This year, the Faculty of Mathematics at my school has been focusing on increasing what TeacherToolkit (in one of his famous ‘5 Minute plans‘) calls ‘stickability’ of learning.
I have an ongoing and passionate interest in how the brain works and have been following, with increasing interest, the connections made between neuroscience and education. In a space where there is considerable debate as to what constitutes quality learning and how to attain same, it is important that any strategies employed in the classroom are based on a firm, well-researched evidence base.
We are coming to the end of term break here in Australia and I have taken the headspace time over this break to read two books that explore what quality learning looks like from different perspectives and offer advice for teachers, as professional learners, to better promote quality learning in their classes.
(1) Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel (Harvard University Press, 2014)
(2) Learn to Teach, Teach to Learn by Catherine Scott
Learn to Teach explores the most up-to-date findings on how children learn, to help teachers create effective learning environments and plan for teaching. It covers the purpose of education; socio-cultural approaches to human cognition; attention and intelligence as cognitive tools; and the role of mindsets, memory and language in learning. It promotes the idea that the mind is a cultural product and that education is best understood as fostering the development of valued cognitive tools appropriate for the twenty-first century.
In Make It Stick, the authors make the point that learning is an acquired skill and that the most effective strategies in learning are often counterintuitive. The main points of the book are:
Learning is deeper and more durable when it is effortful.
We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we are not. When the going is harder and slower, and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.
Rereading text and massed practice (concentrated study in one period of time) of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategies of learners but they are also among the least effective. These give rise to feelings of fluency that are taken to be signs of mastery but for true mastery or durability (‘stickability’), these are largely a waste of time.
Retrieval practice – recalling concepts or events from memory – is a more effective learning strategy. Retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting. A single, low-stake quiz after reading a text or listening to a demonstrated example produces better learning and remembering than rereading a text or looking over notes. While the brain is not a muscle that gets stronger with exercise (better take that slide out of my next presentation to the Year 9s!!), the neural pathways that make up a body of learning do get stronger, when the memory is retrieved and the learning is practised. Periodic practice arrests forgetting, strengthens retrieval routes and is essential for hanging onto knowledge.
When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave the practice of two or more things, retrieval is harder and feels less productive but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of this learning later on.
Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when (or perhaps because of?) errors are made in the process.
When you are adept at extracting the underlying principles that differentiate different types of problems, you are more successful at picking the right solutions in unfamiliar situations.
We are all susceptible to illusions that can hijack our judgement of what we know and can do. Testing (low-stake) helps calibrate our judgements of what we’ve learned.
All new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge. To learn trigonometry well, you need to remember some algebra and geometry.
Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it to what you already know. The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning.
Putting new learning into a larger context helps learning. If you are trying to learn an abstraction, like angular momentum, it’s easier if you ground it in something concrete that you already know.
People who learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organise these into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge show an advantage in learning complex mastery.
Every time you learn, you change the brain. We start life with the gift of our genes but we become capable through the learning and development of mental models that enable us to reason, solve and create. The elements that shape our intellectual abilities lie within our control. This involves understanding that when learning feels hard, you are doing important work. And that striving and setbacks are essential if you want to surpass your current level of performance toward true expertise. Making mistakes and correcting them build the bridges to advanced learning. Grit, resilience and persistence.
(Pages 3-7, Make It Stick)
I found these two books to be enriching and affirming of what we have been trying to achieve in our journey within the faculty, and the broader school. In the analytic domain, we have been working on gaining the brain’s attention by engaging students, determining essential learning, focusing on prior knowledge, teaching for understanding, formative assessment to check for understanding, providing more opportunities for students to articulate their reasoning and make thinking visible and making more connections between concepts to strengthen neural pathways. In the affective domain, we have been deliberately focused on resilience, grit, persistence, the importance of having a growth mindset, the instructional benefits of error-making and talking to students about how learning something new is challenging and may feel discomforting. There are always ways we can improve, but it is heartening to know we are heading in the right direction.
The rich evidence base, that these two books are embedded within, is also worthwhile emphasising. It is this academic authority that should support any decisions made about teaching and learning in any school.
Highly recommended reading.