by Theodore J. Marchese
I remember vividly that January day, more than 20 years ago, when I was sitting in my faculty office and in walked the chair of the Sociology department.
"Ted," she asked, "when you were in college, did you take coursework in sociology?"
"Well, no," I said, "I was an English major."
"Well," she said, "maybe as a graduate student, you took courses in research?"
"Oh yes," I said. "All of us at Michigan had to do a research sequence."
"Well," she said, "one or two may be close enough. I just got a phone call from our colleague who teaches the required statistics course for sociology majors and she'll have to take a medical leave this spring. Could you stand in and teach that course for us?"
Through a hurried sequence of events, ten days later I stood in front of that class, supposedly ready to teach statistics. I was, at the time, nothing if not conscientious; I read all the textbooks and chose what I thought was a good one, prepared a careful syllabus, and worked hard on my lectures. During the semester, I think I can say, I was respectful toward students; I tried to get everybody involved, I kept my office hours; I got the homework back on time; we covered every chapter; my tests were tough but fair.
That summer, two or three weeks after the end of the semester, I remember the department head again coming into my office and this time saying, "Ted, you must be an excellent teacher!"
"How's that?" I asked.
"Well," she said, "the computer center just sent me a printout of all the student evaluations for the department's courses and your course had a 4.7 on a 5-point scale . . . the second-highest mark of any course in the whole department!"
And I can hear her again -- it was music to my young ears! -- saying, "Ted, you must be an excellent teacher."
In making choices about what to teach and how to assess it, clarity about the character of learning we intend for students must be an essential bedrock for what we do.
Reflecting back on that experience, I'd have to tell you now that of the 28 students in that class, all but two passed the exams, but maybe only half of them ever really got it. If you gave them all my final exam six months later, perhaps three of them would have passed. It turns out that the next course they took in their department's sequence was one on research methods; but the person who taught that focused on qualitative research and field-based studies, so none of the parametric statistics I taught came to be practiced or applied. If you ask me now about "quantitative reasoning" or "statistical literacy" as possible outcomes, the answer is, 20 years ago I'd never heard of those things.
What these students were good at -- and I played right into this -- was feeding back correct answers; they had mastered the arts of short-term memory and recall. The whole class was a wonderful example of what the British call "surface learning." But very little "deep learning" -- which comes with time, depth, practice, and reinforcement -- seems in retrospect to have occurred.
So I return to the question, Is Ted an excellent teacher? Today, were I up for promotion, I could put together one heck of a portfolio based on that course. I'd have, first of all, letters from students saying how much they enjoyed my course. I'd have a letter from my chair, who'd vouch again, Ted is an excellent teacher. And I'd have that big 4.7, an irrefutable number.
Today I have doubts, as you sense, about whether I did right by those students. But this is my point: I don't think you can answer the question -- Is Ted an excellent teacher? -- without having an idea about the kind of learning that was appropriate from that course. If surface learning (and student satisfaction) will do, the answer might well be "yes"; if a different, deeper character of learning were supposed to occur, then "no."
This insight is the starting premise of my presentation. That is, in making judgments about programs or curricula, about teaching or teachers, the ideas we hold about learning itself will and should be decisive. In making choices about what to teach and how to assess it, clarity about the character of learning we intend for students must be an essential bedrock for what we do.
To take an assessment example, should we use a standardized instrument or short-item questionnaire to find out about our students' learning? Or should we put our chips behind direct faculty readings of student work? Are the forms of "authentic assessment" that Grant Wiggins urges upon us . . . portfolios and the like . . . worth the time and effort? In fact, there's a case to be made for each of these options. But, again, you can't answer questions such as these without being clear about learning itself, and then without consequent ideas about the role of assessment in revealing and prompting such learning.
My intention here, then, is to talk about what usually gets left out -- learning itself -- as a way of helping you think about the choices you make in enacting and assessing undergraduate education. What I propose to do might be thought of as a little tour de terrain, an all-too-brief look at a whole string of conversations about learning that are going forward today across several disciplines.
