Grasp: The Science of Transforming How We Learn by Sanjay Sarma with Luke Yoquinto

Part Two: Mind and Hand

6. Voyages

  • In 2001, John Belcher, a scientist who worked on NASA’s Voyager program, brought his Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) plan to physics classes at MIT. The plan replaced lectures with small group peer learning sessions facilitated by professors and teaching assistants. Students would read material formerly presented in lectures prior to teaching each other and doing hands-on experiments together. Unlike lectures that were not mandatory, group interaction sessions were required. There was student push back at first, but the people in charge had the key resource, which was patience. In short, TEAL worked. It resulted in the winnowing of fewer students and closed the gender performance gap. By 2016 over half of the professors in the US were using a version of this approach along with some kind of “clicker” technology to help them assess student comprehension and let the students control the pace. This approach is also called “flipped” learning.
  • Andrew Bell was responsible for inventing the monitorial or madras-style schools in Madras India in the late 1700s. These schools featured students teaching other students. This allowed learners to move at their own pace much the way martial artists earn new belts. When you got to the top of your class you moved to the bottom of the next higher class. Student tutors often got paid and with it a received dose of self-esteem. With only a few adults such schools were also inexpensive. The system overtook the English-speaking world except for the US where classes were organized by age and taught by adults where every student was expected to proceed at the same pace. Sound familiar? Sadly, it was this system that soon became the dominant one world-wide.

7. Outside In and At Scale

  • We are introduced to 42, a free coding college in Freemont, CA. Anyone can enter and the first 28 days is a testing period to see if you can go on. There are 21 levels and students proceed to the next level by completing a real-world programming project. So far no one has finished as students get attractive job offers due to their job-ready skills. Students grade students who are at lower levels thus revisiting earlier lessons. Since everyone is a teacher the real teacher ratio is 250 to one. This is a form of mastery learning, which is enjoying a resurgence in many K-12 schools. Tests are used to see if students are ready to move on rather than comparing students to each other. Out of necessity, this approach is self-paced. We also visit Elon Musk’s Ad Astra school, which is open to highly gifted students. They help design their own learning and mostly work on projects where they can apply what they learn.
  • Other schools that function along these lines are the AltSchools and Montessori schools. The former has since closed and now sells its model to schools that are interested. It features students as young as seven running parent-teacher meetings where goals and progress are part of the agenda. The data that is available shows that Montessori schools outperform their public school counterparts. They are popular with rich folks on the coasts but go out of their way to have a diverse student body. There is an emphasis on play and on students teaching each other. Student choice and discovery are also a focus. They have very low administrative overhead, higher student-teacher ratios, and therefore a much lower per-student cost.

8. Turn It Inside Out

  • MIT and Stanford were the first to offer Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs around 2011. The idea was to create a virtual MIT for the whole world. Sanjay had what he called “a murders row” of helpers when he did his first online course. Schools like Harvard soon joined and by 2018 100 million students were enrolled in 11,400 courses at 900 institutions. The students involved tended to be wealthier and older, but some high school students and poor students enrolled. Although completion rates are low, the number of students completing courses still represents a large number.
  • Many companies also got involved in creating courses for k-12 students. Some poor schools (think Mississippi Delta schools) have students take only online classes with adult monitors who are not content specialists. Online-only options are not as good as traditional teaching, but students in online courses who have access to an in-person instructor do just as well. Online courses can also conduct a continuous assessment process, which could satisfy the policymakers who demand accountability.

9. The Showdown

  • Sanjay introduces the MicroMasters program that started at MIT. It essentially cracks a Master’s degree in half with the first half composed of five online courses. Students who complete the first half can then apply for the on-campus second half although the online portion stands as its own credential. This MicroMasters takes about 16 months, features a high-stakes final exam, and costs about $1,000. It also has a lot of low-stakes testing designed to promote collaboration, instant feedback, and effortful retrieval. It focuses on what online teaching does best such as hard knowledge. As of 2019, there are 52 MicroMasters programs offered by universities around the world.
  • The second half of the program that takes place on campus deals with things that are hard to do online like collaboration, problems without definite answers, and hands-on work. For the mind to fully grasp something, the hand must grasp it as well. Increasingly, students are taking online courses available from other universities when their institution doesn’t offer them. Local professors are still involved to facilitate the learning and provide access to the hands-on aspects. This chapter also tells the story of the final competition associated with MIT’s Course 2.007. This is a robotics course where students learn theory and then put it to use building a robot designed to perform some predetermined task. Search “mit 2.007” to watch some videos. Note that many schools and courses have adopted this model.


  • In spite of the ever-changing job market, broad skills never go stale. Neither does learning how to learn, comfort in the face of complexity, control over one’s working memory, and the development of a creative ego. We need to give students the hard facts they need to understand the world and the hands-on skills they will need to wield them. We need to leverage tech-enhanced tools, place learning above winnowing, and place access above exclusivity. Above all, be sure to focus on Spacing out learning over cramming, Interleaving content, and using frequent tests to promote Retrieval. (SIR) Students should also work at their own pace, teach each other, and have more choice when it comes to what they learn. Thanks, Sanjay.

Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto

  • Sanjay is the head of Open Learning at MIT. A professor of mechanical engineering by training, he has worked in the fields of energy and transportation, computational geometry, and computer-assisted design. He has been a pioneer in RFID technology. Has advanced degrees from Carnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley. Check out his website at MIT and email him at sesarma@MIT.EDU.
  • Luke is a science writer who covers learning and education, as well as aging and demographic change, in his role as a researcher at the MIT AgeLab. His work can be found in publications such as The Washington Post, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic. He is a graduate of Boston University’s science journalism program. Check out his website at MIT and email him at Follow him on Twitter @lukeyoquinto.
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