"Make It Stick" and "How We Learn"

3 reasons why I found these wonderful books on learning so depressing.

October 12, 2014

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel 

Published of April of 2014.

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey

Published in September of 2014.

3 reasons why I found these two wonderful books on learning so depressing:

Reason 1 - Learning About Learning Is Difficult:

Read these 2 books and you will learn lots of things about how we learn. The main thing you will learn, however, is that gaining true mastery about how learning works is a difficult task. I know that much of what I learned in these two books about learning is already lost for me.  

Without directly applying the theories, content, and recommendations found in these two books I’m likely to let my prior views and biases on learning dominate my thinking. Without actively working with knowledge about interleaving or spacing, rapid feedback and formative assessment, I’m likely to forget much of what I read.  

The material in these two books is knowledge that I desperately want to absorb. Gaining fluency in the theoretical frameworks and empirical evidence around learning is critical, I think, to work effectively in the field of educational technology. But I know, from reading these two books, that expertise in this area (in any area) will require an active manipulation and long-term usage of the body of knowledge. Reading these books will not be enough.

Reason 2 - The Gap Between How We Learn and How We Teach:

The universe of ways that our colleges and universities fail to prioritize learning is well known. Most graduate programs offer too little training in pedagogy and brain science. Large lecture classes built around a knowledge transmission model of teaching are still too prevalent. Teaching remains undervalued in too many places in too many tenure and promotion decisions. Some of our most dedicated educators, our contingent and non-tenure track and non full-time faculty, are too often working under levels of job insecurity and low-pay that are incompatible with our stated goals around the importance of student learning.  

Where these books add to this troubling list of our failures in higher ed to promote student learning is in the specificity of their recommendations. Improving student learning does not involve some mysterious or little known set of practices.  We know how to improve learning, as cognitive scientists and educational theorists have been studying the issue for decades. What we in higher ed all too often lack is the will, or the right incentives or resources, to implement the practices that will most support student learning.   

Reason 3 - The Siren Song of Scale:

A theme that runs through both of these books on learning is about the power and importance of educators. With all of the excitement about new technologies and practices, from adaptive learning to open online course platforms, it is too easy to forget that the most important variable in determining student learning is the educator. That a single terrific professor, especially one that takes a personal interest in an individual student, is more valuable to that student than any technology or digital platform ever invented.   

The research on the power of an educator to inspire, guide, mentor, and coach a learner is incontrovertible. If we want college students to learn then we need to invest in educators. We need to find ways to support and diffuse the kinds of personal relationships between professors and students that have long been the hallmark of the liberal arts college.

What is depressing is that we all to often seem to be going the other way.  We are looking for magic bullets of scale. While there is nothing wrong with new technologies that can help with knowledge transmission and practice, we need to recognize the limitations of any teaching practices that are not built upon a sustained and personal relationship between educator and learner.  

The liberal arts model of teaching, the seminar and the workshop and the hands-on lab, should not be limited to a select number of cognitive and financial elite. Effective practices to encourage authentic learning will always involve highly skilled educators, and will therefore be expensive to implement and sustain. 

What are you reading?


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