Williams: Old Habits Die Hard, Especially in the Classroom. Inside a New Campaign to Elevate the Science of Learning

When I was a kid, my dad had a Hagar the Horrible cartoon pinned to the wall in his office. Hagar’s son asks, “Why is the grass green?”

“That’s easy!” Hagar replies, “Wouldn’t it look silly if it was red or blue or yellow or purple?”

As his son stumbles off, Hagar yells after him, “Want to know why the sky is blue?”

If you’re not laughing, well, know that the joke slays with chemists (and fathers of curious children). But it also hints at the basic human inclination toward tautology. We are prone to settling on the way things are — not to mention how we deal with them. We do things the way we do, ahem, simply because that’s how we do them. Q.E.D.

Schools are no different. Education doesn’t have sacred cows so much as it has sacred cattle herds. Why do we teach reading this way? Why do we schedule classes, fund schools, and pay teachers like we do? Why is the sun round? Why does it move in the sky like it does? Why do we burn this incense while we chant this sun incantation?

Dunno. We just do. Wouldn’t it be silly if we did these things differently?

Fortunately, humans — especially the best educators among us — are also curious. Our constant curiosity about the world, about ourselves, has given rise to what we now call the learning sciences. As a (still nascent) field, the learning sciences are expanding knowledge and challenging assumptions about how children learn best. Advances in the learning sciences have already done serious damage to long-standing beliefs and practices in American education. Research on the important role sleep plays in healthy adolescent development is chipping away at early school start times across the country. For years, teachers (and parents) have taken for granted that children pass through a series of clear developmental stages as they grow. New research suggests that that’s wrong.

And then, of course, there are the reading wars. In September, American Public Media’s Emily Hanford published a comprehensive account of the chasm separating the research consensus on effective reading instruction and what colleges of education teach prospective teachers. There’s no serious doubt that phonics instruction is critical to improving kids’ reading skills, but that’s not shifted how teacher training programs prepare teachers for the classroom.

Trouble is, it’s a much harder thing to bring this new knowledge into classrooms. Hanford’s piece slaughtered one of education’s sacred cows, but you can rest assured that the overwhelming research consensus behind phonics won’t remake U.S. schools anytime soon. That zombie bovine’s going to be lowing in American elementary classrooms for decades to come.

Some of the hurdle is a raw matter of resources. You can’t use augmented reality goggles to teach geometry if your district’s technological infrastructure is stuck in the Oregon Trail era. But much of the ongoing revolution in learning sciences is less about money and more about rethinking how students and teachers allocate their time and resources each day.

Take that highlighter millions of U.S. students are using to mark up their texts this week, for instance. Research suggests you ought to take it the heck out of their hands. It’s not a particularly effective way for most kids to learn content. They’d likely be better off taking low-stakes practice tests and/or spreading out their scheduled times to study new material and practice new skills.

A study evaluating these (and other) learning practices opened with this line: “If simple techniques were available that teachers and students could use to improve student learning and achievement, would you be surprised if teachers were not being told about these techniques and if many students were not using them?”

Should we be surprised? It costs nothing to stop using highlighters. On the other hand, there’s significant organizational inertia around many of these little practices. They’re familiar. They’re how we teach. Wouldn’t it be silly to change?

Why is it so hard to take the things we’ve learned and put them into practice in U.S. schools?

Enter Ulrich Boser. He’s a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, the author of Learn Better, and the founder of The Learning Agency, an organization that “helps people — and organizations — harness the power of learning.”

Boser did a survey at the Center for American Progress in 2017 exploring public views of education. “Schools — we all went through it, so we all have strong opinions,” he said. But he came away convinced that “Basically, people don’t really know what great teaching and learning look like.”

It’s not only the public — adults in schools aren’t always up to date on the latest science on how kids learn. Boser notes that there isn’t always a straight line from a strong research consensus to educational practices. To change how kids experience school and learning, messengers from the cutting edge of learning sciences need to change how adults in schools behave. And that’s not always simple. “[For] some of our good research, we don’t actually have good examples of teachers rolling this out day in and day out,” he says.

Studies are clear, for instance, that oral language development — opportunities to practice speaking English — is critical for English learners’ linguistic and academic development. But it’s an entirely different question how to take that consensus and make it real in schools and effective for large groups of kids. Is it any surprise that schools and teachers adopt new ideas slowly?

It’s not that teachers are uniquely set in their ways. They’re just humans like the rest of us. Think of the last time Google updated your email interface, or your office changed payroll software, or the city changed the traffic patterns near your house. Think of when you tried to cut down on your snacking during the week — or tried to ramp up your exercise regimen in the mornings before work. It’s hard for adults to change habits! Habits are like our experiential shorthand — little patterns we develop to manage tedious, if complex, pieces of our lives like driving, keeping track of bills, filling our bellies, or teaching children to retain complex information from a text. We get comfortable in our patterns of behavior because they free up our brains to think about other things.

So: how do we drive institutional changes in how schools shape kids’ learning opportunities? At one level, the answer is simple: We should train teachers on our new approach — phonics for all, etc. — and then support them as they implement that approach. But that level of simple and intuitive is also too vague to make a difference.

“Cognition is not something that teacher education programs think about,” says Boser. “They don’t think about thinking, you could get meta about that.”

He continues, “They have their own agenda problems. You have professors interested in philosophical conversations, which, frankly, I find interesting too.” But, he says, it’s perhaps more important that prospective teachers learn about, say, strategies for when and how to give feedback on students’ learning and work.

To help with this, Boser’s Learning Agency has launched a campaign “to elevate the science of learning.” The idea is to teach more educators about effective learning strategies so that they’ll buy in, adjust their behavior, and spread the message. The project aims at tracking pain points for teachers as they learn about — and try to change their practice in response to — new findings in the learning sciences.

“Let’s take one of the country’s best researchers … and team them with a couple teachers,” says Boser. “[Let’s] acknowledge that the teachers want to do good work and they want to learn, but they’re struggling.” As the teams work toward implementing better learning strategies in schools, they’ll also develop videos showcasing what they’re learning and how they’re using it in classrooms.

If teachers better understand the learning sciences and can use that knowledge to shift their daily practice, ideally this should begin to put pressure on the broader U.S. public education system. How can policies change to encourage systemic adoption of better learning strategies?

Boser is cautious about this. “Policy isn’t great at changing habits. It’s not a good tool for it. But if we change the curriculum — that can change habits.” He continues: “Technology has its pluses and minuses, but what it’s good at is scale … Are there other things that we can do with that?”

This will necessarily be an iterative process. As teachers shift their practice to reflect cutting-edge learning sciences, they’ll help researchers and policymakers better understand successful implementation of these approaches. As policies change to reflect the usage of these new learning strategies, ideally they’ll also prompt more teachers to shift practice.

For instance, annual academic testing is enormously important, but it’s also inadequate to the task of selling better teacher practice and curricula around learning sciences. It’s a blunt tool for measuring small instructional or curricular changes. If policymakers also had better, more refined measurements for gauging student, teacher, and school success, it might be easier to make the public case for widespread changes to the coursework in teacher preparation programs and K-12 schools alike.

In other words, there’s research evidence that some learning strategies work better than others currently in widespread use. But it’s hard to prove that these alternative strategies work better at scale without intentionally measuring their effectiveness. And, of course, existing policies aren’t necessarily designed with that sort of fine-grained measurement in mind. That’s next: finding policies that allow us to measure achievement data that really matter, that reflect meaningful long-term improvements in students’ learning.

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