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Alden S. Blodget: Our assumptions about learning are wrong. Individual brains vary every bit as much as DNA or fingerprints. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Why does media coverage of school reform consistently ignore research into how people learn? How do you improve learning if you never talk about how learning happens?

Media articles and discussions of education endlessly rehash the same tired issues, often reducing them to simplistic debates between false dichotomies: either national standards or local control; either charter schools or traditional public schools; either more testing or less testing; either closing down failing schools or giving them more money. Frequently, the focus is a single issue: poverty, higher standards, teacher accountability, unions, longer school years and days. All of these issues are both complex and important, but they need to be discussed in a context of how children learn.

Last month, during a debate between NYU professor of education Diane Ravitch and education consultant Jessica Levin about public versus for-profit schools, there was a moment when the perspective of neuroscientists might have moved the debate in some interesting new directions. At one point, Ravitch and Levin seemed to agree: Charter schools and public schools don’t get different results. Referring to voucher, charter and public schools, Ravitch said, “All three sectors get the same [poor] results on tests.”

Here was a moment to probe more deeply into the reason for these identical results, to move the debate in a new direction, to consider that perhaps we are dealing with a more fundamental problem than whether schools are public or corporate. Perhaps our assumptions about how kids learn — the assumptions on which educators have designed school practices, structures and policies for hundreds of years — are incompatible with how the brain learns.

Learning outcomes are the same regardless of “sector” because the basic assumptions about learning are the same in each. Here are just three of many such assumptions:

1.) Kids learn by reading and listening — by being told things — so students sit in classrooms all day reading and listening to teachers talk.

2.) Most brains are the same, so classes meet for about the same number of minutes and the same number of days, and students are expected to move through the curriculum at the same speed. Students take pretty much the same courses — math, English, science, history, foreign language — and have the same course loads.

3.) Those who can’t keep up are damaged in some way (LD, ADD, ADHD, oppositional) and are culled into separate rooms with specialists.

Researchers (like Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, University of Southern California, and Kurt Fischer, Harvard) suggest that these assumptions about learning are wrong. Individual brains vary every bit as much as DNA or fingerprints. Different people with their different brains perceive the world differently. They approach problems differently and take different paths when trying to solve problems. They have different mixtures of cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and, not surprisingly, people tend to lead with their strengths. The sheer range of differences beggars notions of standardized education and standardized testing.

Why does media coverage of school reform consistently ignore research into how people learn? How do you improve learning if you never talk about how learning happens?

Research also suggests a need to rethink the cornerstone of schooling: most educators assume that telling, teaching and learning are synonyms (“I taught them this last semester.” “They learned this last week.” “I keep telling them this.”). They aren’t synonyms. Learning isn’t the result of “putting” what we have been told into memory boxes — so that we “have” it. Rather than recalling and reciting, learning involves building new neural networks that constantly fall apart and need to be rebuilt. Learning addition means creating a neural network for addition. This process is hard work that requires considerable effort from the learner. Teachers can’t do this work for students. Rather than factories for teaching, we need to create environments that support learning.

Why maintain a system and structures that reflect faulty notions of learning and brain function? Why cling to notions of “normal” and learning disabled? Why recreate essentially the same school with different names — public, private, charter, independent, magnet — and then waste time debating the merits of each when, in fact, the fundamental problem is replicated in each?

And why do the media remain ignorant of or deaf to the voices of researchers who might help educators, parents and (perhaps even) politicians move toward more productive, successful school designs? Motivation, funding, accountability, standards, assessments, teacher quality, instructional methods, drop-out rates, parental support, poverty and racism present daunting problems, and we will continue to fail to solve them until we consider them in the context of the biology and psychology of learning — especially when the insights from these fields support what many teachers have already discovered, on their own, from their experiences in classrooms with students. The brain and traditional school design are incompatible. If the media want meaningful discussion about school reform, they need to expand their perspective.

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The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Firewall1756

    Not just in education, but society as a whole would greatly benefit if its technology and practices were more aligned with the most current scientific knowledge.

  • http://www.judydunn.net/ Judy D

    There are examples of schools that understand this and try to work with it right here in Massachusetts. Parker Charter Essential School, for one, in Devens addresses all of the issues you outline in terms of learning. My daughter is in her sixth and final year at the school and I cannot say enough positive things about the school and the environment they create for learning. Sadly, there are limited numbers of seats so demand outstrips space by 3:1. And though what they have learned about education is shared on a regular basis with other educators, I am not so sure it is often implemented.

