Teaching Profession Opinion

The Science of Learning and the Value of Educators

By Robert Rothman — March 21, 2017 3 min read
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Every weekday at 6:45 am, I listen to Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” on NPR. I’m a big fan of Keillor, and the segment is a lot of fun. He tells great stories about people who were born on that date or events that took place in history. He concludes with a poem.

One thing has bothered me about “The Writer’s Almanac,” however. It is sponsored in part by Lumosity, a company that sells web-based games to “improve cognitive abilities.” This claim has always struck me as something close to snake oil, and sure enough, last year the firm agreed to pay a $2 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission, which had found that it had deceived consumers into believing that the games would improve performance in work or school. An FTC official said the company “simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”

Fortunately, there is quite a bit of actual science about learning, and a new book, Learn Better, by Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, lays out the science in very accessible and readable ways. (Disclosure: Ulrich is a friend, but the book has won numerous plaudits.)

Boser explodes a lot of myths about learning. Most importantly, his book is premised on the idea that learning is not genetically programmed, and that, as the saying goes, smart is something you become, not something you are. He also writes about the importance of knowledge, something that has gotten a good deal of attention recently, and about the need for continual and purposeful practice--although the “10,000 hour” rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell might not be so iron-clad.

One insight Boser stresses is the importance of teachers. It’s so important that he raises it to the level of a principle, and refers to it in capital letters: the Value of Educators. He writes:

In a more practical sense, learning requires instruction. To gain skills and knowledge, people need guidance--and support. Mentors, trainers, instructors all play a tremendous role.

For example, he says, effective teachers break down content into digestible chunks. Too much information is too difficult to learn, Boser points out. Effective teachers also motivate students to persevere and work hard, just like athletic coaches. They provide emotional support as well as cognitive guidance.

Teachers also are critical to learning by providing feedback. Feedback is important because it steers learners toward improvement. Teachers can show a learner where she is doing well, and where she needs to make changes. Boser describes the process by relating a story about his work with a basketball instructor named Dwayne Samuels:

Take something like squaring off to the basket while taking a jump shot. As far as basketball goes, the idea is canonical, the first commandment of the shooter’s bible, and I had come across the idea many times before my basketball classes. But without realizing it, I would fire off the basketball at a diagonal slant to the basket, twisting like a preteen ballerina. Samuels pointed out the issue at our first practice, and I soon changed my footing. It took a few more weeks for the adjustment to stick, but the change made my shots far more likely to go in.

To teachers, of course, these ideas are certainly obvious. They know their value, although it would be nice if other people pointed it out more often. But in the growing trend toward personalization and providing students with opportunities to pursue their own learning, it’s important not to lose sight of the notion that teachers matter. That’s one thing the science of learning can teach us.

And another: stay away from “get smart quick” schemes, even if Garrison Keillor pitches them.

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