Blog Post

What Is the Best Way to Learn?

What Is the Best Way to Learn?

DRAFT.  This is a work in progress and I invite you to add your comments, edits, citations, as I continue to develop this in our American Literature, American Learning Group.  

Comments can be left on a Google Doc here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1YVmOJZQbkyourgh5LbHhRg0q5aZSpV0QWsWZ0eeR4WI/edit

NOTE TO READERS:  I began this blog post in answer to comments from graduate students in “American Literature, American Learning” on a midterm feedback survey.  They were concerned about what to do when their students objected to student-centered learning.  I decided to write a very basic blog about some of the foundational ideas of student-centered learning and to open this up to comments from anyone who feels like adding comments.

 

Haunted by Eight Percent Learning

In one classic study, psychology students who took a course did only 8% better on a test on that course content material four months after the course was over than parallel students who had not taken the course. This statistic--replicated numerous times--is often used to chastise the poor teaching or the poor learning (take your pick) of “students today.”  Often the Internet is blamed, of course, for this terrible crisis of learning.  The problem is that particular study by C. Meyer and T. B. Jones was published in 1993, the same year that the Mosaic 1.0 browser was released to the public and the "Internet" was, for all practical purposes, a reality beyond a limited number of professional users.   And there are such studies going back at least to the early decades of the 1900s.

[See Meyer, C and Jones, T.B. (1993), Promoting Active Learning:  Strategies for the College Classroom . San Francisdo, Jossey-Bass]

Anyone who is concerned with learning beyond what can be measured in the standardized, summative score at the end of the course or the year, is haunted by that 8% figure. 

What we have more of, now, is data confirming that, one way or another, we rarely retain more than 10% of testable content, even from the very best teachers.

Should we be alarmed?  Well, it depends.   If you are teaching someone how to do brain surgery, you do not want them to remember only ten percent of what they are supposed to do as they stare into someone's cranium.  This is one reason, of course, why the age-old method of surgeons is the famous active learning adage:  "See one. Do one. Teach one."  

Where it is essential to be able to really remember and replicate, we absolutely know that neither the lecture nor the seminar works.   You have to not just learn what the expert knows, but you also have to translate it by your own doing.  And you practice over and over, and the very best way to practice is by teaching what you know to someone else.  

Basically, most active learning principles boil down to that simple, common-sensical lesson.

So why, then, is it so hard to remember this?    Because formal education is the opposite of common-sense learning.  Very little about the structuring of learning in formal education--perhaps until we get to the level of professional school-- is natural, logical, common sensical, or has any of the stakes, consequences, relevance or contingencies of learning in other circumstances, outside of school. 

Active learning is basically about deconstructing the structures of formal education that don't work for learning beyond the test and the credential in order to enhance life-learning that exceeds  8%.

 

Content May Not Be King

It turns out that actual learning of content in the one-way transmission or broadcast model  (i.e. being lectured at) is not something that we do particularly well as humans.  Why?  Largely because we don’t really listen very well when learning isn't something we think we need to know.  We don't do very well at learning what we don’t need to know.  We do a much better job of mastering those things we need to succeed in the world.   We do a very good job of sorting out and forgetting those things we don’t do well.

But most formal education does  a very poor job at helping individual students to understand what aspect of what they are learning in school is vital and important to what they want to do outside of school.

As presently constituted, the job of formal education is certification.  So what you do with your learning beyond the course, the grade, the degree, the credential is really not the structural and structured intention of formal education.

No wonder we remember only 8%.  If we remember over 95% at exam time, we get the A.  That is the purpose of credential-centered learning.  It succeeds in its purpose.

What more do you expect?

If you expect more, then you have to change the paradigm from credential-centered learning to student-centered learning.

You have to learn beyond the test and the credential.  In other words, you have to learn the unnatural way one learns in school into a mode of learning more like the way we learn just about everything else in life:  by what is relevant and important to our lives.

That requires re-centering learning on the student.

That requires  teachers/professors to rethink their role and function in the classroom not as central but as facilitator to what the students achieve.

It requires students to understand their goal is not only to get the A on the test but to understand the content that might well be crucial to their life, experiences, relationships, future learning, workplace, career, and everything else after the graduation date.

