5 min read

Why Learning Science Fails to Make Its Way Into Practice

Image by ElisaRiva from Pixabay.

We know a lot about how people learn and what makes teaching effective. We know, for example, that trying to remember something is a wickedly effective way of actually remembering that thing. We know that humans have limited attention and how this impacts the effectiveness of multimedia presentations. We know that certain kinds of practice develop expertise more quickly than other kinds of practice. The list goes on.

Unfortunately, this knowledge hasn’t led to big changes in how we teach students and it hasn’t led to big changes in how students teach themselves. Lectures are still the dominant method of instruction, in spite of empirical evidence of their ineffectiveness and serious questions about how they even could be effective, given what we know about learning. Many courses give one or two large summative tests over previously covered material, confusing performance with long-term learning. Students overwhelmingly endorse inefficient study methods, like re-reading and highlighting (and then re-reading).

There are lots of reasons for this. But here are four.

Factor 1: Teacher training programs don’t teach fundamental learning principles.

You might expect that teachers learn about principles of learning during teacher training programs, so that teachers are prepared to craft meaningful learning experiences for their students. You’d be wrong. One recent survey of teacher training materials found that virtually zero research-backed learning principles were presented in any of the major teacher training textbooks.

Take a moment to think about this. What if we discovered that millions of doctors never learned accurate information about human biology? That, say, medical textbooks didn’t mention how the heart pumps blood or didn’t have accurate diagrams of human skeletal systems? Teaching is an immensely complex profession. At least as complex as medicine. And we aren’t giving teachers the conceptual tools to think about learning effectively.

Factor 2: The perpetuation of myths about learning.

Research on learning has a bit of a fake news problem: misinformation floods the media channels. Those same teacher training materials, for example, actively cast anecdotal evidence about how students learn as hard science. That’s one channel of misinformation.

Extensive research establishes that people develop misconceptions about everyday physics at a very young age. The same thing happens with learning. Myths about learning — like the idea that some people are “right-brained” learners and others are “left-brained,” or that we have individual “learning styles” that determine how well we learn in various contexts — take hold in part because of their intuitive appeal. Dislodging these misconceptions is challenging. The latest surveys of instructors (and students) reveal that many people continue to believe in these myths in spite of numerous de-bunking efforts.

Many learning myths, however, are perpetuated by companies trying to sell you things. Brain Gym became wildly popular in classrooms in the U.K. in spite of a complete lack of evidence demonstrating it worked and questionable assumptions about how it even could work. Baby Einstein was a consumer hit despite having negative learning outcomes. Companies will continue to sell products by promoting myths about learning until we stop buying them.

Without a common evidence base, it’s easy to believe in plausible-sounding things. With an accurate explanatory framework, however, we can evaluate new ideas about learning in a much more effective way.

Factor 3: Implementation is hard.

Part of the challenge of any sort of change — the application of learning technologies, new curricula, new assessments, new teaching strategies — is grappling with the immense complexity of schools as social, cultural, and political environments. It’s easy to say, “well, just apply this learning principle in your classroom and things will shape up.” A lot harder to do so effectively.

This is exacerbated by the separation between the research and practice communities. People who research learning and teaching tend to be academics. If they taught K-12 at some point, they don’t any more. Producing research means keeping their jobs; quality teaching does not. Professional teachers, on the other hand, tend not to have time for research, especially in the U.S., where teachers have very little free time for professional development and community building. Compare this to the medical field. Many practicing doctors contribute to ongoing medical research. Many medical researchers also see patients on the side.

This separation has led to some amount of mistrust. If you’re a teacher, which kind of research is more likely to change your teaching practice — research performed by someone you don’t know who doesn’t teach, performed in a setting very different from your own or research that you collaborated on and helped direct? I know the one I’d go with. This separation has also led to a lack of applied research. Without regular interaction with teachers, academic researchers cannot respond to what’s actually going on in the classroom.

In the past couple of decades, however, collaborations between teachers and researchers have become more common. The number of classroom and implementation studies have grown.

In some cases, these classroom studies confirm what we already know. Lab experiments repeatedly show that testing is a more effective way of learning than re-reading. Does it work in the classroom? Yup. In other cases, classroom studies get messy and complex: there are social dynamics, culture forces, and implementation fidelity issues. This is all part of the research process. Even “failed” research projects can tell us something about the limits of prior research.

Factor 4: The dismal record of education reform movements.

The mix of education research and national anxiety over our school systems have led to wave after wave of questionable school reforms in the U.S., making teachers, administrators, policy-makers, parents, and students wary of new reform movements — especially those making grand promises. Often, the reforms themselves have not been implemented with fidelity, leading to reforms in name only. Of course, the fractured nature of the U.S.’s education system make reforms on the national level extremely challenging to begin with.

It’s easy to lump learning research as just another so-called “research-based” reform idea that has everyone do a different sort of jig for a few years without addressing the fundamental issues that plague our education system. But learning research is a bit more subtle than that. It isn’t just a bag of techniques or a brand new system that will 100% revolutionize the way you teach. Yes, there are research-backed strategies that can improve the way that we teach. But it’s also about having a broad knowledge base to draw from. We don’t have to call for grand revolutions; we can improve things bit by bit.

It’s not unusual to hear teachers identify problems in their classrooms:

“We literally just went over this topic last week, and my students couldn’t remember the first thing about it.”

“All of my students took the prerequisite course, but they can’t do the most fundamental things.”

“My students all did well on the test, but now that they’re working on a project, it’s like they don’t know anything.”

“I try to initiate interesting class discussions, but my students never quite seem to be engaged.”

Learning science can’t necessarily fix all of these problems on the first try. But having a robust, well-informed understanding of how students learn provides teachers with reasonable things to try, offers explanations for what might be going on, and provides a common evidence-base for further iteration as teachers improve their teaching practices.

With that in mind, the next few articles will each tackle a different idea in learning science. We’ll start with the basics and slowly build up from there. The next dozen or so articles will each explain a research-supported principle of learning: what it is, why it works, how we know it works, and what we know about how to implement it effectively. I hope that it can help teachers, students, and developers of learning technologies create more meaningful and effective learning experiences.