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.

Earth Day, #CommonCore, and Environmental Ed

As we celebrate another Earth Day, we are seeing more and more examples of how instruction in the environmental sciences — even for our youngest learners — can be about more than just lecture and the recitation of facts.

As I write for BAM Radio’s EDWords, there are strong ways to connect Common Core and Next Gen Science Standards with environmental science instruction and student interests. The Think Earth Environmental Education Foundation provides us just one example of what is possible.

From BAM Radio’s site:

While many may think that aligning with Common Core and NGSS means a tightly controlled, proscribed curriculum with on room for creativity or tailoring to specific students, we are seeing more and more that that simply isn’t the case. With offerings like Think Earth, we are given a clear view of how our youngest learners can learn subjects like environmental science in ways that just enhance what they are already learning in their science and math classes.

Teaching “to the Common Core” provides an unending number of paths to the creative educator. They have third graders market vacations to the outer reaches of the solar system and they can have first and second graders understand natural resources and conservation in ways that their own parents may not quite appreciate.

 

 

Celebrating #NJSTEMWeek By Celebrating #STEM Teacher Ed

This week is NJ STEM Week. Across the Garden State, educators, policymakers, and the business community have been celebrating STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) and its importance in building a strong economy, stronger society, and stronger citizenry.

Over at Medium, I reflect on some of my own STEM experiences over the years, while highlighting some of the great work the Woodrow Wilson Foundation is doing to recruit, prepare, and support STEM teachers for high-need schools in New Jersey. As I write:

Whether one wants to become a rocket scientist or a poet, there is no denying that children today benefit from a background in the STEM disciplines. The big question is where and how do we find the teachers, particularly in our high schools, to deliver that benefit?

Programs like the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship are seeking to answer that important question, leading work in five states to help construct a strong pipeline of excellent STEM educators for our nation’s high-need schools. In Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation partners with 28 universities to deliver STEM-focused teacher education. In each state, prospective teachers receive the strong academic preparation, valuable K–12 classroom-based clinical experiences, and meaningful mentoring to become the STEM teachers our states, districts, and communities seek.

I hope you’ll give it a read.

 

BAM! EdWords

Eduflack readers know that I co-host a regular radio program on the BAM! Radio Network about Common Core and successful implementation efforts around the country. I’ve been doing those segments for about two years now, and greatly enjoy the opportunity to talk with educators and education leaders about what is actually working in our classrooms.

Recently, BAM! decided to launch a new platform called EdWords, providing commentaries that complement the content on its radio programs. I’m proud that Eduflack has been asked to contribute the written word to that platform, writing about Common Core implementation.

The first piece I have up on EdWords is a familiar one to Eduflack readers. Late last year, I wrote of a terrific third grade teacher who was using science and astronomy and non-fiction texts to help teach Common Core standards. That piece is now up at EdWords, focusing on how Common Core and content can get along.

I hope you’ll give it a read and give it a share. And check out all of the fabulous written content that BAM! is now making available to the education community. It is definitely worth the time.

 

Non-Fiction, #CommonCore, and Deep Learning

Not a day can go by without someone criticizing the Common Core State Standards or blaming the Common Core for all that ails our public education system. And while assessments are usually the prime target for Common Core haters, the standards’ emphasis on non-fiction texts have drawn greater scrutiny in recent months.

No, Eduflack isn’t going to (AGAIN) rise the defense of Common Core and all that it stands for. Instead, I’d just like to provide a terrific example of how an exemplary educator can use the expectations under Common Core, mix it with a non-fiction topic, couple it with student collaboration and teamwork, and produce a final learning experience that is a winner for all those involved.

Full disclosure here, I am completely bias. The teacher in question is my daughter’s third grade teacher. Earlier this year, she had students work in pairs to develop “marketing” brochures for each of the planets in our solar system. Students did research and identified key facts. They organized those facts to make a compelling argument. They were then asked to present their findings as if they were travel agents, trying to convince families to visit a particular planet. Bunches and bunches of Common Core standards and expectations, all wrapped up in a project-based science lesson that demanded teamwork and critical thinking.

Here’s the brochure my daughter and her partner came up with. They were tasked with marketing Uranus, and played up the terrific aspects that a cold, ice planet could offer a little kid.

