Learning to Learn Better: The Interview

Dear ol’ Eduflack has been spending a great deal of time recently focused on the subject of cognitive science. Dating back to my time helping lead the National Reading Panel, I’ve been fascinated with learning about how people learn. And I’ve been even more fascinated by those that, despite the incredible growth in cognitive learning research in recent years, continue to believe that learning is an art, with little room for hard science.

So when I heard about the new book, Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and Schools, or How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything, I was sold. The book itself is terrific, weaving a tight narrative of instruction, storytelling, and inspiration. And it applies to concepts of learning, and learning better, in areas many of us may never have thought of.

That’s why I just had to reach out to Ulrich Boser, the author of this terrific book, to get some answers to the questions I was begging to ask. Most know Boser as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. My first interactions with him date back to when he was an editor at US News & World Report. As author of Learn Better, Boser has made an important contribution to the discussion of how we improve learning and how we ensure our educators, our institutions, and our learners are prepared for what the future of learning might bring.

Huge thanks to Boser for indulging me and stepping up on the five most important questions his book left me with. 

EDUFLACK: What was the most surprising story on learning you heard as part of your research? 

BOSER: For me at least, the story of Roger Craig was definitely the most surprising. To explain, Roger Craig thought that he might have an edge at Jeopardy after reading about an approach to learning known as spacing. The idea behind spacing is pretty simple. Since we all forget, learning should be spread out—or spaced—in order increase the amount of learning.  

So Craig began to study Jeopardy! trivia using a spaced approach, and with the help of a bit of software, he would revisit every weird Jeopardy detail in a highly distributed—or spaced—way.

Armed with this bit of the science of learning, Craig dominated Jeopardy. He first appeared on the game show in the fall of 2010 and eventually set a record for the most amount of money won in a single game.

Craig’s success at the game show tells two bigger stories, I think. First, learning often leaves as soon as it arrives, and to account for this fact, people should revisit whatever they’ve learned at regular intervals.

Second, people can use the science of learning to develop much richer skills. 

EDUFLACK: Learn Better seems to champion competency-based education, the ability of a student to both learn and be able to do/demonstrate. Is that a fair assessment?

BOSER: Absolutely. Indeed, I find the debate over competency-based education a little narrow minded, to be honest. More specifically, does anyone really argue that we should not measure competency? To me at least, it seems obvious that if students learn something, they should be able to–you know– do it.

In my mind, the more important question is: How do we measure competency? What programs and policies do we need to figure out if students can really demonstrate their learning?

From my conversations with researchers, it seems that robust learning is the ability to think in a certain field. So if someone wants to be a competent engineer, they should be able to think like a engineer. If someone wants to be a competent a car mechanic, they need to think like a car mechanic.

This isn’t as complicated as it seems, and according to a growing number of experts, this sort of thinking—and learning—often comes down to analogies. In other words, we can learn a lot by seeing the relationships within a field, by seeing how things fit together.

For me, the problem is that our education system is not aligned with the research. Standards, curriculum, tests, they often push in different directions on the issue of competency, and we need better tests and instructional tools to promote—and measure— analogical thinking within an area of expertise. 

EDUFLACK: In recent years, there has been a drumbeat that every student can and should benefit from a liberal arts college education. But as you emphasize finding value in one’s learning, is “all can benefit” the approach we should be looking to?

BOSER: I think a liberal arts education is deeply important. To engage in the world, we need a broad base of knowledge, from knowing Mozart to understanding the Battle of Mogadishu. What’s more, a liberal arts-oriented education can help us learn new things. Background knowledge helps learning, and the most reliable indicator of what you can learn is what you know.

At the same, we expect way too much of schools. In K-12 at least, schools are supposed to teach everything from reading to coding, social skills to citizenship, tuba to Picasso, plus win an occasional sports championship. That’s simply too much, and it keeps schools from focusing on effective teaching and learning. 

EDUFLACK: The thesis of Learn Better seems to place a great deal of responsibility on the learner to own his or her own education. What should teachers today be doing, or doing differently, to ensure better learning in their classrooms?

BOSER: Great question. First, I’d point out that students need to learn responsibility in the same way that they learn geometry or Spanish, and we need to give young people more opportunities to develop ownership skills in meaningful ways.

