Like Amy Chua, I'm choosing to be deliberately provocative in what I write below, though unlike her I don't have a book to sell. I recently heard a talk where a well reputed science educator (not naming names) argued that those of us teaching undergraduates need to adapt to the learning habits of "millennials". That is, these are a group of people who have literally grown up with google (a thought that makes me feel very old, since I went to grad school w/ Sergei Brin) - they are used to having knowledge (in the form of facts) at their fingertips in a fraction of a second. They are used to nearly continuous social networking, instantaneous communication, and constant multitasking (or, as a more stodgy person might put it, complete distraction, attention deficit behavior, and a chronic inability to concentrate). This academic argued that we need to make science education mimic real research if we want to produce researchers and get students jazzed about science. Moreover, this academic argued that making students listen to lectures and do problem sets was (a) ineffective, since that's not how they were geared to learn, and (b) somewhere between useless and abusive, being slavishly ruled by a culture of "covering material" without actually educating. Somehow we should be more in tune with how Millennials learn, and appeal to that, rather than being stodgy fogies who force dull, repetitious "exercises at the end of the chapter" work.
While appealing to students' learning modalities has its place, I contend that this concept simply will not work well in some introductory, foundational classes in the sciences, math, and engineering. Physical science (chemistry, physics) and math are inherently hierarchical. You simply cannot learn more advanced material without mastery of the underpinnings. Moreover, in the case of physics (with which I am most familiar), we're not just teaching facts (which can indeed be looked up easily on the internet); we're supposedly teaching analytical skills - how to think like a physicist; how to take a physical situation and translate it into math that enables us to solve for what we care about in terms of what we know. Getting good at this simply requires practice. To take the Amy Chua analogy, hard work is necessary and playdates are not. There literally is no substitute for doing problems and getting used to thinking this way. While open-ended reasoning exercises can be fun and useful (and could be a great addition to the standard curriculum, or perhaps a way to run a lab class to be more like real research), at some point students actually do need to become proficient in basic problem-solving skills. I really don't like the underlying assumption that this educator was making: that the twitter/facebook/short-attention-span approach is unavoidable and possibly superior to focused hard work. Hey, I'm part of the distractable culture as much as anyone in the 21st century, but you'll have to work hard to convince me that it's the right way to teach foundational knowledge in physics, math, and chemistry.