Thursday, September 12, 2013

What's Holding Education Back? (Hint: Check Your Assumptions about Learning & Teaching)

Orlando-Ferguson-flat-earth-map edit

The World Has Moved On, But Education Hasn’t 

The world has changed dramatically during the past century. Most domains have changed right along with it, thanks in part to major advances in science and technology. Architecture, for example, has evolved with the invention of new kinds of materials, powerful computer-based design tools, and more sophisticated models of environmental impact.

Modern medicine, with innovations like brain scanners, artificial hearts, and gene therapy, would be virtually unrecognizable to a physician from the 1900’s. We could tell similar stories about the transformation of engineering, agriculture, and even business administration. Take a practitioner from the 1900’s in any of these fields and bring them into the present day and they would be thoroughly bewildered and unable to perform the job.

But what about education? If we transported a teacher from the 1900’s and put her in front of a classroom today, she would be able to take over the class without much trouble. There have been some changes, of course. Whiteboards and projectors have replaced blackboards, for example, and students now use laptops and iPads instead of slates. In World History, there’s over a century’s worth of new material to cover. But changes like these are largely cosmetic. Superficial differences aside, the way we educate today is fundamentally the same as it was one hundred and fifty years ago.

What’s Holding Education Back? 

Why has education stayed basically the same for so long while other domains like architecture and medicine have been completely transformed?

One possible explanation is that there’s simply no room for improvement – that education is already as good as it gets. We’ve explored this in previous posts, though, and based on the evidence I’d say this can’t possibly be true (for example, read this, this, and this).

A second possibility is that we don’t know enough yet – that we are still waiting for the big breakthroughs in science and technology that will enable education to advance the way architecture and medicine have. But the fact is that we already know far more about effective learning and teaching than we actually apply in mainstream educational practice. The root problem does not seem to be a lack of good ideas or proven methods.

I’d like to suggest a third possibility. What if education is being held back by a number of common assumptions about learning and teaching that seem completely obvious to most people but that are nonetheless completely and utterly wrong? What if these assumptions are so obvious and so deep-seated that many people aren’t even aware they are assumptions, and what if education can’t move forward until we surface these assumptions, examine them critically, and get people to revise them?

If this sounds far-fetched, consider these cases from the history of science:

  • Geography & Navigation: People assumed the earth was flat because if you look around it’s obvious to anyone that it is flat. Because of this assumption, sailors wouldn’t sail out of sight of land for fear of falling off the edge. Challenging this assumption freed people up to sail anywhere – it opened up the whole world to humanity.
  • Astronomy: People assumed the earth is stationary and sits at the center of the universe. Just look up in the sky – the earth is obviously holding still and everything else is circling around it (otherwise we’d all feel pretty dizzy, right?). Even after this assumption was challenged and evidence collected to demonstrate how wrong it was, it took a few centuries to bring everyone around. Changing it opened up the heavens to humanity. Space exploration and communications satellites are just two technologies that would not be possible today under the original (obvious but erroneous) assumption.
  • Biology & Medicine: Quite recently – at least as late as the 19th century - people generally assumed that a disease epidemic like cholera or the Black Death could be caused by a miasma – a cloud of toxic air released by rotting material. After all, if there is a bad smell in the air where a lot of people are getting sick, the most obvious explanation is that the air causing the bad smell must also be causing the bad illness. Once again: obvious, but wrong. Public health has improved greatly since people stopped trying to avoid miasma and started trying to avoid physical contact with people who are carrying disease-causing viruses and bacteria.

The list goes on and on…

So - what about education today? Is it possible that humanity is at this very moment living with some assumptions about learning and teaching that are so obvious and so deep-seated that they are not even recognized as assumptions but taken as incontrovertible facts?

I believe we are.

And not just one such assumption – loads and loads of them. And I propose that these obvious, virtually universal, and yet entirely misleading assumptions are a major reason education has stalled while nearly every other major domain of human endeavor has raced ahead. The same way that the flat earth assumption left most of the world unexplored, these assumptions lead us to educate students in ways that leave most of the subject matter unlearned.

