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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reflective Response to: 10 facts about learning

This morning I was reading a blog post by Donald Clark, Brighton, Sussex  I don't really know a lot about him from his blog, but his post dealt with 10 scientifically proven education precepts.  I tend to like listed items, so I started to read what he posted. I was very impressed by Donald's points, but I am more than a little uncomfortable with the "scientifically proven" title. Nevertheless, Iwrote this reflective response of my own teaching practice based on it:

10 facts about learning that are scientifically proven and interesting for teachers:       

1. Spaced practice

Perhaps the most significant fact we know about learning. Knowledge is easy to learn but hard to retain. We forget things quickly and that the most effective way to prevent this forgetting is to practice at spaced intervals over time. 

Math class needs a little homework every night, but not overkill. 15 - 20 minutes maximum. Don't do it all in one bang, even if it is easier to "get it over" or it fits a schedule better.

2. Cognitive overload 

Preparation of material in terms of size, order and engagement, leading to weak encoding, a lack of deep processing then poor retention and recall. Almost all courses are too long, present material in the wrong way and lead to unnecessary forgetting. Simplify to prevent cognitive overload.
One or two main ideas should be presented in class and should be the entire focus of the lesson. I think books that try to make many different connections or present a lot of preview/review material on each page are doing a disservice. This is why I like our College Prep Math (CPM) algebra text and the Connection Math series.

3. Chunking
Perhaps the easiest and simplest piece of learning theory to put into practice. Chunking means being sensitive to the limitation of working memory. Less is more in learning and distilling, rather than enhancing, elaborating and creating lots of distracting noise, is a virtue in teaching. 
Whenever a teacher or a student can put a couple of ideas or skills into a “package”, they are creating a far greater possibility of success. This is one reason why I like the algebra tiles with their specific set of rules that help chunk together ideas of negative numbers, equality and distributive property into one “game like” scenario.

4.  Order
The order you learn things is critical to how they will be stored and recalled, yet education and training continues to jumble and confuse content. Learn things in the wrong order and you’ll end up having to unlearn.
This is crucial. When I talk to math educators, or educators in general, I often leave wondering if they have a sense of scope and sequence of the material they are covering. Does it make logical sense? Did they create it or are they simply using the text guidelines. Ownership of the sequence guarantees a better outcome in my experience.

5.  Episodic and semantic memory
Once you understand that the things we learn are stored differently, i.e. we have different types of memory, then you’ll be more sensitive to the necessary differences in teaching. We still have far too much reliance on text (semantic) for subjects that need a visual (episodic) approach. 
This is hugely ignored by many, many educators. School is so utterly dependent on text as well as oral discussion, that other ways of learning and using the material are marginalized. In math, for example, I firmly believe in the use of manipulatives and diagrams to demonstrate the concepts. This is even the case, I dare say, with algebra tiles, which present key abstract concepts in a concrete fashion, albeit a complicated one at best. To say that algebra can be anything other than abstract is to miss the point of it entirely. But to also say that we must rely on odd equations and number/symbol manipulation on paper is to reduce it to an exercise in pencil pushing. Algebra tiles, as difficult as they are for some people, help create the episodic, visual, action oriented memory that assists in deeper learning.

6.  Psychological attention
Learning does not take place without psychological attention, so setting up classrooms and scenarios that inhibit attention, or distract from learning, is massively counter-productive. The bottom line is that much learning is best done on your own or one-to-one.
I need relative quiet to learn. I can listen and absorb classroom or lecture material, but I need time on my own to make the learning my own. That is why teaching has been such a powerful learning experience for me. I often find myself in chaotic classrooms where learning is sporadic at best. Walk into a calm, focussed classroom, where everyone is on task, and the difference is notable. I don’t see enough of this, to be honest.

7.  Context
We know that recall is enhanced by learning in the physical context in which one is expected to perform. Real world uses need to be pervasive.
The “when will we ever need this?” question needs to be respected. We educators need good, convincing answers that go beyond the “next year” response (although that is not a bad answer to start with in my opinion). Math educators in particular fall into this trap: connect our topics, concepts and skills to other arenas: sports, sciences, history, games etc. Do that on a regular basis and our students will benefit from at least imagining the possibilities.

8.  Learn by doing
We know that we learn lots by doing, yet much teaching and training is locked into a over-theoretical, knowledge and not skills, model. 
Of course, less teacher talk and more student work on a subject. No brainer.

9.  Understand Peer Groups
We overestimate the influence of parents and teachers, and under-estimate the role of genetics and peer pressure. 
I think a lot about this as I work in the middle school. I often find myself stating something very clearly in my way, only to have it completely reinterpreted by my students two days later and having to argue for my point with them. That is why I have taken to leaving a clear paper trail of assignments to back be up. I am not 100% sure I understand the interplay between “nurture and nature” (family vs genetics), but I am clear that peer influence is underestimated by several magnitudes in schooling.

