisciplinary studies at Duke, explained that “disruptive things happen as reactions to the status quo, but we don’t see the status quo—it’s like the air we breathe.” Universities are “doing a fine job of training students for the twentieth century”—but in the twenty-first century, even high-level distinctions among natural and social sciences and humanities “make very little sense. It takes disruption to break through those silos.” Returning to the theme of technology, she declared, “If we can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.”


After lunch, five concurrent sessions divided participants into smaller groups to explore “Improving Learning through Innovation in Practice: Demonstrations and Ideas.” In one session, Thomas Kelly, Knafel professor of music, delivered a condensed version of his multimedia lecture on the 1913 Paris premiere of Le sacre du printemps from his celebrated “First Nights” course. Jennifer Leaning, Bagnoud professor of the practice of health and human rights at Harvard School of Public Health, followed with vivid photographs documenting the human suffering in Darfur. Michael Hays, Noyes professor of architectural theory at the Graduate School of Design, discussed form, concept, signifier, and sign, along with photographs contrasting, for example, Renaissance and Baroque styles. And Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics Eric Mazur demonstrated his practice of peer instruction, posing a physics question that evoked three different answers from the audience, and asking participants to discuss the reasons for their choices with each other (see “Twilight of the Lecture”).

Provost Alan Garber facilitated the final symposium, “Looking to the Future: An Interactive Discussion with Attendees.” “Experimentation,” he declared, “is something we’d like to see much more of at Harvard.”

David professor of business administration Youngme Moon—who as the Business School’s senior associate dean for the M.B.A. program has led the creation of the new experience-oriented field course that sent students around the world in January—advocated changing “not what great looks like, but what average looks like” as a way to “shift the entire distribution to the right.”

Former Tufts University president Lawrence Bacow, now a member of the Harvard Corporation, cited a faculty proverb—“We all teach for free but we get paid to grade”—and speculated that innovation in learning will eventually mean “[release] from the tedium that comes with grading.” But he also cautioned that “any program looks good if you only look at its benefits and not its costs. All ways of improving the teaching/learning environment will only add costs to our system. That can’t go on forever.”

Bass professor of government Michael Sandel, after musing “We might all go the way of the Hummer,” asked, “What is the importance of presence of teacher to student, and of students to each other?” The Internet makes possible certain types of global classroom; a video of one version of Sandel’s “Justice” course showed students from China, Japan, and Harvard addressing the same moral questions. But given lag time, he said, “videoconferencing won’t work that well” as a way to realize global classrooms. “You have to enable students to see each other.”

In the subsequent discussion, Mazur raised the question of how to get the faculty as a whole to innovate in teaching. Garber had one answer: “When people see success, they want to emulate it. The challenge to the innovators in the room is how to be evangelists among your colleagues.”

Having winnowed the 255 applications for Hauser Fund grants by more than half, a faculty selection committee met again during the week of March 19 to make final selection recommendations to President Faust and Provost Alan Garber. The finalists will be announced on April 16.

The Harvard Initiative on Learning and Teaching (HILT) program has created a Learning and Teaching Consortium to provide a forum for pedagogical discussion and problem-solving across the University. It includes two representatives from each faculty or organization (e.g., libraries, museums): one representative familiar with the substantive teaching and learning issues under scrutiny, the other (an academic technical manager) responsible for implementing initiative results. Ian Lapp, associate dean for strategic educational initiatives at the School of Public Health, and Katie Vale, director of the academic technology group within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, co-chair the consortium, which will include about 25 members and begin meeting in April to address both short- and long-term HILT goals.

One first-year goal is the creation of a virtual repository for learning and teaching materials on HILT’s website. Another task is to implement and assess the Hauser grants being awarded—to make sure they have real-world traction and to maximize their impact across the University. And within a few weeks, edited video footage from the February 3 symposium will be posted to the HILT website, including highlights from the breakout sessions and plenary forums.

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