A look back: What Kappan readers have learned about learning

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Kappan’s articles about learning have explored not just how students learn, but how researchers and educators can deepen their understanding of student learning.

 

One could make the argument that the bulk of Kappan’s content over the past 100 volumes has explored what we’ve learned about learning. Article after article has considered strategies, programs, and policies that promote student learning. Even articles about educator development have addressed, at least implicitly, the kinds of teacher learning that are most effective at helping students learn.

Some Kappan authors, though, have taken the discussion to another level, asking, in essence, how do we know what we know about learning? And when we make new discoveries about learning, how can we use them to inform teacher practice?

What kind of research?

Many times over the decades, our authors have called for a more robust practice of educational research. In December 1941, for example, G.T. Buswell (“Structure of educational research”) argued that the existing avenues for inquiry had run their course. Since 1900, he observed, most education research had fallen into four categories: measurements of mental abilities, the use of laboratory techniques to study learning, frequency studies of commonly used words (that might be emphasized in reading instruction), and studies of personality. These studies had succeeded in establishing certain objective facts to consider when tackling education problems. However, Buswell added:

The easy stages of this kind of research have now for the most part been exhausted. New techniques appear less commonly and there is appearing much research, the findings of which are new only to the person who produces them. Educational research is ripe for a more mature set of procedures. These procedures can scarcely be developed until the basic concepts now available are set forth more clearly. (p. 168)

Indeed, the following two decades saw an explosion of new research into cognitive psychology, including groundbreaking work on memory, attention, information processing, and more. Nonetheless, more than 25 years after Buswell’s call for a new science of learning, Kappan authors were still debating what the next stage of educational research should look like. Why, asked Robert Edel in October 1967 (“Some limitations of basic research in education”), had the research failed, so far, to produce much in the way of useful findings? Perhaps this was due to the newness of the field, its lack of funding support, and the complexity of the human behaviors under examination. But maybe the real problem, he suggested, was that educational researchers had become too reliant on controlled experiments (or what he called “basic research”):

What learning is biologically, how it occurs, what happens to the organism and why — these are fit subjects of scientific study. Here basic research may be rewarding. But an understanding of the psycho-biology of learning is unlikely to contribute much to the improvement of formal education. It will do little to answer either of the two basic educational questions: What shall we try to teach children? And how shall we go about getting them to learn it? (p. 83)

A reliance on practical experience, Edel wrote, had predated the experimental model so prized by scientists, and it could once again become an important guide to knowledge.

That argument stands in contrast with that of Theodore Sizer, writing in June 1972 (“Three major frustrations: Ruminations of a retiring dean”). Sizer worried that many educators had come to focus so intently on established practices that they were failing to step back and consider why they did what they did and whether their actions lined up with education research. He wrote:

Much recent research, largely because of its negative findings, is highly provocative, suggesting that many of the things that schools and universities undertake for the education of their students are very likely inefficient and misguided. The reaction of the profession has been to attack such research, to say that “it doesn’t help,” and to ignore it. One can only conclude that professional education is both fearful and anti-intellectual. It is enormously frustrating for those of us who carry a special responsibility for the intellectual life of institutions to have to defend even the process of theoretical reformulation of our tasks, much less the practical implications of theory. It is appalling to have to pound the table to get professional colleagues even to look at evidence, and when that evidence seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, to keep these colleagues honest, even unto themselves. No current trend in American education retards reform more than this pernicious anti intellectualism, or “anticonceptualization.” (p. 633)

In February 1976, Raymond McKenna (“Piaget’s complaint — and mine: Why is there no science of education?”) used the writings of Jean Piaget as a springboard into the question of why there was no thriving science of education. Without a stable of researchers engaged in rigorous study of teaching and learning, teachers had to rely on government officials and administrators for guidance. The great ideas in the world of education, McKenna observed, came from people who were not actually trained teachers, such as John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and B.F. Skinner. Why, he asked, doesn’t the field raise experts from its own ranks? Echoing Sizer from four years earlier, he worried that the lack of research expertise among educators was also leading to a lack of rigor: “Adequate theory would explore the who-why-what-whether-where-how-when dimensions of teaching/learning, but today how-to-do-itry tyrannizes all other dimensions” (p. 407).

Then again, maybe the way forward lay neither in basic scientific research nor the cultivation of practical wisdom but, rather, in a new focus on empirical studies. In February 1980, Benjamin Bloom (“The new direction in educational research: Alterable variables”) reported that educational researchers had achieved a “revolution” in the study of teaching and learning, thanks to an emphasis on direct observations in classrooms. Rather than trying to translate the findings of basic psychological research into teaching practices, researchers should take an empirical approach to instructional improvement, he argued. By observing what happens when schools alter certain variables — such as time on task, prior student knowledge, and teacher actions — they can identify what matters most to student learning.

What about the brain?

