The Learning Curve: How We Learn and Rethinking the Education Model

Summer 2018

By Alden S. Blodget

In the 18th and 19th centuries, various infections, often called childbed fever, were common causes of childbirth-related maternal deaths in hospitals. In 1847, Ignaz Semmelweis, a young intern at Vienna General Hospital, proposed a radical solution: Doctors needed to wash their hands. Although this solution dramatically reduced the maternal mortality rate, the medical establishment rejected and ridiculed Semmelweis, and he ultimately lost his job. Eventually, his depression, numerous angry letters to obstetricians, and increasingly erratic behavior resulted in his being committed to an insane asylum, where he died.
This story of 19th century medicine suggests an instructive parallel to 21st century education. Just as doctors and hospitals unintentionally created fatal diseases that they then struggled to treat, even as their own practices perpetuated the diseases, so have educators and schools unintentionally created learning problems—as brought to light by recent research into how people actually learn—that cannot be successfully treated unless we change the practices that create them.
The overarching problem is that too many students are not engaged in their education. Various polls consistently show a steady decline in student engagement; from 80 percent engagement in elementary school to 60 percent in middle school to 40 percent in secondary school, according to The Gallup Student Poll. The most common words students use to describe themselves in school are “bored” and “tired.” Educators and critics offer many diagnoses: lack of interest and motivation, negative mindsets often based on race and gender, character deficiencies like lack of resilience and self-control and grit, short attention spans, too little creativity, and too much cheating. For many students, these diseases are intellectually and emotionally fatal, and frantic efforts to treat them have failed.
Increased standardized testing, test preparation, charter schools, government programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, STEM programs, optimistic innovations like portfolios and projects, and more technology have been developed to treat the ills that seem to impede learning, not to mention the Sisyphean efforts of countless caring teachers who struggle to motivate their students. These modifications, however, focus on the symptoms and fail to address the systemic causes. Efforts to fix the patients have failed; perhaps it’s time to fix the schools. Perhaps it’s time to understand the role that school designs—the structures, practices, and policies—play in creating the illnesses that we keep failing to cure.
Unlike Semmelweis, whose theory about the need for cleanliness was rejected because it lacked the scientific support that Louis Pasteur’s germ theory would eventually provide, today we have ample research that suggests a mismatch between learners and schools—a mismatch between how people learn and how educators think they learn.

Emotion and Thinking

The research of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio, neuroscientists at the University of Southern California, has provided important insights into the connections among emotion, thinking, and learning that have profound implications for how we might improve our schools. One such insight is that emotion and cognition are intertwined and inseparable. “Emotion is the rudder for thought,” Damasio writes in a 2007 article in the journal Mind, Brain, and Education; Immordino-Yang expands on the idea when she says, “We think in the service of emotional goals.” We think and learn about things that matter to us, that are emotionally relevant because we perceive them as important to our physical or social survival and well-being.
Motivation, engagement, perseverance, creativity, optimism, resilience—pretty much all the so-called “soft skills”—are rooted in emotion. Focusing on how to teach and assess these skills as schools so often attempt to do, however, misses the point. Teachers don’t need to invent strategies to motivate students. Telling them that math will matter to them someday won’t make math matter today. Linking the American Revolution to current events may work with a couple of students, but it’s not going to animate many. 
If students’ programs of study include significant, meaningful opportunities for them to follow their expanding and changing interests during their many years in school,  motivation and perseverance will spontaneously combust because, as some students told me, “my interest and involvement in my studies became personal. I felt like my school had meaning, like there was purpose.”

Building Neural Networks

The research of Kurt W. Fischer, former head of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at Harvard University, also supports the need to rethink school design. Schools often focus on memorization and students’ ability to recall information and procedures. In contrast, Fischer explains learning as a process of building and rebuilding neural networks. 
For example, as we learn a new word, we activate a network of neurons connecting many parts of the brain, including the visual cortex (that supports spelling), various motor planning areas (pronunciation), and the association cortex (meaning). If we encounter the word many times and use it repeatedly, that neural network becomes more stable and automatic so that when we need the word in the future, the network is quickly rebuilt or reactivated. If, for some reason, we have learned the word incorrectly and receive new information, we can reshape the network, although this process requires varying degrees of effort depending on the strength of the existing network.
It is this remarkable plasticity, this ability to build new networks or reshape old ones, that allows us to continue to learn and develop increasingly complex and new understandings of the world. So learning how to compute the area of a triangle or how to write a paragraph requires that we build stable neural networks for these tasks. Understanding the American Revolution involves building a network for the American Revolution, not memorizing dates and notes from teachers’ lectures.
As we build these networks, as skills or concepts become increasingly complex, they constantly fall apart and need to be rebuilt. A child learning to play soccer might learn to dribble the ball well, but when she must combine dribbling with passing to a teammate running down the field, her ability to dribble regresses and must be rebuilt in the new context of passing the ball. Another child develops an understanding of numbers as he learns to add and subtract, and that understanding will likely regress as he grapples with understanding multiplication and division and how these are related to addition and subtraction. Learning is very much a process of progress and regression. In fact, regression is essential to learning because each time the learner rebuilds the network, the more stable and automatic it becomes. Regression is not failure, although it is often treated as such. 

