Instruction is Dead

If you, like me, have spent the many years of mandatory (and optional) schooling sitting at a desk and listening to a teacher ‘teach’, and you now wonder whatever happened to all this information you ‘received’, we have good news and bad news:

The bad news is, we didn’t really learn much of any of this. Really not. It was mostly good until test time, and then it was over. Done. Basically, hugely wasted time. And immensely wasted opportunity.  13 years in K-12, then college and grad school(s), and what remains? It hurts to think about it.

Neuroscience now proves that the 'Sage on Stage' model fails to deliver long-term learning. Intensely experiential, effortful models do that.

But there is also good news: We now know exactly why we did not learn much. Better yet, we know how to really, really learn! Seriously. Neuroscientists have understood enough – maybe just enough still – about the way the brain records, stores and retrieves information, to be able to tell us, conclusively, that… the methods we have been using, the “Sage on Stage” instruction model does not result in ‘real’ learning.

Here is what we know:

  • What does ‘learning’ actually mean? This is the first key question. If we believe that learning = memorizing until we pass the test, then we are ok. But, in reality, to be of any use in life, learning must be defined as a rather permanent acquisition of knowledge and connection to other relevant pieces of knowledge to form densely interconnected networks of memories.
  • So there are two keys to learning: Long-term memory, and connectedness.
    • How do we form long-term memories? This is the first huge foundation of learning. The brain must convert all these short-term memories of facts (read ‘test-readiness’) to long-term memory. How? Really, the magic of ‘changing our minds’. Literally, neurons make new proteins in their nucleus to build new connections to existing neurons. i.e. we do physically change our brains.
    • What does ‘understanding’ mean? It means connecting this new synapse to many more neurons (i.e. more stored information). The more connections, the deeper the understanding! The more complex the network we build, the deeper the understanding. Think about a period in history and connect it to as many civilizations around the earth as you can. What was going on in 500BC in the world? Why? In 1250 AD? Why? Think about a Carbon atom and how it is different from an atom of Nitrogen. What, a difference of one proton/electron, neutron makes it a completely different thing? Why? How exactly?

Learning = converting short-term to long-term memories and connecting to multiple other memories = physically changing our brains.
And, now for the most important part:

All this frantic new ‘building’ activity, cannot happen while you are sitting in the auditorium listening. Why? Because listening is too passive. No effort required. No connections made. Building synaptic connections and new synapses takes effort. Work. So, to learn you must work the brain quite hard.

How do you learn then? I think we all know: You learn by using multiple brain activities: DOING is huge. Listening. Writing. Reading. Asking. Thinking. Remembering.

Doing and asking questions are the two biggest contributors to learning.

Good teachers will make you ‘do’ a lot. Practical, experiential, in-the-real-world work. And they will be asking you a lot of questions. They will not be spouting off answers to unasked questions (=broadcasting information). They will, instead, be asking you to think; to search your memory cells; to connect to previous data; to work your brain. To make it highly emotional.

Emotion makes memory.

It seems, emotions make the best memories. All learning should be highly emotional – exciting, tense, stressful, joyful, rewarding, risky, challenging. You will remember it.

If you had teachers like that, you should be grateful.

Instruction is now dead. We must demand better teaching. Deep experiential, question-based teaching.

Socrates knew that. His entire teaching was the asking of Questions. No lecturing. It was about the Questions You Ask. Ahhh, what it must have been like. We missed it!

Marina K
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