What Does Good Learning Look Like?

Posted by Laura Dimock on

This blog post has some pretty useful information. So print it out; get out your highlighter and take off the cap.

Ready? Now throw it away, because highlighters don't really help people learn.

We all want for our kids to have optimal learning experiences and, for ourselves, to stay competitive with lifelong learning. But how well do you think you understand what good learning looks like?

Ulrich Boser says, probably not very well. His new research on learning shows that the public is largely ignorant of, well, research on learning. Boser runs the science of learning initiative at the left-leaning thinktank the Center for American Progress. He has a new book out, also about the science of learning, titled Learn Better.

He recently surveyed a representative sample of more than 3,000 Americans to test their beliefs about common learning myths.

"We wanted to document this gap between public perception and good practice," he told NPR Ed. "In our paper we call it the, 'Been there, done that' problem. People went to school, so they have a feeling they know what good teaching looks like."

 

But in fact, public opinion diverges from reality.

If you want to test your own knowledge, take our version of the Learning Myths quiz here. Then come back and read the rest of this post.

Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, Or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything

by Ulrich Boser

Hardcover, 277 pages

purchase

Here are some of the most striking results:

  • Close to 90 percent of Boser's respondents agreed that students should receive information in their own "learning style."

The idea that individuals have different learning styles, such as auditory or kinesthetic, is a pernicious myth. Boser compares it to the flat-earth myth — highly intuitive, but wrong.

Even the U.S. Department of Education sent out an email just this week encouraging teachers to "make [their] own call on how to utilize learning styles in the classroom." One major recent review of research, among many others, stated that the authors "found virtually no evidence" for the idea.

  • 71 percent of respondents indicated that teachers should motivate students by praising them "for being smart." A large body of research by Carol Dweck at Stanford and others suggests that this kind of praise is countereffective. Praising effort, rather than ability, is far more likely to motivate students to work hard and improve.
  • On the topic of "growth mindset," more than one-quarter of respondents believed intelligence is "fixed at birth". Neuroscience says otherwise.
  • More than 40 percent of respondents believed that teachers don't need to know a subject area such as math or science, as long as they have good instructional skills. In fact, research shows that deep subject matter expertise is a key element in helping teachers excel.
  • And finally, despite their overall poor showing, more than 75 percent of respondents considered themselves "above average" in their ability to judge the work that teachers do.


This last finding, which could be called the confidence gap, really matters for the education kids are getting, Boser argues.

"It helps explain why teaching has been so devalued for a long time. We see that in how teachers get paid and treated."

Public schools, in particular, are governed by school boards often composed of non-educators. They are subject to pressure from parents, too. "Parents' opinions are important, but teaching is a real craft," Boser says. "A lot of science goes into it. And we need to do more to respect that."

If the public doesn't understand what active learning looks like, he adds, or why growth mindset is important, then schools may be pushed in the wrong direction.

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