Emotional Goals, Learning, and Success

This natural process of learning—building, regression, rebuilding—requires significant effort. People typically resist putting great effort into endeavors that don’t matter to them. Some students—those motivated to get good grades—may expend sufficient effort to ace a test, but they aren’t going to put forth the necessary increased effort to build deeper understanding in an area that doesn’t matter to them. So what matters to students? What are they learning in school that forces them to focus on what matters to adults?
Because emotional goals motivate and direct people’s thoughts and behavior, as Immordino-Yang suggests, understanding students’ goals can provide insight into what they are likely to learn and help educators understand how they might change their practices. Not surprisingly, different groups of students learn different things. For some students, learning new skills and concepts matters. For these fortunate few, the traditional approach to school often aligns quite nicely, for various reasons, with their goals and interests, and the result is that they successfully develop the skills and conceptual understanding that are the stuff of school.
For many others, the emotional fuel is a desire to get into college, often because they have internalized parental or cultural aspirations. They get good grades, score reasonably to very well on standardized tests, and attend college. They work hard and appear engaged in school. Appearances can be misleading, however. Engagement in school does not always reflect engagement in the sort of deep, meaningful learning—developing intellectual skills and conceptual understanding—that educators value.
Although some students learn the skills and concepts taught, for too many this learning is an illusion. Instead, they are learning the tricks and strategies for obtaining the grades and test scores that they need to please college admissions officers. In the traditional model of schooling, grades and scores are the coins of the realm. Students interested primarily in amassing these coins learn the skills that have proven most effective: strong memorization and recall techniques, how to read teachers and tell them what they want to hear, how to manage large amounts of homework using triage routines, how to use shortcuts (quickly skimming reading assignments, developing formulas for writing essays, learning techniques for guessing on certain kinds of tests), and how to cheat. This population of students suffers the most, arriving at colleges in increasing numbers with depression and other symptoms of burnout.
The goals of the remainder of students—which in many schools feels like the majority—tend to be social, not academic. Their friends and life in the corridors and cafeterias, at home, on the streets, or online are what matter most. The classroom is important only to the extent that complex social interactions bubble beneath the surface. The skills for this group include learning to get by unnoticed and developing strategies for distraction (class-clowning, rebelling, diverting teachers’ attention from the lesson). Many of these do just enough to get by; others are passed along; some drop out.

Rethinking Schools

Understanding what matters to students and how they measure success is essential to understanding their behavior and what they are likely to learn. It is also important in considering how to rethink school designs and create a new conceptual model for schools—a model that combines and finds an effective balance among the goals that adults have for students and the needs that students have for themselves, a balance between what matters to students and what matters to adults.
The current model is built almost entirely on what adults believe students must know to function successfully in the world. It is an ineffective model for most students and frustrating for most teachers. The vast majority of students never associate school with deep, meaningful, personally relevant learning. People cannot become lifelong learners if they are denied the experience of meaningful learning, if they are confined to the prison of other people’s interests and think of learning as memorizing and regurgitating correct answers to questions and problems that mean nothing to them.
A more effective model will offer real opportunities for students to pursue personally meaningful interests and questions. If deep engagement in learning is the primary concern of education, then schools need to cast off the traditional straitjacket of standardized graduation requirements and courseloads to create the time and opportunities for all students every year, to create some or all of their curriculum according to their interests and strengths. Offering electives, which tend to reflect the passions and interests of the teachers who create them, is an inadequate substitute. Young people need to experience school as connected, as emotionally relevant, to the lives they live and the futures they envision.
Achieving this goal does not require that adults abandon their responsibility to help students learn specific essential skills or their responsibility to expand students’ sense of the world of possibilities and opportunities. Literature, history, math, sciences, the arts, and languages are important lenses through which to view the world; these disciplines offer rich opportunities for paths to future careers, good citizenship, and meaningful lives. Our country will always need scientists, engineers, historians, artists, economists, ambassadors, inventors, but we don’t need to try to make all students masters of all disciplines.
Standardization tends to assume there’s only one way to understand concepts or develop skills, only one solution to a problem, only one path up the mountain, when, in fact, there are many—just as there could be many, equally worthy, rigorous paths to graduation. Instead of insisting that all students collect identical promotion and graduation credits by meeting minimal standards to “pass” anywhere from five to seven courses each year in discrete, unrelated subjects, educators might be more successful ensuring that all students work each year on a body of specific essential skills—perhaps communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving, which are getting so much attention today—that can be learned while working in any subject area. Students don’t need eight years of English to learn how to write well, as long as writing is always part of their programs of study.
Depending on their aspirations, some students will benefit from 12 years of math; many others will not. Some students will find enjoyment, meaning, and success in the current model of five or six courseloads of traditional and AP classes. Others will benefit from different programs of study. Some will engage deeply in two courses and an apprenticeship. A few might arrive in high school wanting to focus exclusively on becoming musicians—studying an instrument, delving into music theory and composition—and, over time, discover a desire to expand their programs to include poetry or history or psychology. One thing does tend to lead to another when people pursue their interests. The result is that when student musicians discover that history or poetry will help them become better musicians, these areas become more meaningful, and the learning becomes more powerful than in the more traditional model.
This new model combines development of specific essential skills in all students with a flexibility that allows students the freedom to create individualized, developmentally appropriate programs of study that align with their evolving interests. Some of the changes that make this new model possible involve significantly reducing the number of traditionally required courses, creating individualized rather than rigidly standardized courseloads, giving students more control of the subjects they study, and establishing graduation requirements based on skill development. Because adults continue to have a responsibility to ensure that young people have some exposure and experience in subject areas beyond their immediate interests, most students would likely still be required to take a few courses in traditional subject areas spread out over their school careers.
The primary goal of the new model is to transform the experience of school by giving students the freedom to connect learning to their emotional lives. Done right, schools will become sources of motivation and perseverance rather than hospitals responsible for treating the apathy they create. ▪

Read More
Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Cognitive Development and Education: From Dynamic General Structure to Specific Learning and Teaching,” a paper by Kurt W. Fischer and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Virtuous Cycles of Learning: Redesigning Testing During the Digital Revolution,” a white paper by Theo Dawson and Zachary Stein
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.