Teachers often talk about the vital nature of their work and the fact that for the young people we teach there are no second chances. I’ve heard teaching compared to air traffic control and the risks in the classroom compared to the risk involved in miscalculating the landing of a plane. These kinds of comparison are made to alert us to the importance of what we do, but clearly they’re over dramatic and, in a very real way, untrue. I don’t want to make out that what we do is unimportant but if we teach algebra badly no one dies. But what if it were true? What if education really was life or death? What might we do differently?
In their important new book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Brown, Roediger and McDaniel point out that almost everything teachers and students believe about learning is untrue and based on unsubstantiated theories, folklore and intuition. We do what we’ve always done. We do what everyone else does. We do what sounds right. And we do it based on very little in the way of empirical evidence. But what if we had a gun to our heads? What if we were staking our lives, and the lives of our students on the efficacy of  choices we make? Would that change our approach or shake our faith? Would we be willing to bet our lives that the strategies and techniques we advocated and practised were the best ones?
There’s very little I’d want to bet my life on, and nothing that I would place such faith on that wasn’t based on the most impeccable of evidence. I might be in a minority. Clearly faith plays an important role in the lives of millions of people around the world. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you are so sure you’re right that you’d take that bet. If so, I envy you your certainty.
But I’d worry because I know what it feels to believe I’m right and experienced the shock of being presented with irrefutable evidence that I’m wrong. And it always blindsides me. Take this example: I was due to fly home from Japan at 2 pm. I get anxious about being late and wanted to make sure I’d arrive at the airport in good time so I got up at 8.30, showered and ate a leisurely breakfast before packing up and wondering about what to do in the intervening hours. Knowing how pensive I get while waiting, I decided it would be best to get underway and catch the train to the airport. I dragged my bags to the station and trundled off, kicking myself for being such a poor traveller; instead of spending my last morning doing something fun I’d be hanging around in Osaka airport terminal for a few extra hours. When on the train, I dug out my ticket to double-check which terminal I was leaving from and was staggered to discover that my flight was due to depart not at 2pm but at 11am! It was now 10.30. I can’t tell you how sick I felt; I broke out in a cold sweat and sat there staring in blank incomprehension. How could I have been so wrong? I had known, been so certain I hadn’t even felt the need to check. I might not have bet my life on the fact I knew the time of my flight, but I’d certainly have bet several hundred pounds on it! And I’d have lost. In fact that’s exactly what I had to pay to book a new flight the next day.
The point of that sad story is that we often place unwarranted faith in what we believe. We can be so certain that we feel no need to check; we just know we’re right. But to err is human; we are all wrong all the time about things both trivial and fundamental. Consider this little gem that reemerged on Twitter today:
It seems so obviously true, doesn’t it? partly because it bears out and validates our experience as teachers: we get to know our subjects so much better because we teach them, so it follows that the best way to retain new information is to teach it to someone else. And look: there’s some statistics so it must be true! Well, unfortunately not. Darren Kuronatwa kindly got in touch to send me Multimodal Learning Through Media:  What the Research Says which dismisses the claim in short order:

If most educators stopped to consider the percentages, they would ask serious questions about the citation. They would inquire about the suspicious rounding of the percentages to multiples of ten, and the unlikelihood that learners would remember 90 percent of anything, regardless of the learning approach.

But it’s not just the statistics that are dodgy, it’s the dubious idea that a one-size-fits-all, magic bullet approach to learning will always work in every context for every student. The paper goes on to demonstrate that contrary to what we may believe. They conclude that the truth is, unsurprisingly a little more complex:

The percentages related to the cone of learning were a simplistic attempt to explain very complex phenomenon. The reality is that the most effective designs for learning adapt to include a variety of media, combinations of modalities, levels of interactivity, learner characteristics, and pedagogy based on a complex set of circumstances.
In general, multimodal learning has been shown to be more effective than traditional, unimodal learning. Adding visuals to verbal (text and/or auditory) learning can result in significant gains in basic and higher-order learning. The meta-analytic findings in this report provide insights into when interactivity augments multimodal learning of moderately to complex topics, and when it is advantageous for students to work individually when learning or building automaticity with basic skills

Maybe it might be true that teaching others could be an effective way to learn, but what’s the evidence beyond our intuition? This kind of belief is an emotional one and, that being the case is like pretty much everything else that gets believed. But that doesn’t excuse people making stuff up to support what they believe.
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So if we can’t rely on theory, lore and intuition, what can we rely on? There are some compelling voices in education that are happy to tell us that research in education is a chimera. This popular tract by Gert Biesta claims that “what works” won’t work. Biesta is against using research to inform education policy because we don’t know everything, what we know might not be quite right every time, and because it can be misapplied. Instead he wants us to embrace a ‘values based’ model founded on what we as educators believe to be in the best interests of our children. Fortunately for Biesta, no one is holding a gun to his head and no one is likely to die if he’s mistaken. But this kind of attitude is, I think, much more likely to be misunderstood and misapplied than giving due consideration to admittedly incomplete picture that research might give us. It’s likely to result in people tweeting the ‘cone of learning’ as if it’s a fact and, metaphorically, lots of people missing flights.
Brown, Roediger and McDaniel are at pains to point out that what cognitive psychology tells about what works is counter-intuitive, and therefore easy for us to ignore. But inconveniently it’s based on well designed, consistent and repeatable trials. In other words, it ‘works’. These are just a few of the ideas they present which, practising what they preach, are spaced and interleaved throughout the book:

  • We’re poor judges of how we learn best
  • Rereading and massed practice are the most popular but among the least effective ways to learn
  • Spacing and interleaving feel unproductive but are a much more effective way to learn
  • Allowing yourself to forget before attempting to retrieve will boost your ability to ‘store’ information
  • Making it harder to learn  is more effective than making it easy
  • Every time we learn something new, we change the architecture of our brains

If you’ve been following my blog over the last year or so, these ideas won’t be new to you, but this book presents an evidence base which confirms and goes beyond the faith I’ve placed in cognitive scientists like Willingham and Bjork (Both of whom endorse this book incidentally.)
So Biesta may well be right: we certainly don’t know everything and what we do know will inevitably be ballsed-up by enthusiastic, well-intentioned folk like me. But the irrefutable evidence that we are so often wrong should at least give us reason to question our intuition. If the cognitive scientists are right, we could make a profound difference to how well our students learn. If tall their empirical evidence turns out to be wrong, no one’s died. It may not be worth betting your life on, but it outweighs the risk of going with a hunch.

Related posts

Deliberately difficult – why it’s better to make learning harder
Everything we’ve been told about teaching is wrong and what to do about it
The Cult of Outstanding: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons