Lessons From This ‘Golden Age’ of Learning Science

What can educators, policymakers and any lifelong learner gain from these new insights?

This article was written by Jeffrey R. Young  Edsurge

It is interesting for me to follow the work of Barbara Oakley and Olav Schewe. Barbara visited our school in September 2018 and was kind enough to write a blurb on my book, “The digital classroom, transforming the way we learn.” And Olav Scheve has visited our school multiple times for different workshops for our students. I have previously written about the Pomodoro technique they mention on my blog podcast here.  A topic they cover in the Podcast is also ChatGPT.  And Barbara emphasizes that even if ChatGPT can write excellent papers for you, we still need to teach students how to write good essays. ChatGPT and Bing AI are topics I have looked into lately and tried this out in different areas in school. You can read my articles about this on my blog. When listening to the Podcast with Barbara and Olav,  I used the Microsoft Word function to dictate the Podcast for me, and then I used Microsoft Bing to rewrite the material. Because, to be honest, the dictate function in Word has some problems with getting every word in the sentence correct. But my point is, as they talk about in this podcast, taking notes while listening to a lecture is difficult for many students. Both listening to new and difficult material while writing about it is complicated for many. And today, we have the technology that might help us.  Take a look below and let me know what you think! Did we manage to write a good summary of parts of the lecture?

The article discusses some of the latest insights from learning science and how they can inform educational practice. It features a panel of experts who share their perspectives on retrieval practice, individual differences, metacognition, and motivation. The article also highlights some of the challenges and opportunities for translating research into practice and reaching more teachers and learners with evidence-based strategies.

My immediate takeaway here is this;

“For literally thousands of years, we never really knew how the brain operated and how we actually learned,” said Oakley. “But now we can see inside the brain. And so in the last decade, there has been … just an enormous vault forward in understanding how we learn.”

The challenge, though, is getting those insights to teachers in ways that fit into their practice, the experts noted.

The stakes are high, especially amid growing concerns that some schools continue to use teaching practices that learning science has shown to be ineffective, such as in the case of reading instruction.

This is an EdSurge Podcast that you can hear here. EdSurge podcast

On the panel are:

  • Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University who works to translate the latest brain research into practical advice for teachers and learners. She also teaches Learning How to Learn, one of the most popular Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.
  • Andrea Chiba, a professor of cognitive science in the program for neuroscience at the University of California at San Diego. There, she also co-directs the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center.
  • Olav Schewe, consultant based in Oslo, Norway, who has worked with universities and companies to advise them on how to use insights from neuroscience to make better learning programs and tools. He is also the author of books on effective learning, including “Super Student.”

Listen to the podcast here.


Transcript of some of the podcast written by Microsoft dictate and Microsoft Bing AI here:

I want to start with a question for Barb. I really want to get into the title of this session, which is “A Golden Age of Learning Science” and what we can learn from it. First off, though, do you think it’s true that we’re in a golden age of learning science? And if so, why?

I’m so excited because yes, we are in a golden age of neuroscience. For literally thousands of years, we never really knew how the brain operated and how we actually learned. We made best guesses and devised theories but now we can see inside the brain. The theories we’re developing and the insights we’re gaining are based on solid information.

In the last decade, there has been an enormous leap forward in understanding thanks to the work of Andrea and researchers all around the world. The challenge is getting that information out through schools of education to teachers to help students.

Across the panel, I’ll ask about your latest insights. I’ll start with you, Barb. Of all the things that you know about, what’s something new and exciting? If educators know nothing else, they really should know this but they probably don’t.

Oh, it’s like asking me to pick my favorite child! But I think people who are in the know are aware that retrieval practice – building sets of neural links by retrieving ideas from your own brain – is important. Another area that’s very important is that for decades educators have said “drill is kill” but unfortunately drill is actually how we learn to play musical instruments or sports or learn a language.

Somehow especially in math it’s like “Oh no no you can’t do drill” but what that does is throw away one of the brain’s easiest ways of really understanding information which is through repetition.

But just I’m curious Andrea, if you want to start. One of the things that really strikes me about that clip is that it is talking about techniques from learning science and how the students are learning themselves. They go over the work and he says that the teacher is really there to just kind of keep everybody on task in a way and referee and answer questions if people are stuck. But that’s very different than a lot of views. We all close our minds and think of what a good teacher is. So could you talk a little bit about that disconnect?

