The Science of Learning, Through Stories

For the past six months I’ve had a book sitting on my desk that was a gift from my previous place of employment, Divine Word College. It is not a book of fiction. I have been struggling somewhat to read fiction lately; it takes me many, many months, and I only manage to finish one or two a year. I lost interest a few years back and my focus has turned to nonfiction. I’ve read about the 1992 disaster on Everest where fifteen people died, a man-eating Tiger terrifying a small backwater village in Siberia and a real-world example of what it’s like to try and live on minimum wage, among others. I suspect that as an educator, the appeal of nonfiction is that I’m learning about the world. But this book from Divine Word College might as well be fiction.

Tell me a story and let me learn from it. And that is the magic of this spectacularly well-written book – that is no longer just sitting on my desk – by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel called make it stick: The Science of Successful Learning. What they have done in this book is to synthesize the research on learning and organize it neatly into different areas (I suppose they are called chapters), and then they sum up these theories into pragmatic applications of how to help people, and students in particular, learn.

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Our authors use two genius techniques in their book. First, they use stories and concrete narratives to present the material. I understand that these are not new or particularly revolutionary writing techniques, except that the subject is research. And this is a very uncommon way to work with research. The book begins with a pilot, in a plane, flying over Texas, running out of fuel and nearly falling out of the sky. That doesn’t sound like a book about learning theories, but it is.

The other strategy that the authors use is integration of the teaching tools they write about to reinforce the material from the book. If they say that repetition (spaced learning) works then they repeat ideas. Yay! (Not sure why I put that there. I just really liked the content of this book.)

After we learn that our pilot lands safely, the book begins with an introduction to the meaning of learning. Brown, et. al. define learning as, “Acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities” (p. 2). That works for me. They go on to highlight the major themes. (Spoiler alert! They talk about learning styles!!! As well as the overuse of exclamation points!!!) Myths and misunderstandings are common because to function in the world you need a concept of how to learn, even if that concept is total nonsense.

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How do we learn? The authors make a good argument for reflection and retrieval of information. Those two techniques allow the material to embed itself into our longer-term memory. This is the part when you wonder if this book is all about the best way to memorize information. Sort of. They argue this about pushback relating to standardized tests, “Pitting the learning of basic knowledge against the development of creative thinking is a false choice. Both need to be cultivated. The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem.”

They go on to teach us that the way we studied in college was all wrong. If you reread your textbook to study for an exam, you did it wrong. If you waited until the night before to try and learn the material, then you did it wrong. I suspect because I personally know the three people who read my blog that this didn’t happen with us. However, it is a common misconception that negatively affects how well our students learn the material.

The gem I found in this chapter was that if you allow space to sleep overnight between study sessions, then you will remember it better the next day. You also want to mix up your practice rather doing all the same thing. Change up your vocabulary practice with some grammar. It doesn’t have immediate results, but over time, the information will stick with you longer.

If it’s hard then you’re not any good at it and you should just give up. Excuse me? To learn we actually need a challenge even though it would be so much easier to just not try. However, if you want to positively affect the structure of your brain – learn – then you need to challenge yourself. That is the stuff that embeds itself in your memory.

Nobody needs to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. More often than not I’m one step ahead of you. And as it turns out, that is beneficial to me. Before we can learn we need to know what – and in which areas – we need to focus our learning. But often we will unconsciously supply knowledge where there is none. There is a gap where our lack of knowledge is, and we are more than willing to fill it with whatever seems to be handy. Cure of knowledge, fluency illusions and the false consensus effect are all efforts to put knowledge in hand where there is none. Basically this means you are wrong, but you don’t know it.

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Now we come to my favorite topic . . . learning styles – you’ve been waiting for this, haven’t you? If you haven’t read it, take a look at Neuromyths — The Urban Legends of Classroom Teaching (Science, People!!!). What you need to know is that there is no basis in research to indicate there is value in teaching to different learning styles. Our authors clarify their meaning, “We acknowledge that everyone has learning preferences, but we are not persuaded that you learn better when the manner of instruction fits those preferences.” You may have areas of weakness, but those are simply areas that are underdeveloped. You are limiting yourself if you concentrate on learning from specific areas, like visually, for example. Learning, rather, is a process.

The last bit of the book that addresses theory tells us more about the brain and how we can increase our intelligence through the brain’s malleability. When we use this as a foundation for our understanding of intelligence then the idea of a growth mindset easily follows. Our intelligence is not fixed, and as educators, I hope we all share that value. We want to focus on learning rather than performance. I have been there, haven’t you? You didn’t want to try something because you knew you’d be bad at it? It’s about progress and learning.

My only reservation about the book is that there are zero visuals. There is not a picture or an illustration to be found. That would have broken up the text for my Internet addled brain. However, because the writing and structure are so strong, while not a minor flaw, a lack of visuals isn’t hardly enough to pass this book by.

A pilot is running out of fuel at 30, 000 above Texas. A brain surgeon struggles to guess at the possible problems his patient with a head wound might have. An undercover cop is confronted by three armed robbers. Throughout this book there are vignettes that serve as examples. We are then pointed toward the research and each chapter ends with a summary of the main points. The authors use their research to inform the structure of the book. The concluding chapter serves as a tool to use the theories we learned about in a more pragmatic way. I read this book faster than any fiction I’ve been able to get through in the past few years, and it couldn’t have been more informative.

Tools I used:

Pixaby and Adobe Photoshop for the photos.

References:

Brown, P., Roediger III, H.L., & McDaniel, M. (2014). Make it stick: The Science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Thanks again, Mark.

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