Of course, if educators want to understand learning, one obvious area of exploration is the brain. One of Kappan’s earliest articles about the brain, published in 1969, had the mouthful of a title “Psychoneurobiochemeducation.” In the article, David Krech, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, considered what rat studies might teach about how the brain works and how those findings could inform education. He envisioned a world in which the expertise of biochemists, pharmacologists, neurologists, psychologists, and educators all come together to improve “the intellectual stature of man” (p. 375). And he was also among the first of several Kappan authors to predict (long before the development of drugs such as Ritalin) the rise of “smart pills” that can help students improve their attention and memory.

A number of articles in the 1970s proposed ideas that would now strike readers as fanciful, if not bizarre. For example, brain-boosting ideas suggested by Kappan authors included the use of electrical stimulation and biofeedback (“Medical, biological, and chemical methods of shaping the mind” by Edward Sullivan, April 1972) and transpersonal psychology (“Transpersonal: The new educational psychology” by Thomas Bradford Roberts, November 1974), which promoted mystical experiences and altered states of mind.

In March 1976 (“Cerebral symmetry: An urgent concern for education”), Max Reynolds argued that schools have focused too much on the linear functions of the left brain and neglected more imaginative right-brain thinking. But in a February 1978 article that jibes a bit better with contemporary research in the neurosciences, Leslie Hart (“The new brain concept of learning”) advocated the creation of “brain-compatible” schools. Such schools would not expect children’s brains to adapt to schools but would instead take into account what is known about children’s brains and adapt instruction accordingly — for instance, he explained, the brain doesn’t learn well under threat, each brain is unique, and young students learn by talking.

By the 1990s, however, many authors were urging caution with respect to emerging brain research, pointing out that the science was evolving quickly, sometimes even debunking ideas that had been popularized just a few years earlier. In January 1990, for example, Douglas Carnine (“New research on the brain: Implications for instruction”) noted that new research had called into question the notion that certain abilities are located in specific regions of the brain. And in May 1999 (“In search of. . . brain-based education”), John Bruer expressed concern about how brain science was being applied to education:

This is an exciting and new scientific endeavor, but it is also a very young one. As a result, we know relatively little about learning, thinking, and remembering at the level of brain areas, neural circuits, or synapses; we know very little about how the brain thinks, remembers, and learns. Yet brain science has always had a seductive appeal for educators. Brain science appears to give hard biological data and explanations that, for some reason, we find more compelling than the “soft” data that come from psychological science. But seductive appeal and a very limited brain science database are a dangerous combination. They make it relatively easy to formulate bold statements about brain science and education that are speculative at best and often far removed from neuroscientific fact. (p. 650)

Despite such words of caution, interest in brain science continued to grow. In November 1999, Ron Brandt responded to Bruer in an article titled “Educators need to know about the human brain,” in which he wrote:

We do have a great deal of knowledge about learning, which we have acquired in several different ways. As Bruer argues, psychology, especially cognitive psychology, is a key source of that knowledge. We can also draw on other social sciences, such as anthropology, along with educational research and professional experience. When brain research is combined with knowledge from these other sources, it can further illuminate our understanding. (p. 237)

The February 2008 issue of Kappan (“Brain-based education: A fresh look”) offered the most in-depth exploration of the topic to date. In the opening article (“A fresh look at brain-based education), Eric Jensen responded to Bruer’s past critiques of brain science and proceeded to discuss how it can inform education practice. For Jensen,

Brain-based education is about the professionalism of knowing why one strategy is used instead of another. The science is based on what we know about how our brain works. It’s the professionalism to be research-based in one’s practices. Keep in mind that if you don’t know why you do what you do, it’s less purposeful and less professional. (p. 417)

In response to Jensen, Robert Sternberg (“The answer depends on the question”) acknowledged that “brain research does indeed have implications for education. What they are, however, depends in large part upon one’s preferred ideology” (pp. 418-419) — for Sternberg, lessons from brain science were too contradictory to point unequivocally to specific education practices. Likewise, Dan Willingham (“When and how neuroscience applies to education”) expressed skepticism that neuroscience could have much immediate value to education, especially in comparison to classroom-based data. However, Judy Willis (“Building a bridge from neuroscience to the classroom”) urged readers to draw on both domains:

The brain-research evidence for certain instructional strategies continues to increase, but there still is no sturdy bridge between neuroscience and what educators do in the classroom. But educators’ knowledge and experience will enable them to use the knowledge gained from brain research in their classrooms. (p. 427)

For Willis, brain science has potential to influence schooling, but not without careful efforts to correct educators’ misinterpretations of findings that have continued to persist.

And that brings us to the current issue, in which Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa describes the predominance of neuromyths in the popular press as well as areas of strong consensus among scientists. As Kappan authors have made clear across the past 100 years, the road to knowledge is treacherous, with plenty of appealing but incorrect ideas pulling educators off track. But the quest to learn more about learning remains essential to the profession.

 

Citation: Preston, T. (2018). A look back: What Kappan readers have learned about learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (4), 5-7.

TERESA PRESTON (tpreston@pdkintl.org) is managing editor, content, of Phi Delta Kappan.

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