A few weeks ago I wrote a post on my personal reflections of the first quarter of Benedict Carey’s “How we Learn” in a bid to get my head around how the books insights could be used to better my students learning.
Well, during the flight back from a school expedition to Nepal across the holidays (Watch this space for reflections from the trip) I’m pleased to say that I have just completed 50% of the book and that it’s time for another ponder!
Where we left off
To attempt to summarize the main elements of the last post, I learned;
- Students should frequently have to retrieve covered material
- Students should learn in as large a variety of ways as possible
- Topics should be covered little and often
- Students will forget, and should forget, and should struggle to remember often. It’s the struggling to remember that convinces the brain to make the information easier to retrieve later on down the line.
Where we are now..
We continue with something that builds off point 4 – that students will forget, and that without struggle their brains are not set to make the information easier to retrieve. We continue with the inherent danger of a skill called fluency.
As an international teacher, I recognise fluency as something to strive for. Fluency is the ability to cover material accurately and quickly. It is the ability to run through content with ease. So, of course it must follow that fluency is something that we should encourage in our lessons, right?
The irony isn’t lost on me that after years of wanting to see my students as fluent as possible, this isn’t actually how learning takes place. Time spent “Being fluent” is wasted time, and I get that now. I should have got it when I first understood that mental effort is what forces the brain to retain information.
An interesting statistic detailed in the book is that only 40% of the time spent learning should be spent digesting the subject material. The rest of the time should be spent on some form of “Retrieval practice”. A fantastic new name for good, old fashioned “Testing” designed to rid the preconceptions of grades, scores, percentages etc. None of these are suggested to be even remotely as useful as the questions and their model answers.
The Power of Failing
In all the years and all the schools I have taught, one thing stands true above all others. Students fear tests.
Even in the IB MYP course where students frequently submit essays worth just as much as the test, and lab reports that are worth TWICE as much as the test, nothing comes as close to instilling fear into a class as the announcement of an upcoming test.
One of the main reasons for this fear is failure. And that’s a real shame, because failing has been detailed both in this book and in many books, talks, journals and blogs before it, as one of the best things you can do to learn.
But one thing I hadn’t seen explained so thoroughly before as in this book, was the power of pretesting. That is, testing the students on the topic before you’ve taught them it!
The idea behind this is that having our answers shown as wrong and then quickly being given the correct information actually changes how we think about and store that information. The effect of this, is to increase the likelihood that we will answer a similar question correctly in future.
The book makes a very strong case for this, so much so that it has altered the structure that I have chosen for my on-line physics courses for the next academic year!
4 Stages of “Eureka!”
The book starts to move into the realms of problem solving now, and we’re introduced to four stages of solving a problem.
Simply the time time you spend actively working on the problem
This is where you step away from your work. Put down the pencil, close the laptop, and go and do something less demanding for a while.
The moment the pieces of the puzzle come together and you have the solution in mind.
Checking your solution against the problem.
The stage that many of us are reluctant to pass through here is “Incubation”. And it is one we should not avoid as it helps us achieve two things;
Firstly, it allows us to take mental cues from the environment, or from seemingly unrelated processes.
Secondly, it allows us to unfix ideas that were previously “Fixed”
A creative solution often uses an object or an idea for a purpose that was previously unconsidered. The reason that these things are often unconsidered is that we have a fixed notion of what they are for. On reading about this I was immediately reminded of this experiment.
Percolation and the Zeigarnik Effect
Funnily enough, I had been introduced to the Zeigarnik effect before in a book called “59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot” where the same study is described to highlight the same point: If a task is unfinished, it remains in the subconscious. When we are learning something, that’s exactly where we want it to be.
So, to apply this to the classroom, it appears that the best way in which we can ensure that the topic remains at the forefront of thought between one lesson and the next, is to do our best to interrupt the students whilst they are as stuck as possible. To send them off just as they are in deep concentration, and leave them at a cliffhanger just like a good T.V. drama.
That’s all well and good for lesson content, but I also want to try this across a larger time frame and with a larger problem. I think that this could work wonderfully well if I begin the unit with students planning a structure for an essay question on the topic before they study it. Not only is this a rather all-encompassing form of pretesting (“Use everything you know on this topic already to construct an argument”) but it should result in the students reaching a suitable level of “Stuck” for percolation to take place across the entire topic.
Anyway, those are the main points that I’ve taken from the second quarter of the book and some reflections on how I intend on using them, but I fully recommend reading your own copy of “How We Learn” to get a full idea of the level of research behind these idea’s, including points and examples I’ve omitted for not standing out for me as important for my goals in teaching.