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.

Improving the #STEM Teacher Pipeline in New Jersey

Earlier this month, dear ol’ Eduflack had the honor and privilege of testifying before the New Jersey General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee. The topic? How to improve the recruitment, preparation, and support of STEM teachers for the state’s high-need schools. While I almost never speak with prepared remarks, this time, I did. While I strayed a little (including talking about chasing education unicorns), here is the totality of what I intended to say:
Five years ago, New Jersey committed to becoming a national leader in recruiting, preparing, and supporting exemplary STEM teachers.

Through the New Jersey Teaching Fellows program, innovative teacher preparation efforts are currently underway at The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, Rowan University, Rutgers University-Camden, and William Paterson University. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is working with these institutions of higher education to create a more effective teacher education model focused on a yearlong classroom experience, rigorous academic work, and ongoing mentoring and support.

By focusing on clinical experience and giving prospective teachers as much time in K-12 classrooms as possible, these programs ensure all of their graduates understand the challenges of teaching in a high-need school, and all are prepared to succeed as teachers of record from day one.

New Jersey is one of five states to offer the Teaching Fellows program, including Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia. The New Jersey program has grown from the previous work of these states, learning from their challenges and building on their successes from the start.

Looking at these other programs, we can see the impact the New Jersey Teaching Fellows program can have long term. A future where effective teachers remain in high-need schools as a career, not just for a year or three. A future where colleges and school districts work together to ensure a pipeline of strong STEM teachers prepared to meet the needs of our local schools and the expectations of an ever-changing workforce.

The Teaching Fellows program is not a cookie cutter effort. Far from it. The New Jersey Teaching Fellows program was created specifically to meet the needs and expectations of New Jersey, its schools, and its communities. This program is New Jersey, and its graduates reflect the very best the state has to offer. It should be no surprise that the Woodrow Wilson Foundation calls New Jersey home, with our headquarters located just a few miles up Route 1.

As you all know, New Jersey has 24 traditional teacher education programs, housed in the state’s colleges and universities. In recent years, across all of those programs, the state has produced as few as 9 physics teachers and 16 chemistry teachers annually. These numbers are hardly enough to fill all of the STEM hiring needs in the state’s 600+ school districts. The problems of filling these teaching positions are even greater in high-need districts.

The Woodrow Wilson Foundation partners with colleges and universities to create a more effective teacher education program focused on a yearlong classroom experience, rigorous academic work, and ongoing mentoring. The year-long program includes:

  • Admission to a master’s degree program at a well-established NJ partner university
  • Preparation for teacher certification in science, math, or technology education
  • Extensive clinical experience teaching in a high-need urban or rural secondary school for one full year prior to becoming the teacher-of-record in a high-need science or math classroom
  • Support and mentoring throughout the first three years as teacher of record

In Woodrow Wilson’s past eight years of work, we have been helping states like New Jersey strengthen the pipeline to provide excellent teachers for high-need schools. And we have done it while increasing the number of teachers of color assuming STEM teaching positions in New Jersey classrooms.

Nationally, approximately 16 percent of all teachers are people of color. Those numbers are notably smaller when it comes to individuals teaching science, technology, engineering, and math in our secondary schools. Targeting only those with strong STEM backgrounds, 41 percent of New Jersey Teaching Fellows are people of color.

The value of the New Jersey Teaching Fellowship model can be seen in the teacher preparation regulations adopted by the state a little more than a year ago. In focusing on the value of clinical experience, mentoring, and the overall quality of teacher candidates, the state is now looking to all seeking to become New Jersey educators to follow a preparation path similar to those taken by New Jersey Teaching Fellows.

Later this year, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation will announce its fourth and final class of New Jersey Teaching Fellows. As of last year, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation awarded 180 Fellowships to high-achieving STEM students to become science, technology, engineering and math teachers in the New Jersey schools and districts that need them most.