These are bold claims. Let me provide a specific example.

It’s obvious to most people that engagement drives learning. It’s a very widespread assumption. In fact, it’s what leads people to take boring materials like math or chemistry flashcards and routinely attempt to inject “fun” into them by adding unrelated cartoons, competitions, sticker prizes, and the like.

But what if that obvious and deep-seated assumption is wrong? What if the learning actually drives the feeling of engagement instead of the other way around? Moreover, what if trying to artificially inject fun into the mix only gives the illusion of successful education – while actually degrading the quality of learning? There are reasons to believe that this is, in fact, the case.

Do Our Assumptions Really Make a Difference? 

You might well ask, "Does it really matter which is true - whether learning drives engagement or engagement drives learning?"

Yes, it matters a lot. To see why, let’s pose a similar question about one of our historical examples: “Does it really matter whether we assume the earth is flat or round?”


If the earth is flat, then we should stay close to shore.
If the earth is a sphere, then we can sail anywhere.


If engagement drives learning then we should be able to produce high-quality learning even if we start with low-quality material by over-compensating with fun.

On the other hand…

If learning drives engagement, then we actually have to start with high-quality learning experiences if we expect to produce high-quality learning outcomes. Instead of “injecting” fun to make the learning happen, we’ll know the learning is happening when we see students engaging deeply with the subject matter itself. In this view, “fun” (or engagement) is not something one puts into the teaching so much as something one expects to see coming out of the learning.

The two different assumptions lead to two contradictory conclusions about how to educate effectively. Assumptions are important because they determine the strategies we use to pursue our goals, and some strategies work much better than others.

As the historical examples cited above illustrate, one way to change the world is to change widespread assumptions that seem obvious to everyone but in fact are simply wrong. It may be that easy – and that difficult – to start bringing education into the twenty-first century.

What do you think?


  1. I'll post more later, but the assumption I wonder about: If you went to school, you are an expert in education. So, our representatives, senators, and pundits make policy that makes it impossible to change schools for the better.

    Disclosure: I attended 4th grade curriculum night last night and not feeling happy about public education today. No joy, no awe, but lots of standards, PARCC, and MCAS, plus incorrect statistics around one year of the new math curriculum producing AMAZING results.

    1. > the assumption I wonder about: If you went to school, you are an expert in education

      Wow - that's a really good one, Stacie. That's like saying if you went to a concert series, you are an expert in musical performance. It's interesting that people generally recognize the problem in the music context but don't recognize the same problem in the education context.

  2. The assumption I wonder about is, "What if education is being held back by administrators acting like it is still the 1900s? What about best practices, proven by evidence, slow implementation, working with trainers, coaches, and mentors who track the fidelity in a learning situation? My theory is that these administrators (who have a degree in administration-sometimes 'school' administration) are holding back some teachers who know how to read the studies and implement the proper practices so as to produce a high-quality learning experience. Get out of their way and let them teach!

    1. As a teacher it would be nice to believe that the solution is for everyone to get our of our way and let us teach; but the fact is that sometimes we don't do a stellar job of teaching. We fall into the traps mentioned in the article, and others. Sometimes I am afraid I am not creating the learning environment my students need and crave. There are stellar teachers, I try to model their techniques. There are also those who have no business being in education, and those who are doing the best they know how...just like every other industry.

      The problem is the former statement...the best they know how. As a teacher it can be easy to point the finger at administrators as well as policy makers. But the old saying goes, for the one finger you have pointing at someone else, there are four more pointing back at you. Yes, I do know administrators who micro-manage, who are so afraid of the high stakes test scores that their reasoning is reactionary. Daniel Kahneman calls this System 1 thinking. We are all prey to this.

