How Broken is Education?

When I started my research into education and learning many years ago, I wanted to know what we know about learning, and how well the educational establishment uses that knowledge to help students learn. I initially worked in higher education, and worked to introduce, even a little bit of effective learning practise into teaching and learning in higher education. As time went on, I began to realise that the same paucity of learning was taking place in our primary and secondary learning institutions as well. There is an entrenched philosophy in education that almost rejects any hint of evidence when it comes to learning, and clings to practises that can, at best, be called the art of teaching.

Education is all about teaching. It is all about teachers. It is all about technique. And it is all about the transmission of information. Education is not about learning. Education is not about learners. Education is not about how people learn. And education is not about the reception and incorporation of knowledge.

Education focuses on the wrong end of teaching and learning.

As many in the teaching profession will tell you, teaching is an art – and I completely agree! However, learning is not an art! There are well founded scientific principles that underlie learning, and teaching is not based on them at all.

My students and I have, for a number of years now, looked at the component parts of education, and tried to tease out the underlying learning principles – and we can’t. What is the learning principle that underlies grades, closed book exams, blocked learning times, sitting at desks (or tables), conformity, school uniforms, rejection of mistakes, passive lectures… And the list goes on and on. All things that take up great amounts of time and resources in education, but are only peripherally related to learning. Whereas, the real, scientifically evidenced principles of learning are all but ignored!

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about different learning techniques, as outlined in Dunlosky’s 2013 paper. I have reproduced them in the table below. Last week, I was talking to a school principle, and he hadn’t heard of any of the most effective techniques! I would imagine that most of you will have only heard of those techniques that cluster at the bottom (low utility) end of the list. It could be that the ones near the top are recent developments in learning, after all, the testing effect (practise testing) was initially talked about only about 100 years ago, while distributed practise for more effective learning was written about by Ebbinghaus in the 1860s – far to new to have been adopted by educators..

 

Learning Utility Technique Elaboration
High Practise Testing Self-testing or taking practice tests on material to be learned

Distributed (‘spaced’) practice Implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time
Moderate Elaborative interrogation

 

Generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true
Self-explanation Explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving
Interleaved practice Implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session
Low Summarization Writing summaries (of various lengths) of to-be-learned texts
Highlighting Marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading
Keyword mnemonic Using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
Imagery use for text learning Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening
Rereading Restudying text material again after an initial reading

 

Last week, I was reading a paper on neuro-myths in education. I couldn’t believe the myths that were looked at, and the accompanying results table (reproduced below) was astounding. Teachers promote learning advantages for in right/left brain learning, preferred learning styles, hydrated brains (dehydration causes brains to shrink), and teaching to specific intelligences (multiple intelligence theories).

 

Neuro-Myth Percentage teachers who agreed with the statement
We mostly only use 10% of our brain 49
Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic) 96
Short bouts of co-ordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain function 77
Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain or right brain) can help to explain individual differences amongst learners 80
Children are less attentive after sugary drinks and snacks 53
Drinking less than 6 to 8 glasses of water a day can cause the brain to shrink 18
Learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by education 28
The table shows some of the most popular myths. Teachers were asked to indicate their levels of agreement with statements reflecting these popular myths, shown as “agree”, “don’t know” or “disagree”. The table shows the percentages of teachers within each sample who responded with “agree”.

 

Within formal education, I have tried, for years now, to get practitioners to take note, and shift their attention away from teaching, and focus more on learning – but to no avail. Since leaving higher education in the UK and coming to Canada, I have learned that what I have specialised in – how people learn – is not needed or wanted in any level of the formal educational establishment.

As a result, I am now working with parents – who do care about learning (especially homeschooling parents) – and have been teaching them about how their children learn. With great success (if you want to set up a free introductory session, contact me at j.martin@cognaware.com).

I think that the current system is broken – completely. I feel for homeschoolers, who know the system is broken, but have nowhere to look for information than in the traditional educational sector – they are doing exactly the same things that teachers are doing, only they are doing them at home.

Not only are some of these things that teachers believe in and practice ineffective (as far as learning goes), but at least one in actually seriously harmful to a child’s (or person’s) learning and development. If teachers and the educational system is unwilling to address these serious deficiencies, then it is broken beyond repair.

One of the last things I looked into as a formal part of my work as a senior academic in a large institution, was the threat of a lawsuit over educational malpractice. One of my students contacted me after the semester was over, and he said that he had talked to his father about filing a lawsuit against the University for marketing and selling a naïve 18 year old a premium, world-class education (sound familiar?), and then (after he had taken my classes) delivering a standard, third-rate learning experience. I convinced him that this would be a bad idea, and talked to a law-firm specialising in malpractice suits to find out that both the institution (for not requiring up-to-date practises) and the individual lecturers (as they are professionals who are responsible for their own professional development) would be liable for the poor learning experience.

I now wonder if I was wrong for convincing my student to drop their intention of suing. I know that if I were asked, I would take the stand as an expert witness against educational institutions. I wonder if it will ever happen (might be a way to pay-down the astronomical student loans many of todays graduates are facing).

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