05/28/2013 01:56 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Teaching and Learning: Who Knows the Answers?

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1066 and All That by Sellar and Yeatman is a delightful read. Published in 1930, the book takes us through English history by recreating our own jumbled memories. Their rendition of Henry VIII: "Henry wanted the Pope to give him a divorce from his first wife, Katherine. He wanted this because (a) she was Arrogant. (b) he had married her a very long time ago. (c) when she had a baby it turned out to be Broody Mary, and Henry wanted a boy. (d) he thought it would be a Good Thing. The Pope, however, refused, and seceded with all his followers from the Church of England. This was called the Restoration."

While lampooning the jingoism of history textbooks, 1066 and All That satirizes the half-baked information that lurks in our brains years after we crammed for exams. If we summarized what we remember about adverbial clauses, polynomials, or Henry VIII, many of us might sound as muddled as the pages of 1066 and All That.

1066 and All That also illustrates the pitfalls of the traditional approach to teaching in which instructors deluge students with facts that are quickly forgotten or confused. Over the last decades, instructors have explored alternative approaches to this time-honored approach, but change has been slow. Lecture-and-memorize remains a basic formula despite research on learning styles and teaching effectiveness that underscores its shortcomings.

Now it appears even more important to explore alternative approaches to that formula as "facts" are so readily accessible. Why should we memorize information about Henry VIII when we can locate details about him in a matter of seconds?

On the other hand, without grounding in social, political, and cultural history, how can we make sense of our own complex environment? Don't students need to know the fundamentals of science, math, social science, and the arts before they're able to think critically about them, before they can function as educated citizens?

And so we argue endlessly about how best to teach, how best to use classroom time.

Like so many controversies, debates about teaching should be balanced. As we learn more about how people learn, our range of teaching styles and approaches should expand. Traditional lectures can be valuable, but they're not the only way -- and not always the best way -- for students to learn.

At Southern Oregon University, we're taking a variety of approaches. We want students to acquire knowledge, but we also want students to work directly with faculty, other students, and people in our community. We're breaking down some of the walls among traditional academic disciplines. Bringing together digital arts, robotics, music, and writing, for example, enables students to plunge into complex, creative projects they're excited about; they're using formulas rather than simply memorizing them.

We're building "Houses" in which students work collaboratively on practical projects while soaking up an extensive array of information through integrated, multidisciplinary coursework.

Our campus is becoming a living laboratory as we think critically about teaching and learning. We're asking questions. How much foundation does a student need in computer programing, statistics, or research methodology before they tackle a particular project? What are the most effective ways to use our classroom spaces and time? How do we assess whether our approaches are the best ones possible?

What will students carry away from their college experience? They're going to need more than a raggedy set of half-remembered facts. We need to be honest about what we know and what we're still discovering about learning. We must be aware of our shifting environment, examining data and adapting to changing circumstances -- just as we want our students to do.

What will best prepare students for the complex environment they're facing? We don't have all the answers, but we can't be afraid to ask questions.

A university, after all, should be a place where everyone learns.