Education is one of the cornerstones of modern society. Each of us stand on the shoulders of the discoverers and teachers who came before us. From them, we learn. Learning is not only how we remember the past but also how we will discover and shape the future. Our primary learning environment, where we expect our kids are being taught what they will need for their future, is school. If we are to trust schools to teach, we must believe they are following the best practice to support learning.
I know it is the bane of many bloggers and debaters to have to define their terms to progress. However, it is important. In the example of learning, if we can’t robustly articulate what learning is we can never test to see what best supports learning. Defining learning has something of an observation paradox; that is to say that how you look at and plan to measure learning directly effects the definition of learning. If you want to research the best teaching practices to support learning you must know what you mean by “learning”. As a teacher it is very easy (and appropriate) to test your students’ knowledge immediately after the lesson or at the start of the next lesson. That defines learning as retaining knowledge for 1 hour or a week. But, at their most frequent exams, are 6-monthly (not every hour) and ‘retaining knowledge’ shouldn’t be the goal of learning (should it?)
Retaining knowledge is, I’d say, less-than-half of learning. A parrot or CleverBot can recount words. Computers retain knowledge all the time, but I doubt you’d say the Chromebook I’m using is learning as I type. But if you measure learning at the end of a lesson, then you are defining learning as ‘knowledge retention after an hour’. The exams students then sit test learning as if it’s the ability the retain knowledge for at least 6 months. The fact that the teacher and the exam define learning differently is a problem, and I don’t think either is a useful definition of learning.
My mother disagrees with me. She teaches in a Young Offenders institute and thinks exam pass rates or ‘value added’ are very good ways of defining learning (for the learners she deals with). By the very nature of teaching in a Young Offenders institute, my mum teaches people who have a certain number of opportunities in the future closed off to them. My mum strongly believes that getting a predicted U-grade at GCSE level up to a real D-grade at the time of the exam is valuable learning; it is opening up doors to them the Young Offenders that were closed. The goal of learning is to retain and be able to produce facts. In those circumstances, that may be appropriate. If that is your goal, there are experiments you can carry out to see how best to make people learn. Here are some examples of how to measure those things:
Create a series lesson plans that both aim to teach a certain number of relatively simple facts. Each lesson must aim to teach the same number of facts. Take each lesson and design it is such a way that it simulates different teaching practices. For example, lesson 1 may be a tactile/practical lesson on weather where the aim is to learn 20 things about weather and how to measure it. The lesson is ‘tactile’ because students are asked to design, create and use weather-measuring equipment. Lesson 2 is an auditory/didactic lesson where a lecture is played and comprehension questions are given through out the lesson. The goal is to learn 20 things about population dynamics. Lesson 3 is student-led research etc. 1 week after each lesson you ask the students to write down as many of the facts they were meant to learn as they can remember. Whichever lesson showed the greatest retention used the best teaching method, correct?
If your goal is exams-based, your experiment will be different. Take two classes taught by different teachers who favour different teaching methods, find each class’ baseline predicted grades at the start of the year and find their value added on exams day. Whichever class has the greatest value added… simple, no?
But this separates learning from developing abilities to reason things through, critical thinking and evaluation. If I made a claim like “listening to Katy Perry improves learning in undergraduates” you would think the investigation looked at a lot more than just retention of knowledge. After all, any one who has been to university will tell you they retained very little. My stepdad says at university he learned “how to think”. So, how might we investigate that?
What do we expect a university student to be able to do better if they are learning better? Write a 1,000 word essay on something their not necessarily familiar with; decide what information is helpful in answering a question; reason and evaluate thoughts better? It would be something along those lines, I’m sure you agree. So, with two groups of students I would sit one group in silence and make another group listen to a Katy Perry track (or selection of her Greatest Hits — if she has enough songs for that). I’d then give each student from both groups a booklet of research information all pertaining to (picking at random…) aluminium production and manufacture. Each student then has 2 hours (under exam conditions) to read and assimilate information from the booklet with a view to write an extended answer to the question “Examine the advantages and disadvantages of modern aluminium production techniques”. Then find an objective-as-possible way of marking, with the marker(s) blind to what group different students were in… average marks from both groups; are they significantly different?
All three of the experiments measure “learning”, but in each example it means something different. And in each case, the definition suits a different circumstance. If you want to investigate learning, you have to go through that tedious task of defining your terms and defining them in line with exactly what you want to study.