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Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

February 3, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Innovative new B.C. university turns higher-ed on its head

In recent years, many educators have come to question the very stuff that makes up a large part of a modern-day education — the body of knowledge and facts that students learn and memorize, then regurgitate on tests and exams.

The argument runs something like this: What is the use of memorizing the dates of important historical events, or various mathematical equations or scientific laws, if you can look up all these bits of information by pulling out your cellphone and doing a web search?

That sort of thinking might lead you to Quest University Canada, a small liberal-arts university located halfway between Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.

Founded in 2002 and with a current enrollment of about 670 students, it’s the first private, nonprofit secular university in Canada, drawing about 10 percent of its student enrollment from the Seattle area.

Its president, Dave Helfand, led the astronomy department and taught at Columbia University for 35 years.  Students at Quest take one class at a time for 3 1/2 weeks, a format that allows them to intensively study a single subject — even travel outside the country, or within it, to investigate the concept. Each class has just 20 students and meets for three hours a day. The school has no departments, and instead of professors, its instructors are called tutors.

Helfand says teaching this way is a 2,300-year-old idea. One of his favorite quotes about education comes from Confucian philosopher Xunzi: “Tell me, and I’ll forget; show me, and I may remember; involve me, and I’ll understand.”

He calls the Quest philosophy “a completely reversed approach — it’s not about transmitting facts, it’s about imbuing students with intellectual tools.” 

Helfand uses an example from a class he teaches to show how Quest fundamentally differs from the approach at other universities. In the class, “How to Build a Habitable Planet,” students spend one day exploring  Johannes Kepler’s laws of  planetary motion, which describe the motion of planets around the sun and were discovered by the German scientist in the 1600s.

When he taught at Columbia University, Helfand introduced the laws by lecturing and writing them down on the blackboard, to be memorized.

But in Quest’s seminar-like classroom, Helfand instead gives his students a sophisticated online computer simulation of planets orbiting other stars, and then asks them to investigate 20 questions by feeding different parameters into the simulation and seeing if they can find a pattern in the orbit of the planets.

Last month, in about three hours, his students figured out all three of Kepler’s laws by playing with the simulation.

Helfand thinks that if he were to test both groups of students — the ones taught the conventional way, and the ones at Quest — neither group would remember Kepler’s laws in a year’s time. “But who cares, because they can find them in two seconds, from two clicks on their cellphone,” he said.

However, “the Quest students will have learned how you take observations of real physical things that happen in nature, extract from them patterns, cast those patterns in mathematical forms and then use those to predict the behavior of the physical universe. So the difference is, it’s a process-based education, not an answer-based education.”

Helfand is an engaging, thought-provoking speaker; in this TedX talk he gave in Vancouver last year, he describes Quest University in greater depth.

If you want to know more, he’ll be giving a talk at Mercer Island Community Center at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4.

The deadline for admission to Quest for fall 2014 is March 1.

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Comments | More in News | Topics: Canada, higher ed, liberal arts


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