Let me share a few facts from the New Jersey Teaching Fellows program with you, in addition to the 41 percent statistic offered earlier. In a profession where three-quarters of all educators are female, 43 percent of New Jersey Teaching Fellows are male. Last year alone, 25 percent of all Teaching Fellows already held advanced degrees, including Ph.Ds, law degrees, and M.Ds. They are a mix of recent college graduates, career changers, and former military. All bring real STEM content knowledge to New Jersey classrooms. All are committing to careers, not stints, as New Jersey public school teachers.

The educators produced through the Teaching Fellowship are enough to fill the STEM vacancies in the state’s highest-need school districts. Among the people who received these Fellowships are a Ph.D. cancer researcher who has taught at Princeton University, and a geologist and veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, now teaching in Orange. The Fellowship draws on in-state talent: 82 percent of our Fellows are New Jersey residents.

Each Fellow is committed to teaching for at least three years in New Jersey’s urban and rural schools ̶ in cities and towns such as Bridgeton, Camden, Newark, New Brunswick, Orange, Passaic, Paterson, Trenton, and dozens more. We know from other states where we have been doing this work longer, that roughly 80 percent of Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows remain in teaching after finishing their three-year commitment, far surpassing national trends that show rates of teacher attrition as high as 40–60 percent in the first three years on the job.

A coalition of support for the Woodrow Wilson New Jersey Teaching Fellowship program has also been developed, which includes the Governor, key legislators on both sides of the aisle, the Commissioner of Education, the Secretary of Higher Education, school districts, universities, the NJEA, the business community, and philanthropy.

When the program was invited to New Jersey, our promise to the state was simple. We would work with our partner universities to help transform their STEM teacher preparation efforts. We would work with local school districts to ensure they, and their students, are getting the STEM teachers they need. And we would help prepare three cohorts of teachers for New Jersey schools.

The success on each of our partner campuses, coupled with the new state teacher preparation regs, demonstrate success on point one. The more than 20 high-need districts currently employing New Jersey Teaching Fellows answer point two. And our commitment to now add a fourth cohort of New Jersey Teaching Fellows to ensure ongoing staffing needs are met moves beyond our promise in point three.

In each Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellow state, program sustainability is always a non-negotiable. The program is constructed so that outside philanthropy funds the first three years of Teaching Fellows. In New Jersey, we were able to extend that to four. Currently, each of our university partners has identified and committed to a plan to keep the program going on their campuses, whether that be through an increased focus on the clinical experience, a robust mentoring program, or the continuation of a stipended Fellowship program.

It is our hope that the Legislature sees the value this program plays in recruiting and preparing excellent educators, particularly those from disadvantaged groups, who may otherwise have never considered teaching as a profession. It is our hope that we all can see the impact this program is currently having. And it is our hope that the state continues this program, sustaining the New Jersey Teaching Fellows effort and ensuring generations of effective STEM teachers for the state’s high-need schools.

 

What’s Up on #TrumpED?

I’ve been remiss in posting many of our recent segments for #TrumpED on BAM! Radio Network. So for all of those who have been making our segments on education policy in the Trump Administration “must-listen” radio, let me point out a few recent segments.

What does the Trump “skinny” budget mean for education policy? We take a look here.

Here, we explore whether it is really that simple to say that our national policy is simply to return education decision making to the states and localities.

And here, we take a look at whether the proposed cuts to Title II and teacher professional development truly make sense for improving the quality and impact of classroom instruction.

Give them all a listen. And drop dear ol’ Eduflack a note on future topics you’d like to hear on TrumpED.

 

Did Lego Just Diss #Teachers With its NASA Series?

As many have seen, earlier this month Lego announced a new series of its popular toys, this time honoring the Women of NASA. It’s an important collection, and a well deserved homage to the women behind the success of the space program. But it spotlighting five women, and not including Christa McAuliffe, did Lego show real disrespect for classroom teachers?

This is the question I explore this week for Hechinger Report, noting:

“McAuliffe was an educator who would do anything and everything to bring the joys of learning to her own students and her own classrooms. Following her own dreams, she showed a generation of students what was possible. And she likely inspired a generation of learners – both male and female – to follow their passions and to be inspired by both the good and the bad their experienced.

She is just as important to the storyline of NASA as Ride, Margaret Hamilton, and Mae Jemison. Some may say even more so, as McAuliffe’s role reinvigorated a generation that had grown complacent, just as it had at the time of Apollo 13.”

