L Is For Learning: A New Book On Proven Approaches And How Teachers Can Use Them

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I was reporting recently on the challenges the DIY "maker movement" faces as it moves into more classrooms, when I flipped through a copy of the new book, The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them. It's based on a popular course at Stanford University.

Hmm, M is for Making.

I asked co-author Daniel L. Schwartz, dean of Stanford's Graduate School of Education, if the push to link "making" to instructional goals doesn't risk zapping the inspiration out of this self-directed tinkering revolution?

"Oh yeah, then suddenly making becomes a recipe and you're being told what to make," Schwartz told me. "You're just doing what someone else told you. I do worry about people trying to force it to accomplish something that it's really not perfect for."

Intrigued, I read the other 25 sections of the book, which is written by Schwartz, with Jessica M. Tsang and Kristen P. Blair.

I spoke with Dean Schwartz the other day for Here & Now, the news program from NPR and WBUR (you can listen to the audio here). Here's our conversation.

Your book goes from A to Z with clear examples of approaches to learning. Let's stick with M for Making. In your view, what are the keys to turning making into not only just a fun activity, but an effective teaching tool?

A lot of people want to make making do a lot of different things, and so it's important to realize what it's particularly good at, the specific kinds of learning outcomes that you want from it. And for making, the thing that people really want is to learn how to use the tools and produce things. They want to develop the means of production. So imagine you had a college lab, right, where the students are kind of trying to make experiments. Usually those labs are just "follow recipe." But what you should be using those labs for is so the students learn how to use these tools to create their own things. Because this is the primary outcome of making — you learn how to use stuff to make more stuff.

Students can then get feedback, and you write that a powerful feature of this cycle is that it can capture students' interests and motivate them, and maybe even inspire.

I think that's right. So we did a study once with hobbyists, and we asked them, you know, what made their hobby the most satisfying. And things like socializing were kind of low on the list. Things like being in flow and losing a sense of time were pretty high. The No. 1 thing was, they like to see the fruits of their labor. They like to make it, see how it came out, show it to someone else, see how the other person liked it — and then they go back and it helps them make the next thing even better.

If it really catches hold, eventually the student will develop a sustained interest where they'll pursue their own kind of making opportunities. And that's when you take off, because now they're sort of trying to figure out different ways to learn things, to help them fuel that interest of theirs.

Let's touch on a few other approaches that you talk about in your book. Letter A is for Analogy. I mean, analogies were removed from the SAT in 2005 because they were criticized as being tricky and biased toward certain socioeconomic groups. You make the case that analogies really have a place in learning. Tell us why.

Analogy is one of the biggest ways to learn deep principles. One use of it is to provide an analogy. Like, if I tell you, you know, the earth's crust is a mile thick, and you'll think, "Wow, that's really big!" And then I say, "By analogy, it's sort of like a peach skin around a peach. That's kind of how thick it is." Suddenly, you go, "Oh. That's not thick at all!" And so the analogy really helps you fill in this idea that was hard to get just by the single declarative statement.

T is for Teaching. You point out that when students themselves learn to teach a subject, they learn more when they see their pupils answer questions and sort of find out what the audience actually learned from their presentation. Is that accurate?

Well, yes. Not to be too clever, but by analogy, teaching and making are close friends. Because in teaching, a lot of the learning occurs when you see how people respond to your instruction. We've done studies where we have someone teach somebody, and in one they watch their pupil perform. The other condition, they do it themselves. And when they watch their pupil perform, they learn a lot more.

And so, a lot of classes have presentations, where students give presentations to the rest of the class. Say they've done a project, and this is kind of teaching the class. The problem with that approach is the student gives a presentation, never gets to see the rest of the class use what they got taught from the presentation. And so they've really lost an important piece of the benefits of teaching.

Well, talk a little more about that. What more can K-12 teachers do to improve those presentations and not make them just these little rote things that kids have to do and get a little nervous doing?

It really is teaching someone. So it's authentic. You have some responsibility, and then the class has to do something with what you've taught them. Right? I think that raises the stakes. We found that students will spend almost twice as much time studying to teach someone else than they will study to learn for themselves.