    • Alden Blodget

      Yes, I know the Parker School–have visited it and knew Ted Sizer. There are other interesting schools that have many practices in harmony with research into how people learn. Sudbury Valley is another such school in Massachusetts. Perhaps the various media people who care about improving our schools could include those voices in the discussion, as well. Wouldn’t it be interesting to involve some students, like your daughter, in the discussion?

  • dirose

    I went to graduate school at Tufts University and studied under some wonderful professors who understood brain research and how humans learn. The research is there, it is waiting to be put into practice. As a young teacher, I was (and remain) on fire with ideas about how to approach my students.
    I teach part time in academia now and can state that many who are involved in the actual act of educating are not able (or willing) to keep up with all of the research that is coming out. Many do not show interest in learning about the research and are busy teaching what they taught twenty years ago and see no reason to change their approach.
    We need a fresh generation of young teachers who are armed with brain science. It is only human to resist change, but the stakes are too high and another generation of children should not be exposed to antiquated thinking and teaching when it comes to actual learning.

    • Alden Blodget

      Although, as you know, the purpose of this essay is to try to get the media to include the perspective of researchers when they cover school reform, your point is exactly right: we need a new generation of teachers whose training has included research into how people learn–and who understand the need to stay current with continuing research. Your response gives me some hope that perhaps this next generation could appear, though, to be honest, I worry that those who teach in too many ed schools have not yet, themselves, brought this research into their own classrooms.

  • Gerrold

    ” students
    sit in classrooms all day reading and listening to teachers talk.” This statement does not reflect what goes on these days in most classrooms!

  • Theo Dawson

    My organization builds learning tools that help teachers move toward instructional practices that are aligned with knowledge about learning and the brain. The main obstacle we confront is pressure on teacher time. The teachers whose students could most benefit from more effective instructional practices spend so much time prepping their students for high stakes tests that there is no time to try alternatives. Most of these teachers would prefer not to teach the way they are forced to teach in the current system. If we could give them more control over their time and practice, I believe many teachers would happily embrace more effective teaching practices. In fact, our research shows that experienced teachers already know, at least tacitly, much of what researchers are finally able to demonstrate empirically. We don’t have to reeducate them, just give them the time and the tools to help them align their tacit knowledge with current learning research and best practices.

  • Hestia’s Hearthfire

    The idea that students are only “taught at” in the modern school is a straw man in this article. Has the author actually seen schools function lately?

    I worked with teachers for several years., and every decent one (and the vast majority ARE decent) knows all of this through actual experience teaching actual children. The push to teach children in lockstep comes from outside.

  • samar

    I think that it is fair to say that there are elite schools in every country with teachers who – even if they are unaware of brain science – deliver education in a manner that is consistent with the latest research findings.

    The issue is that in an increasing borderless world, it is not enough that good education should be imparted in some schools but in all schools. That – as Alden emphasizes below – requires a new breed of teacher trainers who understand the latest findings of research and can both practice those principles and deliver those concepts and methodologies to teachers-to-be.

    One could argue that education today is required not only for securing a job but also for developing a responsible citizenry, engaging in, and influencing civic and national policies, comprehending and responding to systemic changes in our social, economic and cultural environment, and understanding the implications of research findings in diverse fields, and their interaction with our civic, national and international responsibilities. The failure to do that, for citizens of every country, puts the world at risk from phenomena like terrorism and environmental disaster.

    The seeds for these abilities need to be sown in our schools – everywhere.

  • Ryann

    This makes so much sense…in the adult world, we don’t go from sitting still and learning each subject separately for an hour, then switching gears to something completely unrelated; we must use a variety of skills to solve problems NOT in isolation, but interdisciplinary. We should be encouraging more problem solving and application in schools. Another part of the problem is forcing students (especially adolescents) to be in school while they are still asleep!

    I did not do so well in high school, but excelled in college when I was able to choose my courses and the times I attended class (although the bill also served as motivation).

    I do teach in a school, and have been teaching in schools for the past 6 years, and even with collaborative, constructivist, and differentiated instruction, classes continue to be taught by discipline, by grade level. It’s an inescapable reality because of high stakes testing.

  • Brian

    Well said, Mr. Blodget

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