It’s Not How You Learn, It’s What You Do With It

One mistake we make in the school system is we emphasize understanding. But if you don’t build those neural circuits with practice, it’ll all slip away. You can understand out the wazoo, but it’ll just disappear if you’re not practicing with it.

-Barb Oakley, source

I stumbled across the above quote in a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal, and it struck me as a useful way to think about my teaching.

When I first started teaching, I spent most of my planning time thinking about how I wanted to introduce new topics to my students. I was always looking for clever ways of explaining ideas and interesting new perspectives and hooks relating content to prior knowledge or student interests. I designed inquiry lessons carefully leading students to the big mathematical ideas I wanted them to grapple with.

Now, I spend much more of my time thinking about practice. Not that how I introduce a topic is irrelevant, just less important than what students actually do with the knowledge they’ve gained. I think about how to space that practice and interleave different topics, how to build toward more rigorous applications, how to ensure students engage with a topic in multiple contexts and use multiple representations over time. I work to create collaborative structures that will support students in doing challenging math while still providing individual accountability. I design sequences of activities that move between whiteboarding, technological manipulatives, and pencil-and-paper to keep students engaged for a full class.

The core principle of my teaching is that students are active in their learning. Students learn math by doing math. Practice can have a negative connotation among teachers, and research suggests repetitive practice on low-level tasks is ineffective for learning. But focused, purposeful practice that pushes students outside their comfort zone, is designed to move toward meaningful goals, and involves useful feedback is absolutely necessary for deep, durable learning.

There’s a constant balance here. John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory suggests that if the demands of problem solving are too great, students may not retain what we want them to learn even if they are successful in solving the problem. I am partial to Ben Blum-Smith’s summary: “any thoughtful teacher with any experience has seen students get overwhelmed by the demands of a problem and lose the forest for the trees”. At the same time, Robert Bjork’s work on desirable difficulties suggests that if students don’t experience any difficulties in the learning process, what they learn is unlikely to be retained in long term memory or transfer to new contexts. Meaningful learning is hard; if it feels easy it’s likely a missed opportunity.

I’m uninterested in arguing about whether discovery or direct instruction is better. From my perspective, those terms have been overused and caricatured to become meaningless pejoratives. As Dan Willingham says, memory is the residue of thought. What are students thinking about? What does that thinking look like? Those are the key questions I’m interested in, and I think they lead conversations past surface features to the substance that has a real influence on learning.

So students learn math by doing math, and my job is to constantly monitor what that experience is like for students. To what extent are they challenged and thinking deeply about mathematics? To what extent are they overwhelmed and struggling to connect the dots? If I can find a balance between these two poles while keeping students doing substantive math that builds toward ambitious goals, it’s a good day for me.

3 thoughts on “It’s Not How You Learn, It’s What You Do With It

  1. howardat58

    I am sure that there are good ways and bad ways of learning, but no-one considers the forgetting. I found this comment from today’s post on curmudgucation (Peter Greene), which gives the lie to retention, mostly after the exams.

    1 comment: from crunchymama

    May 13, 2017 at 2:21 PM
    When I was in 8th grade, back in the years of Open Classrooms, my family moved to a real live open-classroom school district that had purchased a pretty cool Personalized Learning science curriculum. The idea was that all students started with Lesson One and followed step-by-step instructions, did step-by-step experiments, filled in worksheets, and after [X] lessons we went into a smaller room, took the test for that unit (independently), handed it in for grading, and if we did well enough, we went on to the next unit.

    When we moved there, it was 6 weeks into the school year, so I was starting on Unit 1 Lesson 1 in mid-October. Being the academically competitive person I still am today, my goal was to Catch Up To And Surpass The Class. (Note: at no time was my goal any actual LEARNING.)

    Six weeks later, I had caught up to the slower students in the class (which was itself actually 2 or 3 full classes, as all of 8th grade had science together, if my memory is correct); in another month, I was approaching the middle of the pack, and by the end of the year I was indeed out in front.

    The only thing I really remember is adding HCl to a base to make water and a salt, and mixing some chemicals that made a yellow precipitate. That is IT. An entire YEAR of chemistry, and the only thing I can tell you with any certainty today is that an acid plus a base makes water and a salt, and that’s only because it was reinforced in 11th-grade chemistry (which was barely related to the work I’d done 3 years earlier), and I learned the word “precipitate” as a noun.

    But hey, at least I got to Demonstrate Mastery and Learn At My Own Pace.

    Brings to mind 3rd grade, when I went through the entire box of SRA cards (yes, I’m THAT OLD!), all the way to the last Dark Red card, because my teachers couldn’t keep me busy. Again, I don’t remember what was ON any of them (I remember the unit on Japan and I remember learning all about teeth in 3rd grade); I just wanted to get through the entire set.

    Maybe I really AM so unique that no other student ever will just want to Get Through The Work And Graduate Early (like I did for my Bachelor’s in college) even if actual *learning* is minimal, but I suspect that’s not the case.

    And therein lies another danger of this trend: there’s no guarantee of learning in a setup where you can still game the system the way I did. I certainly don’t trust the writers of the software to bear in mind kids like me when they make their product, because that would require a level of foresight to plan and complexity in execution that would end up not being cost-effective any more.

    Good luck with that.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      That’s a really compelling anecdote for me, from a number of perspectives. Also applicable to the way that personalized learning has played out.

      1. howardat58

        I got addicted to mathematics when I was 14 or 15, and other stuff became less and less interesting. Some stuff, history and chemistry, I had near zero interest in anyway. I am thinking that a lot is boring, but others think it is exiting. Can one ever “do it all”, or that is only in the case of the commenter and such like? (get the grades, that’s important!)


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