Learning Science Gets Real

Well here we are. COVID-19 is now ravaging the U.S. Thousands of people have died. Many thousands more will die. Several state healthcare systems are already stretched to their limit. And the powers that be are still reluctant to shift towards more production of needed equipment. Against a tragedy like this, learning science seems pretty damn irrelevant.

But it’s not. At least, not entirely.

Creating expert decision-makers

Learning scientists talk a lot about deep conceptual understanding, the ability to adapt knowledge to use in novel situations, and the ability to reason through complex problems. In practice, the focus is usually on increasing student achievement — that is, making students perform better on the various tests they take. The main reason to have these skills, however, is to get better at solving actual, complex, unforeseen problems.

This is especially important when the cost of mistakes is high. We want the people managing a nuclear reactor to have a conceptual understanding of how the system works — not just to be applying fixed procedure without any idea of what to do if something goes wrong. We want pilots who can notice, diagnose, and address anomalies before it’s too late to do anything about them. And we want medical practitioners to make sound decisions about diagnosis and care, especially when the situation is life-or-death. Learning science studies how to develop the kind of deep expertise that enables sound decision-making.

What we have now is a society-wide shift: non-ICU medical staff are now treating ICU patients. People without any healthcare background whatsoever are monitoring and treating people at home. And it’s possible that many more medical volunteers may be managing makeshift field hospitals as healthcare systems become overwhelmed. Meanwhile, uncertainty is high, misinformation is rampant, and the medical community is still learning much about how best to treat COVID-19 patients.

Ventilators, for instance are life-saving and complex machines. Non-ICU medical practitioners have likely never used ventilators and don’t know much about them. And even those that have sat through lectures about how to manage a patient on a ventilator don’t necessarily have the experience to make sound decisions. The risks of something going wrong, of course, increase if doctors start using one ventilator to treat multiple patients. So the expertise needed to run such set-ups increases as well.

The question is: how do you raise people’s expertise as quickly and meaningfully as possible? Learning science offers the best advice we have.

A healthcare curriculum

The current crisis reveals something else: what learning outcomes we should prioritize.

The situation in the U.S. may be largely man-made (other countries, even countries at much higher risk, have handled the crisis far more capably). But future outbreaks like this seem likely in the near-term, especially as we continue to encroach on wildlife habitats. All of which argues for basic healthcare knowledge and skills to be in the student curriculum, and for the advent of healthcare reservists — people whose primary profession is unrelated to healthcare, but who have the training and expertise to assist in emergencies.

Every branch of the U.S. military has reservists who are trained to perform military duties if necessary. They may not be grizzled veterans. But their skills and knowledge are leagues above a raw recruit. FEMA has a reservist program to address disaster relief, but most of the specialties aren’t related to healthcare.

Mitigating the coronavirus slide

Finally, of course, there is the obvious application. 1.3 billion students around the world are out of school due to coronavirus. This situation will last for the foreseeable future, and may be an enduring feature of life over the next year. Ensuring student health and safety when schools are closed is a monumental task.

Evidence for the “summer slide” — student learning loss during summer — is substantial. But the extent and reason for the loss, and the extent to which the loss differentially affects low-SES students, is conflicting. It’s unclear how long schools will be closed for. But six months of being at home and out of school may result in the entire student body “losing” several months of learning.

The result is a grand experiment in home schooling. Parents have become de facto teachers to their school-age children. And, where possible, K-12 teachers are migrating to online instruction, trying to figure out how to be effective in a drastically new environment. The transition, of course, is as much about time and student management and staying sane as it is about teaching effectively. But here, too, learning science is vital to “ensure that learning continues.”

*Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash


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