“It is to emphasize the fact, first, that young people in traditional schools do have experiences; and, secondly, that the trouble is not the absence of experiences, but their defective and wrong character – wrong and defective from the standpoint of connection with further experience.” (Dewey, Experience and Education, p. 27)

Dewey was writing about K-12 students, but he begs a question that all levels of education must address: What is the cause of the “wrong character” of educational experiences?

I think the answer is where we place our focus. When we focus on learning – genuine, long-term, durable learning – we create more valuable experiences. When we focus on the content, we miss an opportunity to design an experience.

So where is your focus: content or learning?

It may seem like a semantic distinction. Of course we must address what content our courses should and are required to cover, and of course some learning will happen if we focus on content. So I am not encouraging us to ignore content; I am asking us to consider the experiences we are providing our students with that content.

Many conversations I have with teachers lead to statements such as:

“We have to cover the content.”
“There is never enough time to cover the content.”
“It wouldn’t be fair to my students if I don’t make sure we cover the content.”

This well-intended and noble desire leads us to speed through information in lectures, but to what end?

Focusing on Content Coverage Visual of overwhelming, unorganized contentHowever contrary it may seem, focusing on content is a good way to distract from learning.

By covering all of the content you are working against yourself and doing a disservice to your students.

That may sound inflammatory, but before you close the window, entertain a question: What good does covering content do if the students will not remember it?

Is our goal content coverage? If yes, by all means stop reading now.

I believe that we strive for a deeper and much more meaningful goal: learning. Lasting, deep, and durable learning that can be transferred and applied after our course is long over.

As a teacher I found myself exhausted, frustrated, and lacking purpose as I attempted to cover all of world or American history with classes that had little desire to learn it. The more I tried to convey, the less engaged they seemed to be. The more I presented, the less they seemed to learn.

I take that back: it wasn’t that they seemed to learn less, they actually learned less. I have the test scores to prove it. Dewey outlines why that was the case:

“One trouble is that the subject-matter in question was learned in isolation; it was put, as it were, in a water-tight compartment…it was segregated when it was acquired and hence is so disconnected from the rest of experience that it is not available under the actual conditions of life.” (Dewey 48)

Visual of how higher order thinking depends on prior knowledge and expertise
Researcher Efrat Furst (PhD) uses cognitive-neuroscientific research to help teachers and students better understand learning. Using a series of pyramid visuals, she demonstrates that all learning is built on prior knowledge, and all higher-order thinking is built on the basis of existing expertise.

Engaging with Content

When covering content is our goal, we actually inhibit student learning.

Learning requires engagement. Dewey, the interminable educational philosopher, used the term experiences; we learn from experiences. And, he argued, we are presenting our students with the wrong experiences.

When coverage is the focus, the game is memorization of disconnected facts. Students are very capable of and will express their preference for this type of learning. They are practiced at collecting lists of terms, defining them, memorizing them the night before a test, and then expelling them from their minds in a test of memory that if repeated a month, or a year later would dispel the myth that learning had taken place.

Dewey wrote his apex work Experience & Education in 1938. What emerged in subsequent decades was a school of thought known as constructivism which, in the simplest of terms, means we construct new learning within our minds based on our prior knowledge and experiences with the world. Constructivism has since been irrevocably paired with the term “active learning.” Often, we equate “active” to movement: activities or strategies that require physical activity by the student.

Recent cognitive science has added to the foundation of constructivism. We now know that true learning must be active, yes, but that activity must be within the student’s brain. The act of learning is literally the act of creating neural pathways – so it is very active, albeit not visibly so to the outside observer. Several principles have emerged from this research:

  • Learning that is not recalled (or retrieved) multiple times will be short lived
  • New learning takes some forgetting and a lot of effort
  • Traditional memorization creates fluency, which is to say we recognize material, but do not know or understand it (Make it Stick, or the summary of fluency in Cognitive Science of Studying)
  • Memorization for a test gives little impetus for many students to work towards mastery or truly knowing and understanding new material

These principles spark natural questions:

What is the value in memorizing a fact for a test if the fact will be forgotten within the week?

What is the value of presenting endless amounts of information if it will never be applied to a worthy endeavor?

The challenge that follows is that there is not enough time to do this type of deep learning. We will just have to be satisfied with the little they retain.

No, I believe there is not enough time to waste with memorization and instruction that will simply be forgotten. Again, if they will not remember the content, why cover it? Is it actually more efficient to cover less, with the assurance that they will remember more?

If they will remember 10-20% of a lecture, is it actually more effective to spend longer on less material knowing they will retain 80% of it?

Ebbinghaus_s_Forgetting_Curve_(Figure_1)
Over a century ago the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve established the principle that experience has repeatedly proven: we forget quickly. This graph demonstrates the traditional slope of the “forgetting curve” as demonstrated by Ebbinghaus’ research.

If we reduce our lecture by 20%, and use that time for students to practice, create, and reinforce memory, are we really losing 20% of our content? Would they really have remembered it?

Hence, it is argued that ‘growth’ is not enough; we must also specify the direction in which growth takes place, the end towards which it tends… (36) It is then the business of the educator to see in what direction an experience is heading.” (Dewey 38)

So, with limited time and energy, what is an educator to do?

Yes, consider your content.Visual of clarity through organization of key content

What is the core of your content that, if understood through and through, could act as the framework, the skeleton on which to hang the rest of the content?

What skills must your students learn before they leave your class for the last time – what must they be able to do?

This is where you begin. Authors Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins call it Understanding by Design – in fact that’s the title of their book.

Understanding by Design book cover
Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe details a rationale and a process for designing your class from the foundation of what you want students to know to the process of how they will learn it.

Understanding by Design (UbD) is an instructional planning model that shifts our traditional thinking: begin where you want to leave your students and plan instruction in reverse. Part of this focus is determining not just what content must be covered, but

  • What content is to be learned (Desired Results),
  • How we will know students have learned it (Evidence), and
  • What instruction will be utilized to get them there (Learning Plan).

”This tax upon the educator is another reason why progressive education is more difficult to carry on than was ever the traditional system.” (Dewey 40)

This takes time, energy, and dedication. But if we espouse that the student is the most important person on campus, isn’t it our job to make sure that he or she has the best opportunity to learn in our classroom?

Most importantly: Consider what your students are doing with your content.

I challenge you to consider using some of your classroom time – as little as 10% of the time – on having your students practice retrieving (or calling to mind) the content they should be learning.

Consider this study referenced in Make it Stick:

Students were told a story with sixty concrete objects named throughout. Then subgroups were given tests:

  • No test
  • Tested once immediately after
  • Tested three times following the story

Each group was then tested a week later. The groups recalled:

  • No test group: 28%
  • Tested once: 58% immediately after, 39% after a week
  • Tested thrice: 53% after a week
Graph demonstrating retention of content after one week with various levels of testing
How much did students retain after one week? Based on the study from Make It Stick and most decidedly not to scale…

The authors of Make it Stick refer to the third group as having been “immunized” against forgetting, compared to the one-test groups” immediate results.

It’s called the testing effect: when we are forced to recall information, the act of retrieval strengthens the memory. What it means: testing isn’t just for accountability, it’s a strategy for deeper, more meaningful teaching.

What matters is space and frequency. Too much content over too long of a period and retrieval will not be possible. Too short a period and there will not be enough forgetting to make the retrieval effortful enough.

A few principles:

  • Administering two tests over the course of a semester does not take advantage of the testing effect
  • Students should be asked to retrieve content repeatedly over the course of the semester
  • Retrieval should be low stakes – not without a grade, but not the primary bearing of the outcome for a student in a course
  • Immediate feedback should be provided

Where does this take us?

Obviously we can’t bank our students learning solely on the testing effect. Dewey pushed for a more active classroom. For active involvement of our students in an extreme way. But even if we consider simple changes learning can be impacted in great ways. In a world of boundless information and in a society with the ability to access that information on the device in our pocket, where can we take education? Where can we take teaching and learning?

That’s not a rhetorical question. What say you?

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