June 21, 2022
“We are greater than and greater for, the sum of us.”
— Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together
Researchers offer us important insights into how we learn, insights that suggest a need to rethink both learning and teaching. The pandemic and the shambles of online learning have only highlighted the persistent problems with traditional schooling—problems that have characterized schools for over 100 years: lack of student motivation and deep engagement, the meaninglessness of emphasizing and assessing memorization, poor learning outcomes, and the damage inflicted by grades. It is way past time for us to rethink how we have designed schools: their structures, practices, and policies reflect outdated assumptions about how people learn. New knowledge offers educators the possibility of creating better schools, and parents could play a significant role as creative partners in achieving this goal.
Insights from research
Researchers like Kurt Fischer (former head of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard) and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (neuroscientist at the University of Southern California) offer real insight into how people learn. Fischer explains that learning anything is a process of building new webs of interrelated skills and conceptual understanding that join different parts of the brain—a web for basketball, for writing an essay, or for pre-algebra, for example. Building these skills requires considerable effort over time from the learner as the skill becomes more complex and stable (capable of being reactivated when needed). This stability comes from a cycle of building a simple skill or understanding, having it fall apart as more complexity or new conditions are introduced, and then rebuilding it.
Most people know exactly what this process feels like though they haven’t always understood it, particularly the part Fischer calls regression. They recall cramming for tests, memorizing definitions and dates, and knowing it all perfectly until they sat down for the exam in the classroom when they suddenly “forgot” everything. Some remember preparing a presentation for a client and understanding the concepts perfectly until they entered the conference room when stress and confusion made a muddle of their pitch. Afterward, they beat themselves up: “Why am I so stupid?”
Fischer explains that how well we do anything—drive a car, solve a math problem, make a presentation—depends on the circumstances, especially when the skill or concept is new…