Everyday Learning

Learning happens everywhere.  Period.  So does forgetting.

 

How To Build a Baby (NB: this is a condensation of my cultural theory of brain biology that I develop at greater length in Now You See it, developing the Hebbian theory of neural wiring and neural selection, maybe chp 2)

In every day life, let’s say as parents, we concentrate our efforts on teaching kids over and over, in whatever way works, those things we know they need to survive.  If we are a good parent, we learn how to tailor our teaching to the particular talents, interests, and aptitudes of the individual child, and we redouble our energies where there is resistance or non-comprehension about those things that our society says it is important for everyone to know (i.e. and therefore also define "good parenting" and what "good parents" must teach their children):    how to understand the language around you (that begins in the womb, by the way:  you can hear by about 6 months of gestation), how to speak, how to eat, how to crawl, how to walk, how to defecate according to the norms of your society, how to practice all the appropriate norms of your society, how to read.   

Everything else?  It’s shockingly selective.  A musical “family” (defined as all those who take care of a newborn) bombards Junior with music.  A mathematical family presents Sissy with calculations at every turn.  A literary family reads and reads.  A family of craftspeople begins early to work with manual dexterity.  A family of academics starts in on the books.  A neglectful family does none of the above.   

Take a walk through a park with botanists and their young children "see" and "experience" a very different part than do the children walking through the exact same park on the exact same day with artists or gardeners or brick layers.  The world is multifarious. Too multifarious (we don't need the Internet for information overload; there's plenty of that just in any normal part of everyday life).  We sort the word, all the time.  We pay attention to what counts in our lives, what matters, what allows us to be safe or to thrive.  That's what learning is.

The point is that we all neglect something.  And emphasize other things.  We are highly selective because we’ve already made selections.  It’s no surprise when the child of an actor becomes an actor, the child of a musician becomes a musician.

What’s a surprise is when the child of an actor becomes a mathematician. Infants start with skills, some are nourished repetitively because of enormous social pressures to nourish.  Others are nourished quite selectively because of the expertise, passions, skills, and interests of the nurturers.

 

Learning in School

School? It's not about learning what helps the individual child in an individual family in an individual setting to thrive. It is about mastering a curriculum, established elsewhere and fairly uniform.  Whether you like it or not.  Whether you think you need it or not.    The point of formal education is to expose musicians to math (not so much the other way in this anti-arts world of the 21st century, sadly).

Formal education selects out a set number of areas for instruction and then a person certified in those areas teaches those areas as if the children who come into the classroom all have equal aptitude, interest, skill, talent, training, and reinforcement at home.  They do not.

Inequality starts early, in other words.

Student-centered learning is, at its most basic level, a way of allowing each and every student to find a way to connect with material, to inhabit it, to find its relevance to their lives, and to replicate and remember it later in those situations where it will prove to be of value.  Kindergarten through professional school.

Student-centered learning helps students imagine the connections between the curriculum of formal education and their own lives and life circumstances, their talents, skills, ambitions, and mission.  It makes the connections that may not be readily understandable in a world of test-based and standards-based learning.

Sometimes students themselves resist such learning.  Sometimes students do not believe they are learning or doing anything worthwhile if the teacher/professor doesn't sanctify/authorize their efforts.   Why bother reading an "assignment" just because it might be useful if it's not going to be on the test?  Why bother reading something smart if the prof isn't going to discuss it in class?  Why bother reading something that might be life changing if you really take in the message when an "assignment" is about doing what you are supposed to do in order to get an A on that one (check!) and then an A in the course?

In other words, we have been so conditioned to divorce in-classroom formal education from the life outside of the classroom that we might thing something we learn that is actually relevant to how we think about the world and how we act in the world--in the workplace, in other courses, in our future career or life plans, even in our relationships--that without a summative test "grading" one's comprehension of an "assignment," it might be seen as a waste of time that one spent time learning something simply because it could be important, relevant, and influential to how one lives one's life.

I mean, what does that have to do with education?

 

Student-Centered Learning in Higher Education

My interest is in higher education.

The typical student who comes to college has had twelve years of education with standardized, summative, high stakes testing and a punitive system of penalizing teachers whose students do not do well on such tests.  