      Today I was thinking while driving to work that maybe it is the fault of the media. (Hey, if we're going to place blame...why not share the wealth!) I thought, I KNOW there are great schools where innovative teaching and learning happens every day; we just never hear about those. I even did a mini experiment this weekend and gave myself one hour to find as many "education reform" or "education initiative" focus groups as I could. Well, cyber space sucked me in and it was more than one hour. The problem is there ARE great models, we don't hear about them much (so blame the media). But they must not be working at large scale because our data shows our education ranks among the lowest (so blame the high stakes testing and industry that supports it). Our universities and business leaders cry that we send them students/workers ill prepared (so blame the teachers). Teachers see the circular problem.

      I like what Grant Lichtman says in a TedX video I watched tonight: (Hope it's ok that I posted that link!)

      So...we need to fan the flames of the small innovative fires that ARE burning. Not sure we can do a whole lot, now, to change the high stakes testing machine...but we CAN change how we teach...and we CAN do that in our own classrooms even in micro-managed, or unmanaged, environments. It isn't easy...but Grant Lichtman says it isn't "hard." We just have to check our assumptions of what we think we are capable of doing.

  3. Stacie, I was going to ask you to elaborate about the “if you went to school” assumption… Who said this? I don’t mean the actual person, but was it a school board member, parent, policy maker…? I also wondered if you are in the education system (your reference to the math curriculum night.) I am a teacher; and my children grew up under the shadow of high-stakes testing. Any teacher will agree that assessment is critical for designing instruction; but I also think that all (most?) would agree it is the interpretation of data from the current types of high stakes assessments that makes us sick. Someone sent me a link to read this week; and although the article is nearly two years old, the author of the blog points to your thoughts, I believe: “It raises fundamental questions about the relevance of the data we are using to make life-determining decisions about our children. If the questions being asked on tenth grade tests do not correspond to skills that our students will need in their future careers, how can we use this data to determine who gets a diploma or who ought to go to college?”

    I am not the type to JUST gripe about a problem (yes, I DO gripe); I am also driven to find solutions. The solution to the data problem (misinterpretation/misuse/misrepresentation…) seems easy enough for most people I know to understand. But it seems to me those of us who do understand haven’t found a way to communicate this to those who hold the keys to change. I have felt for many years that it has to be grassroots, in big numbers, with constant “pushing” from many and varied sources. The current education “machine” is well armored and defended. I acknowledge that those who create new “AMAZING” curricula, assessments, and policies believe in their work; and I would hope they do or why bother to create it?! Getting anyone to change their mind about something they hold as valid/true (but isn't)is very, very difficult. I think it would help greatly if we each kept a little index card in hand at all times with a list of logical fallacies. I guess I should go make mine now! (PS, It DOES help me to know there are other sane voices in the world!)

  4. In language learning the problem is the same. What holds it back in the mainstream are 1) teacher trainers who replicate what they know, rather than look for advances 2) teachers who have become comfortable with what they do (and would prefer to stay with what they know) 3) language learners who prefer to stay with what they know as the other is an unknown.
    It will take people who make a stand and show that other ways get better results for all. is me making a stand! :-)

  5. In my twitter feed today was a post by Michael Haberman of the Huggington Post. I am not commenting on political opinions, and can't address whether Mayor Bloomberg moved education forward, but Mr. Haberman nails it: " one mayor, principal, or teacher can transform our schools alone." It will take corporations (and other stakeholders) funding innovative models of learning, parents being involved, teachers digging deep, administrators not afraid to take risks, politicians recognizing assessments are necessary but not in the way we are currently using them, universities looking at their pre-service curriculum to see if it is really providing the background for what teachers need...the list continues. No citizen is exempt or excused from taking the baton and doing something to provide our children with the education they need and deserve.

  6. I am intrigued by the concept that high-quality learning experiences actually initiate engagement instead of the other way around. If the lessons we provide can sustain and build on student engagement, will students actually want to immerse themselves in complex thinking through their own volition? I would welcome students with desire to drive their own learning experience, but I think most teachers would feel like there was too little accountability. Teachers would like to give students freedom to engage with compelling subject matter, but many do not know how to keep track of student progress and how to scaffold the learning of topics they do not understand deeply themselves. They need to see and experience lessons that drive student engagement so they have a frame of reference to know what high-quality learning really looks like. I'm not sure we all agree what "high-quality learning" looks like anyway. That's another assumption we should question.

