May 24, 2017

What does it look like when learning doesn't go well?

In this interesting article, Lee Shulman lists three situations when learning does not go well:


I call this topic the "epidemiology of mislearning," or the "taxonomy of pedago-pathology." As I indicated earlier, there are three such pathologies: we forget, we don't understand that we misunderstand, and we are unable to use what we learned. I have dubbed these conditions amnesia,fantasia, and inertia.

Amnesia is one of the most frequent pathologies of learning-perhaps the most frequent. Students ordinarily and regularly forget what they have learned in their classes. Indeed, at times they forget that they even attended some classes.

More than 30 years ago, medical educators conducted a study on what first-year medical students remembered of the thousands of new terms that they'd memorized in their first year gross anatomy course. They were tested and retested over time. The curve that matched most closely to their forgetting of gross anatomy was the same shape as discovered in Hermann Ebbinghaus's classic study of memory for nonsense syllables a century ago. The publication of data like these made a mark in the world of medical education. The teaching of anatomy has since changed radically in schools of medicine.

My colleagues and I at Stanford conducted a study in which we asked graduate students who were preparing to become high school teachers to bring their undergraduate college transcripts to an interview. We were trying to understand the connections between what and how they had learned in college, and the ways they themselves would teach in high school. We asked them to walk us through their college transcript course by course, and tell us what they remembered about each course. Certainly, they remembered the contents, teachers, and the activities of many courses vividly. On the other hand, a depressing number of courses had faded from memory. At times, students did not even recollect having taken them. Is that evidence that they learned nothing from those courses? Of course not. Should we be concerned by reports like that? Absolutely.

Are we satisfied with the notion that students forget a significant amount of what we once held them responsible for knowing? If we take learning seriously, we must take responsibility for the ubiquity of amnesia. We need to reexamine much of what we teach, and how we teach it.

Fantasia is the name we have given to what otherwise might be called illusory understanding or persistent misconceptions. Fantasia is potentially far more insidious than amnesia. With amnesia my attitude is to let bygones be bygones. What you have simply forgotten may be harmless. But fantasia can be dangerous. It is that state in which students are absolutely confident that they understand something, but they don't.

[...] These illusions may have been based on widely accepted folklore that had become a prevailing reconception. They may have developed from a formal lesson that had been assimilated, memorized, but never accurately understood. These misconceptions are important for several reasons. New learning rests on old learning. A strategically held misconception can interfere with significant amounts of later good teaching. In that sense, misconceptions become insidious, a sort of intellectual land mine (or perhaps a "mind mine"?).


What about inertia? I take the word "inertia" from Alfred North Whitehead's lovely pun about "inert ideas" that occupy much of the space in our well-educated minds. A play on Plato's concept of "innate ideas," inert ideas are those that simply lie there, doing nothing. They are not forgotten; nor are they in some intrinsic sense wrong. They are simply not in a form that lends them to any useful purpose beyond being remembered.

For me, the best example of inertia is documented in research conducted in the 1950s by one of my mentors at the University of Chicago, Benjamin Bloom, on problem-solving processes in college students. Bloom was serving as the University Examiner, a role that led to his well-known contributions to the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Using the taxonomy, he identified a number of students who had acquired substantial amounts of "knowledge" of a subject, but could not apply that knowledge, or use it to analyze or synthesize new understandings.


I emphatically am not saying that the "facts" don't matter. Absent the facts, any of these students would simply be fabricating. They wouldn't have a clue. You need facts to make sense; they are the basis for understanding, but they are never enough. Inertia as pathology describes those states of mind where people come to know something but simply can't go beyond the facts, can't synthesize them, think with them, or apply them in another situation. Since the ultimate purpose of any education is to help students to go well beyond the limitations of any formal instruction, the epidemiology of inertia should comprise a serious domain of institutional inquiry for higher education. Any institution that claims to take learning seriously must systematically monitor the circumstances of amnesia, fantasia, and inertia associated with its programs. Alas, most of our institutions are similar to hospitals that proceed blithely along well-traveled paths oblivious to the mortality and morbidity rates experienced by their patients.

In our attempts to understand the conditions that foster amnesia, fantasia, and inertia, and in trying to understand how to combat those problems, we unexpectedly stumbled over nostalgia. We found nostalgia not so much among students as among teachers, administrators, critics of education, and political leaders. This condition is marked by a common symptom the firm belief that whatever the educational problem, the best way to combat it is by reinstating the ways through which the observers had been taught when they were the same age as their students. To teachers, the problem with modern education was that it was somehow riddled with new fads like group work, project-based learning, and-oh my!-service learning. Why can't we just get back to lectures, with an occasional discussion session? Why can't we just emphasize important facts, basic skills, fundamental principles, and the universal moral values? To the lay critics and policy-makers, the solution involved returning to the rigor of yesteryear: tougher standards, punitive grading systems, and less tolerance for the mushy, politically correct additions to the bedrock of the traditional curriculum.

One of the problems is that those who are trying to remedy the aforementioned afflictions usually believe that the reason people forget, misunderstand, or go inert is that they haven't been taught enough, and that the answer is to teach them more. You can often see aspects of this "solution" in the one piece of pedagogy that is a true partnership between higher education and K-12: advanced placement. "AP" is exemplary in many ways. It is a lovely example of standards-based teaching and learning in which the teacher truly serves as a coach who supports all the students in their quest for the highest levels of performance. The test is external to the classroom and does not interfere with that cooperation between teacher and students. However, many AP exams such as Biology and U.S. History seem driven by the principle that, not "less is more," but "much more is more." The content coverage of those courses is astounding in its magnitude.

We were shocked by the results of the publication of the Third International Math and Science Studies, where for the first time we compared our advanced placement students-the creme de la creme of American students-against the best students in other countries. We learned that the coverage strategy just doesn't work. Our kids don't match up well with their international counterparts. The very best explanation for the differences in performance lies in our very different ways of teaching. We define rigor as teaching our students more, however superficially. Other countries bring a much smaller set of ideas to students, then elaborate and deepen them pedagogically. They don't cover as much material, but the students understand more robustly what they have studied. If we are to take learning seriously, we will have to find another strategy to replace nostalgia.

Lee S Shulman, Taking learning seriously, Change. New Rochelle: Jul/Aug 1999.Vol.31, Iss. 4; pg. 11

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking.

Valid criticism is doing you a favor. - Carl Sagan