Summative testing is the opposite of the learning that happens in every other situation where taking an idea and understanding why it is important to you  is what allows you to remember it, to take it in, to make it meaningful in your life, and to use it.

What I (as teacher) think is the “main point” of an article or an exercise may be useful for credential-centered learning.  If you know what I say you should know, you get your credential.

We know (that 8% rule) it is almost useless to learning that makes a difference beyond the credential, for the rest of your life.

Re-centering learning is about learning beyond the credential, learning what can be useful and used and relied upon—a tool—in your life beyond the test, beyond the classroom.

Student-centered and active learning is the methodology for learning beyond the test, beyond the credential, beyond the 92% “forget rate” studies and, instead, to think about what is that precious 8% that can make a meaningful difference in what you want to do: in your life, in your workplace, in your career, in your personal life.

Student-Centered or Active Learning—and Reflection (Meta-Cognition)

I like to call it student-centered learning.  Others use the term active learning.  In both, the idea is to make sure that the students take what they learn and use it, discuss it, and apply it.  They don’t just hear about it from prof but actually incorporate it into some kind of used and useful experience.   In one study, psychology students who took a course did only 8% better on a test on that course content material four months after the course was over than parallel students who had not taken the course.   Other studies confirm this.

So if we have the data that content is not the key ingredient in learning, what is?  What we also know from the data is that the more we actually take in the concept, apply it, use it, the more we master it.

But unless we reflect on what we have been doing, students (even in classes that are about learning) often feel as if they read “for nothing,” as if they haven’t really “gone over the material,” as if they aren’t really “learning.”  In other words, we move so quickly from learning to forgetting that we need to underscore that, by applying learning, we are actually learning better, more deeply, more usefully, and more permanently or, to many, it will see as if we’re just playing some add-on game and not “really learning.”  Unless we underscore that learning is not content but the ability to take in the deep structure of that content and apply it meaningfully in other situations, we will miss it.

Research and Graduate School are Un-Articulated Versions of Active Learning--And Non-Egalitarian, Un-Self-Reflective Apprenticeship (Replicating the Status Quo)

Interestingly, in the apprenticeship model of Graduate School, we call that whole process—rarely articulated, almost always assumed—“research.”  The successful student is the one who takes the deep structure of the classroom and the readings and the Preliminary Exams and the Comprehensive Exams and then can frame those into a Dissertation.     That process is, in fact, the epitome of active, student-centered learning.

With one caveat:  because the assumptions of graduate student training (essentially an apprenticeship model) are not articulated, its result  is what Lani Guinier calls the “tyranny of meritocracy.”  As long as the “magic” of taking and applying are never explained, those students who succeed are statistically most likely to share the values, experiences, race, gender, and class background of those professors who judge what is success.

This is why we can have a professorate that is progressive and anti-racist and anti-sexist in theory and 87% white and over 60% male (full-time, full professors) in practice, with a class and family income background far higher than the national normal.

Freire: From the Banking Model to Student-As-Teacher

In 1968, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire advocated replacing the non-egalitarian, hierarchical one-way transmission or “banking” model of learning (where the teacher/professor is the expert with all the knowledge and certifies the acquisition of that knowledge by an acolyte).   His egalitarian model is what he calls the student-as-teacher and teacher-as-student.  

This is essential active or peer learning.   And its politics has been made explicit.  The purpose of such learning is not just acculturation (unspoken) to a field (unchallenged) within an institution (unquestioned) in a society (uncontexted) but quite precisely using education in order to be able to be an active, confident agent in the world, someone who can address the inequalities of field, institution, and society, who can engage with inequality and champion social and intellectual change.

This only comes from being a full participant in the learning process from the beginning and a conscious participant in that process.  

This means experimenting with knowledge, not just taking it in.  It means understand interpretation—of oneself and one’s fellow students—as key ingredients in the learning process, in an engaged and egalitarian learning process.

Coders and Hackathons:  P2P

In the world of coders, this is peer-to-peer learning.  

Psychologists:  Total Participation

The American Psychological Association talks about Total Participation.   The goal is to make every student—every student—an active learner, kindergarten to professional school.

