Lessons from The Science of Learning in the Field

Lessons from The Science of Learning in the Field

By Megan Sumeracki

What’s it like to help people implement the science of learning? It’s hard but powerful. Plus, there are some clear lessons learned like making sure not to try to implement too many new strategies at once.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Over the past few months, I have had the pleasure of working on a Science of Learning grant through the Learning Agency, funded by the Overdeck Family Foundation (see here). Through this grant, professors and researchers with expertise in the science of learning have been paired with K-12 teachers across the country. Each team is then assigned a strategy that has been shown to be effective through research, and we work together to help implement the strategy in the classroom.

I’m on a team with two middle school math teachers at Sky View Middle School in Leominster, Massachusetts, and another team with an English and Biology teacher at Douglas High School in Memphis, Tennessee. The middle school math teachers and I are working on implementing interleaving, which is the concept of switching between ideas or problems during practice. (You can learn more about interleaving here.) With the high school English and biology teachers, we’re implementing dual coding, which is the concept of combining words and visual representations. (You can learn more about dual coding here.)

I liked this idea a lot when it was originally pitched--putting together teams of researchers and teachers to bring expertise from different perspectives and knowledge bases, is just brilliant. Now that I’m actually getting to experience it myself, I am loving this project even more! Meeting up with teachers, talking about teaching practices, and getting to observe live classroom interactions has been amazing. I am learning so much, and my immense respect for K-12 teachers is only growing. In continued follow-up with the teachers, it sounds like they are enjoying the project as well and learning a lot. (Bi-directional communication for the win!)

It is probably not possible for everyone in education to do this – as much fun as we’re having, I know the logistics are complicated, time consuming, and expensive, and I definitely do not want to gloss over this part. But there are definitely common themes that I have noticed keep coming up as we all work together, and others may benefit from these.

I’ve noticed that it seems to work really well trying to implement one effective study strategy at a time. Can classroom instruction benefit from multiple evidence-based strategies? Of course, and other strategies, like adding in retrieval practice and spacing, keep coming up in the teams as we talk about the primary strategy (i.e., interleaving and dual coding). However, when many things are changed all at once, it becomes extremely difficult to figure out exactly what is working well for the classroom and what is not working as well as it could be. Complete overhauls are also very time consuming and unrealistic for most teachers, and attempting to do so may become overwhelming and lead to failure. Rather, it is best, in my opinion, to start with a few small changes that are likely to have a large impact on learning in the classroom. This way, teachers can monitor what is working well and what needs to be modified, and can continue to make small changes during each new year. Working with one strategy at a time and really learning this strategy falls in line with this method.

We also must consider the ever-present issue of time. Tackling one strategy at once, as mentioned above, does help with instructor time. But time is a big issue. It’s not just an issue of when to find the time to plan all of these extra learning strategies, but also an issue of when to find time in the classroom to add in all of these strategies! It is important to remember that these effective strategies are, in the long run, more efficient than less effective strategies. So, doing these strategies now can save a lot of time later.

Further, all of the teachers on my teams have noted that when looking at their own teaching practices they are already using the strategies in some ways. For the middle school math teachers, interleaving was already a part of some of their instruction, but now after learning more about the strategies and working on our teams the teachers can use interleaving sooner, more often, and more intentionally.

The same goes for dual coding. The high school biology teacher uses dual coding a lot, but really wants to focus on intentionally integrating the visual representation with the verbal one. The high school English teacher realized that she often uses graphic organizers to help students organize their writing. Dual coding is not just about pictures, but includes many visual representations of information. The English teacher is working on scaffolding the graphic organizers to help the students be able to create these organizers on their own when faced with a writing assignment to prepare for more independent writing. We’ve learned that it can be extremely helpful for teachers to start by looking at what they are already doing in the classroom, find where threads of the learning strategies already exist, and implement them more intentionally. (This saves on prep time, too!)

Finally, all of the teachers across the two teams have been talking about student awareness. The teachers are emphasizing the importance of making the use of the strategies clear to the students in their classrooms. Given that effective strategies lead to more difficulty than less effective strategies, it is a good idea to make the students aware of the challenge and help them embrace it. Over the next few months of the project, I hope to explore student awareness of learning strategies being used in the classroom more!