This was one of the most engaging lessons I’ve seen in either of my kids’ classes in recent years. And it is a great example of how the Common Core should be taught and can be taught by a great teacher. It demonstrates that Common Core isn’t about memorizing facts or relying on worksheets or boring children into submission.

No, Common Core can be about real, deep learning. And in the hands of good teachers who are empowered to use it right, Common Core can be a wonderful guidebook for meaningful student learning.

 

Can We Learn Empathy from the Clock Incident and #IStandWithAhmed ?

Now that the dust has settled some on the controversy out in Texas where a high school student was arrested and then suspended for building a digital clock at home and bringing it into school, it is time to start asking what we can learn from this experience (and from many like it when school rules seem to conflict with a student’s love for learning).

Over at Medium, I explore this topic as part of Changemaker Education and Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative. As I write:

No, we don’t know what would have happened if the student’s skin was Northern European white instead of Middle Eastern brown. We don’t know what difference it would have made if his last name was “Michaels” instead of “Mohamed”. But we do know that our public need to stereotype and give in to phobias may have stifled a potentially strong scientific mind from pursuing his full potential.

What becomes most frustrating about the experience is that, while we talk about the importance of empathy in the schools, we instead see a classic case of “defending” discrimination. Authorities could have taken a step back and tried to look at this through Ahmed Mohamed’s eyes; the pride of building a digital clock on his own, the confusion of being discouraged by a trusted teacher. The fear of being interrogated by police and then placed in handcuffs. All for building a digital clock.

I hope you’ll give it a read.

Moving from #STEM to STEEM?

Earlier this week, Eduflack was in a meeting talking about what could be. As is typical in such discussions, the conversation often shifts to STEM–or science, technology, engineering, and math–education. Sure, we often struggle with what technology and engineering look like in a K-12 setting, and some ask whether STEM is more important than great literature, but there is no denying that STEM literacy is important for virtually every student, whether they intend to be a rocket scientist or an artist.

One of the big trends lately has been asking whether it should be “STEAM” instead, with an A added for the study of the arts. But after some of the visits I’ve made to schools and educators in places like Indiana and Wisconsin, I’ve become an advocate for STEAM, only with the A standing for agriculture.

Today, though, something crossed my desk that has me wondering is perhaps we should be thinking of it as STEEM. There is no doubt that second E has a lot of attention and the focus on this current generation of students (and their parents, I would guess). The big question, though, is how one effectively teaches the environment and ecology in today’s K-12 universe (unless you want to be a true stickler and claim that such studies should fit under science, but another story for another day).

So I was intrigued when I saw a new curriculum offered by the Think Earth Environmental Education Foundation designed to help K-2 teachers instruct their little learners in the finer points of environmental education. The curriculum is being offered free of charge to schools, and focuses on subjects such as natural resource conservation, waste reduction, and the minimalization of pollution. Think Earth is even rolling out a third-grade curriculum for this coming 2015-16 school year, with plans to add fourth through eighth grade in the coming year. And to be environmentally conscious, it’ll all be available online.

According to its creators, the curriculum has already been used by more than 60,000 educators. And if we believe the small print, it is aligned with Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and the McREL Standards Compendium.

As I write this, I can already here the edu-wife laughing at me, wondering what liberal tsetse fly bit me overnight, resulting in me writing an environmentally conscious blog post. Yes, I’m that guy that complains about recycling (even though I seem to be the one hauling our sorted trash to the curb each week). And I have been known to say the Earth should toughen up a little, and it is awfully pompous of us to believe that a few decades of human consumption is going to ruin a planet millions of years in the making.

But I also think of my own kids, one who exited second grade two years ago and one who just finished her tenure in the second stanza this past spring. Both learned about the environment. Both came home preaching about my waste and our need to protect the environment. And neither really knowing what it all meant and definitely not seeing how it fit into what they were learning in class on a daily basis.

So if this curriculum and the work of Think Earth can help move us a little closer to relevance, while helping the youngest learners begin to collect the knowledge that will be useful when they are tested on science in years to come, I’m all for it. Added bonus if it means I don’t have to roll my eyes when my kids just choose to preach environment every April, And triple word score if maybe, just maybe, it means I’m not the only one in the house having to do the work because the rest of my family unit is worried about the environment.