This site is primarily about education. Why does improvement in education seem like an impossible task? I contend it really isn’t that hard. But, the focus needs to be on what is known about teaching and learning and not about money and politics, exercise of power, or public schools vs charter schools vs private schools or the next greatest innovation that we must try or who we need to fire. These latter topics have been the bane of our existence and have led to our educational systems into battlegrounds of where opinion rather than knowledge prevails.
My goals on the blog are to find and relate those sources of expertise which define and elaborate on the nature of human learning, explained below. Along the way, and likely the bulk of the entries, I will discuss studies, study design and what, if anything, we should make of them, trying to focus on how the study relates to the nature of human learning.
Nature of Human Learning
For all of us, the goal should be to stop the chaos and never-ending “innovations” that define education today. By searching the literature for unchangeable principles that can be implemented in practice, we might be able to give ourselves a linear path to educational success and reach that goal.
I’m convinced there are unchangeable principles based on the nature of human beings. Much of that research and literature has been readily available but hadn’t received wide publicity until recently. The results of this diverse research was finally published in the book How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose, et al. The book came highly recommended by Carl Wieman, Nobel Laureate, and The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy Associate Director of Science in the Obama Administration. The book focuses its attention on college students, and college faculty, but the general principles are applicable to K-12. It is important in that it covers basic principles of learning and takes into account the interactions between both human intellectual and emotional dimensions. This interaction should surprise no one, but the book is refreshing for its objective assessments and focus. The discussion of emotional interactions with learning opens up the discussion to the relatively recent biological research of the brain — that there is a biology of human learning.
I take it as a given that humans share those characteristics that have evolved in the human mammal over the tens of thousands of years since “out-of-Africa”, some 60,000 to 80,000 years ago. Since that time, the human mammal has experienced between 3,000 and 4,000 generations and over those generations, the human mammal has lived under the same conditions and same pressures until about 160 years ago — only 8 generations — not nearly enough to time to make claims of significant differences among groups of people. How the human mammal learns today is the same as how the human mammal learned over the millennia. This constancy dictates that One Size Does Fit All.
It makes sense to elaborate on One Size Does Fit All by focusing on the details of how human learning works: the interaction between our emotional and non(less?)-emotional sides, and the changes that must occur in the schools and classrooms (and homes, and communities, and districts) to enhance learning that built into our nature. That we differ in our interests, emotions, living conditions and strengths should not distract us from understanding that there is a commonality to human learning that transcends these differences.
Given that One Size Does Fit All we can begin to place competing claims to our time and effort in their proper context (as distractors) and focus on those key common elements that have the most effect on whether education succeeds or fails for individuals and groups.
Distractors in education are the arguments about public or private or charter schools, as though the corporate structure of an institution has any bearing on the relationship between students, teachers and curriculum. Any institution can either support and undermine what happens in the classroom. There is no possibility that mere differences in institutional structures can make a difference in educational outcomes. Any success these institutions might have is going to be because they have (inadvertently) succeeded in implementing an educational approach consistent with how humans learn. The distraction of focusing on a school’s corporate structure needs to be eliminated from our consideration if progress in education is to be made.
Distractors in education are the “research-based” educational delivery mechanisms, philosophies, and curricula: among these are IB (International Baccalaureate), KIPP, Direct Instruction, Success for All, Expeditionary Learning, MOOCs, Culturally Relevant Curricula, Small Learning Communities, Flipped Classrooms, Authentic Learning, Multiple Intelligences, etc. These are a list of the never-ending fads (“innovations”) that have permeated our schools, wasted our money, wasted our time, generated heat, and harmed us and our children. All have been tried, all have shown they are subject to hyperbole, exaggerated claims, and failure to scale where they’ve succeeded at all. Ultimately they are replaced by new innovations.
Distractors in education are the tests. NAEP, WKCE, SAT, ACT, AYP, NCLB, teacher evaluations, bad data, and bad statistics. None have ever contributed to success in the classroom. They are prepared for and used by administrators to filter teachers, students, and schools. If scores on these tests had some validity that would make their feedback useful, this feedback comes far too late to have an impact on the classroom or on the student.
Distractors in education are also Poverty, SES, Race, Ethnicity, Parental Responsibility, and Expectations are used to focus blame or to support resignation or to excuse another innovation. Underlying these distractors are likely causes which have the effects of impacting educational outcomes, but little has been done to identify the causes. There is a biology of disadvantage that can be useful in understanding the issues and overcoming them.
Where the biology of human learning fits into education might be best explained by relating it to the metaphor of nutrition and cookbooks. The metaphor says that we have common nutritional needs for there are biological requirements for exercise, food and water, but those requirements do not dictate which recipes we prepare. We have the same basic needs for calories, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. It varies some between individuals, but it is the commonality that is key. It does not matter if we eat food cooked according to an American cookbook, French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Mexican, or Peruvian. The only requirement, regardless of cuisine, is that we consume the right balance of nutrients in the right quantity for our individual needs.
The distractors correspond to cookbooks and recipes. It does not matter what curricula or educational delivery method we use. What matters is that it deliver the educational nutrition required to become educated. All-in-all, the distractors and their proponents and opponents fail to deliver on or focus on educational nutrition, but instead focus on chemical additives and flavor enhancers, leaving us and students educationally malnourished. By all means, if you like the IB approach to presenting material, use it. If you like Success for All, use it. They are merely educational cookbooks with recipes. As long as these curricula deliver according to the dictates of our biology, they will succeed. If they don’t, they won’t.
Individual differences do not detract from One Size Fits All approach to education. We naturally learn how to individualize our own education and can be taught those skills early on. Students cannot be passive learners; students must take responsibility for learning and educating themselves. It is the schools’, teachers’, community’s, and parents’ roles to instill that mindset and guide the student in acquiring the skills necessary to self-educate. We need to take the pressure off of teachers to be everything to everybody be the ones to do all the heavy lifting. The responsibility of educators is not to individualize education for each student — that is a a fool’s errand. Attempting to individualize teaching overwhelms educators’ primary tasks, and swallows them in the thickness of little things.
Updated: 11 March 2013