Four Steps to Developing Science of Learning Capacity at the School Level
These steps help demystify the science of learning and encourage gradual adoption—one strategy at a time—of its findings from various fields.
More recently, an EdWeek survey found that six out of ten elementary teachers are still employing debunked literacy strategies, and a 2019 survey found that over 75% of teachers polled believed in disproven strategies that directly contradict what we know about learning.
How should we approach the science of learning as schools grapple with the dawning realization that what we know about how students learn has changed and that teaching probably needs to change as a result?
With the growing application of increasingly popular strategies like retrieval and spaced practice, there has been an explosion of interest in recent years in how science findings can inform classroom practice. However, despite the fact that the majority of these scientific findings are not brand-new, widespread acceptance is still sluggish, and many of these concepts are only now entering teacher education programs.
Simply put, the majority of educators did not receive this education.
Since the term “science of learning” has evolved into a catch-all umbrella term that encompasses findings from cognitive science, neurology, psychology, and other related fields, it should come as no surprise that some teachers may be legitimately intimidated by it. There’s a lot to talk about. Concepts can become gimmicky when reduced to a strategy-of-the-week approach—another instructional fad that will soon fade. However, these worries are unaffected by top-down introductions or directives from well-meaning administrators.
Over the past few years, a number of Bronx high schools have investigated a different strategy: assisting educators in enhancing their instruction by concentrating on minute actions that utilize these concepts supported by research. ILTs, or instructional leadership teams, were formed in schools: small groups of experienced instructional coaches, administrators, and teachers. These teams engage in a four-step process during weekly meetings to support the gradual adoption of the science of learning, one common strategy at a time.
1. Learn about science.
Team members are much more likely to incorporate a strategy into their instructional practice when they understand why it works.
Members of ILT spent several months studying concepts from the science of learning as a first step. Members of the team took the time to gain a deeper understanding of the cognitive science behind what makes strategies successful rather than focusing briefly on one specific strategy to implement.
Several primers, such as Deans for Impact’s 2015 brief on the science of learning and Barak Rosenshine’s 2012 article on the principles of instruction, served as the foundation for the explorations of various teams in the Bronx. The first and longest step, regardless of the resource used, is to investigate the “why” or cognitive science aspect.
The teachers started experimenting with new teaching methods in their classroom as part of this investigation. At the weekly meetings, they shared their challenges and successes. They used Google Docs to run “rolling agendas,” which allowed them to record their weekly conversations in real time.
2. Divide a single strategy into distinct components.
Teachers choose a single strategy to practice implementing across all of their classes when the team is ready. They work to break down the strategy into its component parts and try to faithfully implement each one.
The metric of “feeling ready” is deliberately ambiguous. Some teams might be motivated by their findings and quickly decide on a plan to implement throughout the school. Others may be more cautious, particularly if these concepts are brand-new to them. It is essential, in this instance, for ILT members to acknowledge their function as both instructional leaders and open-minded experimenters evaluating the viability of these concepts for their school community.
For example, the ILT at the Bronx’s Secondary School for Violin and Dance recognized the smaller than usual test methodology as a common practice they needed to advance all through the school. Mini-quizzes are a type of retrieval practice in which teachers ask students a series of short questions for the first five minutes of class. These deceptively simple retrieval techniques have been shown to significantly improve content retention.
The ILT began by examining and dissecting the fundamental characteristics of the mini-quizzes:
-The quizzes would not be graded because the objective was to support retention rather than hold students accountable, lowering the stakes.
-At least one of the questions would have to be about something learned that week, another about something learned in the previous unit, and another about something learned earlier in the year.
The quiz should not exceed five questions and should not take more than five minutes to complete.
3. EVALUATE THE METHODOLOGY.
Members then attempted to faithfully implement the strategy in their own classrooms after it had been identified and broken down into its component parts and characteristics. Since a new strategy never works out as planned, team members frequently considered this an essential step.
In the case of the mini-quiz pilot, five questions in five minutes proved to be too much, so members of the team reduced the number of questions to no more than three or four. Additionally, they restricted the number of quizzes to twice per week.
Team members observed one another during this step to observe the strategy in action. The team was able to establish a sense of openness and a common goal by visiting the classrooms of their colleagues. Seeing it for oneself ended up being undeniably more gainful and strong of the whole group’s test-drive of the arrangement than hearing criticism from a colleague about how they thought the pilot was going.
4. UP THE PERFORMANCE.
The ILT presented the strategy to the entire faculty once members were confident in their comprehension of the strategy’s components and its application in their own classrooms.
Successful ILTs followed a version of steps one through three with the larger faculty rather than rushing through this step. Team members first shared their own discoveries about the science of learning during faculty meetings, and then they presented the selected strategy and its components in subsequent sessions. ILT members supported their colleagues and discussed how things were going by facilitating breakout discussions and interclassroom visits over the following few weeks.
This marked a significant change from how many ILTs had previously supported colleagues. Keep in mind that the goal is to help peers learn and use a strategy that science has already shown works. This is more about how to implement a strategy that we know works than it is about what might work for students.
That is a small but significant change. Instead of having to come up with hypotheses and gather data to back up a theory, it lets faculties concentrate on a tried-and-true teaching method. I’ve found that giving teachers a spreadsheet to keep track of progress quickly dampens enthusiasm for new instructional ideas. Anecdotally, teacher meetings record student impact measurements.
Adapting our teaching methods takes time because many of these ideas are unfamiliar to many of us. While the Bronx ILTs’ four steps do not provide a quick fix, they do represent a real way to help an entire school’s faculty advance in the science of learning.