Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Translating How People Learn into a Roadmap for Institutional Transformation

September 8, 2006

The transmission model of learning

Constructivist, collaborative, and cooperative learning


  • people construct and organize their own knowledge and understanding
  • resident knowledge and understanding filter new learning
  • active engagement in learning supports the construction of knowledge and understanding.

Suggesting that much of contemporary education in STEM fields is based on the “transmission model of learning,” at the 2005 PKAL Roundtable on the Future, Jose Mestre, Professor of Physics and Educational Psychology University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, put on the table questions to consider in developing a roadmap for institutional transformation that is aligned with our best understanding of learning.

Mestre’s questions to Roundtable participants underscored how attention to constructivism required a kaleidoscopic perspective on institutional transformation, asking:

  • pedagogy: how do we break the ‘teach as you were taught’ cycle in STEM education
  • faculty: how do we get STEM faculty to apply ‘scientific method’ to their teaching
  • institutional policies and practices: how do we get the college/university to encourage curricular and instructional innovation
  • facilities: how should research & teaching space be designed to facilitate constructivist epistemology?

Questions such as these will be addressed in PKAL Volume IV postings in coming months. They will also be explored in depth in PKAL-sponsored meetings during the 2006 - 2007 academic year (F21 National Assembly; Leadership Seminar; Facilities Planning Workshops).

To begin answering Mestre’s questions, we present excerpts from interviews with PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century members taking a leadership role in planning the Faculty 21 Assembly in Chicago. Our first question to them was, “If a visitor came into your classroom or lab— the environment in which you work with students— what impression would he or she leave with?” Their individual and collective responses are clear evidence that many current STEM faculty leaders already have a ‘constructivist’ mindset, are already applying the scientific method to their teaching, and already have strong institutional support for their work.

As you review their responses, imagine yourself as a visitor to these classrooms; how does what you see differ from a classroom organized around a transmission model of learning?

Create your own mental image of the intellectual and physical environment described by our F21 members, where:

  • ...students and instructor [are] excited about learning and comfortable with each other in the process of discovery....
  • ...where learning occurs in a nurturing and supporting environment, where there is sometimes excitement but mainly hard work, a place where students look forward to coming....
  • ...where the instructor was walking around, eavesdropping, and making cryptic comments–total chaos and confusion [would be the first impression]. But stick around....
  • ...something like a dressing room, where we take clothes/ideas to try them on, examine them, see how they, why they fit (or not)?
  • ...an instructor [me] who thinks of himself like Old Tody, the Shoshone Indian guide who brought Lewis and Clark through the treacherous, confusing parts of the Rocky Mountains....
  • ...a group of learners engaged in a particular task or exploration, mastering the material at hand and having some fun; it is noisy and something chaotic, but there is an underlying sense of concentration.

Contrast your mental images with those of the “transmission mode of learning” as drafted by Lila M. Smith, and presented by Karl Smith, Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Minnesota, in his 2005 Roundtable presentation. This work helps to document the dramatic changes in our mental images about how students learn that are now occurring.