There is high danger in such an ambition; you will immediately know that I am not a member of most of these disciplines. I am a writer, editor, and sometime teacher. What I'm attempting to provide is a selective, user's-end view of intriguing research, without claiming expertise in any of the things I'm about to report.
Indeed, if I might paraphrase J.L. Austin's famous remark about philosophers for my own role here, I'd say of any oversimplification that follows, "One might be tempted to call it the occupational disease of keynoters, if it were not their occupation."
The Teacher's Wisdom
For most of our professional lives, we've had two ways of knowing about learning.
The first is through a wisdom literature, in which famous teachers tell us how to instruct students. This literature is as old as written history itself. To take three examples, a traditional Chinese proverb tells us, "Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself." Aristotle echoed this when he said, "What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing." Galileo admonished that "You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself."
Reading admonitions like these, you wonder whether 20th-century social science has busied itself proving what's already known.
There's a related but more rigorous literature, of course, in philosophy, about knowledge and knowing, to which I'll return. Here let me add a particular insight from ancient Greece, attributed to Aristotle, namely that there is a difference between knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. If knowledge implies basic comprehension, understanding means comprehending well enough to be able to do the thing, and wisdom reflects dispositions to act wisely.
Two years ago at an AAHE Conference on Assessment & Quality, the systems theorist Russell Ackoff spread knowledge, understanding, and wisdom across a spectrum, and to the left of them data and information. His point was that ever so much of what transpires in undergraduate education today has to do with the left and middle portions of that spectrum -- with data, information, and knowledge -- and that the goal of reform ought to be to move the locus of attention further to the right, toward greater emphasis on understanding and wisdom . . . a point I take as wise.
Wisdom literatures have brought us important insight over the years. Who thought more deeply about teaching and learning than Alfred North Whitehead? I reread his short book The Aims of Education, published in 1929, every two or three years. I think also of the wonderful books on teaching from Gilbert Highet and Kenneth Eble. And, good as any of these, Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach.
In the present century, psychologists have developed a huge literature on learning. Over these years, psychology has been dominated by behaviorist models, then developmental ones -- think of Thorndike, Skinner, and Piaget; more lately it has been cognitive and constructivist (led often by Jerome Bruner). Sadly, perhaps, psychologists and their social science kinfolk have been dismissive of thinkers working from wisdom or humanistic traditions; but they, in turn, are marginalized by humanists (as reductionist) and by "hard" scientists (as "soft"). And when it comes to the practice side of psychological research -- educational research -- then, I'm afraid, we're into true dismissiveness.
All of which is unfortunate in that it can brush aside important insight. There are indeed good reasons not to get carried away with the corpus of ed-psych research, not least because it has too often been theory-free, consumed by measurement, and in love with the trivial. A more important thing to note may be this: Often what it has to say about teaching is based on quite thin ideas about learning itself . . . witness all the studies that took student performance on final exams as the outcome criterion.
Having said this much, now let me say that cognitive psychologists -- in psych departments and ed schools alike -- have achieved understandings over the decades that meet high tests of rigor and generalizability, and that all who teach must heed. Who among us can doubt the importance to learning of feedback and reflection? Of intrinsic motivation? Or doubt the difficulty of teaching for transfer?
One of the most important findings from cognitive psychology surely has been the whole matter of prior beliefs and mental models; let me focus here on that one finding. The insight is simple enough: It begins with the innate need of humans to make meaning out of their experience of the world. So we develop, at quite early ages -- as five-year-olds, for example -- basic sets of ideas about how the world works, what's dangerous, who's friendly, about right and wrong, what to like and how to behave, and so on. The scary part is that these childhood versions of reality tend to get pretty hardwired into the brain and prove quite resistant to change: Once we think we've figured out some corner of the world, we tend to see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear, bending subsequent experience into confirmation. I say "scary" because the existence of prior beliefs can be a major impediment to subsequent learning: The beliefs, after all, may be objectively wrong, or bigoted, or dysfunctional, and block fair and open encounter with the new or different. Very significantly, prior beliefs turn out to be especially impervious to classroom-based instruction, and especially to teaching as telling.
