Monday, November 24, 2014

How Schools Make Learning Harder Than Necessary

Keep your "nose to the grindstone" is the advice we often give as an essential ingredient of learning difficult tasks. An old joke captures the problem with the old bromide for success, "Keep your eye on the ball, your ear to the ground, your nose to the grindstone, your shoulder to the wheel: Now try to work in that position."

Over the years of teaching, I have seen many highly conscientious students work like demons in their study yet don't seem to learn as much as they should for all the effort they put in. Typically, it is because they don't study smart. And sometimes the problem is created by the teachers' method of instruction.

In an earlier post, I described a learning strategy wherein a student should spend repeated short (say 10-15 minutes) of intense study followed immediately by a comparable rest period of "brain-dead" activity where they don't engage with a new learning task. The idea is that memory of the just-learned material is more likely to be consolidated into long-term memory because there are no mental distractions to erase the temporary working memory while it is in the process of consolidation.

Now, new research now suggests that too much nose-to-the-grindstone can impair learning.
Margaret Schlichting, a graduate student researcher, and Alison Preston, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Texas tested the effect of mental rest with a learning task of remembering two sets of a series of associated photo pairs.  Between the two task sets, the participants rested and were allowed to think about whatever they wanted. Not surprisingly, those who used the rest time to reflect on what they had learned earlier were able to remember more upon re-test. Obviously, in this case, the brain is not really resting, as it is processing (that is, rehearsing) the new learning. But the brain is resting in the sense that no new mental challenges are encountered.

The university press release quotes the authors as saying, "We've shown for the first time that how the brain processes information during rest can improve future learning. We think replaying memories during rest makes those earlier memories stronger, not just impacting the original content, but impacting the memories to come." Despite the fact that this concept has been anointed as a new discovery in a prestigious science journal, the principle has been well-known for decades. I have explained this phenomenon in my memory books as the well-established term of "interference theory of memory,"

What has not been well understood among teachers is the need to alter teaching practices to accommodate this principle. A typical class period involves teachers presenting a back-to-back succession of highly diverse learning objects and concepts. Each new topic interferes with memory formation of the prior topics. An additional interference occurs when a class period is disrupted by blaring announcements from the principal's office, designed to be loud to command attention (which has the effect of diverting attention away from the learning material). The typical classroom has a plethora of other distractions, such as windows for looking outside and multiple objects like animals, pictures, posters, banners, and ceiling mobiles designed to decorate and enliven the room. The room itself is a major distraction.

Then, to compound the problem, the class bell rings, and students rush out into the hall for their next class, socializing furiously in the limited time they have to get to the next class (on a different subject, by a different teacher, in a differently decorated classroom). You can be sure, little reflection occurs on the academic material they had just encountered.

The format of a typical school day is so well-entrenched that I doubt it can be changed. But there is no excuse for blaring loudspeaker announcements during the middle of a class period. Classrooms do not have to be decorated. A given class period does not have to be an information dump on overwhelmed students. Short periods of instruction need to be followed by short, low-key, periods of questioning, discussion, reflection, and application of what has just been taught. Content that doesn't get "covered" in class can be assigned as homework—or even exempted from being a learning requirement. It is better to learn a few things well than many things poorly. Indeed, this is the refreshing philosophy behind the new national science standards known as "Next Generation Science Standards."

Give our kids a rest: the right kind of mental rest.


Schlichting, M. L., and Preston, A. R. (2014). Memory reactivation during rest supports upcoming learning of related content Proc. Nat. Acad. Science. Published ahead of print October 20, 2014.

Dr. Klemm's latest book, available at most retail outlets, is "Mental Biology. The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate" (Prometheus). 

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