Washington D.C.

It's Time to Help Teachers Discover the Science Behind How Kids Learn

We recently surveyed around 200 K-12 educators from across the U.S. to discover their beliefs about learning. 

The results were not good—and say a lot about the nation’s system of training educators. 

In our study, 77% of survey respondents endorsed the idea that people are either right-brained or left-brained and that this difference helps explain how people learn. 

What’s more, 97% of respondents endorsed the idea that students have individual learning styles (such as visual, auditory or kinesthetic).

The problem? Neither of these ideas are true. Teachers, it turned out, could not consistently recognize research-supported teaching and studying approaches. 

Teachers Need More Support Around Effective Teaching Practices

In our study, only a minority of educators, for example, could recognize that interleaving (mixing up problem types during student problem-solving sessions) is a superior way of practicing than blocking (solving a bunch of problems of one type, followed by a bunch of another type, etc.) when you want students to learn how to apply the right procedure to the right problem.

While our findings are disconcerting, educators are not to blame. Most teachers work hard each day in often very difficult situations. But clearly our systems of support for teachers must change to provide educators with more robust knowledge about effective teaching practices.

A majority of educators could identify the value of three learning science principles, to be sure. Roughly 60% of respondents correctly endorsed elaboration techniques over simple mental repetition to help students remember information. 

The same percentage of respondents also endorsed spaced (or distributed) practice, which increases student memory of the material, over massed (or crammed) practice. A majority of respondents also recognized that eliciting explanations from students about why a procedure works can improve their ability to apply the procedure in novel ways.

But the overall picture suggests that teachers have weak overall knowledge about learning principles. Out of 17 questions related to learning myths and research-supported teaching strategies, respondents performed only slightly better than chance. Respondents got 8.34 questions correct on average—random guessing would give an average response rate of 6.63.

Do these survey results about the science of learning matter? Yes.

Learning is an immensely complex activity. Teachers need to be informed to make sense of what’s happening in their classrooms and to make effective decisions about how to teach: How should this activity be structured? When should we return to this topic? What kinds of questions should I ask my students? How do I encourage deep processing? Forty-three percent of our survey respondents reported making decisions about how to teach every day.

A teacher’s influence also extends far beyond the classroom by serving as a model and guide to students. Surveys, for example, illustrate that many college students simply cannot identify effective studying techniques. But when a well-informed teacher shows a student how to study effectively, that lesson impacts the student’s entire school career by making the student a more efficient learner.

Knowledge of how people learn is far from all that a teacher needs to be effective. But it’s part of a patchwork of integrated knowledge and skills that effective teachers learn to wield.

Promoting The Science of Learning

Given these results, what can we, as parents and educators, do to promote the science of learning? How can we create a learning engineering agenda? 

One of the first steps is to be better informed about learning science. It’s not just teachers who believe a lot of myths about learning—students and the general public do, too. We’re swimming in misinformation. And it’s easy to spread this misinformation if we’re not careful.

There are lots of sources for reliable information on how students learn. For scholarly coverage of issues in learning science, the What Works Clearinghouse regularly assesses both products and teaching practices. And the National Academy of Sciences has released several reports that summarize what we know about how students learn. Several learning researchers also do public outreach, like Dan Willingham.

Another thing we can do is insist on high-quality teacher training programs. A 2016 review of the leading teacher training materials found an astounding lack of science. There was little to no mention of the main research findings or the applied research on how to apply these findings to the classroom. These same materials framed anecdotal reports as hard science.

Educators who responded to our survey also answered questions about where they hear about developments in teaching and learning research. The top responses were “conferences/workshops,” “professional development,” and “peers.” This suggests that we can leverage existing communication networks to spread the science of learning.

And teachers want to know this information—teachers believe that knowledge about “how the learning process occurs” and “how students think and learn” is vital to effective teaching. Teaching is an incredibly demanding profession. It’s time we gave them the tools to be as effective as they can be.

Ulrich Boser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the founding director of American Progress’ science of learning initiative. He is also the founder of The Learning Agency. He recently finished a book titled "Learn Better" that examines the new science of ...

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