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The Thayer Method: How the US Army Has Been Using Active Learning for Over 200 Years

Written by Jacob Moffitt | Find me on: LinkedIn

During a recent trip to Boston, I was lucky enough to catch up with a friend of mine from high school. Our lives have taken wildly divergent paths, and while I've ended up in the collaboration field, he's found himself as an instructor at the United States Military Academy, AKA West Point. Over omlettes in Southie, as the wind whipped through the narrow streets outside, we started to find a place where our viewpoints began to converge: the subject of active learning.

"I teach a subject* where guys can pull a lot of what they need from the book," he told me. "I'd say about 75% of what they need to learn, they can learn by reading. For everything else, there's classroom instruction." He explained that a typical classroom day wasn't focused around covering material cadets should already know, it was helping his students past the tough spots. "I start with an informal good morning, we go over news items that might be interesting or relevant, and then I just ask for questions."

*Obviously, I'm going to leave out some details here. It's a REALLY cool subject, though.

Sound familiar? More or less, it's flipped learning, right? Here's the kicker: The US Army has been using this method since the early 1800s. If you're a flipped classroom history nerd (and it's okay if you're not), the first modern publication outlining flipped classrooms as we know them was in 1996, when Eric Mazur published "Peer Instruction: A User's Manual". Mazur himself has said the inspiration for the learning method dates back to the Harvard Law style of teaching starting back in the 1900s.While his book may have gone down in history as the one that introduced flipped learning to the mainstream, Sylvanus Thayer was using similar methods shortly after he took over West Point in 1817, proving the timelessness of the idea.


Different Reasons for the Same Conclusion, the Same Result

Okay, so Mazur introduced flipped learning to the rest of the world, Thayer did it first, but why did these teaching methodologies come about? Each author had their own take on why a flipped classroom was superior. In Mazur's case, the idea is built more around centering the classroom around students, and allowing lecturers to become more of another resource to count on. Indeed, this is the philosophy that has driven the modernization of learning methodologies, allowing teachers to focus less on how they are teaching, and more on how students are learning.

Thayer, however, had something else in mind. "The way it's explained to us," my friend the West Point instructor said, "is that doing things this way does two things. It allows less strain on the instructor, and it creatives more effective cohesion and teamwork within a classroom, which is obviously important to a military instructor." It was the revelation that the effectiveness of a classroom depended on the instructor's efficiency in teaching a subject that led Thayer to instituting his method.

Smaller student-teacher ratios have been a goal in all fields of education for some time now. What the Thayer Method enacts is more or less giving the instructor a more "as-needed" role in the education of students, increasing the quality of contact between student and teacher. Sound familiar?


What Does the Flipped Classroom Look Like at West Point?

Obviously, in the 1800s, our classrooms were not blessed with the abundance of technology we enjoy today. Instead, they used (and continue to use) that favorite of dusty classrooms everywhere, chalkboards. Hamilton Stapell, a former professor at West Point's Department of History, describes rooms with "...boards on all sides of the room," where "all cadets are charged with engaging in activities related to the material throughout the class." Does that sound familiar?

It's a great example of collaboration at work in the classroom, even in classrooms that don't place a stress on being technologically advanced. The fact that there's little difference between a modern flipped classroom and a Thayer method classroom from the 1800s proves that the idea of flipping a classroom isn't a new one. Military instructors have been seeing the benefit to flipping classrooms for a long time, and it just took us until the 1990s to apply it to the rest of education.

As we said before, classroom procedure is similar in nature to a civilian classroom. Students do most of the learning on their own time, and the instructor is treated as just another resource in the room, albeit one that is more knowledgeable than their fellow students. Classes are often centered around projects, allowing students to take their own paths from point A to point B. Students teach students, and instructors serve the purpose of overseeing these discussions. And they've been doing this since the 1800s! Is it any wonder that West Point is one of the best schools in the nation, with US News calling it the #2 public college in the nation this year?

The Hidden Emphasis: Teamwork

We've talked about the problems that some students in STEM tracks are facing, namely that the traditional lecturing techniques still being employed in many STEM classrooms is affecting their ability to work together after graduating. West Point grads have been held to a higher standard on this front since the foundation of the Academy, and for good reason: many of these graduates go on to lead men and women in the military. The ability to work together as a team and to foster that attitude in others is doubly important for a good military commander.

It's worth mentioning that West Point, while the official Army Academy, is widely considered a school of civil engineering. By employing active learning methodologies to solve one problem (making sure graduated cadets are capable of command), they've accidentally solved the issue of cooperative deficits in STEM fields before they even realized it was an issue.

When you can produce graduates who are able to lead the world's strongest military force, while at the same time producing graduates who excel in civilian engineering fields, you're doing something right as a school. Look for more into the learning methodologies of the US Military Academies in 2017. We're discovering that many of the ideas we're having and problems we need to solve have already been addressed by these institutions, and they're all worth a closer look.

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Topics: Smart Classrooms , Interactive classrooms , Interactive learning , Classroom technology , problem solving , collaboration

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