Guest Post by Dr. Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D. adapted from several posts from her blog:
During my school years, I noticed there was a problem with how I was being asked to learn. Cramming and memorizing information, being tested for mastery prior to having enough practice time, having units of study with supposedly beginnings and endings, and learning facts with no context were counterproductive and at times, very painful to me. I would raise my hand to ask, “Why do I need to know this?” I needed a purpose and a context. None was given. I was told to stop being a smart a---.
I know I am not alone in the pain I felt with these instructional methods. The unintended consequences of these artificial and unnatural ways of learning include believing that learning is or should be difficult, painful, disciplined, and not fun. This, too often, results in learners believing that they cannot or do not want to learn new things especially in those areas where and when learning was painful. I believe learning can or should be natural, fun, and engaging.
First, there’s the question of what students are made to learn, which often is more oriented to factual material than to a deep understanding of ideas. Second, there’s the question of how students are taught, with a focus on passive absorption: listening to lectures, reading summaries in textbooks, and rehearsing material immediately before being required to cough it back up. Third, there’s the question of why a student has learned something: Knowledge is less likely to be retained if it has been acquired so that one will perform well on a test, as opposed to learning in the context of pursuing projects and solving problems that are personally meaningful. (Alfie Kohn)
If I ask you or your students, "How do you learn," how many of you could clearly articulate this process? If you can, are the strategies you're using the best ones for learning? Furthermore, if the research on the process of learning is compared to the practices being implemented in school, does this research influence school practices?
Benedict Carey informs us that “most of our instincts about learning are misplaced, incomplete, or flat wrong” and “rooted more in superstition than in science.” That’s a disconcerting message, and hard to believe at first. But it’s also unexpectedly liberating, because Carey further explains that many things we think of as detractors from learning — like forgetting, distractions, interruptions or sleeping rather than hitting the books — aren’t necessarily bad after all. They can actually work in your favor, according to a body of research that offers surprising insights and simple, doable strategies for learning more effectively. (http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/08/how-does-the-brain-learn-best-smart-studying-strategies/)
Instead of making assumptions about the best and most natural learning strategies, it is best to research and study this process. "Unfortunately, most people, educators included, are unaware of the lessons from the science of learning" (http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/08/how-does-the-brain-learn-best-smart-studying-strategies/).
What follows are some of those strategies that research has indicated are some of the better ones. It obviously is not extensive nor inclusive of all possible learning strategies, but it is a good start to reflect on how educators ask students to learn.
We’ve heard a lot lately about the benefits of experiencing and overcoming failure. One way to get these benefits is to set things up so that you’re sure to fail—by tackling a difficult problem without any instruction or assistance. Manu Kapur, a researcher at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore, has reported that people who try solving math problems in this way don’t come up with the right answer—but they do generate a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and about what potential solutions would look like, leading them to perform better on such problems in the future. Kapur calls this “productive failure,” and you can implement it in your own learning by allowing yourself to struggle with a problem for a while before seeking help or information. (http://lifehacker.com/the-science-behind-how-we-learn-new-skills-908488422)
When we're picking up a new skill or learning something entirely new, it's easy to binge-learn and obsessively work on it over time. However, that's not always the best idea. In fact, spreading out learning, also known as distributed practice, is thought to be a better way to learn. A review of studies in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that spreading out learning is far more effective than cramming. Distributed practice is an old technique, but it actually works really well for the busy lives most of us lead. Instead of sitting down for hours on end to learn a skill, distributed practice is all about shorter, smaller sessions where you're stimulating the link between the neurons more often throughout time. (http://lifehacker.com/the-science-behind-how-we-learn-new-skills-908488422)
Take Breaks to Allow for Incubation
There's a whole bunch of science looking at problem-solving. In problem-solving, when you get stuck, you've run out of ideas, distraction is really your best friend. You need to stand up, let it go — walk around the block, go to the cafe, drink a beer, whatever it is — and that is really your best shot at loosening the gears a little bit and allowing yourself to take a different and more creative approach to the problem. (http://www.npr.org/2014/08/23/342219405/studying-take-a-break-and-embrace-your-distractions)
Try Alternate and More Fun Ways of Learning Before Giving Up on Something NewWhen trying to learn something new, you can easily get burned out and feel defeated if the subject is taught by rote. The problem was the way the books "dragged [him] through a series of structured principles" lifelessly. This is not to say that learning through books is bad (not all books are terrible) or that all classes are like this. If you find yourself, though, thinking of giving up on a subject you really want to learn because you're struggling with it, consider how you're learning or being taught. Try to find a way to learn through play (http://lifehacker.com/5810326/try-alternate-and-more-fun-ways-of-learning-before-giving-up-on-learning-something-new)
Apply New Learning Often and in Meaningful Contexts
The more you can apply what you're learning to your every day, the more it'll stick in your head. The reason is simple. When you're learning by doing, you're implementing everything that makes our memory work. When you're able to connect what you're learning with a real world task, that forms the bonds in your brain, and subsequently the skills you're learning will stick around.