This can be difficult, to be sure. I have little kids, and as we are rushing out the door each morning—a mess of untied shoes and missing water bottles—it’s hard to imagine giving my kids any more responsibility. But giving kids some ownership is crucial. It gives them an opportunity to practice responsibility.

Second, we have to realize that people need to find their own meaning. This is key to learning, and people have to find their own meaning in a subject in order to be driven to learn that subject.

This means that just sprinkling some pop culture facts on a topic isn’t going to make it interesting. Alas, just mentioning the Kardashians during math class isn’t going to promote any robust forms of motivation.

Instead, educators should encourage students to find their own value in a topic, to figure out how the students might uncover their own relevance in a field of expertise.

Chris Hulleman at the University of Virginia puts this idea well. Motivation “is about making that connection between what people are learning and what’s going on in their lives,” he told me. “Value is the mechanism. For people, the question is, ‘Can I see why this is valuable to me?’” 

EDUFLACK: In talking about the need to shift from rote memorization to deeper thinking, I read it as a need to move learners from being generalists — or jacks of all trades — to being specialists or expert in those things that really drive them. Are we headed toward such a future?

BOSER: Yes, and in many ways, this future is already here. After all, the history of the modern world is the history of specialization, and our economy runs on people developing pretty narrow areas of expertise.

Adam Smith wrote about the power of specialization centuries ago in his book Wealth of Nations, and at its core, it’s about dividing up labor. What’s more, technology is putting a version of this trend into hyperspeed by automating more and more tasks, which requires more and more specialization.

That said, we don’t always need to become experts. Mastery isn’t always necessary. But we should stay away from rote learning. It’s simply not effective.

Let’s take changing a tire on a car, for instance. I don’t need to become expert in the skill of tire changing. My tires don’t break down that often. But I do want to go beyond a rote understanding of tire changing.

Because if I have a rote understanding, I will not be able to change a tire on any other car besides my current car. That doesn’t help me that much, especially if my friend’s car has a flat tire or if I get a new car.  

So when it comes to changing a tire, I would want to learn how to change a tire well enough that I understand some of the basic principles (like lift) and enough of the mechanics (like unscrewing bolts) that I can change the tires on different cars.

To answer your question, then, we want people to specialize–and learn some topics very well. But some generalization remains necessary, at least if you don’t want to be stranded by the side of the road with a flat tire.

Happy Happy!

On this day in history. Seventy years ago, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was established. Twenty-three years ago, Justin Bieber was hatched, err was born. Twenty two years ago, Yahoo was incorporated. And 10 years ago today, Eduflack was launched.

It’s hard to believe that it has been a decade. In that time, we have had well over a million page visits to this site. We have experienced three different presidents and four different EdSecs. We went from the height of NCLB to the rejection of NCLB to the passage of ESSA to now the start of the rejection of key ESSA provisions. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

When I launched Eduflack in 2007, I did so because I found the writing cathartic. I didn’t expect folks would actually want to read it (no, I’m not being self deprecating). I certainly didn’t expect major news outlets would quote posts (particularly when I hypothesized on potential EdSec candidates in 2008).

This site has evolved over the last decade, but I still try to keep it at that intersection of education communications, policy, politics, and research. Sometimes we lean more one way than the other. But with each post, we try to stay true to our roots.

This blog has led to the establishment and curation of a top education policy Twitter feed, @Eduflack (believe it or not, Twitter wasn’t even a thing when the blog was established). It has led to a regular podcast for BAM! Radio Network, with the current focus on education policy under President Trump (#TrumpED). And it has resulted in essays and commentaries bearing the Eduflack name in Education Week, US News & World Report, and many, many others.

It has even led to an upcoming book, currently late to my publisher, on the need to reform education reform.

And while I hate the term, it has also resulted in an Eduflack “brand,” which hopefully stands for something that is seen as contributing to a meaningful discussion, and not just adding to all of the meaningless white noise in public education.

Big thanks to all of those who read this blog, who encourage me to continue to do this blog, and to those who run into me at conferences and events and simply know me as Eduflack (granted, Riccards can often be too difficult for some to pronounce.)

