The Teaching-Learning Paradox Revisited (Part 3: Solving the Paradox)

Brief summary of Parts 1 and 2:

In Part 1, I revisited a puzzling 1968 study (supported by follow-up articles) that concluded teaching method has no impact on final exam performance. In Part 2, I explored a possible conclusion of these results: we should focus on learning, not teaching, and we should accept student effort and study time as the main difference makers in exam performance. This doesn’t mean that teachers do not matter. Instead, it means that pedagogy is less important than whether or not learning is actually happening. And, as I suggest in Part 2, cognitive research may help us learn how to learn.

Solving the Teaching-Learning Paradox

In some respects, the results of The Teaching-Learning Paradox are a miracle. Regardless of teaching method, despite the circumstances before them, no matter the quality of teacher or program, the students learned, and they demonstrated their learning consistently across time. On one level, the results of “No Difference” seem nihilistic. Nothing we do will matter! On another level, it reveals the power of student effort and learning. No matter what constraint, strategy, or limitation thrown at them, the students learned! And they performed the same each time. The students who wanted to put forth the effort and earn their “A’s” did so, in each study, regardless of method. No matter what you do to stop them, learning will happen! As Dr. Malcolm in Jurassic Park proclaims, “Life finds a way.”

So how can teachers teach in support of learning? In Jurassic Park, scientists alter DNA in order to breed females exclusively and restrict natural reproduction. Life finds a way (via mutations or some rare gender-jumping frog DNA) around these limitations, and natural reproduction goes on. Once we start to look at the results of The Teaching-Learning Paradox this way, we should see the results as positive. Student learning will not be stopped.

However, instead of designing classrooms as obstacles to learning, we should find a way to support the learning that wants to occur naturally.

Attention, Memory, Intensity

I do not have too many answers here, but I will introduce three interrelated terms as a start: Attention, Memory, and Intensity.

Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School?¬†provides a useful model for how the mind retains factual information. He’s careful to point out that factual information is not sufficient for learning, but is often the basis for real learning, since in order to apply concepts and make creative evaluations, we must have a database of knowledge from which to pull and make connections. His simple model of how memory works presents educators with an opportunity to figure out where the bad connections might be in teacher-student communication:

Willingham argues that in order for data from the environment to make the transition from temporary working memory into (somewhat) permanent long-term memory two things need to happen: 1) said data must be subject to an intense level of attention while it is readily available in working memory, and 2) content previously stored in long-term memory must be pulled up and matched with the new data in order for it to permanently “stick.”

I would then couple this model with John Medina’s argument in Brain Rules¬†that we most effectively store information in our memory when it is organized in a “top-down” manner. That is, instead of imagining a long list of vocabulary terms to be crammed into the brain like a scroll of paper inserted into a shredder, we should group and “chunk” information into concept-category that are big enough to hold a lot of related knowledge. Think of the mind as a series of drawers (I like the phrase “junk drawer”). One drawer might be “Romanticism.” (I have a drawer like that.) Once that drawer has been established and the key concepts and terms defined, you can open it up whenever you want and dump more stuff in. Then, when you want to remember something related to it, you don’t have to go rifling through all of your junk. Just pull out the Romanticism drawer. Items in that drawer tend to stick together and have interrelated functions.

Both Willingham and Medina stress the importance of getting students to pay attention, not simply to be nodding and following along, but to pay attention in a particular kind of way. Willingham thinks the most effective kind of attention is when students are thinking about particular and important meaning. This echoes the “Why” study I discussed in Part 2, but also Medina’s concept-containers. I think all of this connects back to intensity. Ideas and meaning matter. They also require more thought (again, as in the “why” study in Part 2), force the brain to construct its own connections, and to “turn on.”

So much of teaching comes back to the construction of analogies. When you’re trying to make a new concept “stick” you should look for some piece of knowledge already stored in the students’ long-term memories and compare the new concept to it. They need some sort of connection. This is also an opportunity for them to construct their own analogies, thereby activating their brains. Similar to asking “Why do you suppose that is?” You can ask, “Does this idea sound like anything you’ve heard before?”

One final note on “intensity.” Students do not pay attention when they’re bored. Sometimes this can’t be helped. As your mother used to say, “Only boring people get bored.” Some students would be bored watching live footage of an alien invasion on CNN. Don’t worry about it. Also, we should avoid thinking of education as entertainment, and we should avoid trying to be too “current” and “hip” in an effort to relate to what we think the students are into. Usually we’re wrong anyway, and then we come across as condescending ninnies.

However, we should not underestimate how tired and distracted and typically underwhelmed students can be. Sometimes this is their fault, and sometimes it’s not. I think students are desperate for reasons to pay attention. Be intense. Be interesting. Be funny, if possible, but be all of those things in service of learning. Many students just need to see that what you’re teaching is worth getting excited about.