The science of learning

Fortunately we now know a lot more about how people learn from the learning sciences and while there is still more to learn and uncover, it helps us become more effective in our teaching. As a system here in Parramatta Catholic schools, the work of John Bransford and John Hattie has helped shaped our understanding of learning, teaching and most importantly, teacher learning.

The role of neuroscience in learning and teaching was the theme of this year’s ACER research conference in Melbourne.  By all accounts it was outstanding particularly John Hattie’s keynote.  There is no denying the significance of contemporary theory and research on the work we do. For too long we have accepted personal preference and experience instead of intellectual rigour. The science of learning needs to influence the practice of teaching.

For a psychometrician, Hattie’s work is easily digestible and after listening to a vodcast of his ACER keynote, I was inspired to re-read Chapters 7 and 9 in Visible Learning for Teachers.  I felt compelled to re-calibrate my educational compass.

Hattie’s makes the compelling point that we don’t go to school to learn what we know but what we don’t know. So why then are we teaching kids 60% of the things they already know?  It comes back to knowing where each student is and being able as teachers to identify where they need to be.  We’re not good at this because as Hattie says we make erroneous assumptions about students and their learning.

In fact, he believes we are novices when it comes to continually monitoring learning in progress.  This the power of feedback and it needs to be seen as a necessary disruption.  Why? Because it forces students to slow down, to process and think.  Slow thinking is stressful for students especially those who are struggling.  The message we have to impart is it is OK to stop, to think and to take risks.  Our schools are risk averse environments – we don’t often know when to hit the pause button and ask students to stop and think about what they are doing.

This is why Singapore’s approach to learning has merit. The goal when Singapore adopted a minimalist curriculum was as the then Minister of Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in The Flat World and Education to “give students themselves the room to exercise initiative and to shape their own learning.” The goal for Singaporean teachers is to get students to accept that it is OK working with unanswered questions.  It calls for a slow thinking movement in schooling.

Door to skyWhat Hattie found in his Visible Learning work was that we are stunningly good at predicting outcomes therefore students set low benchmarks. Our job according to Hattie is to ‘create schools that help kids exceed their own potential’.  We will never imbue confidence unless we make every child believe they can do better than they are already doing.  This is why feedback is so critical because it “aims to reduce the gap between where the student ‘is’ and where he or she is ‘meant to be’ – that is, between prior or current achievement and the success criteria.” (VLFT Chapter 7).

One of the most powerful statements in Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers is the notion that feedback thrives on error but

error should not be considered the privilege of lower-achieving students.  All students (as all teachers) do not always succeed first time, nor do they always know what to do next. This is not a deficit, or deficit thinking, or concentrating on the negative; rather, it is the opposite in that acknowledging errors allows for opportunities.  Error is the difference between what we know and can do, and what we aim to know and do – and this applies to all (struggling and talented: students and teachers).  Know this error is fundamental to moving towards success.  This is the purpose of feedback.

I should write this on my office window along with we go to school to learn what we don’t know.  We have underestimated the power of feedback in helping every student to identify where they go next; in moving them up the ladder of learning and success.  Our job as Hattie explains is to be able to give good feedback and to teach kids how to receive it and articulate back to teachers what and how they are learning.  This is why instructional walks are centred on the students and not the teacher.  We gauge the effectiveness of teaching through the eyes of students.  Hattie’s mantra is know thy learner….know thy impact.

As we begin to consider our system focus in 2014 and beyond, I am drawn to the point Hattie makes in Chapter 9 about losing interest in discussions about teaching.  He says it’s not because teaching isn’t important but it often ‘prevents important discussions about learning.”

I’m convinced that learning has to be the profession’s new narrative.

7 thoughts on “The science of learning

  1. Bluyonder has produced a wonderful succession of thought-provoking themes. This posting represents a new high. “Error should not be considered the privilege of lower-achieving students” perhaps the most challenging quote of all.
    ‘We learn by making mistakes’ is often stated but rarely respected in systems within both formal and informal educational environments where those who ‘always get it right!’ are elevated in the eyes of the ‘lower-achieving students’. League tables listing those with the ‘highest marks’ could well be a retardant in a society aiming to educate and prepare all of its citizens to make the greatest possible contribution they can.

  2. Instructional walks have become one of the most powerful experiences for teachers in a secondary school. We take them each day however now we invite staff from all subject areas and share their learnings on a staff blog. The walk is not just for a leadership team but an experience for every teacher. In a secondary school it is easy to become isolated in your own area. What the walk does is open the eyes of teachers to what is happening outside of their area and learning from each other. This builds capacity in each person. The blog is a means to share reflections of the experience, always in a positive atmosphere which builds relational trust.

  3. I recently heard Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Bruno Della Chiesa talk about mind, brain and education. They focused on how cultural backgrounds relate to making judgements and how our cultural environment teaches us how to feel. Culture shapes behaviour. We need to give up on the efficiency of massive amounts of information delivery and focus more on empathy and different perspectives. While brain science should not determine how we teach and there are many neuromyths around, the perspectives from neuroscience are invaluable to our growing understanding of how people learn.


  4. Totally agree and the flip side is how culture influences how teachers teach. This can be the barrier to change and adopt contemporary approaches to the teaching and learning process.

  5. A great link between Hattie’s research around the significant impact feedback has on learning and the instructional walks. We have found the process of instructional walks very insightful and strongly agree with Greg’s belief that ‘we gauge the effectiveness of teaching through the eyes of students’. Hattie also suggests that we don’t ask our students ‘What did you learn today?’ rather ‘What feedback did your teacher give you today?’ I see the positive impact on learning everyday when our Reading Recovery teachers feed up, feed back and feed forward with their learners. It is no surprise that children make accelerated progress in this program. It’s the feedback that makes the difference!

  6. Promoting mastery in students (and adults) has a solid evidence-base and feedback is a strong component. A key inter-disciplinary researcher, K. Anders Ericcson has written:
    “In the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects. Carol Dweck in mindset also wrote: “Teachers should focus on students’ efforts and not on their abilities. When students succeed, teachers should praise their efforts or their strategies, not their intelligence. When students fail, teachers should also give feedback about effort or strategies — what the student did wrong and what he or she could do now. We have shown that this is a key ingredient in creating mastery-oriented students”. I’m glad that a feedback orientation is on the agenda in education.

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