Teaching history and geography:
Editor's Note: According to a 2012 Education Week report* about "brain-based education," the situation has changed little since the following article was published in 2001.
Two kinds of research
Learning implies the acquisition of knowledge from experience, while thinking involves the conscious processing and use of knowledge. For something like a hundred years now, researchers have been using scientific methods to explore how people learn and think. Much of this research comes from the branch of behavioral science called cognitive psychology which "focuses on how people perceive, store, and interpret information."1 Cognitive researchers generally obtain their findings by studying the behavior of animals and humans during controlled experiments. Some research findings have been around long enough, and have been replicated enough, to attain widespread acceptance in both the psychology and education communities. Newer findings typically require a period of scrutiny and discussion before they become accepted and widely circulated.
In recent years there has been a great deal of interest among educators in a newer kind of research coming from a branch of the biological sciences called neuroscience. Neuroscience studies the composition and function of nerves and nerve tissue. While psychologists study the mind, neuroscientists study the brain which is the biological basis of the mind. New developments in medical technology, such as MRI and PET scan machines, have made it possible for neuroscientists to directly observe activity in the brain and to map the location of brain functions including aspects of learning. While this research has led to new revelations regarding brain biology, the full implications of these findings remain largely unknown. In education circles, neuroscience is popularly known as "brain research."
Based on pure science, and possessing the potential to transform our understanding of the brain, brain research was quickly embraced by many in the education community. In 1982, a college educator informed a conference of elementary school principals that, "Recent developments in the study of brain growth will allow educators within the next five years to look at the reasons youngsters do and do not learn..."2 In the following years, advocates of the educational use of brain research made other glowing pronouncements. Author and consultant David A. Sousa wrote in 1998, "We are in the middle of an unprecedented revolution of knowledge about the human brain...Thanks to a rapidly growing body of research in neuroscience, teaching is no longer just an art form - it is also a science...neuroscience holds the promise for a quantum leap in our profession."3
A minor industry grew up around brain research to bring its purported benefits to the classroom. Pat Wolf, a consultant based in Napa, California said, "Teachers are lapping this up like you would not believe."4 In April of 2001, an article in The Washington Post observed:
The Washington Post article is representative of growing skepticism about the application of brain-based research to educational practice. Kurt W. Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, is quoted in the article as saying, "You can't go from neuroscience to the classroom, because we don't know enough neuroscience."6 It's "snake oil" said Sam Wineburg, professor at the University of Washington College of Education.7
A Christian Science Monitor article noted that "reliable data take time to develop," and warned against the hasty adoption of education research "fads," while advising superintendents "to consult broadly with teachers before launching a new program."8 In a major study on learning released in 1999, the National Research Council said, "In considering which findings from brain research are relevant to human learning or, by extension, to education, one must be careful to avoid adopting faddish concepts that have not been demonstrated to be of value in classroom practice."9
An early warning about the inappropriate application of brain-based research to educational practice was sounded by John T. Bruer, president of the James S. McDonnel Foundation of St. Louis which funds research in the fields of cognitive science, neuroscience and human behavior. In a 1997 article in Educational Researcher, Bruer said that biological research currently has little relevance for classroom educators.10 Bruer observed that neuroscience is "an exciting and new scientific endeavor, but it is also a very young one. As a result we know relatively little about learning, thinking, and remembering at the level of brain areas, neural circuits, or synapses; we know very little about how the brain thinks, remembers, and learns."11
Bruer said that brain science is seductive to educators because it provides hard biological data that is somehow more compelling than the "soft" data from behavioral science. In the education literature, brain research is generally interpreted for the education community by non-scientists who have used it to advocate a slew of instructional strategies ranging from Madeline Hunter lesson plans, to Bloom's Taxonomy, to whole language. According to Bruer,
Bruer has cited examples of what he terms "folk theory of the brain." One of these is the widely held belief that the left side of the brain is where logical, sequential processing occurs while the right brain is the intuitive, creative and holistic hemisphere of the brain. Thus, the left brain is the center of speech, reading and writing, while the right brain handles tasks such as visual pattern recognition and spatial reasoning. Although this model has often been cited in education literature, Bruer says there is abundant evidence from neuroscience that spatial reasoning, visual imagery, number recognition, and speech and reading are all complex operations, and each is processed in several centers in both the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
Is there anything useful, then, we can learn about education from brain research? Yes, so long as we remain wary of advocates who tell us more than they know. A key finding from brain research involves the "plasticity" of the brain, how it changes physically. Neuroscience research has found that "learning changes the physical structure of the brain and, with it, the functional organization of the brain."13 Although these findings are highly significant, they do not tell us how to teach in the classroom. Still, they raise interesting educational questions such as those posed by Jane M. Healy in her 1990 book Endangered Minds, a book that remains popular with teachers.
