Quirks & Quarks·Q&A

An online learning expert explains how the COVID crisis might help change education for the better

In a new book, the head of Open Learning at MIT explores the science of learning, and explains how we've been doing it all wrong.

New book explores the science of learning, and how we've been doing it all wrong.

Many children across the country have had to start learning from home as a result of the pandemic. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

There is no doubt: COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down. A year ago the reality we're in today — where a good chunk of our personal interactions have gone virtual — would have been hard to fathom. Yet here we are. 

One area where this move online has been particularly challenging is in schools. Whether that's kindergarten, grade school, or even university, the switch over to virtual classrooms has been a bumpy road for parents, teachers, and students alike. 

Sanjay Sarma is the head of Open Learning at MIT, and in a new book he spells out his idea for how we can transform modern education, to not only make the best of a bad situation, but also to turn this unprecedented situation into an opportunity for the maximum benefit of students everywhere.

Bob McDonald spoke with Professor Sarma about his new book Grasp: The Science of Transforming How We Learn. Here is part of their conversation.

What do you think is the most fundamental thing that we've gotten wrong with how we've been teaching in the past? 

Human beings are very unique in the sense that we are learning animals. We have a natural ability to both learn and teach, and that is called parenting. And being a child, the system of education is relatively recent, where you sit people down in classrooms and, you know, systematically teach them. But what's happened is that in doing that, we've lost the thread a little bit because in fact, the human mind works on curiosity, works on building a model of the world. It needs a lot of love and attention. And parents know how to do that, but we sort of ignored it.

In this photo taken before the COVID-19 Pandemic, students in Vancouver, British Columbia try and find Nepal on a globe. In a new book, author Sanjay Sarma says that curiosity is key to learning. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

And so what's happened in education is we've gone into lecture mode, which is very one way. And the professor can wag a finger at the student and say, if you haven't learned, it's because you aren't paying attention. Our education system is based on this one way, thou shalt memorize and recite, and that's not right. 

You said that curiosity is a big part of what helps a student learn. What's going on inside the brain to make the state of being so crucial to learning? 

Curiosity is this amazing thing. I think of curiosity as hunger in you know, when we're hungry, we release saliva and we eat. Curiosity is the hunger of the brain. And actually the equivalent of saliva is dopamine. It's that neurotransmitter and curiosity, if you think about it, is a very powerful emotion because it gets you to seek out solutions. And I'm curious about this. Let me figure it out. If you know, if this is edible, if it's tasty. So curiosity is how we build models of the world around us as adults, and especially as children. Curiosity is something we need to elicit and get the dopamine flowing. 

Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn by Sanjay Sarma. (Penguin)

So how do you stimulate that curiosity? 

Well, that's magic. We all remember that great teacher who made us curious, right? We all remember the that Nova show that made you curious about something, the question that popped into your mind. Now, there are methods of making people curious. One of them is to give people projects, challenges, ask them questions, get them into the questioning state of mind. 

So how can educators today take these lessons from science to make the online learning experiences effective as possible? 

Let me talk about how we might have done it without a pandemic forcing our hand. I would have said the classroom would be replaced with, first, experiences that instill curiosity. Field trips, questions, projects, online content that the student consumes to learn the actual material. And coaching afterwards and fine tuning so that the student is applying the material and the teacher or the coach is looking over their shoulder and they're getting really good at it. And this is how you build expertise. This is how Michelangelo learned, he watched the master do something, probably went and did something on his own, got some coaching and got better at it.
It's the worst of both worlds, we're neither doing proper online [learning], nor are we doing what we should have done in the classroom to begin with.- Prof. Sanjay Sarma
Now, in this unfortunate situation, what do we do? I think that one of our challenges is that we are trying to do regular classroom teaching on Zoom. And it's the worst of both worlds, we're neither doing proper online, nor are we doing what we should have done in the classroom to begin with. So what I would suggest doing is, on the one hand, using the Zoom time to focus on questions, discussions, you know, any topic you can find a question. You can find provocative avenues of exploration and then point the students to these amazing videos that are available on YouTube and then have them consume the content.  And then when you're back on Zoom, have a discussion, because if you can't engage, it's really easy to tune out in front of a screen with fifty faces on it. 

In his new book, Sanjay Sarma, MIT’s vice president for open learning, has drawn on his years of experience both teaching and directing MIT’s many online learning systems. (M. Scott Brauer / MIT)

The zoom time should be the leverage to build the curiosity, and then afterwards the coaching and the actual doing of projects. So that's the flipped classroom, as it's called. 

How would you like to see the traditional system transform when teachers and students do get back to the classroom? 

What I would like to see is for teachers to leverage amazing content. Go to YouTube and type something in. Not all of it is good, but some of it is really very good. Some of it is from top universities in the world. MIT has something called MIT Open Courseware. You can see lectures on linguistics, on physics, on math, on culture, philosophy. So what I would suggest to teachers is first, please go explore that, because it is an asset just waiting there for you. And then when you're in the classroom, let's take full advantage of the in-person time.

Even philosophy, Socrates thought of philosophy as a practical subject and he and his disciples would go on walks and talk about it. So that's where I think teaching has to go. This has to be the future, because if we go back to the classroom and we recreate the Zoom classroom, except we're staring at each other's faces, I think we've really taken a step back and missed an opportunity. 

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Produced by Sonya Buyting