Nothing has been taught unless it has been learned.
Real learning is a transformative process. It’s a magic combination of motivation, inspiration, understanding, and assimilating. I link it to alchemy, the medieval forerunner of chemistry based on the idea of transformation, change so dramatic that the final product is something entirely different from the original. Learning not only changes the way we think and see the world, it actually rewires the brain.
There is more than one way to achieve learning. Which ingredients will work depends on the personality of a teacher, the personality of a student, context, and many other factors. Through ten years of researching learning and testing what I’ve learned, I’ve discovered many science-backed strategies that can help to learn better.
I don’t try to list everything known about learning in this short article. My focus is on five crucial ingredients that are often overlooked and five ingredients that often get in the way of good learning. I’m confident that if you consider these ten ingredients in putting together your teaching stew, you’ll be a more effective teacher and your kids will learn more.
“We teachers—perhaps all human beings—are in the grip of an astonishing delusion. We think that we can take a picture, a structure, a working model of something, constructed in our minds out of long experience and familiarity, and by turning that model into a string of words, transplant it whole into a mind of someone else.” —John Holt
When it comes to effective teaching, the place to start is a mind shift. Your job is not to fill the kids’ heads with knowledge but to spark curiosity. According to recent research by the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience, once participants’ curiosity was aroused, they demonstrated better learning and retention of incidental and even boring material presented simultaneously.
It appears that being in a curious state of mind changes the brain’s chemistry and also helps us learn and retain information we come across while in that state. So would it promote learning if we somehow linked multiplication tables to Star Wars starfighters? No. According to learning researcher Daniel Willingham, it doesn’t work. When teachers make study material relevant to student interests, it makes students think about their interests and not pay attention to the lesson.
So how do we activate that curious state of mind?
The answer from cognitive science is straightforward: start with a question. Daniel Willingham puts it this way: “The material I want students to learn is actually the answer to a question. On its own, the answer is almost never interesting. But if you know the question, the answer may be quite interesting.”
Yet there is a catch: how you deliver that answer is important. In his book Why Don’t Students Like School, Willingham states that the human mind seems to have a clear proclivity to understand and remember stories. Therefore, wise teachers structure lessons to include four elements of a good story: causality, conflict, character, and complications.
Although most of us intuitively know that stories work, we are so concerned with getting to the answers that we don’t allow sufficient time to plan and tell a good story. “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education,” lamented Albert Einstein, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
- Start with a question to open the information loop. Scientists call it the Completion principle: we seek to complete what is incomplete. When we close the information loop, we feel rewarded. According to Paul Jones-Howard, professor of neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol who leads The Science of Learning class at Future Learn, brain imaging demonstrates that we learn best when the reward centers of the brain are activated.
- Since our brains are hardwired for storytelling, think of your lesson as an opportunity to tell a story. Pick a character (e., fraction, bacteria, 2nd law of motion, country, person, etc.) and then add conflict and complications to move the story forward. For example, the character can be a fraction or a numerical quantity that is not a whole number. The fraction has a goal that propels the events forward. It wants to be whole again or as whole as it can be. The tension can be calculations one needs to perform to solve the problem at hand.
- End the lesson by employing the finer tactics of the Closure Principle. Ending the lesson with closure activities helps kids remember the meaning. My favorite one is to ask Why Do I Care? It pushes my kids to look for a bite-size piece of wisdom that they can carry away from our time together.
“If you listen for the teacher’s reasons why the students should perform these tasks [study assignments, exams, and lots of drill and practice], you will hear a host of narrow, instrumental goals, such as doing well in the class, getting good grades and avoiding failure, or perhaps—if the students are lucky—the value of learning a specific skill for its own sake. But rarely (if ever) will you hear the teacher discuss with students the broader purpose that any of these goals might lead to.” —William Damon
“A powerful purpose is a force unbeatable by anything else in this world.” —Jeff Boss
One of the greatest mysteries of the human mind is its need for purpose. You can have a sizable paycheck, a house, a car, a family, and still grapple with the big questions. Why am I doing this, for what purpose, and how does it matter to anyone?
Kids are no different.
Research among elementary age children shows that kids’ level of meaning in their daily activities was positively associated with their life satisfaction and positive emotions. Having a sense of purpose serves as a long-term motivator for learning and achieving.
So it’s no surprise that kids who find purpose in learning study harder and persevere when the going gets tough. They even voluntarily chose math drills over entertaining games and video. According to Jeff Boss,“Purpose is like a freight train in that its momentum is too difficult to stop after it’s started; it’s too appealing not to continue its pursuit after that journey has begun. Why? Because the allure of attaining purpose (whatever that means) is a powerful force.”
Yet, it seems that a sense of purpose is on the decline among young people. A ten-year study, which looked at over 1,000 school kids, discovered that only one-fifth of them had a sense of purpose.
“When it comes to drawing connections between the two—that is, showing students why and how a math formula or a history lesson could be important for some purpose that a student may wish to pursue—schools too often fall far short.” —William Damon
That’s not to say to say it’s all on the teacher. Kids are responsible for creating a sense of purpose in their lives. But they often need the adults in their lives to guide them. Part of our role, then, as parents/teachers is to help kids see how studying can be relevant to their long-term goals and understanding of the world.
- Encourage self-exploration by asking good questions: What does it mean to have a good life? What does it mean to be a good person? How do you want to be remembered after you are dead? What do you want to be remembered for? For more questions, read The Path to Purpose by William Damon.
- Create opportunities to be inspired, model purpose (what inspires you and why), read inspirational biographies together and look for good mentors (people who emanate a sense of purpose) for your kids.
- Watch carefully and identify the sparks that are already there (What are their interests right now?). Then use your experience to blow the sparks into the flames of passion.
- Passion creates energy and resilience, but it’s not going to last without forward movement. Teach your kids how to make goals and formulate plans to pursue them.
- Teach the unavoidability and even desirability of mistakes. As Dostoevsky said, “You never reach any truth without making fourteen mistakes and very likely a hundred and fourteen.”
“Students who believe that intelligence can be improved with hard work get higher grades than students who believe that intelligence is an immutable trait.” —Daniel Willingham
“Even if [the students with the growth mindset] thought the textbook was boring or the instructor was a stiff, they didn’t let their motivation evaporate. That just made it all the more important to motivate themselves.” —Carol Dweck
A meta-analytic review of over 100 studies found that internal attitude is predictive of performance and that everyone is capable of great things with the right mindset. What’s the right mindset for learning? Carol Dweck calls it the growth mindset, or a belief that you can grow through hard work and use of effective strategies.
The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset, a belief that our capacity for learning and development is fixed.
Some fixed mindset beliefs are:
- Everything is a direct measure of your competence and worth.
- The most important part of who you are can’t be changed.
- If you have to work hard, re-do your work, or ask for help you aren’t that smart.
- If you fail, you’re a failure.
- Success in life means proving that you are smart.
When it comes to learning, a fixed mindset creates a dichotomy: everyone is either dumb or smart. If you are dumb, then there’s not much point in putting effort into learning. And if you’re smart, then you better avoid all challenges that might expose you as incompetent.
Carol Dweck’s research and its implications have been fundamental in understanding how growth mindset improves learning capacity. But how do we convince kids that their attitude matters, that every time they learn something, they become smarter, and, most importantly, that growth mindset is worth it?
If you have ever tried to change the mind of fixed-mindset thinkers, you know how hard it can be. You tell them, “You can learn anything,” and they say, “No, we can’t.” You tell them, “You should try harder,” and they say, “It doesn’t work.”
But there’s a way to teach that abilities can be cultivated and we all can change and grow. It simply takes time.
- You might be tempted to start by printing some growth-mindset worksheets, but don’t do it! Most (if not all) children are bored by worksheets, and they begin to associate growth mindset with boredom. They convince themselves that growth mindset is not for them. They close their mind to it before they even get started!
