Berens: Science Shows That Learners Must Master the Basics Before Moving On to More Complex Skills. So Why Don’t Our Schools Teach That Way?

Progressive educationists assert that the key to improving educational outcomes is to expose students to more sophisticated content in earlier grades. From their perspective, learning is simply providing students with experiences, so the sooner students have experience with complex subject matter, the better.

As such, we have kindergartners expected to write about their day and first-graders expected to solve math word problems, regardless of the fact that kindergartners are just learning to identify and write letters and first-graders are just learning how to read and add.

These educationists package their ideologies in a way that is very appealing to the public — a romantic vision that kindergartners should be writing prose and first-graders performing logical problem-solving. However, this romantic vision conflicts with an ugly reality. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), more than 60 percent of American students graduate below proficiency in all academic areas, with more than 80 percent of minority and underprivileged students graduating below proficiency.

For close to a century, profound discoveries have been made regarding the nature of human learning. These discoveries led to the development of Direct Instruction and Precision Teaching — two complementary instructional methods based on the science of learning. Both methods have been empirically validated as far superior to the traditional educational practices used in a majority of our nation’s schools, yet they continue to be ignored by the educational establishment.

Both methods are based on the principle of human learning that necessitates that complex repertoires must be broken down into component skills, and that these component skills must then be systematically and repeatedly practiced until mastery is attained. In other words, we must learn, and master, first things first. Not only is the “first things first” mantra common sense, it is a proven fact about learning regardless of the skill being acquired. One cannot learn tennis unless grip, stance, ball position, racket placement, racket speed, footwork and timing are separately practiced to mastery. Similarly, one cannot effectively perform algebra without mastery of basic numeracy and computation skills.

The majority of the world understands this. However, U.S. educationists have done such a brilliant job selling the progressive ideology that common sense has been replaced with irrational and erroneous ideas about how children learn academic skills. The NAEP results indicate the grim reality of what progressive education actually produces: a majority of American students who cannot read, write, think critically or do math.

Direct Instruction has systematically identified the essential foundational skills that students must learn and master before being able to successfully move up a curriculum ladder. When students are allowed the time required to learn and master the basics, more complex skills emerge automatically, with little to no training. Sadly, progressive educators want to skip the simple steps and spend all their time exposing students to the complex skills at the top of a curriculum ladder.

I understand the appeal of the fantasy: Who wants to spend the time and energy on the basics when you can focus on what educators find more interesting? However, the goal of education should be about effectively educating kids, not satisfying the interests and opinions of educators.

Precision Teaching indicates that students must truly master basic skills. This means that a skill is neurologically permanent (i.e., remembered), resistant to distractions and fatigue, and usable for the learning of more complex skills. Fluency, measured as accuracy plus speed, is the most appropriate measure of skill mastery and reliably predicts the desired outcomes described above. Fluency is achievable only through repeated, reinforced practice of skills over time and requires ongoing measurement of skills so fluency can be reliably determined.

When students achieve fluency across a broad array of core skill areas, they experience a transformation as learners. A fluent foundation produces learners who demonstrate cognitive fitness — the ability to perform as an expert in any academic setting on any type of task. Students who are cognitively fit resemble those who are fit in athletics: They tend to be agile, flexible, focused, perseverant, confident, determined and able to think critically. It is these kinds of students who will go on to impact our world in profound ways. With learning science, it is possible to intentionally design instruction so that a majority of learners, not just the lucky few, develop this kind of expertise.

It is beyond time that Direct Instruction and Precision Teaching were implemented in all of our nation’s schools. The fact that ineffective educational traditions have persisted for over a century demonstrates the dangers of ideology in an institution that should favor pragmatic values. If the purpose of our educational system is to educate the majority of American children, then ensuring that teachers do what works should serve as the only evaluative criterion.

Unfortunately, ideology runs the show in education, where teaching practices are evaluated in terms of whether they reflect the beliefs or ideas of the educational establishment — regardless of whether these practices are effective. Belief as the ultimate evaluative criterion, regardless of evidence to the contrary, defines ideology and prescientific practices. Sadly, teaching guided by belief has never effectively educated the masses.

It is time for the masses to question whether we should continue to accept these belief-based failures, or whether we want our educational system to resemble our medical system, where advances in science have led to the improved health and longevity of the human race.

There are many complex problems facing the human race. Rather than waiting for the talented few to show up and hopefully solve those problems, we must use instructional practices that intentionally produce these kinds of problem solvers. We can no longer afford to remain in the educational dark ages. The time to bring science into our educational practices is now. The future of our planet depends on it.

Kimberly Nix Berens, Ph.D., is the founder of Fit Learning, an international outcome-driven, mastery-based method of instruction that combines 20 years of experience with cutting-edge science. 

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