Making Sense of the Research on Learning

A colleague scoffed the other day when I mentioned science of learning. It was the word ‘science” that drew the reaction as science had been used to harm people of color or justify their oppression. It’s been used against women as well. That’s why I have started to use the phrase ‘research on learning’ instead. It keeps the door open to the idea that we might be wrong. It keeps the door open to new and better research.

How should we approach the research on learning? Below are several things I keep in mind as I read reports and books on the topic.

1. There is an extraordinary amount of agreement about the science of learning. Although I’m sure as you get down into the weeds there are plenty of healthy debates going on, educators should be confident going forward. This isn’t just the newest idea developed by a foundation that will get a lot of attention and then fade away. It is solid research, there is agreement in the field, and it has huge implications.

2. The field of SoL hasn’t fully integrated the research. The cognitive research is often described separately from the research on the motivational and social & emotional aspects of learning. This can give one cognitive overload trying to make sense of it all. There needs to be another round of work making the research more accessible.

3. There is a chance of focusing on one piece of the SoL without understanding the risk. When you read the SoL, it will often emphasize the limitations of the working memory. It’s a very narrow door from working memory into long-term memory, and we need to learn to manage it. However, if the cognitive research is all you focus on then you get very specific practices including chunking (they’ve made that a formal word in the world of cognitive sciences), spacing, practice until it becomes routine, and other strategies to move into long-term memory. Of course, you also can think about retrieval strategies to pull information out of long-term memory as well.

It’s truly very important to help students develop routine expertise so they can use their working memory in other ways and don’t have to expend it on addition or sounding out a word. However, the research on social & emotional learning is equally as important to consider. School norms, creating a safe environment through culturally responsive strategies, helping students build social & emotional skills and meta-cognitive skills so they can manage their attention, and structuring schools around building incredibly warm, consistent relationships will all help with reducing the amount of noise in working memory.

4. Our understanding of student agency and how students learn to transfer information is too shallow. Threaded out the research on learning are powerful insights into why students need to be considered active learners rather than compliant soak-it-all-in learners. Research tells us that active learning will result in more durable and lasting learning. Students need to be cognitively engaged in the learning process. The research can guide us on how to best do that. However, we also need to think about this through the psychological and developmental lenses. It just doesn’t make sense to focus on the cognitive engagement without thinking about the strategies to emotional engage students. As for transferring knowledge (facts, concepts, and skills), it is where a lot of the learning takes place as we make connections and reinforce these big chunks of ideas in our long-term memory.

5. The only way to move us forward in integrating the SoL into how we design schools and learning experiences that will enhance learning for students is to apply it to adults first. There is research that once a misconception has entered long-term memory, it takes very intentional work to root it out. In fact, we will continue to use that misconception in problem-solving until we can find a new mental model to help us understand the concept correctly. Our mental models of how we learn, much of it built on misconceptions, are rooted in our very own childhood experiences from the minute we entered kindergarten. They are cemented in. And that means we are going to have to apply a lot of time and effort to rooting them out and developing new mental models of learning. And new mental models of teaching.

The OECD report The Nature of Learning has a great chapter reviewing the cognitive SoL. It tells us that:

  • Learning is an activity carried out by the learner.
  • Learning requires time and effort.
  • Learning results from a dynamic interplay of emotion, motivation, and cognition.

We can’t just open up the brains of children and drop a curriculum into it. We have to structure experiences and expectations so that they want to learn, learn how to learn, and set deadlines that force them to learn how much time and effort is needed.

This article was adapted from an article originally published at CompetencyWorks in 2018.

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