- The best way to start is with your own mindset. Take a quiz. Do you believe that anyone can learn (even your most difficult kid)? Are you judgmental of your own mistakes? If you say, “I can’t believe I forgot to bring x. What’s wrong with me?” and then tell kids it’s okay to make mistakes, they won’t believe you. Kids do what you do, and not what you say.
- Explain what is meant by brain growth and the difference between growth and fixed mindsets. Sometimes just having this knowledge is enough to inspire kids’ interest in learning more about growth mindset.
- Do frequent 5-10 minute lessons instead of longer sessions once in a while. For example, play You can Learn Anything video and discuss it. Or read a growth-mindset book, like The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes, and talk about it. The Growth Mindset Coach has lots of practical ideas.
- Fixed-mindset people believe that effort is for those who don’t have the ability, and if you fail at something, you must not be that good. Teach your kids to admire effort and failure by reading inspirational biographies. Find some names here: 16 people who worked incredibly hard to succeed and 15 highly successful people who failed on their way to success.
- A growing body of research shows that praising intelligence and ability often backfires. You don’t have to avoid praising kids but do it differently.
- If you are completely at a loss on how to teach a growth mindset, consider investing in a growth-mindset training. Brainology for home and for a classroom.
“People always tell me that their important teacher [in life] set high standards and believed that the student could meet those standards.” —Daniel Willingham
“Sometimes those who challenge you most teach you best.” —Pravinee Hurbungs
If kids don’t learn what you are teaching them, then the material is too advanced, right? You need to go back, make it simpler, break it into smaller units, practice more.
The research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, from the University of Chicago, shows that human beings don’t like it easy. “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…. The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
How do you get kids to stretch?
The Pygmalion effect is an aspect of learning that often gets overlooked. All people, but especially kids, are influenced by expectations placed upon them. “When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.”
We are constantly sending unconscious messages to our kids. An eye roll, a smile, a frown, a pat on the back, a sigh, an involuntary bristling—these are all different ways we involuntary communicate our feelings. It means our internal attitude has the potential to promote or inhibit learning in our kids.
- When you expect kids to do well, you will be leading them toward that goal irrespective of other factors. If you believe that kids are capable of intellectual growth, you will be encouraging it in a variety of ways. The opposite also holds true. If you don’t expect much, your attitude is not likely to be encouraging and may even be discouraging.
- What behaviors do you want to occur? Responsible behavior? Enthusiasm for learning? Growth mindset? Start acting like it’s already true.
- Forecast success. Tell kids you believe that they have the ability to do well. Your belief in them will inspire their success. Say, “This is going to challenge you in a big way, but you know what? You can do it.” Or, “I know this task is difficult, but I’m confident you can do well if you work hard.”
- Kids’ behavior depends on expectations but beware of the nature of your expectations. If your expectations of success are result-oriented, they actually do more harm. “I won because I’m so smart” can quickly turn into “ I lost because I’m so stupid.” To avoid black and white thinking, and to inspire learning and growing, stress effort over results and establish process-oriented expectations.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” —Maya Angelou
“Over the years, however, the research evidence keeps piling up, and it points strongly to the conclusion that a high degree of empathy in a relationship is possibly the most potent and certainly one of the most potent factors in bringing about change and learning.” —Carl Rogers
Think of the best teachers you ever had. What is one thing they all had in common? Were they kind? Were they generous with encouraging words and actions? Did they have a genuine interest in seeing you succeed? Did they want to understand your perspective? At the core of all those things is empathy, an accurate understanding of another’s world and validating it without judgment.
Most people confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy is a concern for someone, accompanied by a wish to see that person better off. When we sympathize, we are communicating “ I wish I could make it better.” Empathy, on the other hand, is feeling the emotions of another person, sharing in the misfortune. When we empathize, we are communicating “I’m here with you. We are in it together.”
Empathy is a requirement for a well-adjusted, stable relationship. Children of highly empathic parents thrive. The patients of empathic health care providers show better outcomes. And empathic teachers cultivate better relationships with their students, reduce behavior problems, and increase their motivation to perform better.