We learn best when we have context, and that applies to new skills as much as it does random facts in school. That's why something like the transfer of learning is helpful when you’re learning a new skill. This means you're applying your new skills in your day to day life in a context that matters. (http://lifehacker.com/the-science-behind-how-we-learn-new-skills-908488422)
When I think about learning without a context, I get a visual image of all of these unconnected facts floating around in the learner's brain. Since they have nothing to connect to, they end up flying away. This is especially true for abstract concepts.
Learning facts and knowledge about a content area topic is an important prerequisite to understanding that topic and then developing expertise. The key to this understanding is providing a context for the facts. The context becomes the glue to increase the stickiness, the longevity of long term memory of those facts. This is especially true for abstract concepts. These concepts need something concrete with which to attach.
Lave and Wenger (1991) argue that learning should not be viewed as simply the transmission of abstract and decontextualised knowledge from one individual to another, but a social process whereby knowledge is co-constructed; they suggest that such learning is situated in a specific context and embedded within a particular social and physical environment. (Situated Learning)
The following are some suggestions for establishing context (the list is just a start). Ironically, they are practices that are often recommended are best practices in teaching but they aren't implement as often as they should be:
- Assess and Connect to Learners' Real Life and Previous Experiences with the Topic - see http://ideaedu.org/research-and-papers/pod-idea-notes-instruction/idea-item-11-related-course-material-real-life
- Use Hands-On and Experiential Activities - see http://www.raft.net/case-for-hands-on-learning
- Use Case Studies and Simulations - see https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/instructionalstrategies/casestudies.html
- Have Learners Engage with Real World Practitioners - see http://www.nbcnews.com/video/nightly-news/52279118#52279118
- Implement Place-Based Learning - see http://www.ourcurriculummatters.com/What-is-place-based-education.php
Questions to Help Guide Learning
I believe it is each and every educator’s responsibility to ensure that their teaching strategies match both best practices in education and the learning needs of their students. What follows are some general evaluation questions to begin the process of this congruence:
- Is failure viewed as normal and as a productive part of the learning process?
- Is learning spaced out over time rather than crammed into a short time period?
- Are distractions during learning normalized?
- Is the learning practiced often and in a variety of contexts?
- Is learning playful and fun? This is especially important when 0ne gets "stuck" at an impasse.
Dr. Jackie Gerstein's byline is, "I don't do teaching for a living. I live teaching as my doing . . . and technology has amplified my passion for doing so." Gerstein has been teaching in-person and online for several decades. Currently she teaches master's-level online courses in educational technology for Boise State, American Intercontinental, and Western's Governors' Universities.
She believes that one of the roles and responsibilities of the 21st century educator is to share resources, ideas, and instructional strategies with other educators.
As such, she actively blogs at https://usergeneratededucation.wordpress.com/ and tweets at https://twitter.com/jackiegerstein