Aware that brain research had shown that learning can change brain structure, Healy questioned whether the brain structure of the present generation of young minds is being altered by habitual exposure to fast-paced video entertainment such as MTV, video games and Sesame Street. Could such a change in brain structure explain reports from teachers that children are different now, that they have shorter attention spans and diminished reasoning and linguistic abilities compared to previous generations of school children?14
To her credit, Healy was careful to say that no scientific connection had been established between video stimulation and brain changes leading to decreased academic ability. She proposed no sweeping pedagogical initiatives based on brain science. Still, brain research led her to formulate a provocative hypothesis which suggests further avenues for research and raises a concern that parents might be wise to consider while raising their children and teachers might be well-advised to ponder as they plan instructional strategies for today's generation of students.
Despite the bright promise of brain research to improve education practice, it remains largely a hope for the future. In terms of providing useful guidance regarding the practice of teaching, brain research has been most helpful in supplying biological evidence to support the findings of behavioral scientists and education researchers who have developed an extensive body of knowledge over the past several decades. University of Maryland researcher Patricia A. Alexander offers this advice, "...the past research on schooling and knowledge has produced some powerful and replicated findings that should not be ignored."15 We turn now to this body of research.
Research on learning and thinking
John T. Bruer has said that whatever scientific evidence exists for or against educational practices "can be found in any current textbook on educational psychology."16 The material that follows comes from current psychology textbooks and other respected publications which means it has entered the mainstream of scholarly thinking.
As we review these findings, however, we should remain aware of an important but seldom-noted reality concerning both biological and behavioral research. What we can learn from research - even well-executed and widely accepted research - is narrowly constrained. Essentially, research may provide clues, but it does not provide answers. Research tells us only that a phenomenon has been observed, and there may be a relationship between two or more phenomenona. That is to say, if research is done well (and not all is), research may tell us what happened, not why it happened (although a strong correlation between phenomena may suggest causality or "why.") The "why" factor is always supplied by informed human intelligence which is fallible and may be wrong.
An even greater conceptual leap is involved in going from "why" a phenomenon occurred to "how" educational practice should change because of it. Thus, the journey from a research finding to a proposed educational strategy involves the intercession of human judgment at two stages of a three-stage process. Any time we hear that a specific classroom practice is based on research, we must be mindful that even under the best of circumstances the proposed practice is roughly one part research and two parts opinion. Findings from research may be considered as constraints on practice rather than as prescriptions for action. One must always design a bridge within the constraints imposed by physics, but physics won't tell us how long and wide the bridge should be, where it should be located, how it should be financed or whether it will carry cars, trains or pedestrians.
The pioneering psychological research on learning was conducted by "behaviorists" including Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900s and B.F. Skinner in the 1930s. They investigated relationships between stimulus and response that resulted in changes in behavior. Because a bell consistently rang before food appeared, Pavlov's dog learned to salivate at the mere ringing of the bell; this is a conditioned response.
Findings from stimulus/response studies regarding reinforcement of behavior might be helpful to teachers. Both punishment of undesirable behavior and reinforcement of good behavior were found to be effective in achieving desired behavior, but punishment had greater negative side effects. Since immediate reinforcement was found to be more effective than delayed reinforcement, teachers might choose to reinforce good behavior or review test answers immediately rather than waiting. In one experiment, a group of students reviewed answers to test questions as soon as they handed in their tests. A second group didn't receive the correct answers until the next class meeting. The study found that, "The students who had immediate feedback made considerably higher grades on the final examination."17
As time went on, some psychologists began to suspect that learning involved more than a mechanical response to a stimulus. These "cognitive" psychologists came to believe that learning is an active process of the mind, a view that blurs the distinction between learning and thinking. Cognitive psychologists "see people as searching for information, weighing evidence, and making decisions."18 Most of the research on learning and thinking has come from the field of cognitive psychology.
Cognitive psychologists also parted company with the behaviorists in their view that learning is not always a product of direct experience -- that much, perhaps most, human learning comes from observation. This is good news for teachers who base much of their classroom instruction on observation. Observational learning can include reading books, listening to lectures and watching video programs. The bad news is that much of what children are observing in the popular culture today involves portrayals of aggression and violence. Research studies have repeatedly shown that people who watch media violence tend to exhibit more violent behavior than those who do not, which has led "Most psychologists (to) agree that media violence contributes to aggression."19
Knowledge and the construction of meaning
In response to the rapid growth of scientific research in the early twentieth century, the National Research Council (NRC) was established in 1916 as an arm of the National Science Foundation to advise the federal government on scientific and technical matters. As the end of the twentieth century approached, the National Research Council issued a report that summarized the state of scientific knowledge about learning and its implications for education. The NRC's report, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, was published in 1999.
The central, recurring theme of How people learn is that the mind uses knowledge (direct and observed experience) to "develop coherent structures of information" that are meaningful to the learner and are stored in memory where these structures form the basis of understanding, thinking and problem solving. Meaning is derived from connecting new information to what is already known. The report cited a number of research studies that compared the thinking of experts to the thinking of novices, not because teachers want to turn students into experts, but because experts solve problems better than novices do. Researchers wanted to know what it is about experts that makes them good at thinking and problem solving.