    1. Hi, Vicki.

      You make some great points.

      > I would welcome students with desire to drive their own learning experience, but I think most teachers would feel like there was too little accountability.

      I would be interested to hear more about your thoughts on this. I don't see any reason that we can't design for both intrinsically motivated learning and accountability at the same time. I have been involved with the design of more than one learning platform that achieves both simultaneously.

      > Teachers would like to give students freedom to engage with compelling subject matter, but many do not know how to keep track of student progress and how to scaffold the learning of topics they do not understand deeply themselves.

      Important point! Modern learning science embodied in usable technologies for teachers can help a great deal with these issues. For example, a well-designed adaptive curriculum can scaffold the teacher's teaching just as well as the student's learning.

      > I'm not sure we all agree what "high-quality learning" looks like anyway.

      Another good point. There is probably quite a bit of agreement on what "low-quality learning" looks like, though, yes? Memorization of disparate facts (times tables, periodic table of the elements, Presidents' names, etc.) and procedures (addition, subtraction, multiplication, essay writing, etc.) without understanding is generally a symptom of low-quality learning. Brittle knowledge that isn't retained beyond the final exam and problem solving skills that fall apart completely when a student tries to solve a problem outside the context of the classroom are very likely signs of low quality learning.

      More generally, we should be able to agree that any learning that fails to meet the explicitly intended learning objective (where there is one) is by definition falling short of "high quality learning design."

      Do you agree?

  7. Over the course of this semester (I am a graduate student at UT Arlington in the Mind, Brain and Education program.) I have come to realize how much assumptions play a role in our daily decisions. I read this blog post back in September and recently read it again, but now I see it through new eyes.

    >Assumptions are important because they determine the strategies we use to pursue our goals, and some strategies work much better than others.

    I couldn’t agree more. This statement highlights why I have found William Powers’ Perceptual Control Theory so powerful. Here are a couple of assumptions I have noticed exist in education.

    Assumption 1: Learning is easy ( which leads to more assumptions). Therefore…

    -If it takes longer than the average to learn a concept, then something must be wrong. There must be some learning disability at play.

    -The leaders of learning (teachers, curriculum specialists, administrators) should be able to successfully implement new educational programs or initiatives after having these concepts explained to them over the course of a few, or sometimes even one professional development session.

    -If student are not learning as quickly as desired, someone else is to blame (the teacher, the parent, society, the lazy student, etc.).

    I think the 'learning is easy' is an assumption very few talk about. I think this is a belief so deeply embedded in our educational culture that we don’t often stop to make ourselves conscious of it. If and when we do, we realize just how preposterous it is.

    Our brains are pattern recognition machines and we learn through those patterns. Learning happens all the time, without direct instruction. We are constantly learning through our life experiences. Using such terms as “learning” brings me to another assumption in education.

    Assumption 2: In education, we often use such terms as rigor, engagement, learning, knowing, and understanding without ever making sure we all have the same working definition.

    Whether the learner is a child or an adult, it has become apparent to me how very important it is to design learning experiences that make the learner’s perception visible and therefore measureable. In making perceptions visible, we are then able to base decisions on something closer to fact than the fictions contained in the assumptions upon which we too often base our decisions.

    1. Aimee,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You make some excellent and important points.

      In particular: I agree that "learning is easy" is a great example of what I am talking about in the post - it's a deeply held but incorrect assumption that is very widespread and has consequences for how we educate both children and adults (you did a nice job describing some of those consequences).

      The "learning is easy" misconception takes many forms. One that I see all the time is that people tend to mistake "mere exposure" with "learning" - as in your example from teacher professional development.

      Consider the following familiar examples of statements an exasperated teacher (of any kind) might make:
      "How do they not *know* this? We just *covered* it last week!"
      "I can't believe they don't *understand* this material - I know they *saw* it last year..."

