Reflections from the opening day of The Science of How We Learn winter conference.
Deconstructing what we know about education is not easy. Education, like any field, continues to evolve and it is critical that we allow ourselves the opportunity to challenge our current understandings and be malleable as this evolution occurs. Mike Lubelfeld and Nick Polyak call this idea “unlearning” in their soon to be released book titled The Unlearning Leader. Some of the major takeaways from the opening keynotes presented by John Hattie, Daniel Schwartz, and Daniel Ansari were focused around what is wrong with our current understandings related to learning. These researchers and educational leaders all stressed the same thing – it is just as important to unlearn in education as it is to learn.
Within the span of one hour John Hattie, author of the international groundbreaking Visible Learning research, pointed to major critiques in the works of some of the biggest names and trends in education. He identified Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy as “one of the greatest inflictions on education” and the “most untested model in our business” where there is no true hierarchy and no scientific basis. He took a crack at Carol Dweck’s growth mindset by identifying it’s small effect size, which is below 0.20. He noted that “problem-based learning is one of the biggest failures out there” with an effect size of 0.15. He identified the impact of health and physical fitness on learning as having an effect size close to zero.
Daniel Schwartz, dean at the Stanford School of Education, also pushed the idea of deconstruction and unlearning. One major focus was on “telling” students during the learning process. He noted that telling students what they need to know has the reverse effect on them actually learning something. When students invent and discover on their own they learn more than students that are told how to do something. Telling, or lecturing, that takes place after students have been given the opportunity to analyze leads students to the highest levels of learning.
Speaking more globally, Schwartz claimed that if the justification for any teaching and learning strategy relies on the premise that “it is fast” there is a high potential it will backfire. He also touched on the topic of growth mindset, citing research that higher achieving students do not need it as they already embrace it while it has some impact on lower/average students. Another caution was related to rewards, where he cited research that highlighted the fact that students become less creative when a reward is attached.
Daniel Ansari, neuroscience professor at the University of Western Ontario, also rejected several commonly held beliefs about learning and the brain. One is the notion that we only use 10% of our brain when in actuality we engage the entire brain. He also shared that there is no evidence to support that people are left-brained or right-brained as our brains demonstrate major interconnectivity. Lastly, he shared that neuroscience strongly rejects the concept of learning styles (i.e. a student is inclined to learn through a specific mode such as visual, musical, verbal, kinesthetic, logical, social, solitary).
There were important disclaimers throughout the presentations cautioning educators not to take any research as absolute truth. The clear message for educators was that some of our traditionally held beliefs of what is considered to be best practice in learning need to be rejected. Although these findings were highly informative and important, here is to hoping that the next two days of learning offer far more constructions of how students learn as opposed to deconstructions.