The Science of Learning

The Science of Learning

Learning is at the heart of education, or should be. Over the years, as someone who has engaged in the Science of Learning and how that can be applied to formal learning settings, I have spoken at conferences, given numerous workshops and seminars, and worked to support teachers who were in need of help. I have always been shocked at the reception to the idea of incorporating learning into teaching.

What most teachers are really looking for is a quick tip that will make their teaching easier, more dynamic, or be more popular with the students. There have been a few exceptions, but that has been my experience for many years.

Even when trying to get students to learn content for some of the standard ways they are assessed, The Science of Learning has told us much that is known about how students learn. Almost all of that research is ignored by those participating in the workshops, the seminars, or the conferences I have run, and virtually all of it is ignored by the majority of those in mainstream education. All that is wanted is a teaching tip that can be picked up in five minutes or less and implemented with no effort. There are very few who engage in trying to find out how people learn because education is all about teaching.

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 that 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.

A couple of examples demonstrate what I mean.

After a seminar, I asked a lecturer who attended several seminars that I led, “What are you going to do with the things we have been talking about here?” Her answer stunned me. It was something like, “I come to these seminars to meet my continued professional development requirements. I have no interest in what the research and evidence tell me about teaching. I don’t care if the students don’t learn with lectures. I want to lecture, so that’s what I am going to do”.

How can anyone respond to that kind of answer? I have heard that sentiment from numerous participants over the years but never had it put quite that bluntly. I’m more used to, “The researchers never came to one of my lectures…” as a reply (dozens of those).

More recently I was teaching a couple of classes at a college and was trying to help the students memorize what they needed to know to pass three MCQ exams. I had no input into the curriculum and the tests were written by a team leader. As a sessional, I was hired to deliver material. I introduced a few measures that would help the students really memorize what they needed to know for these exams using what I know about the Science of Learning. It was different from what they were used to and a couple of the students complained. The complaint was, literally, that I didn’t read the PowerPoint slides like everybody else does. I was called into the department head’s office and we had a talk about it. She said to me that I needed to make clear exactly what I was doing and why. I did that.

A month later, I was called in again as the same two students had complained a second time about what I was doing. They were still complaining that I was not doing what everyone else was doing and they were not happy. This time, the head of the department was clearly upset. I did point out that the class average for the three classes I taught was significantly higher than the average test scores from the other sections of the same class. She stated, rather firmly, that the college was a business and the students were customers. If the college could not attract customers, we would all lose our jobs because there would be no students to teach. Again, I heard a stunning statement as she told me that my job was not to worry about what the students learned but my job was to make them happy, so I was to teach the way everyone else was teaching. I left her office speechless.

I realize that there are hundreds of thousands of lecturers who want nothing but a tip to make them look better because their institutions have essentially the same philosophy – make the students happy! But if I can just reach out to a few who care about their students as people and their responsibility to help their students learn, I would feel that I was making a difference. Maybe it is time for some self-reflection –  “Do I really know anything about how people learn?”

Reasserting that the earth is flat because we all know that the earth is flat and your way of talking about the flat earth is better than everyone else’s isn’t good enough anymore. Find out how people learn and apply that to foster their learning.

The future of work/learning will require something different. As long as we keep doing the same thing we won’t get a different result.

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