Twenty years ago, as a psychology major focused on learning and memory, I took a history of psychology course that included phrenology, Freud, Skinner, Piaget, and Vygotsky, among other ideas and theorists. A few years later, as a doctoral student in education policy, I took a child development class that claimed to be current and correct—it featured Piaget and Vygotsky. A pitifully watered-down version of my history course, it did not offer any indication of which aspects of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s insights have endured and which have been updated.
That was one of many eye-opening experiences in my introduction to the field of education. Since then, I’ve often thought policymakers, administrators, and teachers would make different choices if they knew more about how our minds work. Early childhood education would be fully funded. Reading comprehension instruction would focus more on building knowledge and vocabulary than finding the main idea. Efforts to improve critical thinking would embrace the necessity of factual, conceptual, and procedural knowledge. Reading comprehension tests would be high stakes only if they drew from academic domains that had been taught.
You get the idea.
At long last, well-established findings from psychology are being applied to education. Deans for Impact has just released a short but powerful document: The Science of Learning. In answering six essential questions, it distills large bodies of research into basic cognitive principles and practical implications. Here are the six questions:
- How do students understand new ideas?
- How do students learn and retain new information?
- How do students solve problems?
- How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
- What motivates children to learn?
- What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?
These are complex questions, but The Science of Learning provides clear answers. For example, in explaining how students understand new ideas, one cognitive principle is “Cognitive development does not progress through a fixed sequence of age-related stages. The mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts.” And the classroom application is “Content should not be kept from students because it is ‘developmentally inappropriate.’ The term implies there is a biologically inevitable course of development, and that this course is predictable by age. To answer the question ‘is the student ready?’ it’s best to consider ‘has the student mastered the prerequisites?’”
This is especially exciting because of the group behind it. Deans for Impact is just that: 24 deans and leaders devoted to improving teacher education. Instructional quality is just as important as curricular quality; unfortunately, the out-of-date child development course I took seems pretty typical. (See, for example, Dan Willingham’s New York Times op-ed defending teachers’ intelligence and noting the troubles with preparation programs.)
Being unaware of current cognitive science causes problems in everything from lesson plans to our national vision for education. Consider the vision set forth by Linda Darling-Hammond in announcing her new institute: “The quantity of human knowledge is exploding…. Rather than memorizing material from static textbooks, our young people need to learn how to become analysts and investigators who can work with knowledge they themselves assemble to solve complex problems we have not managed to solve.”
Last time I checked, D-Day was still June 6, 1944. We can all agree that students need more than the knowledge provided by “static textbooks,” but we’ll never accomplish our goals if we continue to deride knowledge while lauding forms of critical thinking. It takes knowledge to make knowledge.
Or, as Annie Murphy Paul wrote:
Yes, we must help students learn how to “find and apply knowledge.” But we also need to teach students in ways that ensure that a good deal of knowledge is absorbed and retained in their own heads. (And one of the most effective ways of ensuring retention is retrieval practice, a key part of affirmative testing.)
The difference in emphasis is crucial. The amount of information in the world will continue to grow, as will the accuracy of our search engines. But unless we succeed in moving a lot of that information into our students’ own minds, we won’t be preparing them to grapple with that brave new world.
Hopefully, The Science of Learning will be embraced as an essential guide by educators and policymakers at all levels. It would move essential cognitive science into their minds, and allow all of us to focus on cultivating the broad academic knowledge and related skills our youth need firmly planted in theirs.