The Science of Learning

The Science of Learning and The Art of Teaching

I’ve published about 11 articles about the Science of Learning and have about a dozen more to publish. When completed, this will represent much of what I know about the science of learning after ten years of research. Knowing what the research tells us about how people learn is not enough unless we use what we know to make a difference in our students’ lives.

Usually, when I begin to talk to teachers about the science of learning, I find that they get very defensive. I can understand the defensiveness. Many of them have been teaching for many years and feel confident about what they are doing. What they are doing is exactly what their colleagues, students, and administration expect of them. Many of them have been told that they are wonderful teachers by their colleagues, students, and teachers. There are even some (about 9% according to Bok 2006) who have read a paper, gone to a seminar, or even gone to a conference about teaching in the last year. Teacher cognition (another article I posted a few weeks ago) means that by the time any of us get to the point that we are now, we know what a good teacher is, we know what they look like, we know what they do, and we pattern our practice after what we know. And, teacher cognition tells us that what we know about teaching is extremely difficult to change, even when faced with overwhelming evidence that we should do something different for the benefit of our students.

Another reaction I constantly get is looking at what they are doing as a teacher and trying to fit their practice around the evidence. If they can do that, not only they are a good teacher but their practice is founded on solid scientific principles.

A third reaction that I get (too often) is a nasty kind of acceptance of the evidence and then an outright rejection of the evidence and a continuation of what they are doing. I had a colleague who, after going over the evidence about lecturing said to me, “I don’t care what the evidence says, I want to lecture.” When I asked about the effect on student learning, her reply was (unbelievably), “I don’t care about their learning, I’m lecturing!” I was stunned. More recently, after making a presentation about the science of learning that didn’t mention any evidence about lecturing, I was asked about lecturing. When I rolled out some of the numbers and what the science says, the reply was, “None of that evidence would apply to the way I lecture because I am a good lecturer.” A couple of others present nodded in agreement through their scowls.

I have no intention to offend, but it seems that when it comes to the science of learning, the evidence is rejected in a very close-minded way my too many of my colleagues. In defense of their practices, they can become mean and nasty to me as a person.

I don’t make up the science, I just present it.

How we learn, is a science, and we know how it works. The evidence is based on sound, scientific principles that have been found through rigorous and methodologically sound research. All of the principles that I have, and will, present have been replicated in laboratories and applied, usually individually, in classroom settings for years and years. As Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, a pioneer in effective science education and past associate director of science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted …although much is known (from cognitive psychology, brain science, and college classroom studies) about thinking and learning, this knowledge is almost never applied to teaching techniques.

Science has made a massive difference in so many aspects of our lives.

But why hasn’t this happened in education?

Other than using computers to present our information, using the internet to find information, or using computers and the internet to offer our traditional art of teaching to the world, how has science changed the fundamental way we do teach?

Teaching is an art. The art of teaching has been handed down for generations with very little change. How much different is the form of teaching across the last millennia?

Learning is a science, and we need to embrace it and not ignore it because it doesn’t fit our mindset.

The part of the science of learning that seems to cause the most hostility are the methods used in teaching. I will be covering them over the next few weeks, and they will be emotive. Nothing raises the hackles of a teacher more than finding out that the method of teaching that they use is not good for student learning. On a number of occasions, as my students in my Science of Learning class begin to explore what the science tells them, they will say something along the lines of, “How could so much of what I believed about school be so wrong?”

I don’t make up the science, I just present it.

Applying the principles can be hard. I know from my own experience just how hard it can be. As I was exploring the science of learning as the focus of my scholarship, I was both astounded and scared. How could I have been so wrong? I was (and still am) a great lecturer. I got brilliant feedback for being engaging, funny, clear, concise, and on and on. My assessments were praised for being among the best in our large department as innovative, engaging, reliable, and valid. I was awarded a teaching fellowship and quickly became the head of the Academy of Teaching Fellows in our old, red brick, British University. I was good!

One year, I looked at myself and couldn’t believe what a hypocrite I had become. Everything I had been learning told me that the way I was teaching was fundamentally wrong, and I needed to change. Like most of us, my teaching focused on my teaching and not on the students’ learning. It took me a year of planning, and then two years of experimentation before I came up with a model that ticked all the boxes for the Science of Learning: optimally motivated; incredibly memorable; far more engaging than I had ever imagined; brilliantly fostering writing, speaking, and critical thinking skills; and (surprisingly to me) arousing a passion for learning in the students. The response from my colleagues was unbelievable, at least to me. I was called in by the Head of School and told I couldn’t continue with what I was doing because I was making the other faculty look bad. Because I was a senior, tenured academic in an old, red-brick institution, I let him know that I could teach any way I wanted and continued to do so.

I had access to the students’ grades because of my position in the department and made a statistical comparison. The students carry out an empirical project that spans two years. I compared the grades for the students who took my class with the students who didn’t take my class at both the second year of their project (absolutely no difference in the two cohorts) and then again at the end of the final year project (after they had taken my class). The results were brilliant. Not only did my students perform significantly better on their final year project, but the effect size for the difference was far larger than even I expected. My class had changed the way the students thought and learned.

Learning to apply the principles from the science of learning is difficult and scary. I have become an expert at this and have supported a few professors in making the change. You can’t underestimate the difficulty and the challenges you will face, and I have seen a couple of professors try to apply the principles on their own. The feedback from students is that there is a world of difference between my classes and the “do it yourself” imitations with my classes being much, much better.

I have become an expert. I would urge you to apply the principles and change your way of life, I can support you. After making the change, the workload for the faculty member is lighter, the teaching is more enjoyable, and the results astounding. Make the change and you will never look back. I believe in people and so I know that you can do it.

Teaching is an art, Learning is a science!

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