Thank you all! And happy birthday Eduflack, truly my middle child.

 

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DeVos, the Teachers Unions, and Political Cartoonists

While not endorsing the message of the below cartoon, Eduflack was fascinated by the following piece that appeared in the Tampa Times last week (the newspaper of record for Eduflack’s parents during winter time). 

I recognize that far too many people are looking to sources like Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show for their news these days. But what was most interesting was that the DeVos confirmation rose to the level of a syndicated political cartoon (particularly one distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group) and that the cartoon would differ so strongly from the editorial content that the Post was publishing on the same topic. 

Any sightings of this in other newspapers? If so, please share.

“The Man in the Arena”

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

Teddy Roosevelt, in his Citizenship in the Republic speech, delivered in Paris on April 23, 1910

Is Education Level, Alma Mater the Measures of Ability?

My grandfather was a high school dropout. After ending his formal education, he joined the U.S. Army. The Army taught him how to drive a truck and how to repair them. After his service to our country, he put those skills to work, taking care of my grandmother and their five children. His 10th grade education and the skills he obtained allowed him to pay the mortgage, cloth and feed his family, and generally love the middle class American dream. Sure, money was always tight, but they found a way.

My grandfather took great pride in not trusting “college boys.” When my mother brought home my dad, a 24-year-old doctoral student, for the first time, my grandfather couldn’t fathom how one could be 24-years old and still in college. My grandfather had obtained his education though his life experiences, and education on the streets (and highways).

Coming out of the 2016 elections, I’ve often thought about my grandfather and what he would have thought about this election. He was a loyal Teamster, and often voted as the union leadership instructed their truckers. In all likelihood, he would have been part of Trump’s America, embracing an outsider, someone who would stick it to the man, and someone would pledged a commitment to hard work and the good ol’ days. He would have pointed to Trump’s successes as a businessman, particularly his ability to get things done, to complete projects on time, and the perception that Trump was always getting the better end of the deals he negotiated.

I also thought about my grandfather in reading Shaun King’s latest for the New York Daily News. In it, King laments how we are likely facing the least-educated presidential administration in recent times. Donald Trump will be the first president in more than two decades to “only hold a bachelor’s degree.” He is nominating potential cabinet members who also hold only lowly bachelor’s degrees as their highest educational attainment. And even worse, some of those attended non-Ivy League colleges!

King longs (channeling a Ta-Nehisi Coates interview on the topic) for a cabinet of Nobel Laureates and Ivy League Ph.Ds. We all have our vision of who makes the best leaders. But when one sees educational attainment (including from which institution obtained) as the ultimate measure of ability and success, aren’t we again projecting a sense of entitlement? And in the process, aren’t we discounting the skills and abilities of some to fit the preferences and prejudices of others?

There is no Ivy League Ph.D. program, law school or MBA coursework, that prepares one to be president (or even a Cabinet secretary). A former Nobel laureate Energy Secretary may go down in history as one of the worst at the position. In fact, one could argue such academic accomplishments (and the Ivy towers that come with them) ensure that individuals are not prepared for effectively leading large bureaucracies or owning the bully pulpits that come with being a politician on the national stage.

Many have taken school choice advocate Betsy DeVos’ nomination as Education Secretary as a sign of what is wrong with the system. As King and many others have noted, DeVos “only” holds a bachelor’s degree from Calvin College. She’s also been attacked for having never worked as a public school teacher or for having never worked in K-12 in general (among other criticisms).

But many of the same people who criticize DeVos for her lack of education pedigree are the same who were uber-critical of Rod Paige when he was named EdSec in 2001. Dr. Paige held a doctorate. He had been a K-12 teacher (though in a subject that many dismissed), a school superintendent, and had worked in higher education. We dismissed those experiences as well, saying he shouldn’t be the EdSec, because we didn’t like the schools he attended or the subjects he taught. He didn’t fit the pre-conceived perceptions that many had for an EdSec.

I’d remind folks that those who think teaching experience is a pre-requisite for being EdSec, such a filter would have denied us EdSec Richard Riley, perhaps the most successful Secretary since the creation of the Department in the Carter Administration. And for those who think an advanced degree is a requirement for becoming president, it would have kept us from Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan (just to name a few).