See http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/111037.aspx

Here is one of the best guides to guide for K-12 active learning:  Total Participation Techiques: Making Every Student an Active Learning, by Persida Himmele and William Himmele

And a great website diagramming Total Participation, its methods, its aims, the kind of learning accomplished, based on the work by the Himmeles:  https://gssdstudentengagement.wikispaces.com/Teaching+Strategies+for+Par...

Medical School Training:  Competency-Based and Entrustable Professional Activities

In medical school, the movement is to competency-based education.  The AMA seeks to “enable a new perspective on curricula, training, and assessment” and realizes that this cannot happen without “new language.”   The new language includes seven new roles for competency: “medical expert, communicator, collaborator, health advocate, manager, scholar, and professional.”   

Interestingly, the gap between concept and actual change in practice is seen so great that there is an intermediary level, known as “entrustable professional activities” (EPA).  “The EPAs were designed to link competencies to clinical practice and make them feasible.6 The EPAs—tasks or responsibilities that can be entrusted to a trainee once sufficient, specific competence is reached to allow for unsupervised execution—are now being defined in various health care domains.7–,10 Because EPAs represent what physicians do in daily practice, the new language can be briefer and less complicated.

Ten Cate, Olle. “Competency-Based Education, Entrustable Professional Activities, and the Power of Language.” Journal of Graduate Medical Education 5.1 (2013): 6–7. PMC. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.

This is an essay in progress.  I invite you to leave comments, edits, citations, suggestions, your favorite ideas and references.  If you leave your name, I’ll cite you.

 

I will keep updating the blog on hastac.org

 

In one classic study, psychology students who took a course did only 8% better on a test on that course content material four months after the course was over than parallel students who had not taken the course.  This is often used to chastise the poor teaching or the poor learning (take your pick) of “students today.”  Often the Internet is blamed, of course, for this terrible crisis of learning.  The problem is that particular study was done some forty years ago, before the Internet even.   And there are such studies going back to the 1900s.

What we have more of, now, is data.  And it turns out that actual learning of content is not something that we do particularly well as humans.  Why?  Largely because we don’t do well at learning what we don’t need to know.  We do a very good job of mastering those things we need to succeed in the world.   We do a very good job of sorting out and forgetting those things we don’t do well.

But most formal education does  a very poor job at helping individual students to understand what aspect of what they are learning in school is vital and important to what they want to do outside of school.

As presently constituted, the job of formal education is certification.  So what you do with your learning beyond the course, the grade, the degree, the credential is really not the structural and structured intention of formal education.

No wonder we remember only 8%.  If we remember over 95% at exam time, we get the A.  That is the purpose of credential-centered learning.  It succeeds in its purpose.

What more do you expect?

If you expect more, then you have to change the paradigm from credential-centered learning to student-centered learning.

You have to learn beyond the test and the credential.  In other words, you have to learn the unnatural way one learns in school into a mode of learning more like the way we learn just about everything else in life:  by what is relevant and important to our lives.

That requires re-centering learning on the student.

That requires  teachers/professors to rethink their role and function in the classroom not as central but as facilitator to what the students achieve.

It requires students to understand their goal is not only to get the A on the test but to understand the content that might well be crucial to their life, experiences, relationships, future learning, workplace, career, and everything else after the graduation date.

Everyday Learning

Learning happens everywhere.  Period.

In every day life, let’s say as parents, we concentrate our efforts on teaching kids over and over, in whatever way works, those things we know they need to survive:  how to understand the language around you (that begins in the womb, by the way:  you can hear by about 6 months of gestation), how to speak, how to eat, how to crawl, how to walk, how to defecate according to the norms of your society, how to practice all the appropriate norms of your society, how to read.

Everything else?  It’s shockingly selective.  A musical “family” (defined as all those who take care of a newborn) bombards Junior with music.  A mathematical family presents Sissy with calculations at every turn.  A literary family reads and reads.  A family of craftspeople begins early to work with manual dexterity.  A family of academics starts in on the books.  A neglectful family does none of the above.   

But the point is that we all neglect something.  And emphasize other things.  We are highly selective because we’ve already made selections.  It’s no surprise when the child of an actor becomes an actor, the child of a musician becomes a musician.

What’s a surprise is when the child of an actor becomes a mathematician. Infants start with skills, some are nourished repetitively because of enormous social pressures to nourish.  Others are nourished quite selectively because of the expertise, passions, skills, and interests of the nurturers.

