OPINION: It is time to pay attention to the science of learning

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The thing that surprised me most about my teacher preparation program was that we never talked about how kids learn.

Instead, we were taught how to structure a lesson and given tips on classroom management. I took “methods” classes that gave me strategies for discussions and activities.

I assumed that I would eventually learn how the brain worked because I thought that studying education meant studying how learning happens.

But in my training in the late ’90s, the closest I got to cognitive science was the concept of “practitioner inquiry.” I was told to study my own students and investigate what worked best. That sounded hollow to me; surely more-experienced hands knew better.

But discussions around teacher effectiveness — what methods are scientifically proven to support cognitive development — were painfully rare. Eventually, I concluded that I never learned, and we never talked about, how the brain processes information because scientists didn’t know much about it.

I was wrong. If you are a mid-career educator like me, perhaps this sounds familiar. Maybe you have also been surprised to find out that cognitive scientists actually know quite a bit about how we learn. Over the last several years, many of us have had the uncomfortable realization that there is a gap between how we teach and how scientific findings suggest we should teach.

Many of us first felt this uneasiness when we heard about the “science of reading” in a series of podcasts by Emily Hanford. Since it aired, reading educators have engaged in a great national conversation about the discrepancy between what science understands about how students learn to read and how we often teach it in schools.

The discovery of the science of reading has led to the larger, more practice-shattering realization that educators know very little about the science of learning itself.

Related: The ‘science of reading’ swept reforms into classrooms nationwide. What about math?

Just as scientists have made great gains in understanding how students read, they have also made tremendous gains in understanding how students learn. Although some educators are familiar with this research, most of us are not. It is time to know and do better.

A 2019 survey of teachers uncovered some of these gaps. In answering one question, only 31 percent endorsed a scientifically backed strategy over less effective ones. In other answers, the vast majority of respondents voiced faith in scientifically disproven concepts – such as “learning styles” and the “left-brain, right-brain” myth.

Over the last several years, many of us have had an uncomfortable realization that there is a gap between how we teach and how scientific findings suggest we should teach.

Much of the disinformation stems from training like my own. A 2016 study found that not one textbook in commonly used teacher-training programs adequately covered the science of learning.

Delving into that science is beyond the reach of this editorial but here is a quick check to see where you stand. If any of the following six terms — central to what cognitive scientists have discovered about learning — are unfamiliar, you probably had a teacher training program like mine: retrieval practice, elaboration, spacing, interleaving, dual coding and metacognition.

If these concepts are part of your current practice as an educator, nice work. But if you are among the majority of us who have not fully encountered or employed these ideas, I humbly suggest that you have some urgent reading to do. All these ideas are established learning science.

Related: Student teachers fail test about how kids learn, nonprofit finds

One of the first principal syntheses of these findings with clear recommendations for the classroom was a 2007 federal report, “ Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning.” The seven recommendations in the report represent, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the “most important concrete and applicable principles to emerge from research on learning and memory.”

Sixteen years later, we have no one to blame but ourselves for these ideas not taking hold in every classroom.

Scientists are trying. The 2014 bestseller “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning,” by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel, made an urgent case for these ideas. Psychology professor Daniel Willingham and middle school teacher Paul Bruno, working with the organization Deans for Impact, summarized these concepts in a concise 2015 report,The Science of Learning.” Willingham’s books are also tremendous primers for educators who want to know more about cognitive science.

Yet the simple fact remains that these concepts remain tangential to most of us when they should be central.

Now that we are being bombarded by headlines about students’ pandemic learning loss, perhaps we should focus on what we educators never learned. If we are to overcome these recent setbacks, we need to do so with the most effective tools.

M-J Mercanti-Anthony is the principal of Antonia Pantoja Preparatory Academy, a public school for grades 6-12 in the Castle Hill neighborhood of New York City, and a member of the Board of Education of Greenwich, Connecticut.

This story about the science of learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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