There's a chilling example of this in a video made at Harvard several years ago, called A Private Universe. The heart of it consists of interviews of Harvard graduates on the day of graduation. Picture the Harvard Yard, gowns and bands, proud parents with cameras, and a wandering interviewer asking the new graduates a seemingly simple question: Why is it warmer in summer than in winter?
Our graduates are nothing if not confident. "Well," they say, "let's see, in summertime the Sun comes a lot closer to the Earth and, well, you know, the closer it gets the more heat you're going to have ... right?" Now, mind you, these are students who've taken units on the solar system back in junior high school, who've had three years of high school science, who took physics and/or astronomy at Harvard, and who probably got an "A" in them every time out. Yet they persist in a pre-Copernican view of how the world works. The point of the video is to show how mental models, once formed, are incredibly resistant to change, especially from conventional instruction.
A larger-scale example of this appears this fall in an American Journal of Physics article by Indiana University physicist Richard Hake. It looks at the impacts of instruction on student beliefs across some 62 first-level physics courses, 6,549 students in all, from rural high schools through Ivy universities. At the start and finish of each of these courses, students were administered an instrument called the Force Concept Inventory, a well-developed diagnostic instrument that assesses student orientation toward mechanics . . . it basically looks to see whether people's view of mechanics -- of how the physical world works -- is pre-Newtonian or post-Newtonian.
Many of us, like the students in the 62 courses, tend to carry in our heads naive, commonsensical ideas about mechanics that are pre-Newtonian. Wrong as they may be, these views turn out to be ever so resistant to change by conventional instruction. What the study shows is that in traditional physics courses -- lecture-based, recipe labs, right-answer quizzes and tests -- the impacts on deeper beliefs about the physical world are small . . . about .22 on the instrument's measurement scale. Strikingly, the small-impacts finding held whether the instructor was an experienced "teacher of the year," a brand-new instructor, or anything in-between. Gravity, light, motion, feather vs. pellet in a vacuum, whatever these students believed beforehand was pretty much what they believed at the end . . . notwithstanding all the right answers they produced for exams.
Hake's study is compelling because his set of 62 courses included 41 that were taught in quite a different way, emphasizing more active forms of learning ("heads-on"), problem-based labs ("hands-on"), and immediate feedback through discussion with peers and/or instructors. On the same assessment scale, the gain among students was on the order of .52 -- quite a striking difference, though still a less-than-full victory in terms of changing mental models, which (again) remain ever-so-tough to alter. The good news here, of course, is that smart instruction does work . . . the unhappy thought is that such approaches are hardly yet the norm.
I want to conclude these remarks on wisdom literatures and cognitive psychology by pointing out that both have historically been focused on the teacher, not on learning itself. Even in classic experimental designs -- where you set up a treatment, the teacher teaches a certain way (as in Hake's courses), then you observe student performance as the outcome -- you're basically treating the mind as a black box. At best, the method allows for inference about what's happening in student brains . . . potentially valuable, as when we infer the operation of mental models, but an inference all the same.
What's new this decade is the emergence of a robust, exploding set of literatures in the neurosciences. I use the plural here because brain research now attracts the attention of scientists from at least half a dozen specialties: neurophysiologists, molecular biologists, neuroanatomists, certain chemists and medical researchers, and so on. The big breakthrough, especially this decade, has been the availability of PET scan and functional MRI devices that allow scientists to observe mental activity directly, to take a "picture" of the brain at work. So exciting are the possibilities here that there's been an outpouring of federal funding in support of neuroscientific inquiry. It is the "Decade of the Brain."
With this activity, a veritable flood of discoveries has come forward on the functioning of the brain. These have excited hopes among educators that soon, at last, we'll learn what really happens inside all those student heads and have a scientific basis for teaching.
