In the last couple of weeks, a series of unrelated articles seem to debunk some cherished myths in primary and secondary education. These articles ought to lead us to ask – with fresh insights – the essential question: how do we make our students learn?
The first article comes from the New York Times and discusses the fact that introducing technologies in the classroom does not necessarily lead to improved scores (“In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores”). The second article, from NPR, argues that the idea of different kinds of learning (visual, auditory, etc.) is not supported by research (“Think You’re An Auditory Or Visual Learner? Scientists Say It’s Unlikely“). Finally, the third article, also in the New York Times (“School Curriculum Falls Short on Bigger Lessons”), discusses the difference between hard work and being “smart”.
The first two articles, although they address two different subjects (perhaps!) – technology in the classroom and learning styles – both point to a very important conclusion: there are fads in education just like in fashion. The important thing is to use research based evidence and not to give in to these fads.
For example, there are no randomized, controlled studies which demonstrate that introducing such things as Smart Boards, video or Power Point in the classroom will lead to improved student performance. I am aware that we have to be careful in our conclusions: technology indeed may not enhance learning, but it is also possible that we did not yet develop adequate methods of assessing the contribution of technology (per se) in learning. Also, a third possibility is that we have not yet developed the lesson plans, assessments and/or textbooks that use technology in the “right” way – hence we see no progress in student scores.
It may also be that different technologies lend themselves better to different educational areas. Both AP Stats and AP Calc would be much “poorer” courses without graphing calculators. In Stats there is a current to teach the course (at least the inference part) through randomization methods – for this, computer software such as Minitab or Fathom is almost a necessity.
The trick seems to be to stay on the right side of learning and not to stray in the area of entertainment. Faced with “extra” time on a computer, students will easily gravitate towards Solitaire and video games. My hypothesis is that, unlike the majority of teachers, our students have come into visual media via entertainment: video games, movies, etc. Moving images entered our students’ DNA as a form of perpetual motion amusement. In my opinion, it is hard to have these students concentrate on the learning experience and not to be distracted. Furthermore, I think it is hard for these students to extract a learning experience from the visual presentation – in other words, synthesis of learning from visual imagery is difficult for those who have grown up with visual imagery as entertainment.
To extract such a synthesis a lesson would have to be carefully planned, perhaps interspersed with “what if?“ and “what do you conclude?” questions, with the answers written down. From what I have seen around me, most teachers either do not have the talent or (more likely) the time to create a truly learning experience from visual imagery. Most often, it’s “here’s the video” with little student participation and experimentation and, more importantly, little guidance towards a synthesis.