Let’s take a quiz. Which of the following peoples’ names do you recognize and what did they do?
F. C. Barlett
You may not recognize these names but they are all learning scientists, four of whom are no longer living, and of the other three, the youngest was born in 1942. We picked older, or dead, scientists, because they all could have been studied in an educational psychology course from the 1980s forward and yet you probably do not recognize any of them nor can say why they are well-known. It is not your fault.
The learning sciences, oddly enough, were generally not taught in our colleges of education and when they were, they were not required. The living scientists were also not professors in the colleges of education. Deci was in the University of Rochester business school and then psychology department. Kahneman is a professor emeritus at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and won a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. Eric Kandel is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia and won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The groundbreaking research in learning was not traditionally done in colleges of education.
Our mission is to improve student progress through the application of the sciences of learning in schools. We believe that schools can be transformed by focusing on the transformation of learning; not the transformation of schools or public education as we know it. It is not structural reform that we need, but an understanding, acceptance, and application of the sciences. We know enough to make a difference.
Let’s take one simple question and answer it with the science. Why do we have to do test prep at the end of the year? We taught the content, why don’t our students remember it?
Our experience with teachers and pacing guides is that spaced memory retrieval is rarely used or required and yet memories will not remain recallable without it. In addition, there is little attempt to relate new knowledge to prior knowledge or to apply knowledge in more than one way.
In the late 1870s Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered that we begin forgetting almost the instant we learn something and practicing it time and time again in a concentrated way (massed practice or cramming) does not help. Cramming does not create a lasting, recallable memory. But, if memory retrieval is practiced daily for the first three or four days, then again two months later, and periodically in later years, it can be recalled. In 2000 Eric Kandel won the Nobel Prize in part for his work in defining how this worked at the molecular level – a protein is produced in spaced practice that is not produced when cramming. With the right design of student work, test preparation for any kind of test may not be necessary.
John Hattie has spent the last several decades studying the effect of different learning and teaching strategies on measured learning. Without going into the details, a teaching practice or learning strategy with an effect size above .4 (which he calls the “hinge point”)
is considered successful on its own merits. John Hattie calls what Ebbinghaus discovered, spaced practice; and it has an effect size of .6 – meaning that it is a pretty useful learning strategy. A similar strategy, rehearsal and memorization ranked even higher – .73. Summarization, a form of memory retrieval, ranked higher still – .79.
In 1949 Donal Hebb proposed a theory about neural networks in his book The Organization of Behavior. He proposed the idea that our brains create neural networks off prior knowledge as they learn. It turns out that his theory was correct. As a result, creating an initial knowledge platform becomes very important as does having a learning strategy that takes advantage of it. Scaffolding, one practice built around this idea has an effect size of .82 and using a strategy to actually integrate prior knowledge into new learning ranks even higher, .93.
We tend to use the term association broadly and suggest that humans have three convenient tools for remembering, creating understanding or meaning, and application. They are repetition, association, and emotional intensity. But learning does not begin and end with only cognitive skills. Motivation and social relationships are also related to learning progress and there are scientific explanations about how they work.
For example, Edward Deci suggests that there is a desire on the part of all to gain competence – to continually get better at what we do. His theory is the basis for John Hattie’s book title – Visible Learning. To ignite and sustain motivation, learning must be visible to the learner and to the teacher. We thrive on a sense of progress but we have to know it is happening. Metaphorically, we have to see it to believe it.
Then there are social norms, which influence learning. Social norms that do not value learning, will make learning difficult. Changing norms is not usually a matter of persuasion, it is a matter of influence and it only takes one or a few peers in a group to change the norms. If you are our age, look at Dennis Rodman and tattoos. One day there were none. The next day there was Dennis Rodman on the basketball court. Within a few years there was my son. A man with tattoos. The science of developing new norms favors using the few to influence the many. Influence works. Persuasion works primarily with those who are already inclined to agree with us.
There is a science. Its impact could be transformational. Let’s use it. We will explore it in the theme Learning about Learning.