But, alas, not yet . . . and maybe not soon. When you get neuroscientists together in a room with educators, one of the first things you learn is that there have been a tremendous number of findings, yes, but the meaning of many of them remains in dispute. Another circumstance is that for all the findings, there's precious little theory to connect or interpret them . . . and there's nothing so useful as a good theory, Kurt Lewin taught us. No scientist has yet come up with a coherent set of ideas about how the brain works that would be persuasive and usable for those of us who teach.
No scientist has yet come up with a coherent set of ideas about how the brain works that would be persuasive and usable for those of us who teach.
For the past 18 months I've been a participant in a series of Wingspread conversations sponsored by John Abbott's 21st Century Learning Initiative, which has brought together scientists with educators to try to make sense out of these new literatures. One of the things that I've observed at these meetings, and that I'm glad for, is that neuroscientists are reluctant to generalize from the findings they have so far, to tell us as teachers what we should be doing.
One reason for this is that much of the brain research that's gone on has been done as an aspect of larger projects on the "high-dollar diseases" . . . studies of brain functioning among Alzheimer's patients, for example, or alcoholics; these aren't studies of college sophomores. And, thankfully, good scientists are reluctant to make prescriptive leaps from Alzheimer's to college classrooms.
An interesting thing to me is that the more you get to know the newer brain literatures, how few surprises there are. So many of the findings seem to confirm what we've already known, or at least theorized.
To take one tiny example, if I look out the window and see a tree, our commonsense idea about what's happening is that a picture of the tree comes in through the retina and an image of it forms straightaway on some screen inside our head, just like photography. Well, of course, it doesn't quite work that way . . . there is no "screen" and, more importantly, the mind's image of that tree is far from a simple reproduction of an external reality: 80 percent of what winds up in the brain's image comes from information, ideas, and feelings that are already in the brain, just 20 percent from outside. The learning here is that when we look at a tree, or another person, or hear an idea, the sense we form of it is highly colored by a whole range of prior experiences and emotional dispositions. What we have from the brain researchers, then, seems just to confirm what we knew before about the power of the mental models we carry around in our head.
To the neuroscientist, learning is a whole-person/whole-brain activity that confounds received categorizations.
The University of Oregon's Robert Sylwester argues that we shouldn't be so surprised when neuroscientific findings parallel what we've found as teachers or educational researchers. If I have 28 students in my statistics class, I have a semester-long opportunity to observe 28 brains in operation . . . the inferences I'd draw just from watching what works with them reflect a form of "brain research." It may not be science and it does have its limits, but there's a "wisdom of practice" teachers develop that warrants respect.
None of this is to say, however, that there's nothing new coming out of the neurosciences. I'll present a few summary findings next. Here I want to note that brain science provides us with new ways -- and vocabularies -- for talking about learning. As educators, for example, we've long spoken about how student development in college is a function of the intellectual and affective . . . but these "domains" of an earlier psychology are not the way neuroscientists describe things. They pay little heed, too, to the nice distinctions we educators want to make between younger, college-age, and adult learners, or to our preoccupation with "learning styles"; I've not found one of them who thinks of "intelligence" as a unitary, fixed characteristic of individuals, or who thinks of the brain as an "empty vessel" or computer-like machine. To the neuroscientist, learning is a whole-person/whole-brain activity that confounds received categorizations.
Right alongside the neurosciences, new, hybrid forms of cognitive science have emerged. Lacking a tidy definition, let me proceed with an example, albeit one that conflates a string of actual experiments.
Imagine an experiment in which rats are being raised in a series of five boxes. In the first box, you have a single rat, raised the usual (sterile) way. In box two, you have a rat raised the same way, except that it is given toys to play with. In box three, same idea, except that the rat's toys are changed every week. Box four, same idea, changed toys, but there are several rats growing up together. In box five, you have several rats, rich toys, but each rat is removed from the cage every day and lovingly stroked for 15 minutes. At the end of a time period, all these rats are given learning tasks to accomplish: pushing levers for food, finding their way through mazes, and so on. The finding, when you look at their respective abilities to learn these tasks, is a learning curve that goes up steadily from the first box through the fifth . . . a 25 percent gain in "rat intelligence," if you will, attributable to differences of upbringing. The new cognitive scientists buttress these observations by measurements of brain weight and cortical development in the different rats, and with counts of cells and synapses. What we have in today's cognitive sciences, then, is a new blend of psychology and biology.