Give the full piece at Hechinger a read. Let me know what you think. McAuliffe and the Challenger disaster was an key moment in Eduflack’s childhood. It shouldn’t be glossed over just because it is a difficult topic to discuss with kids.

“Dream, Then Do” When It Comes to #STEM Teaching, Learning

For more than a decade, we have been talking about STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) education in the United States. For much of that time, though, our discussions haven’t evolved much. In too many corners of the conversation, we focus exclusively on how to teach math and science, mostly relying on the same methods and the same approaches we have used for generations.

It’s only been recently that we’ve acknowledged, for instance, the need to better address the T and the E in the conversation, particularly as we now look to add coding and computer science to the K-12 curriculum (and as we search for teachers prepared in leading such instructional pursuits). And we now embrace the idea of transforming STEM to STEAM, seeing how the arts (particularly music) can better connect the academics of STEM to the students of today. 
Eduflack has been fortunate to spend recent years looking specifically at how we can revolutionize teacher education to take full advantage of the opportunities available through STEM education. In states like Georgia, Indiana, and New Jersey, we have worked with dozens of universities to transform their existing STEM teacher preparation efforts, ensuring strong pipelines of effective educators for high-need schools that possess both the content knowledge and the pedagological skills to succeed. 

And through the work of the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, we are now taking that even a step further, exploring how gaming, assisted reality, rich clinical experiences, project-based learning, and a time-independent program void of credit hours and Carnegie units can do a more effective job preparing prospective teachers for the rigors of STEM education in both the schools of today and the learning environments of tomorrow. 

Recently, I had the privilege to travel to Israel to see how a “start-up nation” focused on technological opportunities is addressing STEM education today. The ORT Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network is essentially a network of nearly 100 charter high schools focused on STEM instruction. Everything is taught in a dual-language environment (English and Hebrew), with many of the schools in the northern part of the nation adding the third language of Arabic to meet the needs of their Arab students. 

At every instance, the educators at ORT seek to use personalized learning to help connect STEM lessons to the STEM learner. They embrace the use of technology in the classroom, including the instructional applications of students using their own smartphones while in class. ORT actively recruits teachers who have developed meaningful content knowledge in the private sector, bringing their experiences as developers and designers for names such as Microsoft and Google into the K-12 classroom. 

Visiting schools across the country, I witnessed STEM seamlessly integrated with English language instruction and literature and even the Bible. One educator remarked that “this is a creative thinking place for teachers.” In multiple schools, I heard educators speak of changing “the exclamation points to question marks in learning,” meaning to them that instead of teachers offering the definitive word on everything taught, they saw their role as inspiring their students to ask questions and seek answers. 

“Kids don’t have to change. Let them be curious,” one technology teacher told me. “Teachers need to change.” 

And one engineer-turned-educator summed up his direction to his students as, “today you can dream, tomorrow you can do.” 

The students respond in kind, seeing project-based instruction as, “relevant to us.”  

As I was meeting with a group of students in Northern Israel, I inquired whether they preferred this new, project-based, STEAM-focused instructional model to the previous ways they were taught, the room exploded with a combination of rapid Hebrew, followed by laughter from some of the teachers. Clearly my meager mastery of the English language and my pathetic understanding of Spanish wasn’t going to help me, so I asked one of the teachers for a little assistance. 


His explanation made me understand I was in a STEM classroom much like the classes I visit here in the United States. Most of the kids in the class were not aspiring rocket scientists or brain surgeons. Many of them didn’t want to be in high school at all. But they were saying that if they were required to be in school, this was really the only way they would want to do it. For them, there was no other school choice. 

The visit to these ORT Schools helped me see there are some universal truths when it comes to the future of teaching and learning, truths that I see with every school visit or teacher discussion I have here in the states. Teachers want to be empowered. Educators see the enormous value in mastering content as well as being adept at classroom management. That their success is measured by far more than a test score. That they are eager for the instructional opportunities ahead, and charting new ground to meet the needs of tomorrow’s learners. 

