Westbourne Grammar

Ways to make learning stick

I wrote, some weeks ago, about the importance of research to the staff of Westbourne Grammar. We read and interrogate multiple strands of research about teaching and learning to ensure that we keep pace with international thinking, but most particularly with research that uses accessible data to influence our planning and practice. One source of data comes from The Marshall Memo, which is a round-up of important ideas and research in K-12 education.

The following article is one which has resonated with our learning leadership team as we search for ways to make “learning stick”. We have understood for some time that what students are being taught matters to a significant degree. I recommend this article to you.

How to Make Learning Stick

‘Brains and Schooling: A Mismatch’, Alan Blodget

  • Learning something new (how to solve quadratic equations, the history of the Vietnam War) involves building new “wiring” – neural networks or circuits – in the brain.
  • Unfortunately, new neural networks aren’t permanent – they constantly degrade. Students seem to understand and then the next day they don’t. “It’s as though they had never seen this stuff before, “ is a common observation. What seemed clear in a quiet classroom with a supportive teacher falls apart when the student struggles with the homework in a noisy house with nobody around who can answer their questions.
  • The process of building and rebuilding neural networks “requires considerable effort from the learner,” says Blodget. “The essence of learning isn’t memory and recitation; meaningful learning (the sort of learning educators hope to foster) results from an active effort to understand, an effort that promotes the growth of increasingly efficient webs of neural connections among different regions of the brain.”
  • “Teachers can tell and talk,” he continues, “but only learners can learn … It isn’t that Sally won’t listen or isn’t intelligent or won’t try harder to memorise what she has been told; it’s that she hasn’t engaged in the hard work of constructing and reconstructing neural pathways to understanding.”
  • “Each time we rebuild the neural network, the skill or concept becomes more stable and automatic,” says Blodget. “The highest level of skill or understanding results from repeatedly experiencing this building-rebuilding cycle over time (years), moving through a sequence of increasingly complex levels. That movement is not linear and steady; it is dynamic and messy.”
  • One reason many students don’t make the effort to build better circuits is that they’re not motivated – what they’re learning doesn’t matter deeply to them. Neuroscientists have found that attitudes and emotions play a major part in learning, says Blodget: “Just as you cannot separate hydrogen and oxygen and still have water, you cannot separate emotion from cognitive function and still have thinking – or learning.” Emotion acts as a rudder for thought.
  • “Children are natural learners, alive with questions,” says Blodget. “And then school happens.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. For years, some teachers have intuitively understood what neuroscientists are now discovering about learning and the brain. “The time is right for educators and researchers to become partners,” Blodget concludes, “… to look at school reform through the lens of the biology and psychology. Waving sticks and carrots at our kids will not produce the sort of deep, meaningful learning that everyone claims to want. Neither will blaming teachers, parents or kids.”

“Brains and Schools: A Mismatch” by Alden Blodget in Education Week, Sept.11, 2013 (Vol.33, #3, p.30-31), www.edweek.org

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