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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘The ABCs of How We Learn’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 14, 2017 7 min read
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The authors of The ABCs Of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, And When To Use Them, agreed to answer a few questions about their book.

Daniel L. Schwartz, PhD, is the dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, holds the Nomellini-Olivier Chair in Educational Technology and is an award-winning learning scientist who spent eight years teaching secondary school in Los Angeles and Kaltag, Alaska.

Jessica M. Tsang, PhD, is a researcher and instructor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.

Kristen P. Blair, PhD, is a senior research scholar and instructor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.

LF: You describe the book as listing different “Mechanics of Learning.” Many educators might call them “instructional strategies.” Can you explain why you chose that term, what it means to you, and if you see the description as significantly different from “instructional strategies”?

Daniel, Jessica, and Kristen:

Good question! The company BASF had an advertising campaign that said, “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.” A learning mechanic—using an analogy for example—can be inserted into just about any instructional strategy to make it better. The mechanics tend to be modular, so it is possible to combine them together into all sorts of creative instructional strategies. It is like coordinating an outfit (speaking of analogies). You can mix and match clothing pieces to suit different occasions, and you also know that some combinations work really well together and so you make them a regular part of your outfit rotation.

We borrowed the term “mechanics of learning” from videogames, where designers focus on the “core mechanic” of the game. A core mechanic is the basic interaction pattern that moves the gameplay forward. In golf, hit a ball in a hole with a stick. In education, there are a number of core interactions that move learning forward, each tied to specific kinds of outcomes. For example, elaborating on an idea is a way to improve memory. We wrote the chapters so readers can experience the goals and activities for each mechanic of learning, much as a student would experience them. For example, in E is for Elaboration, readers are encouraged to elaborate (connect what they are learning to what they already know) to improve their own memory of how elaboration works.

A key feature of the book is that we focus on why the learning mechanics work (the mechanisms behind the mechanics). Our assumption is that understanding why a given mechanic supports a particular outcome is a good way to help educators use and combine them in flexible and creative ways.

LF: I’m going to put you in a difficult spot : Can each of you pick a “favorite” mechanic/strategy, describe what it is, and say why you picked it?

Daniel, Jessica, and Kristen:

Ouch! This is like making us choose amongst our children. Not only that, but we also read each chapter over and over in the process of writing and publishing, and it had an odd side effect. Depending on the day, the same chapter would sometimes sparkle and sometimes seem flat. It was like saying the same word over and over to the point where you no longer know what the word means (a phenomenon known as semantic satiation). As of today, here are our favorites. Dan likes R is for Reward, N is for Norms, and Z is for sleep. We experience all of these, but the science is surprising and will help you see them in a new way. Kristen likes C is for Contrasting Cases and J is for Just -in-Time-Telling. They complement each other, and show how discovery activities and lectures can work in concert. Jessica likes Q is for Question-Driven, because it addresses a problem she had in her own education: She learned many facts and theories, but she often did not know what problems they solved, so she never really used what she memorized.

LF: Are there one or two mechanics/strategies that you see as being often misunderstood or misapplied in the classroom?

Daniel, Jessica, and Kristen:

For each chapter, we include a section that explains common mistakes. It is an example of using contrasting cases. Seeing the bad cases helps clarify what makes the good cases good.

In most cases, instructional mistakes simply diminish the effectiveness of a learning mechanism. But, there are some mistakes that cause instructional backfires. What seemed to be a reasonable idea leads to exactly the opposite outcome. Here are two common examples:

The first comes from R is for Reward. Rewarding people for doing an activity that they already enjoy will reduce future motivation for the activity, once the reward is no longer there. If a child already enjoys playing with crayons, do not give the child a reward (e.g., stickers) for drawing with crayons. Otherwise, next time, if you do not offer stickers, the child may not want to use the crayons. The reward, which was intended to motivate the child, does exactly the opposite. It is an instructional backfire.

The second example comes from J is for Just-in-Time-Telling.Telling learners how to solve a problem before they have tried to solve it on their own can inadvertently stop them from noticing important features of the problem. They pay attention to following the steps of what they were told, and they never notice the features of the problem that make the solution appropriate. This can result in what is called ‘inert knowledge’ --students know the solution, but fail to recognize when to use it.

LF: Are there one or two mechanics/strategies that you see as being particularly underutilized in classrooms?

Daniel, Jessica, and Kristen:

This is such a great question, we couldn’t resist providing three examples.

A very typical instructional move is to provide an explanation with an example. Use two examples instead. Moreover, have the students figure out what makes the two examples the same. Study after study shows that people learn much better when they have to figure out what is the same about two examples. For example, comparing two different math solution methods that lead to the same answer can help learners become more flexible problem solvers and more likely to apply what they learned in new situations.

Here’s a strategy that students should learn for themselves: visualization. Schools teach students to express their ideas in writing, but they do not always do enough to help them organize their ideas visually. When there are a lot of ideas and information, inventing a visual way to organize the information can be very productive. People are surprisingly good at this, and it helps them discover structure in the information and ideas. When writing a paper, one of the authors (DS) makes a point of writing down all the ideas and facts to include in the paper. The next step is to sit down with a pad of paper (very old school) and try out different visual structures to put the ideas together—a Venn diagram, a tree structure, a table, a Cartesian graph, and so on. It is great fun, and invariably helpful, at least compared to spending most of the time trying to think of the first topic sentence.

Sleep is totally underutilized. And no, we are not suggesting students sleep in class, though given some lectures we get it. Instead, sleep at night deserves more explicit attention from students, teachers, and parents, because it is when people digest new information. Sleep helps people remember things, learn new languages, and find patterns, among other things. And having too little sleep can seriously hinder learning. Most teens probably think the big consequence of having too little sleep is the feeling of being tired. But having too little sleep also makes studying less effective, allows people to be duped into remembering things that didn’t happen, and can give people the attentional capacities of a drunk person!

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Daniel, Jessica, and Kristen:

Dr. Benjamin Spocks’ classic baby book, “Baby and Child Care,” had a problem-focused index that was hugely helpful. So, we put one into the ABC book.There are entries for common problems such as, “Students give up in the face of new challenges,” “People are not learning on the job.” “Learners have little interest in a topic.” “Students forget too much.” Each entry indexes where to find the solutions in the book. The problem-focused index is tucked in the back of the book, and we failed to call it out in the introduction. People may not know it is there, but we think it could be very useful. Thank you for the opportunity to let everyone know!

LF: Thanks, Daniel, Jessica, and Kristen!



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