And for those learners, personalized instruction is king. Project-based learning inspires. The real-life experiences of their teachers mean something. And what they can do with the content and knowledge obtained is far more important than how it can be measured. 

As a community, we need to do far more to spotlight what is happening in American classrooms today. To capture how PBL is affecting both teacher and student. To demonstrate the impact STEM has on all students, regardless of expected career path. To call out how teacher preparation programs are breaking the old models to meet the demands of the future. To talk about the dreams of today, so we can do tomorrow. 

A Coalition of the Willing

As the new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos possesses an incredible – and rare – opportunity to truly transform public education. Returning decisionmaking to states and localities. Empowering parents to get more involved in decisionmaking. New ways to better use existing federal dollars. The bully pulpit. All are valuable tools in reshaping the next generation of K-12 education.

If we have learned anything from education policy transformations, it is that the best of intents will fail if those idea come via fiat instead of through collaboration. How many times have we seen the latest and greatest of policies never fulfill their potential because educators, parents, or both weren’t part of the process that brought proposal to policy?

Real, lasting reform demands a coalition of the willing. It requires all corners to come together and buy into the goal – improving student learning and boosting student success – and work together to achieve it. And while it is impossible to have all sides agree on all details, at least if it is meaningful change, all sides are working as they best can to achieve, not undermine, that ultimate goal.

We can often forget that in education and education reform. The coalition of the willing is forgotten in the pursuit of being the smartest person in the room, and then assuming all will just follow. We fail to see that by not having teachers buy into the process, and instead have them see improvement as something happening to them, it becomes near impossible for them to embrace the change, own the change, and ultimately be responsible for the improved outcomes on the other side.

Sure, one can tinker in operational issues without having the teachers’ involvement, but it is impossible to have real impact on the teaching and learning in the classroom without having educators – and parents – at the table helping plot the course to a shared destination.

Despite all of the vitriol and all of the negativity directed at her in recent months, DeVos now has an opportunity to assemble that coalition of the willing. While many may be concerned by her laser-like focus on school choice, few can question DeVos’ lifelong commitment to provide better, stronger opportunities to kids, particularly for students in need. And few can question her embrace of parents in educational decisionmaking. That provides something to build on.

If we can all agree on that ultimate goal: a strong education for all kids – regardless of race, family income, or zip code – maybe, just maybe, we can agree to try to work together on how we get there.

The next move belongs to the new Education Secretary. She has the opportunity to reach out and bring together a coalition that, while unsure, is willing to try. DeVos has the chance to extend an olive branch and work with parents and teachers to plot that new course. And they have a chance to accept it.

In the process, DeVos has the ability to both empower teachers and better involve families. She has the ability to truly transform teaching and learning for all, instead of just tinkering around the edges.

The big question now is whether the EdSec will take that chance. It is incredibly easy to talk to one’s friends on agreed upon issues. Impact only comes by engaging with your perceived opponents to find some common ground to make the positive changes that could impact generations of learners.

 

A Flashlight, Not a Hammer, When it Comes to #EdData

For years now, the education community has debated the proper role of “education data” in the process. What started off as important information to help teachers tailor and improve their instruction quickly became a blunt instrument to punish students, teachers, classrooms, and schools. As with most things, the abuses of a valuable tool became the focus.

With a greater emphasis on testing and the use of testing information, ed data has gained even greater scrutiny. In Eduflack’s own school district, there is a growing call for eliminating all technology from the schools out of fear of education data and its impact on student privacy (among other things).

And that’s just a crying’ shame. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Last year, the Data Quality Campaign hosted a national summit focused on the importance of education data. In it, DQC CEO Aimee Guidera spoke of the importance of using education data as a flashlight — to illuminate the way to improvement and success — rather than as a hammer to strike those who are struggling.

This week, DQC released From Hammer to Flashlight: A Decade of Data in Education. Noting that “although much work remains before education becomes a truly evidence-based field,” great work has already been undertaken to use data to better inform both inputs and outcomes in the classroom.

Education data isn’t going away. If anything, we need to become more savvy in its application to learning. That’s why From Hammer to Flashlight is such an important read.