One of the problems with education is that there are many assumptions passing as fact. Those assumptions are often based on what seems to be common sense.
For example, most of us would assume that smaller classes would lead to higher achievement, yet there’s scant evidence that smaller classes or smaller schools make that much difference for the average student. (They do seem to help low-income students in the early grades.)
Consider the assumptions around block scheduling. The belief was that teachers in block schools would approach 90-minute classes much differently than they had 55 minute classes; they would provide several hands-on activities for their students. But, in fact, teachers taught much the same way despite the longer class periods, meaning that students on block schedules actually lost out because they got nothing more in 90 minutes than their peers received in standard classes.
The New York Times has an interesting column about other assumptions embraced as fact, such as children needing a dedicated and quiet space for homework and students bringing unique learning styles to the classroom.
The column also notes that testing serves a very good purpose that is often ignored in today’s emotional debates about testing — tests reinforce learning. While there’s frequent condemnation of testing on this blog, I interviewed someone a few weeks ago who said that it was standardized testing that first suggested to him that he was smart and could be a good student. Until he saw his test scores — which placed him well above average in intelligence — he never considered the possibility that he could excel in school and go to college. He went on to get a doctorate and credits testing with his awakening to his own potential.
Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.
Ditto for teaching styles, researchers say. Some excellent instructors caper in front of the blackboard like summer-theater Falstaffs; others are reserved to the point of shyness. “We have yet to identify the common threads between teachers who create a constructive learning atmosphere,” said Daniel T. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of the book “Why Don’t Students Like School?”
But individual learning is another matter, and psychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong. For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.
The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.
“What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.
Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills.