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Teaching must not inhibit learning

May 28,2023 - Last updated at May 28,2023

Assume for a moment that the doctor has warned you that if you do not exercise, your life will be in danger. Since the exercises she recommends are very specialised for your condition, you must be taught and guided by an expert. You agree. However, by the time you get to your first session, the physical therapist lectures you, making it very clear that he is the expert on the subject, while you are expected to remain mostly silent. Imagine doing that for seven hours a day. Boring, at best. Eventually, you take a test to evaluate your physical condition. What results would you expect to get? 

This is the model by which most schools and universities around the world teach. However, is it right to subject the most important assets of our society (students) to a passive and ineffective process, if we really value learning? 

Unfortunately, there is a counterproductive symbiosis between teachers and students. For an expert, lecturing is much easier than promoting student learning. For a student, listening to a lecture is also easier. In doing so, we inadvertently inhibit the purpose that brought them together: learning.


How did we get into this situation? 


Robert Bjork (Professor of Psychology at the University of Los Angeles), world renowned for his contributions to the science of learning, classifies this challenge as the enigma of the educational system. This occurs when the instructional conditions that cause performance to improve rapidly do not support deep learning and transfer (the latter being the ability of a learner to apply knowledge or skills acquired in one context to a different one). As a result, traditional education based primarily on academic achievement does not prepare students to be effective lifelong learners.

This is because, among other things, learning is complex and difficult to measure, as opposed to academic performance, which is easily measured. While learning refers to relatively permanent changes in behaviour, academic performance refers to temporary fluctuations in behaviour that can be measured or observed during (or shortly after) instruction. Performance is short-term, while learning is long-term. Academic performance leaves students ill-equipped for future success causing too many to have a poor foundation on which to build. What is the problem with this situation? That future has already arrived. We cannot outsource human knowledge (indispensable for critical thinking, effective decision making and career success) to artificial intelligence. Nor are we ready to manage or consume artificial intelligence if we do not learn to optimise our relationship with information. 

Learning must have a purpose, so that it endures and is flexible in its application (transfer). It must provide value beyond a score on a standardised test. It should also provide a certain level of reliability over time and, perhaps most importantly, we must be able to apply what we learn to other contexts for it to have real utility. So how can we teach to produce learning?

Educators should start by limiting their impulse to demonstrate their expertise. In fact, they should assume speaking is a liability as if there is an inverse relationship between how much a teacher speaks and how much his or her students learn. Professors should realise that while lectures can transmit knowledge and foster some learning, they are mostly ineffective and only suitable for a minority of their students. Sadly, the most convenient approaches to teaching (and studying) are highly ineffective for learning. Therefore, the teacher who is leading the classroom by lecturing is inhibiting learning. 

Learning is not a passive "sport", but is quite active. To foster learning, we need to engage students and provoke mental effort. While educators envy the level of engagement that video games produce, it is important to note that teaching shouldn’t aim to emulate video games, which are not designed on principles of learning science but rather on principles of addiction. Furthermore, social media and video games tend to weaken sustained attention (the one we need to learn) while strengthening divided attention (chasing dopamine releases).

Our brain learns by forming associations between what we know and what we want to learn. This is why prior knowledge is such a strong predictor of future learning success and why it is so important to teach students from the perspective of what they already know. Knowledge begets knowledge, but we must place the new information strategically in proximity to the existing knowledge base for it to demand effort and yield success. This also explains why teachers are beholden to the success their predecessors have had in teaching the students they inherit. 

When we lecture, we disable active learning processes and block the possibility of students learning the material deeply and/or being able to make use of it. Therefore, if we want to teach so that our students really learn, we must focus on producing an active learning environment. For this to happen, we must prepare all teachers to be as experts in the academic subject they teach as they must be in the science of human learning. Only then will be able to finally modernise our global educational system.


Javier Arguello is the founder and executive director of COGx, a research and development firm in applied cognitive science. Javier holds master's degrees from Yale and Harvard University and was a research fellow at MIT. [email protected]

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