School?  The point of formal education is to expose musicians to math—not so much the other way.  

Formal education selects out a set number of areas for instruction and then a person certified in those areas teaches those areas as if the children who come into the classroom all have equal aptitude, interest, skill, talent, training, and reinforcement at home.  They do not.

Inequality starts early, in other words.

Student-centered learning is, at its most basic level, a way of allowing each and every student to find a way to connect with material, to inhabit it, to find its relevance to their lives, and to replicate and remember it later in those situations where it will prove to be of value.  Kindergarten through professional school.

My interest is in higher education.

The typical student who comes to college has had twelve years of education with standardized, summative, high stakes testing and a punitive system of penalizing teachers whose students do not do well on such tests.  

Summative testing is the opposite of the learning that happens in every other situation where taking an idea and understanding why it is important to you  is what allows you to remember it, to take it in, to make it meaningful in your life, and to use it.

What I (as teacher) think is the “main point” of an article or an exercise may be useful for credential-centered learning.  If you know what I say you should know, you get your credential.

We know (that 8% rule) it is almost useless to learning that makes a difference beyond the credential, for the rest of your life.

Re-centering learning is about learning beyond the credential, learning what can be useful and used and relied upon—a tool—in your life beyond the test, beyond the classroom.

Student-centered and active learning is the methodology for learning beyond the test, beyond the credential, beyond the 92% “forget rate” studies and, instead, to think about what is that precious 8% that can make a meaningful difference in what you want to do: in your life, in your workplace, in your career, in your personal life.

Student-Centered or Active Learning—and Reflection (Meta-Cognition)

I like to call it student-centered learning.  Others use the term active learning.  In both, the idea is to make sure that the students take what they learn and use it, discuss it, and apply it.  They don’t just hear about it from prof but actually incorporate it into some kind of used and useful experience.   In one study, psychology students who took a course did only 8% better on a test on that course content material four months after the course was over than parallel students who had not taken the course.   Other studies confirm this.

So if we have the data that content is not the key ingredient in learning, what is?  What we also know from the data is that the more we actually take in the concept, apply it, use it, the more we master it.

But unless we reflect on what we have been doing, students (even in classes that are about learning) often feel as if they read “for nothing,” as if they haven’t really “gone over the material,” as if they aren’t really “learning.”  In other words, we move so quickly from learning to forgetting that we need to underscore that, by applying learning, we are actually learning better, more deeply, more usefully, and more permanently or, to many, it will see as if we’re just playing some add-on game and not “really learning.”  Unless we underscore that learning is not content but the ability to take in the deep structure of that content and apply it meaningfully in other situations, we will miss it.

Research, esp in Graduate School (Humanities, Social Sciences) as Un-Articulated Versions of Active Learning

Interestingly, in the apprenticeship model of Graduate School, we call that whole process—rarely articulated, almost always assumed—“research.”  The successful student is the one who takes the deep structure of the classroom and the readings and the Preliminary Exams and the Comprehensive Exams and then can frame those into a Dissertation.     That process is, in fact, the epitome of active, student-centered learning.

With one caveat:  because the assumptions of graduate student training (essentially an apprenticeship model) are not articulated, its result  is what Lani Guinier calls the “tyranny of meritocracy.”  As long as the “magic” of taking and applying are never explained, those students who succeed are statistically most likely to share the values, experiences, race, gender, and class background of those professors who judge what is success.

This is why we can have a professorate that is progressive and anti-racist and anti-sexist in theory and 87% white and over 60% male (full-time, full professors) in practice, with a class and family income background far higher than the national normal.

Freire: From the Banking Model to Student-As-Teacher

In 1968, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire advocated replacing the non-egalitarian, hierarchical one-way transmission or “banking” model of learning (where the teacher/professor is the expert with all the knowledge and certifies the acquisition of that knowledge by an acolyte).   His egalitarian model is what he calls the student-as-teacher and teacher-as-student.  

This is essential active or peer learning.   And its politics has been made explicit.  The purpose of such learning is not just acculturation (unspoken) to a field (unchallenged) within an institution (unquestioned) in a society (uncontexted) but quite precisely using education in order to be able to be an active, confident agent in the world, someone who can address the inequalities of field, institution, and society, who can engage with inequality and champion social and intellectual change.

