Each time my kid sits for her exams, I often deliberate on ‘how can I value-add in her learning to make it more long-lasting and durable?’ As I mentally spar with this thought and evaluate my own personal learning over time, increasingly I have come to realize that the learning strategies that we deployed as students hold no longer good today. In fact, even the teaching strategies that the current teachers experienced when they were students have turned obsolete. Unquestionably, the students today are much sharper than what we were when we were their age, but we would be naive to perceive this to be the sole impact of technological exposure. We may also have the disposition to believe that the standards of teaching in our education system are declining but before we get all apoplectic about this, we must take into cognizance that research suggests otherwise. The reasons are more individual rather than systemic in nature and it only demands that our learning-teaching strategies need to evolve, as, with time, the education has not gotten worse only that their goals have become loftier.
In 2017, Greg Duncan, one of the most influential education professors and economists in the world, along with other researchers reviewed around sixty-seven early childhood programs that were meant to boost academic performance. In that study, they observed that the impact that these programs had on students had a ‘fading out’ effect i.e. the temporary academic advantage tended to diminish or completely vanish over time. The reason they cited was that mostly the education programs are ‘closed’ or ‘blocked’ in nature i.e. they taught skills by way of repetition of procedures. That is, practicing the same thing repeatedly, employing the same procedure to each problem. This had a reverse effect on long-term learning.
Duncan’s research team concluded that in order for the impact to have lasting benefits, the programs should instead focus on an ‘open’ or ‘mixed-practice’ approach i.e. focusing on learning under varied mixed conditions bolstering flexibility in the knowledge to make it stick. We all know of people who were academically brilliant in our college days but over time we saw people who were not so academically brilliant become far more successful. It’s not that the academically brilliant student’s skills faded with time, it’s just that the rest of the world caught up with them later.
Deep learning entails not fast but learning slowly
It was in the Industrial age when people got paid for doing procedural repetitive tasks. But that was decades ago. Increasingly today, individuals get well-paid not to solve the mundane but instead to solve problems that are unexpected and complex in nature. This shift has put novel and stringent demands not only on our education system but also on our individual learning strategies.
The trouble is that most of the teaching that we impart to our kids or that teachers teach kids is scaffolded on the idea that we wish to give a head start to children, fast and easy. However, studies reveal that actual learning follows an inverse relationship with speed. Giving a head start may come fast but enjoying the lasting benefits of learning is a slow process. In other words, teaching a kid to read early may seem temporarily impressive but teaching them to look for clues and connect the dots by understanding what they read can be far more long-lasting. Or teaching a kid how to walk early may look cool but there is no evidence that rushing it matters as eventually everyone is going to learn it anyway.
Often when kids come to us asking solutions to problems we have a proclivity to say “let me show you a faster and easier way to solve this problem.” As humans, we are pretty adept at figuring out ways to do the least amount of work in order to solve something. In this no-time-to-waste day and age, we all fall into this trap. Though it may be clever and smart to find a faster and easier way when it comes to learning concepts that strategy can backfire. Instead of trying to find an easy fix, grappling on the problem with some amount of confusion and utilizing one’s mental faculties on a particular concept not only will facilitate a deeper understanding but shall make that learning more durable, even if it means coming up with the wrong answers immediately. Studies show that the more confident the learner is of their wrong answer, the better the information sticks when they subsequently learn the right answer. As parents we may feel fairly confident in our child’s progress right now, but how well can we judge the impact on future learning?
Progress shouldn’t happen too quickly unless you want that knowledge to evaporate at a time when it may matter the most and be needed the most.
Cognitive psychologist Nate Kornell says “What you want is to make it easy to make it hard.”
Long-term learning entails a Struggle
A study conducted in one of the states in the US, had researchers read out lists of words to its subjects, who were then asked to recite the lists - immediately, or after a pause of fifteen seconds, or fifteen seconds after solving a simple maths problem. At first, the subjects who were asked to recite immediately after hearing them did the best, and the subjects who had to solve a simple math problem and then recite the lists fared the worst. But later on, after this was done and just when all the subjects thought that this exercise was over, surprisingly a pop-quiz was thrown at them – to write down every word they can recall from the lists. Suddenly the subjects that performed worst before did the best. The study revealed that short-term rehearsals i.e. immediate recital or a recital after a fifteen-second gap purely gave short-term benefits in retention of knowledge. The subjects whose minds had to struggle to hold the information i.e. they had to solve a simple math problem before the recital of the words, performed best under the sudden new twist. They concluded that this mental struggle to retrieve or hold information primes the brain for deep learning.
Educational economists say that teaching or learning which creates a short-term struggle facilitates durability. We often tend to give up on our learning if we are balked at by the feeling of frustration. However, studies indicate that the feeling of frustration that one experiences in the course of learning is a good sign in the process of long-lasting learning. This is precisely the reason the best teachers we encounter during our student years are usually the ones that make their courses difficult and frustrating to learn, as they broaden thinking and produce students with a deeper understanding of their material.
(I bet you haven’t forgotten the lessons taught by the teachers who you thought were a pain in the ass!)
Even in the professional world, each particular skill receives a short period of intense focus, and then we move on to the next thing, never to return to the previous. We face the same problems day in and day out and we solve them employing the same procedure repeatedly. But be it blue-collar or white-collar workers, chemists or physicists, doctors or therapists, entrepreneurs or businessmen, kids or adults, the most successful problem solvers (and deep learners) are successful because they spend a substantial amount of mental energy in figuring out the problem they are facing before coming up with any strategy, rather than diving-in with memorized repetitive procedures.
Eminent psychologist Robert Bjork who coined the phrase ‘creating desirable difficulties’ in the context of deep learning goes on to say that -
“The most basic message is that teachers (and parents) and students must avoid interpreting current performance as learning. Good performance on a test during the learning process may indicate mastery, but learners and teachers (and parents) need to be aware that such performance will often index, instead, fast but fleeting progress.”
Notes & References:  Learnings & references from David Epstein’s book Range – How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized world