Sunday, February 1, 2015

Traditional teaching vs. biology

Why do we keep teaching in a way that is clearly not effective?

This is the second in what's sure to be a boatload of blog posts about Hattie and Yates' book, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. Today I read (in Ch. 6) about a study of over 1,017 U.S. classrooms. The most common classroom configurations looked like this: 
"the teacher explaining or lecturing to the total class or a single student, occasionally asking questions requiring factual answers;... students listening or appearing to listen to the teacher and occasionally responding to the teacher's questions." 
Hattie and Yates call this the recitation method, and they say the problem is that it just doesn't jive with what we know about the psychology of learning.

First, "Within the world of psychology, there is no such thing as passive learning, unless the term implies learning to do nothing, in a manner akin to learned helplessness." And the recitation method encourages passivity. In fact, it is often easy for students to "opt out" of learning altogether, by learning how to "become invisible"--to look interested and engaged and avoid eye-contact so they are not called on.

Secondly, after about 10 minutes, our minds start to wander. (I can vouch for this.) There are two theories for why this happens.

1) "One's ability to focus intensively... literally runs out through biological exhaustion, indexed by glucose levels available to the brain." Wandering is our brains' way of conserving resources so that we are ready for the next time we have to focus intently.

2) Wandering is our brain's attempt to keep itself free from confusion when it is becoming overloaded.

Either way, the fact remains. One study of college students found that, half-way through the lecture 55% of students admitted their minds were wandering, in other words, about half were engaged. This fits my experience in college classes.

(Take-home message at this point: When we teach like this, we are literally fighting biology.)

Lastly, explanations that are given to the whole class are often "out of sync" with individual students background knowleded. We can't expect the whole class to understand the same explanation--explanations need to be individualized as much as possible.

But why does the recitation method still dominate education despite decades of reform efforts? Well, for one thing, it allows the teacher to control the classroom so she/he plough through mountains of curricular material. And unfortunately (and this is me talking now), many "reform" efforts just increase the amount of stuff we have to "cover." This, combined with the natural fear of and effort required change (and fear of failure) leads to tremendous inertia.

But my hope is the tide is turning.

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