This only comes from being a full participant in the learning process from the beginning and a conscious participant in that process.  

This means experimenting with knowledge, not just taking it in.  It means understand interpretation—of oneself and one’s fellow students—as key ingredients in the learning process, in an engaged and egalitarian learning process.

Coders and Hackathons:  P2P  (nb:  I'll develop this more later--lots of this in Now You See It)

In the world of coders, this is peer-to-peer learning.  

Psychologists:  Total Participation

The American Psychological Association talks about Total Participation.   The goal is to make every student—every student—an active learner, kindergarten to professional school.

See http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/111037.aspx

Here is one of the best guides to guide for K-12 active learning:  Total Participation Techiques: Making Every Student an Active Learning, by Persida Himmele and William Himmele

And a great website diagramming Total Participation, its methods, its aims, the kind of learning accomplished, based on the work by the Himmeles:  https://gssdstudentengagement.wikispaces.com/Teaching+Strategies+for+Par...

Medical School Training:  Competency-Based and Entrustable Professional Activities

In medical school, the movement is to competency-based education.  The AMA seeks to “enable a new perspective on curricula, training, and assessment” and realizes that this cannot happen without “new language.”   The new language includes seven new roles for competency: “medical expert, communicator, collaborator, health advocate, manager, scholar, and professional.”   

Interestingly, the gap between concept and actual change in practice is seen so great that there is an intermediary level, known as “entrustable professional activities” (EPA).  “The EPAs were designed to link competencies to clinical practice and make them feasible.6 The EPAs—tasks or responsibilities that can be entrusted to a trainee once sufficient, specific competence is reached to allow for unsupervised execution—are now being defined in various health care domains.7–,10 Because EPAs represent what physicians do in daily practice, the new language can be briefer and less complicated.

Ten Cate, Olle. “Competency-Based Education, Entrustable Professional Activities, and the Power of Language.” Journal of Graduate Medical Education 5.1 (2013): 6–7. PMC. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.

*****

A Postscript, with a nod (and a bit of a demurral too) to Louis Menand:

The Life Biz:  A Parting Big Thought on Why We Need a Better System

This blog was partly inspired by my students' questions on the midterm feedback form and partly by a delightfully snide essay by Louis Menand, "The Life Biz:  How to succeed at work and at home," in The New Yorker, March 28, 2016.  It's a pretty scathing review of this week's hot business book, Charles Duhigg's Smarter Faster Better:  The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business (Random House).  

 

Menand wisely makes the point that, in the 19th century, when the self-help book industry began, "efficiency" was the byword and the ideal was to "maximize the ratio of output to time" in everything one did.   Reward for success: merit raise for productivity.

In the 1920s-1980s, as we moved to a service sector economy, we also moved to a outer-directness view of the self and work and the "power of positive" thinking model of persuasion and coercion.  Reward:  lavish expense accounts.

He argues that the new mode of business book for the world of tech start-ups is to "maximize the ratio of brains to adaptability."   Reward: company stock options.

He is appalled at how much, even in higher education, we have moved through all these different ways of thinking about what the goal of our lives, education, and work might be.  

I like his analysis a lot.  And I like his denunciation of the "quick fix" business book.

However, I wonder what it means that the institutions (which he agrees are intractable) of formal education, especially higher education, that were all formulated for the era of efficiency--where we were maximizing the ratio of output to time--are still so firmly, intractably in place in a world that wants "adaptability."

So we have not just a bad infrastructure but an archaic one.  That is worrying on every level.

And I worry even more that that bad and archaic infrastructure is also designed to reward inequality.  For the same system that was designed to maximize the ratio of output to time was based on a biological understanding of eugenics.  Galton, of course, invented both standardized deviation and modern statistics--and petitioned the House of Lords and Parliament to pay aristocrats to bear more children and to sterilize the poor.  In the name of efficiency.

Those things go together.

That is why student-centered learning is political.  Reflective.  About finding the best way for students to become powerful actors who don't just succeed in the "life biz" but who work to find a better society, new paradigms, and better ways of being in the world.

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