What is of even greater concern is the focus on where the degrees of nominees may be from. We discount Trump’s B.A. from a lesser Ivy like UPenn, and folks are having a field day with DeVos’ Calvin College. Here in America, we tell our kids that a college education is the most important investment they can make. Almost as frequently, we tell them where they attend doesn’t matter (as long as it is accredited) as long as they work hard and earn their degree.

But the scorn that is now being displayed for the Trump administration on its attainment levels and alma maters tell a very different story. We are telling our kids that if they only get a bachelor’s degree, they can’t be a true success (I guess we will forget Bill Gates dropping out of school and such). And we’re telling them that that undergraduate degree from an affordable state college isn’t worth as much as one from an elite private school charging $75,000 a year. 

Even worse, we are telling our kids that one’s success is measured by the letters after their name and the public recognition of the college bumper sticker on their car, not by what they have achieved in their lives.

Sure, I know that isn’t what King is intending to say. But it is how it can come across to so many. We should measure our leaders (and everyone else) by what they know and are able to do. It should be about earning success and demonstrating achievement. A graduate degree can be one measure of that. So can military service. So can experience building a non-profit organization or serving as a community leader. So can a whole lot of things that just aren’t measured by a sheepskin.

What Edu-Reporting Can Learn from the 2016 Campaign

What [the election] means for us is both calling out racism when we see it, and also speaking to people who don’t necessarily see common ground with each other. I don’t know that we weren’t doing that before, but going forward we are intending on making sure our language is as honest and accurate as possible, and holding people accountable.

– Hechinger Report’s Sarah Garland, in Alexander Russo’s Make [Education] Reporting Great Again

A Steady Hand for Trump EdSec

Last month, Eduflack wrote about his dream, that the next U.S. President would select a family advocate as the next Education Secretary. Now that the election dust has settled and we start to see the names being put forward as possible EdSecs in President-elect Trump’s administration, I become a realist. We may not get a parental engagement beacon as EdSec, but I can still hope for a new assistant secretary for family and community engagement, can’t I?

So it begs the question, who will become the next EdSec? The current parlor games have “sexy” candidates like Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz or former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee dominating headlines. School choice advocates like Betsy DeVos and Jeanne Allen are also frequently mentioned. Former state chiefs like Gerard Robinson (of VA and FL) and Tony Bennett (IN and FL) also gain mention. In fact, of all those who have been mentioned, only surgeon Ben Carson seems to have taken himself out of the running.

What do we make of all this? If we look to when Trump selected a vice president, most folks were willing to bet that either New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich were jockeying for the number two slot. It wasn’t until the final hours that some started seeing Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as a possibility.

We know that Donald Trump likes to be the big dog. That means an EdSec who dominates the spotlight (and the media coverage) is likely not what he is looking for. We know he believes in state and local control, so a DC power broker seems unlikely. And we know that education is not likely a top concern of the Trump administration, so ED needs a steady hand that understands policy, can work with the Hill, and can get things done without too much drama.

Or more simply, ED needs an adult who both understands how a bureaucracy like the Education Department operates, who knows how to get the most out of all the career employees embedded over on Maryland Avenue, yet understands how and why to continue to push decisions and actions to the states.

With all that, the Eduflack shortlist for EdSec includes:

Bill Evers – Evers is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He was assistant secretary of education for policy in the George W. Bush administration. Evers served on several academic standards commissions in California and is a former elected board of education member and charter school board member.

Bill Hansen – Currently the President and CEO of USA Funds, Hansen was the deputy secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration. He brings significant private sector education experience, while serving on state education commissions in Virginia. Hansen brings a mix of both K-12 and higher education experience.

Hanna Skandera – Skandera has severed as New Mexico’s Secretary of Education since 2010. She was previously Florida’s deputy commissioner of education, undersecretary of education in California, and as a senior policy advisor and deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education.

While I could keep going, listing a number of congressmen, governors, university presidents, and corporate executives, I couldn’t say any of them would be better choices than one of these three. Each are steeped in K-12 and higher education knowledge. Each understand the federal/state/local balance. And each is a workhorse, unlikely to upstage the boss on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Who am I missing?