One of the subjects that people love to argue about, following closely behind the ‘correct’ way to raise children, is the best way to teach them. For many, personal experience and centuries of tradition make the answer self-evident: teachers and textbooks should lay out the content to be learned, students should study and drill until they have mastered that content, and tests should be given at strategic intervals to discover how well the students have done.

Nature special: Building the 21st century scientist

And yet, decades of research into the science of learning has shown that none of these techniques is particularly effective. In university-level science courses, for example, students can indeed get good marks by passively listening to their professor’s lectures and then cramming for the exams. But the resulting knowledge tends to fade very quickly, and may do nothing to displace misconceptions that students brought with them.

Consider the common (and wrong) idea that Earth is cold in the winter because it is further from the Sun. The standard, lecture-based approach amounts to hoping that this idea can be displaced simply by getting students to memorize the correct answer, which is that seasons result from the tilt of Earth’s axis of rotation. Yet hundreds of empirical studies have shown that students will understand and retain such facts much better when they actively grapple with challenges to their ideas — say, by asking them to explain why the northern and southern hemispheres experience opposing seasons at the same time. Even if they initially come up with a wrong answer, to get there they will have had to think through what factors are important. So when they finally do hear the correct explanation, they have already built a mental scaffold that will give the answer meaning.

In this issue, prepared in collaboration with Scientific American, Nature is taking a close look at the many ways in which educators around the world are trying to implement such ‘active learning’ methods (see The potential pay-off is large — whether it is measured by the increased number of promising students who finish their degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines instead of being driven out by the sheer boredom of rote memorization, or by the non-STEM students who get first-hand experience in enquiry, experimentation and reasoning on the basis of evidence.

Implementing such changes will not be easy — and many academics may question whether they are even necessary. Lecture-based education has been successful for hundreds of years, after all, and — almost by definition — today’s university instructors are the people who thrived on it.

But change is essential. The standard system also threw away far too many students who did not thrive. In an era when more of us now work with our heads, rather than our hands, the world can no longer afford to support poor learning systems that allow too few people to achieve their goals.