Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Basing education on research

If I have one major beef with the education system in the United States, it would be its steadfast refusal to use the latest research on how people learn to guide instruction.

As an example, consider how we teach foreign language.  In most public schools, foreign language instruction starts in middle school (ours doesn't begin until 8th grade).  Study after study has shown that age of acquisition is inversely correlated with final language proficiency; put simply, the older you are when you start learning, the poorer your eventual understanding of the language is likely to be.  (For a great summary of the research, check out this article by David Birdsong of the University of Texas - Austin.)

Has that changed how we teach language?  Not in most school systems, it hasn't.  Empirical research in neuroscience never seems to outweigh such considerations as "we've always done it this way" and "that's the way it was taught when I was in school" and "it would be too expensive/inconvenient."

And then, with no sense of irony, we question why students don't come out of school proficient.

So I have no particular optimism that a recent bit of research will change anything, although hope springs eternal and all that sort of stuff.  According to a report by the AmGen Foundation and Change the Equation, which are two groups that advocate for STEM education, American students in general are fascinated with science -- but dislike science classes.

Considering my own field, biology, the numbers are especially dire.  73% of the students questioned said they're interested in biology -- and after all, what's not to like?  Biology is all about sex, struggle, competition, and death, so if you like Game of Thrones, loving biology should be a no-brainer.  But a dismal 33% of students said they like biology class.

Why?  Because science classes in general, and biology classes in particular, usually fall back on learning from textbooks and worksheets, which were cited by these same students as their least favorite (and least successful) methods for learning new concepts.  Real-world, hands-on experiments, field trips to actual research sites and laboratories, and being able to choose the topics on which they focus are all cited as being factors that would make class more interesting -- but which are infrequently used in class, at least by comparison to book work and vocabulary worksheets.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I'm sure that part of that is that it makes fewer demands on the teacher.  Labs are not only expensive for the school district, they are a considerable time-sink for the teacher to set up and break down.  Even more expensive and time-consuming are field trips; the district not only has to pay the bus driver to get the kids to and from the site, but pay for a sub for the teacher's other classes.  In my case -- given that last year my intro bio classes represented only half of my teaching assignment -- it would also entail my getting lessons together for my other classes that could be administered by a sub in my absence.

Unsurprising that most teachers minimize these sorts of things.

This, by the way, is not meant as a criticism of teachers, or at least not solely; we're incredibly busy, and some days I have to carve out a few minutes from the demands of my schedule just to get a chance to pee.  It's no wonder that we cut corners and economize with activities that are easy to administer and grade.  But the fact remains that these time-expensive (and often money-expensive) activities are the ones students like the best -- and engagement almost always equals improvements in learning.

One I'd like to look at more closely is "being able to choose topics on which students focus."  Author and behavioral scientist Daniel Pink, in his amazing talk, "The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us," identifies three factors that improve engagement in both the business world and in schools: mastery, purpose, and autonomy.  Mastery is the good feeling we get from becoming better at stuff.  Purpose is feeling that what we are doing is important.  And autonomy is self-direction.

A combination of the three, Pink says, makes work and/or school far more pleasant -- and far more productive -- than the usual carrot-and-stick approach of grades and awards (the stick, of course, being failure and censure).  And I would argue that we in schools achieve mastery pretty well, purpose only infrequently, and autonomy barely at all.

We certainly encourage getting better at stuff, and (however effectively) do our best to make students improve their skills and understanding.  As far as purpose, think about what we tell students when they ask, "why do we have to learn this?"  I know some of us are able to give good answers to that, something beyond, "It's on the test" or "it's part of the curriculum" -- but even when we try to articulate why our class is important, we often do it so ineffectively that students don't believe us.  So much of what we do is disconnected enough from any real-world application that it honestly is hard to see how it connects to anything students are going to be asked to do after they graduate.

But the worst of all is autonomy.  Other than (some) choice in what classes they take, students almost never have any real, meaningful choice in what or how they learn.  I have heard of exceptions -- one school I know of teaches all of the core subjects in the context of "modules" (and before any teachers bristle at the use of the word, these are not the same "modules" used in the Common Core).  Each year, students choose four modules, two per semester, from a list of a dozen or so -- topics like "Oceans, Rivers, and Lakes," "Machines and Mechanization," and "Exploration of the World."  Each one builds in all of the subjects -- to take the first as an example, the topic of the watery part of the world incorporates biology (aquatic organisms and food webs), chemistry (the composition of fresh and marine water), physics/earth science (how bodies of water drive weather), English/writing (reading articles on the topic and writing summaries or responses), history & geography (the use of bodies of water for exploration and travel).

If you want the ultimate expression of how autonomy can generate success, though, consider schools in Finland -- ranked year after year at the top of every measure of school success there is.  But rather than my telling you about it, take an hour and watch The Finland Phenomenon (the link is to the first quarter of the documentary).  The students there are given huge amounts of autonomy with regards to how they learn the concepts and processes in the curriculum, and are tested only infrequently -- and yet, they consistently outperform our micromanaging, test-happy public schools here in the United States.

Of course, the problem is that in order to make this kind of change would require a complete restructuring of schools -- and retraining of teachers.  The fact is, classes designed around autonomy, purpose, and mastery require dedication, excellence, and (most importantly) time from the teachers -- and time is what even dedicated and excellent teachers are usually short of.

But we've got to do something, and maybe a good start would be listening to the research instead of saying, "we've always done it this way."  After all, it's hard to argue the point that we aren't doing a very good job of turning out well-rounded, confident critical thinkers now.  Certainly there will be adjustments and growing pains and setbacks if we do such a total revamp of the educational system.  Finland's switch from a U.S.-style, top-down, worksheet-and-test system thirty years ago wasn't without some bumps.

But considering what they have now -- and what we have now -- we don't have much to lose by trying.

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