An engaging new book about brain science can help teachers make their classroom practice more effective. In an ideal world, teachers would routinely get this kind of valuable information during their training.
For a while now, engineering professor Barbara Oakley and neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski have jointly taught “Learning How to Learn,” which has been described as one of the world’s most popular massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Almost three million people have enrolled, presumably hoping to—as the course description promises—“change their thinking and change their lives.”
Now Oakley and Sejnowski have teamed up with former middle school teacher Beth Rogowsky, currently a professor of education, to produce a MOOC and a book designed specifically for teachers. The MOOC, called “Uncommon Sense Teaching,” starts today—July 20, 2021. The book, by the same name, was released last month. Written in an accessible, down-to-earth style, it’s replete with practical tips on translating neuroscience into powerful teaching techniques. (I provided an endorsement for the book before publication and received a free copy from the publisher.)
The authors illustrate the limited capacity of working memory—the aspect of consciousness that takes in and makes sense of new information—with cartoons of a four-armed octopus, happily juggling four balls but then looking overwhelmed when the number increases to seven. It analogizes brains that learn fast to “race cars” and those that move more slowly to “hikers,” pointing out that each mode of learning has its strengths—and that standard pedagogical approaches often leave the hikers behind. It provides scenarios on topics like helping students create graphic organizers (visual representations of content they’ve learned) and work cooperatively in groups.
In recent years, there’s been a small explosion of resources aimed at connecting teachers around the world with evidence from cognitive science—the science of learning. A U.K.-based international movement called researchED sponsors conferences that bring together scientists and teachers and also offers free videos on topics like “Explicit Teaching, Critical Thinking, and Creativity” and “The Holy Grail of Teaching Spelling.” A new Portugal-based website offers articles by leading cognitive scientists on tips for effective remote teaching, whether “manipulatives” help students learn, and other subjects (click at the top of the page to access the English version unless you’re fluent in Portuguese).
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There’s also been an outpouring of books on learning that—like those online resources—are grounded primarily in cognitive psychology, which focuses on the mind. Uncommon Sense Teaching is oriented towards neuroscience, which is concerned with the brain. These sister disciplines are essentially different paths to the same destination.
Both have yielded evidence for practices like modulating the number of new pieces of information students need to juggle (so as not to overwhelm that working memory “octopus”), breaking complex tasks into chunks students can manage, engaging in explicit teaching when students are unfamiliar with a topic, and having students practice retrieving information from long-term memory. But psychology relies on experiments demonstrating that people learn more efficiently when they use these techniques, as measured by tests and other assessments. Neuroscience, on the other hand, offers diagrams of neurons (which Uncommon Sense Teaching provides) and colorful images of different parts of the brain lighting up (which it does not) to reveal underlying physiological processes.
Some cognitive psychologists—and even some neuroscientists—have argued that neuroscience provides teachers with more information than they need, wasting their limited time. The authors of Uncommon Sense Teaching suggest that compared to neuroscience, psychology can’t provide as much “direct insight into the foundations of learning and education.”
I suspect that each path can resonate differently depending on the individual. If, like me, you have trouble remembering the difference between the hippocampus and the neocortex, you may find the psychological evidence easier to grasp. Others find brain science more compelling. If you fall into the latter category, Uncommon Sense Teaching may be the book for you.
Either way, though, teachers are unlikely to be familiar with any of this evidence—or the practices supported by it—from their pre-service training or in-service professional development. In fact, they’re often urged to do things that directly contradict what science supports. Professors at schools of education generally advocate, for example, that teachers should be wary of explicit teaching, rely heavily on projects and hands-on learning, and avoid quizzing students on factual information they’ve absorbed. The “professional development” teachers get once they’re on the job is rarely any different, and has mostly been a massive waste of time and money. The result is that teachers’ jobs are often more difficult than they need to be, and that the students who thrive are those who would probably learn no matter what.
The reasons for the disjunction between cognitive science and education are deeply rooted and complex, but there’s some evidence that things are beginning to change. One promising development: an organization of ed school leaders called Deans for Impact is bringing principles of cognitive science into at least some parts of the teacher-prep curriculum. So far, ten institutions are participating. When you consider that there are approximately 1,500 providers of teacher prep in the United States, encompassing 25,000 or so separate programs, it’s clear there’s still a long way to go. But it’s a start.
In the short term, books like Uncommon Sense Teaching can provide valuable information and insights for those educators who have the time and interest to read them—and those who prefer a more interactive experience can enroll in the MOOC.