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The Applied Science of Learning

By aligning instruction with the science of learning, educators can help their students better absorb lessons in the classroom

April 8, 2020
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Most teachers know what it’s like to ask their students a question and receive only blank stares in response. “We just went over this yesterday!” the teacher might remark, exasperated by how quickly the class seems to have forgotten the material. What’s not clicking?

Part of the problem is that instruction isn’t always grounded in learning science, so assignments and classroom interactions may not result in students being able to retain the desired information. While the internet hosts a wealth of potential lessons that match a certain standard or contain a “fun” activity, instead of just scrolling and downloading, teachers should choose lessons or modify existing resources in ways that align with the science of learning to ensure that students absorb vital information they can draw on in the future.

Education consultant Jim Heal, who received his doctorate in educational leadership from HGSE, is working with Deans for Impact to equip teachers with the competencies and wherewithal to be able to take powerful theories from learning science research and infuse them into their day-to-day practice.

“We know we can only commit to memory that which we think about deeply,” Heal says. “Yet there appears to be a ‘cognition gap’ at play when it comes to teaching practice — a gap between the direction and depth of attention we as educators think is being experienced by our students and that which is actually being attended to and thought about during a given lesson. If learning science tells us anything, it is that we should consider more carefully the experiences of learners in light of understanding this cognition gap.”

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"There appears to be a ‘cognition gap’ at play when it comes to teaching practice — a gap between the direction and depth of attention we as educators think is being experienced by our students and that which is actually being attended to and thought about during a given lesson."

Teachers must become applied scientists, equipped to think about how their students learn

Heal suggests that teachers use their understanding of how people learn to inform the questions they ask of themselves and their practice whenever they design for learning. Because students can only commit to long-term memory that which they pay attention to and think about deeply, in the course of planning a task, teachers — as applied scientists — should incorporate the following high-leverage practices:

Discretion around to-be-remembered material: While curriculum and state standards often dictate the content to be covered, teachers exercise control over what, specifically, students are presented with, how it will be presented, and what will subsequently be remembered.

  • Practical considerations: When making decisions around how to explore the content of a class or course, ask yourself what you really want students to retain. When comparing the task or unit you have planned with the aligned standards, ask: What do students need to know and be able to do in order to satisfy those standards? What do students need to know and be able to do in order to succeed in this task or unit? What is the degree of overlap between the two?

Direction of student attention: Attention is a finite resource. If the ‘bells and whistles’ of a lesson are the things that engage students, then that’s where their attention will go and that is what they will remember.

  • Practical considerations: Once you know what you want students to learn and what material you’re covering, consider how you might design the task to ensure they are thinking about those selected pieces of content and skills, not others. Start by asking yourself what you want students to pay attention to and think about. Then, as you develop lesson or unit plans, revisit the question: Are students being engaged by to-be-remembered material or is the thing doing the engaging a distraction from that material?

Depth of student engagement with content: We know that the longer a student is engaged with content and the more deeply they are invited to think about it, the more likely they will be to retain it for future use.

  • Practical considerations: Having established a strategy for directing student attention, review your plan and ask: What depth of involvement and thought is expected of the learner as they encounter this work? Does the task invite them to build on or extend prior knowledge? What role does questioning play in the depth of student engagement? For instance, asking the number of syllables in a word or to find the answer in a text doesn’t require students to think beyond surface meaning. Asking about the meaning or associations ascribed to a word or concept prompts engagement with content for a longer period of time and at a deeper level of processing.

Critical consumers, assessing lesson plans and instructional styles

Teachers need time to become "critical consumers" by studying the principles of learning science. This would build teachers’ capacity for recognizing the assets and areas for improvement of instructional materials. Heal uses the example of the expert radiologist who, when glancing at a scan, can discriminate between a harmless smudge and a legitimate health risk.

“One definition of becoming more expert in something is an ability to better differentiate the subtleties between categories or gradations of quality. Teachers can and should be supported to do the same with different manifestations of their practice,” he says. “What would it mean for student learning if teachers became ever more sensitive to the nuanced differences between learning opportunities and then designed for learning with that in mind?” Learning science, it seems, can be a powerful tool for making that happen.

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K-12 Learning and Teaching Mind and Brain
The Applied Science of Learning | Harvard Graduate School of Education

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