Moving Forward with the Science of Learning

January 11, 2018 by

Deadlines do matter. They get us to focus our attention to put in the time and effort to learn something. They help us learn time management because we uncover more about our own patterns of learning, both cognitive and social & emotional.

As you probably know, I’ve been puttering along in my learning about the science of learning (SoL). However, a national meeting on the topic has forced me to actually stop the review process and move into the mode of “What do I Think?” about the SoL and what it means for our schools, educators, and learners.

Here are a few high level thoughts about the SoL:

1. There is an extraordinary amount of agreement about the science of learning. Although I’m sure as you get down into the weeds there are plenty of healthy debates going on, educators should be confident going forward. This isn’t just the newest idea developed by a foundation that will get a lot of attention and then fade away. It is solid research, there is agreement in the field, and it has huge implications.

2. The field of SoL hasn’t fully integrated the research. The cognitive research is often described separately from the research on the motivational and social & emotional aspects of learning. This can give one cognitive overload trying to make sense of it all. There needs to be another round of work making the research more accessible.

3. There is a chance of focusing on one piece of the SoL without understanding the risk. When you read the SoL, it will often emphasize the limitations of the working memory. It’s a very narrow door from working memory into long-term memory, and we need to learn to manage it. However, if the cognitive research is all you focus on then you get very specific practices including chunking (they’ve made that a formal word in the world of cognitive sciences), spacing, practice until it becomes routine, and other strategies to move into long-term memory. Of course, you also can think about retrieval strategies to pull information out of long-term memory as well.

It’s truly very important to help students develop routine expertise so they can use their working memory in other ways and don’t have to expend it on addition or sounding out a word. However, the research on social & emotional learning is equally as important to consider. School norms, creating a safe environment through culturally responsive strategies, helping students build social & emotional skills and meta-cognitive skills so they can manage their attention, and structuring schools around building incredibly warm, consistent relationships will all help with reducing the amount of noise in working memory.

4. Our understanding of student agency and how students learn to transfer information is too shallow. Threaded out the research on learning are powerful insights into why students need to be considered active learners rather than compliant soak-it-all-in learners. Research tells us that active learning will result in more durable and lasting learning. Students need to be cognitively engaged in the learning process. The research can guide us on how to best do that. However, we also need to think about this through the psychological and developmental lenses. It just doesn’t make sense to focus on the cognitive engagement without thinking about the strategies to emotional engage students. As for transferring knowledge (facts, concepts, and skills), it is where a lot of the learning takes place as we make connections and reinforce these big chunks of ideas in our long-term memory.

5. The only way to move us forward in integrating the SoL into how we design schools and learning experiences that will enhance learning for students is to apply it to adults first. There is research that once a misconception has entered long-term memory, it takes very intentional work to root it out. In fact, we will continue to use that misconception in problem-solving until we can find a new mental model to help us understand the concept correctly. Our mental models of how we learn, much of it built on misconceptions, are rooted in our very own childhood experiences from the minute we entered kindergarten. They are cemented in. And that means we are going to have to apply a lot of time and effort to rooting them out and developing new mental models of learning. And new mental models of teaching.

In closing, it was through all this reading that I realized deadlines do matter. The OECD report The Nature of Learning has a great chapter reviewing the cognitive SoL. It tells us that:

  • Learning is an activity carried out by the learner.
  • Learning requires time and effort.
  • Learning results from a dynamic interplay of emotion, motivation, and cognition.

We can’t just open up the brains of children and drop a curriculum into it. We have to structure experiences and expectations so that they want to learn, learn how to learn, and set deadlines that force them to learn how much time and effort is needed.

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  1. Comment by Joy Nolan 12:30 am, January 13, 2018

    Thanks for this, Chris! It’s often true that students come to our schools and classrooms with gaps in their learning—and also misconceptions that need to be identified and addressed sufficiently.

    Might you be able to share some of the sources you are using to dig into SoL? Very interested in this, and the possibilities it represents.

  2. Comment by Mary Grassetti 9:22 am, January 14, 2018

    This is a great piece on the SoL. However, it’s not new as I learned all of this in my psychology and education classes 20 years ago. My first teaching job was in a school that focused on “brain based” teaching and learning. Now though that same school is focused on high stakes testing and has moved away from brain based methods in favor of test prep methods. Now as a teacher educator I work with teacher candidates to help them develop an appreaction for active learning.

    Lastly, in your piece you say misconceptions develop the moment a child enters kindergarten but actually misconceptions begin to develop the moment a child is born.

  3. Comment by Chris Sturgis 10:22 am, January 16, 2018

    Mary — So true! the SoL has been around for awhile and they continue to build new research and understanding as well. We need to do everything we can to stop policies that are terribly misaligned with the SoL. and thank you for the correction — misconceptions do begin to build before kids enter schools. I’ll remember that going forward!

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