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(3) The Great Stagnation, Part 2: 8 Beliefs & Barriers

Part 1 established education as civilization’s most stagnant sector.

Here in Part 2, I’ll enumerate some myths that prevent major improvements in education.

Let’s start with “Two Truths and a Lie” but with 8 statements.

  1. Teachers should organize their lessons around students’ learning styles.
  2. Continuous feedback supercharges learning.
  3. Learning is all about recognizing innate abilities and talents.
  4. We don’t need to remember facts any more since we can look them up so easily.
  5. “This technology will revolutionize education.”
  6. Learners should master one skill or one concept at a time.
  7. Busting teacher unions will unleash educational progress.
  8. The key to learning is doing. If my students do X easily, it proves they’ve mastered X.

Do you consider each of those to be true or false? Take a minute to write down your answers and a brief explanation.

Ready for the answers?

All of those statements vary from false to terribly misleading.

Let’s take another look, but this time with a tiny sample of citations coming from ~unanimous conclusions of researchers.

  1. “Teachers should organize their lessons around students’ learning styles.” There is literally no evidence for the existence of learning styles. We misattribute to learning styles what is better explained by prior knowledge. Yet overwhelming majorities of people believe in learning styles. This isn’t even debated among psychologists. Whoops!
  2. “Continuous feedback supercharges learning.” Wrong. If you provide feedback continuously or even at a very high frequency, you do not know what the learner is doing or thinking independently and what the learner is doing only because of the feedback. The best outcome is that nobody knows what the learner’s best effort looks like, but the more common outcome is perceiving mastery instead of reliance on external feedback. Continuous feedback is a path to delusion, not a supercharger of learning.
  3. “Learning is all about recognizing innate abilities and talents.” Actually, most evidence shows that most people can reach high levels in most disciplines with the right training. This is yet another damning indictment of our educational system.
  4. “We don’t need to remember facts any more since we can look them up so easily.” Actually, what we can learn next depends almost entirely on our prior knowledge – that is, facts, procedures, and concepts that we remember. Facts like phone number do not need to be memorized because further learning does not depend their memorization. But if an engineer is looking up grade 5 math right before designing a bridge, would you drive over it? Could that engineer just look up “Advanced Dynamics” this afternoon and design a suspension bridge this evening? Of course not. There is no way around it – expertise requires vast amounts of facts, algorithms, and concepts in long-term memory.
  5. “This technology will revolutionize education.” From radios, to Thomas Edison’s motion picture, to computers, to the internet and MOOCs, we’ve seen every generation of information technology promise and fail to transform education. Virtually none make a compelling case for why they’re better than a textbook in terms of the mental effort elicited from students.
  6. “Learners should master one skill or one concept at a time.” Another pillar of educational delusions. A math worksheet entitled “Division Word Problems” cannot tell you if the student is doing division because they recognize the concept of division in the word problem or if they’re just responding to the title of the worksheet. It certainly does NOT give them practice in making such distinctions. The worksheet should have been called “Word Problems – But Only Solve the Problems that Require Division”. Learners need to mix it up! This interleaving might be the most powerful pedagogical technique discovered in decades and it damns the one-concept-at-a-time organization of virtually every textbook you’ve ever used and every course you’ve ever taken.
  7. “Busting teacher unions will unleash educational progress.” LOLz
  8. “The key to learning is doing. If my students do this task easily, it proves they’ve mastered the task.” This is doubly wrong and a gigantic mental trap. How might this thinking go wrong in a physics laboratory? A physics teacher designs an experiment with tether ball so that students will engage with the laws of physics. During the experiment, students are supposed to think about circular motion, the definition of velocity and acceleration, the interaction with gravity, and how you can use those to predict where the ball will go. But they they often actually think “Step 1 says to put the pole here and step 2 says to press that button on the camera and step 3 says to lift the ball this high and step 4 says to record a measurement in cell D13 of the spreadsheet and step 5 says to multiply that number by 9.8…” This latter mental sequence causes no learning because it is devoid of physics yet it is the normative response to many supposedly active learning methods. Second, even if the students were trying to think in terms of scientific principles, were they doing so productively? Or were they entrenching misconceptions? How much will they retain? Will they be able to transfer their learning? None of this is knowable from what students do physically because the proximate cause of learning is what students do mentally.

These beliefs are mainstream and false and they underlie many of the failed attempts to improve education.

But as harmful as they are, they are not the only culprit in the stagnant world of education.

There’s more.