What We Learn When We Talk About Learning

Fall 2015

By Alden S. Blodget

Let's make some assumptions here. Let's assume that more and more teachers are accepting that students are not sausages to be stuffed with the odds and ends of centuries of information. Let's assume that, instead of wringing their hands over students' inability to memorize, teachers understand that people tend to remember what matters to them and what they actually use. Let's assume that teachers realize that students need to be responsible for their own learning - responsible not in the tiresome sense of accepting whatever they are told, but responsible in the sense of constructing knowledge and building understanding. 

What, then, do students need from teachers? They need to learn how to do these things. They need the skills. Yet, while some teachers understand this need and work to address it in their classrooms, the schools themselves, especially through their structures, remain curiously unsupportive. The whole college-admissions-testing-industry context stifles meaningful conversation about substantive institutional change. The result? Teacher and researcher understanding of learning is increasingly misaligned with school structures, practices, and policies. Despite new insights into learning, school designs continue to reflect traditional, flawed, unexamined assumptions about how people learn. When the latest "disruptive innovation" arrives - for example, blended learning - people leap on the wagon with little discussion about the connection between the innovation, how learning happens, and the implications for larger, related institutional changes. 

Sadly, despite their independence, independent schools, particularly many of the most successful Ivy-feeders­, seem remarkably uninterested in studying or discussing research into learning and its implications. Why rock the boat? The parents are happy with our SAT scores and college placement. Students keep coming. 

I have listened for 40 years to cliches about "the guide on the side" and creating "lifelong learners" and "critical thinkers," marketing slogans that suggest an emphasis on skills ("21st-century skills," of course), but nothing much has really changed in a systemic sort of way. School is still mostly about learning stuff for tests about stuff. Graduation requirements continue to be so many years of so much stuff - four years of English, three of math, and so on. Student course loads continue to buckle to college demands for "rigor" - meaning five or six courses, including as many APs as possible. And this course load dictates how time is used - the number and length of periods that can be squeezed between about 8 a.m. and the start of sports. 

New insights into learning suggest a need for rethinking this entire structure. These insights challenge the fundamental design of our educational system and the assumptions on which it is built - both what goes on in the classroom and what supports or fails to support those classroom efforts. 

Among the new insights are these four, all of which indicate the need to fix what we do in schools: 
  • All brains are different - they perceive, understand, and solve problems differently (Mary Helen Immordino-Yang).
  • Emotion and thinking cannot be separated - "emotion is the rudder for thought" (Antonio Damasio).
  • Emotion ("skilled intuition") plays an essential role in problem solving (Immordino-Yang).
  • Learning requires building and rebuilding neural networks. Regression (typically misunderstood as failure) is an inevitable and necessary part of learning. Performance depends on context (Kurt Fischer).

Several years ago, I got a tantalizing, short-lived glimpse at what systemic change might look like if a school took seriously any of these insights. It started with a curriculum committee whose members looked carefully at themselves as learners, not teachers. They recalled a time, either in school or not, when they did their best learning, when they felt engaged and successful. They identified the conditions most conducive to their learning and discussed these, noting in particular where the conditions overlapped. Then they looked at the practices at the school and identified the assumptions about how people learn suggested by these practices. Struck by the clear differences between these assumptions and the conditions that had produced their own successful learning, they began a decade-long project to redesign the school. 

A group of about 25 volunteers who understood the difference between teaching stuff and helping students develop skills worked on this project. They decided to start by creating a new curriculum for the ninth-graders. They would bring together the arts, English, science, and history. But instead of creating the usual interdisciplinary course around content themes (the Renaissance, environmental issues, etc.), they identified the essential skills that these disciplines have in common: reading, writing, reasoning, speaking and listening, study, organization, and research. Then, a team of teachers, one from each of the content areas, who would teach all the ninth-graders the smaller components of each skill, created sequences for developing the skills, and selected some subject matter that they felt would be most engaging and suited for developing the skills in this young population. 

One of the principles informing this work was that intellectual skills and habits of mind are the keys to thinking well and solving problems across disciplines. Creativity, for example, is no more restricted to the arts than testing hypotheses is the exclusive domain of the sciences. As learners, the teachers understood that emotion, thinking, and learning are linked, and that this link is important to the sort of engagement in problem solving that stimulates creativity. As neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang says, "We think in the service of emotional goals." Cognition and emotion are inseparably intertwined. We engage in questions and problems that matter most deeply to us. 

To emphasize the notion of responsibility and to increase student engagement, the teachers allowed students much more control over the content (the stuff) that each student studied. What was important to the teachers were the skills, and they decided to encourage the students, as much as possible, to study topics and issues that mattered to the students. The final six to eight weeks of the year were devoted to student-designed projects that demonstrated their degree of mastery of the skills and their understanding of a topic that interested them. Topics ranged from witchcraft to genetics to violence in sports to anorexia and images of women in advertising. 

These teachers also understood that the structures of the larger school needed to support their teaching strategies. They realized that, after years of comfortably teaching stuff, their greatest struggle would be resisting the gravity of habit, so they got the school to agree to three structural supports: 
  1. As part of their job responsibilities, they met regularly, in scheduled times, to present their lesson plans to each other and challenge/question each of them, focusing on their suitability for teaching skills.
  2. The grades they gave and sent home were for the skills - no grades in science or history; instead, grades in reading and reasoning, along with extensive comments on each skill.
  3. They demanded large, unscheduled blocks of time (anywhere between two and four hours each day) that allowed them to place students into sections and schedule the individual classes themselves, so that the schedule and sectioning were fluid, rather than fixed, and driven by teaching/learning needs and goals, rather than the reverse.

It is here that we began to see the sorts of systemic changes that are needed to support new discoveries about how people learn and support changes in teaching methods: new ways to schedule classes and to group students, new ways to grade (or to replace grades), new ways to group teachers other than by subject departments, and, perhaps, eventually, new ways to look at graduation requirements, student course loads and different paths to a diploma. 

When I attended high school, I was a sausage. Even at my graduation, and certainly in the years that followed, I recalled almost nothing from my ninth-grade year and little from the following years - memorize it, regurgitate it, forget it. When I became a teacher, I found that my colleagues joked about the ninth grade, chuckling ruefully at how little the students remembered from that year. So it's with a measure of joy that I have listened to so many of the graduates from that ninth-grade program, which taught skills and freed students so much to shape the content according to their interests. Like Jessica, who wrote one of her ninth-grade teachers 10 years later, when she was studying to become a teacher: 
"More and more in my teaching credential program, I am learning how spoiled I was to be a student in a program that teaches how to organize one's thoughts, notes, and reading, how to evaluate and address a genuine question, and how to form a judgment and back it up. I still remember most of the topics, discussions, and projects."

Research into how people learn has rich and complex implications for school design. Research challenges traditional assumptions about how learning happens, and educators have a responsibility to acknowledge, discuss, and meet these challenges. Innovations in technology also hold great promise, and their usefulness needs to be discussed in the context of new insights into learning. Independent schools have a responsibility to join together to push the standardized testing industry and college admissions offices to participate in creating a system that supports learning and our children. 
Alden S. Blodget

Alden S. Blodget spent nearly 40 years in independent schools as a teacher and administrator. He is the author of Learning, Schooling, and the Brain: New Research vs. Old Assumptions.