Another one: I is for Imaginative Play. Now, some camps might argue, 'Oh, play. There's no real pedagogic value to it.' You make a strong case that imaginative play enhances learning.

Sometimes I worry that because we're so driven by tests, that we think academic outcomes as measured by tests is the only thing that's worth learning. That worries me a little bit. So I went to a play. I took my son to New York for his 30th birthday and we went to a Broadway play. I didn't then take that Broadway play and try and teach him an important lesson that will help him do well on a test. I let him just enjoy it. Same thing with a museum. Same thing with making. Same thing with play. You know, these things are great. You don't want to abuse them to try and make them achieve some other kinds of outcomes, which may not be all that important anyway.

Right, so when you go through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just let 'em enjoy the art, don't necessarily give them a lecture about how Monet changed the art world.

That's right. And, you know, maybe if that lecture helps them develop some connoisseurship about the art, you do it later, but don't go into it thinking, "I'm going to squeeze out physics from this experience." It may take away what makes the experience compelling. You know, sometimes explanation isn't what you always need.

Imaginative play has been a central feature of very many different theories. Freud had a theory of play, sociologists have a theory of play, Piaget had a theory, and they all have a different theory about the function of play. And the evidence, you know, doesn't really say much about whether imaginative play helps any particular outcomes. What the evidence seems to suggest is it's not the play, per se, but it's a lot of the social interaction around the play.

So it's like reading a story with your child. You want your child to start to imagine beyond, but a little bit under constraint, what will happen next in the story. And these kinds of things help the child stop being stimulus-driven.

So imaginative play, you're creating your own world, and you're not being driven completely by the thing in front of you. So a fork can become an airplane. And so, social interaction can really help children develop this a lot, and increase what's called executive function, their kind of abilities to maintain attention, keep things in mind when other things are going on all around them.

Sounds like a shot across the bow against Pokemon Go.

(Laughs). Well, you know, I need to try that to see why everybody finds it so addictive. I don't get it, from afar, but I'm sure if I played it ...

Moving on. S is for Self-explanation — not only reading, but trying to build an understanding of what you're reading that goes beyond the book. Can you give us an example or two?

Boy, thank you for reading so much!

We're NPR. Don't worry, we read the books.

So a tough thing when you're writing is you can't say everything. You just can't do it. You can't connect every idea to every idea. So, like in a biology textbook, describing the heart, it turns out it only tells you about 25 percent of the facts, and it's up to you to put it all together as the reader. Because if the author made all the connections, you'd never finish. It's too painful to read. So the process [is] ... you're trying to make a model of what they're saying, so that you can make the connections yourself. And so self-explanation is kind of a technique to help you do that. You sort of get a new piece of information, and you say, well, how is this related to what I read before? So it said that a fever stops me from sweating. Now why would that help kill bacteria? And it's your task to try and figure that out and try and put it together.

I showed your book to a teacher friend who really liked it. He said this is presented clearly, 26 examples, then the risks and then the sources you use are clearly laid out. How do you want K-12 teachers to use this book?

Yeah, it's interesting. I was talking to some people who thought that the point of the book was to disabuse people of misconceptions about learning. You know, there are a lot of things people do that sort of backfire. If a student is already motivated to do something, don't reward them for doing that, because the reward will start to displace their natural motivation for the task. So people thought that's what it was going to be about, but it's really different.

It's to fire your imagination. There's a lot of different ways that people learn. You know, there [are] different brain systems, and they all have a different appetite. And so I wanted to provide people sort of with the science, and these great examples that come from research, of very effective ways that you could help people learn things, that you might never have thought of. Now it's up to you to be creative and figure out how to put them in play.

Do you think parents will get much out of The ABCs of How We Learn?

Oh, yeah. I think they'll probably start reading it, looking for things about their children, and then the kind of response I've gotten, is people go, "Oh. Oh. I've been trying to learn that way, that's a mistake." So even parents are trying to memorize things, and they have strategies that are sort of ineffective. But I think there's a lot of things you can do to work with children, a lot of ideas, how to move them along. The examples sort of span from very, very young up through college, and so you'll bump into ones that are useful to you.

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