      When I hear these kinds of statements I pay close attention to the language being used. Both of these examples illustrate the problem of mistaking "mere exposure" with "learning." In the first case, the assumption is that coverage (exposure) = knowing (learning); in the second case, the assumption is that seeing (exposure) = understanding (learning).

      One thing I find peculiar is that in certain areas like music and sports people don't seem to generally make this assumption the way they do in academic subjects or professional development. If someone were to say "I can't believe these children can't play this Mozart sonata - I just showed them the score last week!", most people would consider that person to be off their rocker. The question is, then, why do so many people find nothing wrong with similar statements like "I can't believe these children can't figure out problems involving place value - I just showed them that last week!"

      Learning is hard, not easy. I agree that education would be better if we could get everyone to recognize this fact.

  8. On assumptions...
    I teach Language Arts in a public school, and am a graduate student in the Mind, Brain, and Education program at UTA. As teachers, we want our students to be engaged in their learning. We assume if our students are engaged, they are learning. But what does engaged truly mean? And, if they are engaged, are they truly learning? We do know if students are not engaged, it is a major reason for disruptive behavior, possible truancy, and low academic success. There are a few types of engagement. Behavioral in which a student participates in activities: emotional when a student has positive attitude toward school and learning; and cognitive when students “invest” in their learning (Fredricks et al., 2004).

    Can we safely assume since a student’s behavior is compliant, they are actively thinking about the material? Just because there is a “hands-on” activity in the classroom and a student is interested, it does not always mean the student’s brain is engaged. Following the rules is teacher-directed: does the student also have a goal?

    If one “feels good” about school, does this guarantee learning? If all students are made to feel successful, there may not be any impetus to be challenged or master concepts when failure is not possible. Should we pass Johnny to the next grade level so his self-esteem won’t be hurt? A basketball game is enjoyable (especially if your team is winning), yet this does not mean any high order thinking is going on.

    Cognitive engagement appears to mean learning is indeed going on. However, only with practice and the transferring of a particular concept into another situation will ensure learning has indeed taken place. In this instance, a student probably has a purpose to learn to reach their life goal(s), short or long-term. We may safely assume this student values education and learning.

    Students truly become engaged when the tasks they do at school have a purpose. Creating a goal through a problem presented in class may be an answer. Make what a student is to be learning meaningful to them. Is this always possible? Probably not. However, along with the student being engaged, it is of the utmost import the teacher be engaged. As teachers, are we honestly excited about what we have to offer our students? I had a high school English teacher I will never forget; in fact, Mr. Farrer is the reason I became an English teacher. Every day, he stood before our class looking as if he had never seen such a class of wonderful students before! Are we modeling engagement with what we are teaching - are we excited about it? No, we cannot always be “on.” But we can do the best possible with each day. Perhaps we should concentrate on providing a problem (high quality experience) which will lead to a student goal, which in turn can lead to engagement, self-regulation and lifelong learning.

  9. Hello, Sharon. Thanks for sharing your reflections on this important (and complex) set of questions.

    As you rightly point out, "engagement" is a multi-faceted phenomenon. And there are many subtleties where student engagement is concerned. For example, if a student is not engaged in a learning activity, then they probably are not learning very efficiently or effectively through that activity. However, if a student does appear to be engaged, then we don't necessarily know if they are learning efficiently or effectively. So while the lack of engagement is a red flag, the presence of engagement cannot necessarily be interpreted as a sign of educational success.

    You are also right in pointing out that the relationship between engagement and learning is a complex one.

    In particular, many people and institutions tend to over-rely on educational process measures to determine educational success - this includes measures such as "student seat time" as well as informal measures of student engagement. In fact, these educational *process* measures are both very poor measures of learning outcomes - which are educational *products*. It's like using baking time and oven temperature (baking process measures) to judge the quality of a cake instead of actually tasting the cake (measuring something about the product).

    > However, only with ... transferring of a particular concept into another situation will ensure learning has indeed taken place

    This is indeed a good measure of the quality of learning outcomes - measuring how well a student can apply learned knowledge in a novel situation (knowledge transfer). We don't do it much in schools today. I think we should, and that doing it would change the game pretty dramatically.