This makes sense.
In any relationship when we feel connected to someone, we are more open to that person’s influence, more willing to learn from him/her, and more interested in cooperating.
Is empathy natural or learned?
Empathy is an art, says Chris Beam, the author of I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy. It can be genius and inborn, but it can also be refined and improved. An American psychologist, Carl Rogers, claimed that empathy could be developed through training. Recent research published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology supports that claim.
So how can therapists, parents, and teachers be helped to become more empathic?
- Start by understanding the difference between sympathy and empathy. Watch this short video by Brene Brown.
- Look through the learner’s eyes. As Harper Lee wrote, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
- Trying to fix someone’s problems is not the meaning of empathy. Empathy starts with listening.
- Empathy = no judgment. Kids don’t need someone to analyze them and point out areas of improvement. They want someone to care about them as they are now.
- Be nonreactive. Trust them, and they will learn to trust themselves to know all they need to be successful in life.
- Get a self-paced training course. In The Art of Empathy: A Training Course in Life’s Most Essential Skill Karla McLaren built on modern brain research, spiritual wisdom, and social psychology to create step-by-step instructions to help you connect with people empathically.
What you shouldn’t do for successful learning.
1. Ditch Memorization Guilt
Memorization got a bad reputation in the modern education, but it’s beneficial. Studies show that a certain amount of knowledge is a prerequisite for more advanced learning. One can’t learn to write without first memorizing letters. One can’t become proficient in math without memorizing some basic math facts.
2. Learning Styles
Don’t worry about matching your lessons to your students learning styles. Even though 82% of teachers believe in learning styles, there is no scientific evidence that teaching to preferred learning style works. In fact, the whole concept of learning styles is a neuromyth. Learning is all about integration. Therefore, the best learning happens through the integration of varied modalities (linguistic, visual, kinesthetic, etc.).
Don’t feel like you need to correct every mistake. Humans come with a built-in corrective system that gets better with use. “The more a child uses his sense of consistency, of things fitting together and making sense, to find and correct his own mistakes, the more he will feel that his way of using his mind works, and the better he will get at it. He will feel more and more that he can figure out for himself, at least much of the time, which answers make sense and which do not. But if, as usually happens, we point out all his mistakes as soon as he makes them, and even worse, correct them for him, his self-checking and self-correcting skill will not develop, but will die out.”
4. Trust the process
“I can’t believe you finished the whole book!” Or “Wow, you got 100% of the questions correct!” It’s so easy and tempting to celebrate results. And of course, you don’t have to minimize achievement, but often effort is more important than results. The process itself is often the best teacher. Children intuitively understand it. Some adults say, “Hurry up and finish” while looking at a child who is seemingly wasting time. Or a frustrated parent may lament, “I am sure he can get this done in half the time.” But that shouldn’t be the goal. Children are naturally process oriented. They don’t want to use your garden shovel in order to dig faster, more effectively. They’re perfectly happy with a dinner fork. The hole might be smaller, but they are learning something new.
5. Learning Opportunities
Don’t turn everything into a learning opportunity. The problem with learning opportunities is that they create a relationship of dependency. There’s suddenly a pressure to deliver results. The kids wonder, am I doing it right? What is supposed to happen? Am I missing something? What is my mom’s/dad’s/ teacher’s expectation here? Not everything has to be educational.
How do kids learn best? We can say that they learn by observing, questioning, exploring, and experimenting, and it would be true. But that’s not the whole story. Every valuable mixture has a few secret ingredients. To supercharge your learning adventure and give it a boost, sprinkle some secret ingredients into your teaching and communicating.
Curiosity motivates kids to inquire and sustains motivation. Purpose gives kids the why for learning and perseverance. Growth mindset helps kids to reach for challenges. The Pygmalion effect gives confidence. And empathy gives them wings.
The above five ingredients came to me through a gradual awakening over the course of the last ten years. I am not a learning expert or a child development therapist. I share my opinions first as a parent and observer and second as a dedicated researcher and deep thinker.
What secret ingredient would you use today?
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