How to guarantee “learning”? Understand the learner AND the content

By Mary-Dean Barringer, CEO, All Kinds of Minds

For several years, many of my colleagues have been urging me to pick a fight with Daniel Willingham, a well respected cognitive scientist: “He doesn’t believe in learning variation!” That may be, but having read his book Why Don’t Students Like School?, I find much in common with his recommendations and nine principles.

All Kinds of Minds doesn’t use a neurodevelopmental framework to assign labels or learning style terminology. Rather, a neurodevelopmental framework is most useful to organize research findings from the brain, mind and learning to contribute to helping teachers know how to best target pedagogical choices and instructional strategies to achieve learning outcomes–for all students.

Willingham’s blog this week in the Washington Post illustrates how he urges educators to engage in a little deeper analysis regarding the choices they have when teaching. There’s no “right” choice all of the time. Ensuring learning requires the ability to quickly diagnose the goodness of fit between teaching strategy, content, and desired instructional outcome.

It’s possible Willingham and I may part ways when we consider the usefulness of adding learner and learning expertise to the diagnostic “habits of minds” today’s teachers need. My own decade-plus of teaching “complex” students was successful only when I married what I knew about content with what I knew about learning and its variations to make effective instructional choices.

That’s the value of the research from the neurosciences and learning. We have more expertise available to help us understand and analyze the neurodevelopmental demands required to be successful at instructional mastery. It helps teachers make an even more specific and targeted instructional decision, increasing the likelihood for success. As Willingham points out, a PowerPoint can be the most effective choice for demonstrating quadratic equations, and I argue even more effective when modified to fit the understanding a teacher has of the attention, temporal-sequential, and memory strengths and weaknesses of a particular group of students.

That’s my opinion, and I’d like to hear yours. I’m sure Daniel Willingham would as well. So respond to both of our blogs today and continue this important professional conversation.

2 thoughts on “How to guarantee “learning”? Understand the learner AND the content

  1. Thank you, Mary-Dean, for picking a fight (though I don’t know it’s Willingham we are fighting). I took you up on your invitation and posted this comment on his message in the Washington post:

    The false dichotomy Willingham sets up will not be missed, as he says, by most readers. It is a silly question, as he points out. It’s like saying which is better a hammer or a screw driver.

    However, the article is valuable for what might have gone unnoticed. What slips through the cracks as usual is the yardstick we use to evaluate teaching methods: how much information did a method convey?

    I build on: “Each choice just describes a method of conveying information. What matters is how effectively the method is used to convey the desired content.” No, actually. this is not what matters most.

    Subtly, we take as an assumption that what teachers should be about is “conveying information,” but I believe that is incorrect. For Willingham to use himself as an example is not apt, because his work of making effective presentations is not a model for most pre-college teachers. They are about something different. What most k-8 (even 9-12)teachers should be doing is educating. This includes (but is not limited to) teaching them how to sort through information, construct knowledge, organize that knowledge into deliverable packages and present to others. The test of a teacher’s effectiveness is not how much information they got into short term memory, but how much brain development occurred–and that is harder to evaluate. And it also leaves room to appreciate more complex, less didactic methods.

  2. I think the more the research community advances, the more professionalism we’re requiring of our educators. Unfortunately the training and experience takes quite a long amount of time and talent to acquire, and in many places in the world the salary isn’t in line with the expertise.

    Sometimes I think we’re ignoring the average teachers who make up most of the teaching community and are only speaking to the really talented teachers.

    This is sort of familiar to the classroom situation where the teacher is teaching mainly to the top students and whoever can keep up will get ahead, but everyone else just falls behind.

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