10.  Murder the myths
This is perhaps the most useful piece of scientific advice for teachers and trainers – dump the snakeoil techniques. These include learning styles, playing music while you learn, Brain Gym, left-right brain theories, NLP, stating the objectives at the start of a course…the list goes on.
This will be controversial in my circles. I don’t see any these things as evils, but many of them do become weak excuses for why somethings hasn’t been learned or taught. At best they are interest techniques to learn as individuals, but at worst, they distract from a central purpose of education to actually teach mastery of skills and concepts. Sometimes they actually distract to the point of diminishing the role of memory, of skill development, of enlightenment in the individual. They also create some impossible teaching scenarios that confuse and complicate topics to the point of absurdity. In math, for example, why algebra should be meaning centered, it can almost never be completely concrete or rule driven (“just teach me the rule, darn it!”). At its core, it is an abstract generalization of arithmetic and should not be reconstrued any other way.


Mr. G said...

Please note this is not because I'm questioning your assertions, rather because I know others will. Could you provide links/citations to the science that proves these facts?


ERKO said...

I think that questioning assertions doesn't happen enough in our profession, so thanks.

I was responding to a blog post I cited at the top. I, too, wondered about the "science" behind the assertions. On the one hand, I have heard of several of them, such as types of memory, chunking and attention.

On the other hand, I have also heard about learning styles and have some doubts about their applicability in a classroom.

My own experience with students tells me that those that learn how to chunk material, make narrative stories in their minds and can find ways to pay attention are the successful ones.

Mr. G said...

I didn't notice you were responding until after I posted, so I checked the blog you were quoting from. Unfortunately, no facts about the facts there either. :)

ERKO said...

So true: claims science, but does not quote it.

I will look more into this subject, as I do feel inside me that the points are valid.

BunchberryFern said...

Mr G and ERKO. I think it's commendable that you've both identified the need to check the facts. And you would like to see proof.

But in this case, it might be a little over-rigorous. And, perhaps, even debilitating. You're both capable of carrying out a sufficiently rigorous examination of Donald Clark's piece - and don't need to outsource your critical faculties.

Dialectics/the opposite test: Take each of the ten statements and try out the inverse for size. You won't get 'proof' but you'll be able to see which way the truth lies.

1. Learn once only, but a lot.
2. Long lessons are better than short lessons.
3. Discourage synthesis.
4. The order in which we learn isn't important.
5. Rely only on text for teaching.
6. Learners can deal with distractions.
7. Context is unimportant.
8. Abstract learning is best. Don't relate pure concepts to the real world - it will muddy the water.
9. Teachers are more influential than learners' peers and environment.
10. Snake oil is tasty.

I'm not sure this gives us a definitive answer. But it gives us something concrete to work on. Most of the above statements are wrong, at least if we apply Occam's Razor and a bit of common sense.

Incidentally, I think the real point of the piece is the one that ERKO has acted on - to encourage attention on to certain oft-neglected areas (I, too, question the 'facts'. They seem more like prompts, questions or manifestio bullet points to me) and place less emphasis on 'snake oil'.

Lastly, just in case I sound like I'm rabidly defending all the ideas. I have my doubts about points 4 and 6. I'm not sure we DO know the order for many subjects. And I think that Flow is a good substitute for Attention - in social learning/informal learning/PBL or whatever it is that you want to call it.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post, thank you. I'm a cognitive psychologist, so the first few points just had me nodding and mentally ticking boxes. Then I hit B&F's objections to 4 and 6 and my brain started ticking ... recording my thoughts here because I'm not sure I have the time or energy today to pile in on the original post. (Yes, this is lame, but I'm tired.)

(4): I think if we know what the story is, this is fine. But I'm really interested in B&F's idea that there are some subjects or areas in which we don't yet know what "the order" is. Developmental psychology can maybe help us with some of this (for example that people are ready to understand A before they are ready to understand B), but the rest of it's probably a good deal muddier.

(6): Yeah, I'm now having problems with this one as well. I think you can trick people's attention into doing something else and they'll STILL learn. Maybe through an exercise that they don't realise until afterwards is connected; maybe their body just needs to learn it, not their mind; I think there are other possibilities here.

Having said that, I spend my working life trying to understand, and obtain, people's psychological attention, so I'm not saying it's not important. I think I'm just saying it's not the ONLY thing.

Thanks for hosting such an interesting thread! :)

- Chris

Anonymous said...

Sorry, meant to add, re (10):

I am not a fan of snake-oil. But something about this last point feels off, to me. Part of this is to do with the much-debated "scientific proof" - such a thing doesn't really exist; we just amass evidence. And it's notoriously hard to get null results (where no significant effect of an intervention or treatment was found) published in scientific journals; journals are mostly about "hey, we found something that makes a difference!"

There doesn't seem to be a lot of literature or evidence to support the snake-oil techniques named above, and (important disclaimer) I'm an adherent of none of them, but there are two reasons not to dismiss them entirely:

1. Maybe we just don't have evidence yet. I'm genuinely not sure how much these interventions have been tested (perhaps because it's so hard to get null results published), but it may be that we're just not asking the right questions, or in the right way. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as my PhD supervisor used to say.

2. Sometimes these interventions provide useful frameworks for thinking about learning and teaching. Take learning styles: it revolutionised my own learning and personal development when I realised that I found visual and kinesthetic things more useful - now I take notes about, and draw, everything, and consequently remember much more (without the notes). Does it matter if there is little evidence to support this? I'm not sure that it does.