At this point you might be thinking, well, we're still talking rats, not students; but it would be hard to get your university's human-subjects committee to approve an experiment that requisitioned sophomore brains for counting and weighing. On the other hand, rats and humans have about 95 percent of their genetic material in common. The real news in these experiments is not just the importance of rich, social environments and of nurture in upbringing but the brain's plasticity,, its ability to realize new capacities in response to experience. Again, none of the neuroscientists I speak with thinks of "intelligence" as an innate capacity fixed at birth. Indeed, the best news (at least for adults my age!) is the evidence coming forth of the brain's plasticity across the lifespan, of human abilities ever to learn, to "effloresce" in creativity in the right conditions of challenge and safety. Early experiences and genetic inheritance are very important; yet all kinds of people are capable of incredible feats of learning through decades of their life. Just how "new" an understanding we should think this is I'm not so sure; but it is a valuable counter to our academic folk wisdom that wants to categorize people early and keep them there.
In the Wingspread meetings I mentioned earlier, there have been a few (brave) souls willing to help construct summary lists of [earnings from the neuro- and cognitive sciences; let me share two such here in abridged form.
The first is from Dee Dickinson, head of Seattle's New Horizons for Learning project, and is based on the work of Diamond of UC-Berkeley. Four of Dickinson's items in summary form are:
Little on this list comes as a surprise. Experiments with the teaching of language, for example, have shown how quickly and lastingly a new tongue is learned when students can hear, live, speak, act, and sing it. Good teachers have always known that speed in producing answers isn't a good indicator of inherent capacity in students. And readers of Daniel Goleman's recent book, Emotional Intelligence, know well the cortex's ties to a powerful limbic system and the social-emotional origins of thinking.
Here is a second list, this one by Geoffrey Caine, an Australian living near San Diego . . . he and his wife, Renate Caine, have made a specialty of translating these literatures for K-12 educators:
One of the things scientists have established pretty clearly is stated next to last on this list: When humans confront a situation they perceive as threatening, their brain "downshifts" . . . higher-order cortical functioning is supplanted by the more elemental limbic . . . the emotions come to rule. The point to ponder -- the Caines make it -- is the high reliance in American classrooms on sticks and carrots, on competition and scarce rewards, an ethos that can engender a mix of student attitudes somewhere between grudging compliance and sullen disengagement. High challenge, yes, they say; high anxiety, no.
My next disciplinary excursion is into the companion fields of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, the latter often associated with the more recent work of Jerome Bruner. There was a wonderful review of Bruner's latest book (questions and all) by Clifford Geertz in the New York Review earlier this spring. Also this spring, Stephen Jay Gould, as you may have seen in the New Yorker, attacked evolutionary biology as an immature, overreaching form of science, as sociobiology in new clothes.
So these fields are not without controversy. But I take the "finding" that follows as at least provocative. It is that natural dispositions and ways of knowing can be identified in the human species, approaches to learning that proved evolutionarily successful over the ages and are all but in our gene pool. In effect, there's a "natural" way of learning for humans. What is it? you say, surely with interest. The answer: apprenticeship.
How the evolutionists get there is by looking back at how humans learned over the course of the 1,000 or so generations of knowable (recorded) history. All prior societies, for example, have had the very problem we confront today, that of how to bring young people up into valued adult roles. The approach of a whole range of societies, across a tremendous number of generations, was apprenticeship. The way people became midwives, stonecutters, artists, shamans, masons, hunters, a hundred other occupations, was through socially organized apprenticeships. That was true right up until the 1840s in England and until the Civil War in the United States, when universal schooling became the new way of preparing young people for adult roles. It's only in the last six generations or so in the industrial democracies that we've had formal mechanisms of schooling. But for the figurative 994 generations that came before, young people learned what they learned through apprenticeship.
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