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The logical foundations of learning
Cognitive science provides a sharp contrast to the specious voodoo that usually guides education.
Originally published in the Moultrie News.
I’ve been reading about cognitive science and how it can help educators by showing them how students learn. Can it help?
It can. Cognitive science is the study of how our minds work, including how we gain, retain, and use knowledge. Some refer to cognitive science as “the science of learning.” It can tell us a lot about teaching because it relies on, well, science.
That would contrast sharply with the specious voodoo that usually guides education. From whole language to Bloom’s taxonomy, modern education is driven by fashion and money. If it sounds good, educational leaders swallow it, hook, line, and sinker. The result is a recurrent tarantella of hyping the latest trends and flinging those they replace on a pyre. Sooner or later, the old trends return like Phoenixes in newer, more expensive forms. In this cyclical dance, rarely does anyone ever look critically at what worked, what didn’t, and how that knowledge can help guide future decisions.
Many teachers sit out the dance and stick to methods that have stood the test of time, regardless of what the bureaucrats insist are “best practices.” One of the most interesting things about cognitive science is that it’s answering why the non-dancers tend to have greater success than their trendier peers, thus lending renewed credibility to the tried and true. A recent article published in Forbes, for example, explains how cognitive science has affirmed the value of phonics, read-alouds, and rigor in reading instruction. “This may all seem like common sense,” writer Natalie Wexler states, “but it’s the opposite of what goes on in most elementary classrooms.”
Illinois University professor Barak Rosenshine used cognitive science to delineate 10 “Principles of Instruction” for educators, one of which is to “require and monitor independent practice.” Certainly student collaboration can be good, but it’s not the only route to learning, despite what the higher-ups think. In fact, it is a necessity for students to work alone and practice new material independently.
A report published by the Phi Delta Kappan points out several other ways in which the science of learning supports what teachers have practiced for years.
One is that students need to know facts in order to solve problems. The educational aristocracy is in lockstep against methods like memorizing multiplication tables and learning historical facts. According to Kappan analyst Benjamin Riley, however, cognitive scientists are realizing that by “committing certain facts to long-term memory, students free up their working memory, which leaves them better suited to grapple with complex problems.” If critical thinking and problem-solving are among education’s goals, they won’t be accomplished as long as kids have to pull out their phones every time they need basic information.
Another is that tests and quizzes improve learning. Studies show that kids process and retain information better when they are assessed on the material. That’s why brief, regular, relatively low-stakes quizzes can help students. Most teachers instinctively already knew — even without understanding the neurological reasons — that students benefit when they are held accountable for what they’ve been taught.
A third is that students don’t have different learning styles. For years, educational experts preached that some kids are visual learners while others are kinesthetic, and therefore, teachers must hit all the learning styles if kids are ever truly to understand the content. The Yale Center for Teaching and Learning calls this a “neuromyth.” That’s not to say different methods shouldn’t be employed —boredom, after all, is a horrible teaching method. However, teachers who strive to find the best and most efficient strategy to teach a concept will be much more effective than those who spin their wheels teaching the same concept three different ways.
The unfortunate reality of cognitive science is that large educational bureaucracies are slow to catch on. This is likely an act of self-preservation: there’s little need for fleets of instructional coaches, curriculum specialists, and educational consultants when the answers to a lot of our problems lie in the logical foundations of our own common sense.
Read the original column here.
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