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A Madison checklist for learning

Last winter, Barbara Johnson, president of the Rowland Reading Foundation, and I were jawboning about the future of education over a cone of frites at Brasserie V. What if, we wondered, education had a “Checklist Manifesto” like the one that Atul Gawande wrote for operating rooms?
Certainly, “reading proficiency by second grade” would be on it. That’s the mission of the Rowland Foundation, and it’s a proven predictor of high school graduation. So what else do we know for sure about student learning? Five things, all from research:

1. The Importance of Failure

We say we want students to succeed. But those who’ve truly mastered something know you suffer numerous failures en route to success. Yung Tae Kim, a physics professor and avid skateboarder, uses the example of learning a complicated skateboard trick. Dr. Tae had to try more than fifty times to do it once correctly. And that’s his point. The best way to learn? “Work your ass off until you figure it out,” he says.

We want students to fail in the short term, because that’s how true knowledge and mastery is gained. That’s why a growing faction of education researchers is against grades: In a grade-focused system, students choose easy classes to ensure a high GPA. But when grades are stripped away, students can focus more on the process of learning rather than the outcome.

2. Working in Groups,

3. Thinking out Loud and

4. Tackling Hard Problems First

Yogi Berra, that human quote machine, said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” In a famous University of California–Berkeley study from twenty-five years ago, professor Uri Treisman watched how twenty Chinese American students and twenty African American students studied for their Intro to Calculus class. Bill Cerbin, in Assessing How Students Learn, summarizes Treisman’s observations:

“Chinese students formed study groups outside of class and devoted their time to the most difficult material rather than simply reviewing the mathematics they already knew. They compared solutions, tested one another, and talked through difficult concepts. The African American students also invested a lot of time studying calculus, but did it alone. Only two ever studied with classmates.”

With these observations, Treisman established a program to take the most effective parts of the Chinese American students’ habits and apply them across the class. The results? Prior to the changes, forty percent of African American students received grades of D or F, compared to about five to six percent of Caucasian and Asian students. After the changes, “the percentage of D and F grades for African American students dropped to four percent, a stunning improvement.”

Why don’t we encourage more group work in our schools? I wonder if it’s because we’re in love with the myth of rugged individualism, that anyone can succeed by simply working harder. But if you dig a little deeper and look at innovation or economic success, you know that group work is always as important as solo effort.

5. Learning by Doing, Wiggling and Moving

A Northwestern professor was taking his seven-year-old daughter on a tour of campus, where they stopped into a physics lecture. The girl looked over the proceedings and whispered, “Dad, what are they doing?”  

“They’re learning physics,” he said. She looked up at him and asked, “They do that sitting down?” Even kids know physics is better taught moving around. So why aren’t our classrooms buzzing with activity? Why do many teachers insist that students be quiet and sit still? Because many teach in their preferred learning style. And while a majority of learners are kinesthetic (learning by moving around), most teachers are auditory (learning by listening). According to the University of Illinois, “Only ten percent of secondary students learn best auditorily, but eighty percent of instructional delivery is auditory.” See the full article here.

May our students fail forward. May our teachers encourage learning by doing. And may all of us who care about Madison’s schools start tackling the hard education problems first.

Rebecca Ryan is founder of Next Generation Consulting. Her new book, ReGENERATION, hits the bookshelves this year.
Find more NEXT columns here
Contact Rebecca Ryan at rr@nextgenerationconsulting.com.

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