Yeah. I mean, I think Barb has done a lot of work on this also but certainly there are many different ways to go about partnering with your students so that you can give them the building blocks they need to solve problems. So I think a lot of emphasis should be placed not only on working on specific problems themselves but also on what goes into those problems.

Half the time when someone isn’t able to do something it’s because they missed something very basic so sometimes it’s important for teachers to step back and understand where everyone is having problems and scaffold their learning accordingly. And way back because students don’t necessarily want to go back to Chapter 2 when they’re at the end and revisit some concepts.

So how we interleave our learning can be done skillfully by teachers so that they’re always helping students gain knowledge. This sort of “here you go, learn it and I’ll help you if you have problems” approach may work with some students but it’s not necessarily optimal.

Yeah, no, that’s a good point. In the field of education as in all of society there tend to be these pendulum swings. And one of the pendulum swings was for thousands of years remembering things was thought to be the only way you really learned things.

So it’s lecture and then memorizing the lecture. In the last 50 years or so, lectures have come to be seen as not being enough. The goal should be conceptual understanding so everything has swung towards conceptual understanding being key while remembering things is not seen as important.

But I remember a student coming up to me once after I had given a big stats test that he had flunked. He comes up with his paper all redlined and says “I can’t believe I flunked this test because I understood it when you said it in class.” We’ve gone so overboard on the idea that conceptual understanding is key that we’ve forgotten that if you can’t remember something then you still don’t really understand it.

So I think this idea of active learning which has really taken the lead over the last 20-30 years is an important idea. We’ve certainly seen a lot of it in engineering education but at the same time it’s not enough. Giving students stuff and telling them to figure it out just isn’t enough.

I even saw a paper recently in Science where they said they had students learning through a complete active learning session with little robots assisting them when needed but it was all active learning. But no, what’s wrong with this picture? Of course it wasn’t all active – there was still a teacher interleaving their advice with students actively learning.

This is an old concept from the 60s called direct instruction where explicit instruction is intermixed with students actively learning and this back-and-forth is really how people learn. I think what we’ve done is thrown out the baby with the bathwater by thinking that active learning or student-centered learning is all that’s important when teachers are still really important too.

Even just having teachers standing there giving guidance and making sure students don’t go off track is a big deal.

It shouldn’t be discounted so I’m just here to put in a good word for teachers as well as students. Pro teachers. Olaf, do you want to jump in on this one at all in reaction to the student clip we heard?

Well, what I can say is that I think Barb summed it up nicely. We need both good instruction and memory because understanding is also connected. Sometimes in the classroom you can have very skillful tasks where students go off on their own and do active learning but I’ve also heard many examples where teachers give a problem with no support and then students are left to figure things out on their own.

They’re frustrated because they don’t get support and don’t have the self-efficacy to go about the task so they would have benefited much more from a skillful lecture with good explanations and more classical instruction. So I think you need both.

I guess I’m not going to be able to do one of those crossfire type things where it’s like pro-lecture vs anti-lecture because you’re all pro-lecture and anti-lecture. You need a mix of instruction, active learning, and doing. For the podcast audience, the guests on stage are nodding and the audience is nodding.

Andrea talks about how there are many different ways for teachers to partner with their students so that they can give them the building blocks they need to solve problems. A lot of emphasis should be placed not only on working on specific problems themselves but also on what goes into those problems. Sometimes what students need is not more practice but more understanding of why things work the way they do and how they can apply them in different situations. She also mentions how important it is for teachers to create a culture of collaboration and respect in their classrooms where students feel comfortable asking questions and helping each other out.

Does anyone else want to say a word about our chatbot overlords? Sure, why not? Everyone has an opinion. I mean, I think with most really good AI, you need to keep the human in the loop. So I resonate with what Barb is saying. I think they’re great tools if they’re used appropriately. And one thing I was saying is that they’re definitely generative and something that people have trouble with sometimes is generating. So you know, you can sometimes look at something that’s been written and react to it and then think of your own ideas more readily. The biggest liability I see is how they’re trained and what the training sets are – garbage in, garbage out. And there’s a lot of garbage out there. And so sometimes, depending on how they’re used, maybe we’re going to need ChatGPT psychologists actually to give ChatGPT feedback if it’s being dysfunctional. You never know. It’s fascinating.


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