When experts are confronted with new information such as a problem to be solved, they appear to organize the input into "chunks" of related information that are held in short-term or working memory. "Since there are limits on the amount of information that people can hold in short-term memory, short-term memory is enhanced when people are able to chunk information into familiar patterns." If such information is transferred from working memory to long-term memory, it is joined to existing knowledge in a meaningful structure that becomes available to assist with thinking and problem solving. Among experts, knowledge "is not simply a list of facts and formulas that are relevant to their domain (area of study); instead, their knowledge is organized around core concepts or 'big ideas' that guide their thinking about their domains."
The NRC report cited a study in which a group of history experts and a group of high-achieving advanced placement high school seniors were given the task of making sense of primary source documents from American history. Although several of the students outscored several of the historians on a factual test of American history, the historians excelled at evaluating and understanding the documents because they possessed useful conceptual frameworks. The students "had no systematic way of making sense of contradictory claims...They lacked the experts' deep understanding of how to formulate reasoned interpretations of sets of historical documents. Experts in other social sciences also organize their problem solving around big ideas."
What are the implications of this research for education? The NRC report made these observations:
Learning and understanding could not occur without memory, the capacity to store knowledge for later retrieval. Without memory we would have no past and no identify; thinking and problem solving would be futile. Why is it that some thoughts are fleeting while others remain with us for a lifetime? William James, brother of novelist Henry James and author of the first modern textbook on psychology, contemplated this question in 1910:
The endurance of memory is an important concern of educators. Scientific research has provided a great deal of insight about memory, perhaps because memory is easy to test in experimental situations; either we remember or we don't. The two major components of the memory process are encoding, or getting information into memory, and retrieval, getting it back out again.
Working memory has a limited capacity; thoughts held there exist for only a few seconds to about a minute. Because working memory is constantly being bombarded with new input from the senses, information there must either be discarded or quickly and efficiently encoded for long-term storage. As we have seen, encoding appears to be facilitated by the meaningful organization of knowledge into coherent patterns and structures. Practice also helps; the NRC report declares it a simple rule that "practice increases learning."22 Also, memory is enhanced when it is acquired through several of the senses. Since research has shown that the memory of a picture is stronger than the memory of a word describing the same object, teachers would be well-advised to include a generous amount of visual images in their instruction.
Once knowledge arrives in long-term memory, it is assigned to mental categories. "Items are not just piled on the floor or thrown into closets. We tend to gather information about rats and cats into a certain section of the storehouse, perhaps the animal or mammal section. We put information about oaks, maples, and eucalyptus into the tree section...When items are correctly organized in long-term memory, you are more likely to recall - or know - accurate information about them."23 The organization of mental categories in long-term memory has been compared to the hierarchical file structure of a computer or a file cabinet. Some psychologists conceive of short-term and long-term memory not as separate functions of the mind, but as a continuum ranging from shallow memories to deeper memories that endure longer.
While the old adage, "Practice makes perfect" may be overstating the case a bit, our everyday experience and scientific research confirm that, "The more times we rehearse information, the more likely we are to remember it."24 Psychologists distinguish between two types of practice, massed practice and distributed practice. Massed practice occurs when information is presented intensively in a relatively short period of time such as several days or a week. This typically occurs when teachers introduce new information at the beginning of an instructional unit. By contrast, distributed practice occurs when information is repeated over a longer period of time, say, three reviews in three months. Which kind of practice is better?
Research indicates that a combination of approaches is probably best, massed practice at first to learn new information followed by distributed practice to retain and integrate the new information with related knowledge. Such a combined approach is commonly used when learning skills such as a new football play or a new piece of music. In academic settings, however, there is a tendency to rely on massed practice alone. After the unit test is over, students move on to new material never to encounter the prior learning again. According to Frank N. Dempster, such massed learning
The teaching of world history and geography naturally lends itself to a type of distributed practice as important concepts are encountered at multiple points in the world historical narrative. It is easy to see how a student's understanding of cultural diffusion or ethnic hatred would become deeper if the concepts were encountered in different contexts during different periods of history.
Elaboration and Interference
Frank Dempster is a professor of educational psychology whose 1993 article in Phi Delta Kappan made a compelling case for pruning the "overstuffed" curriculum of American schools. Based on his examination of educational research studies, Dempster wrote, "The curriculum that now predominates in American schools seems to be...informed by the conviction that 'more is better' and that just about anything that 'enriches the meaning' of a lesson will assist learning." Consequently,
Much of this detail consists of "elaborations" which are supporting materials meant to "enrich the meaning of the central information." Dempster reported that elaborations can be detrimental because they "often divert attention away from the crucial point of a lesson." Dempster cited a study in which one group of students read text summaries that contained only the main ideas of the lesson while a second group read the complete text which included both the main ideas and various elaborations. "Not only did the elaborations hurt the subjects' ability to retain the main points in the text, but they also hindered their subsequent ability to acquire new information that was related to the material presented in the summaries."
If elaborations are to promote classroom learning, said Dempster, they must meet several conditions which, even then, may not be sufficient.
Elaborations may hinder learning because they interfere with past knowledge or with concurrent acquisition of knowledge. Dempster said that "massive amounts" of interference can occur during many types of classroom activities, but "The risk of interference is highest when a lot of similar information is presented and the material is not well-learned." Learning the names of people early during a party may interfere with learning other names later. Similarly, learning names later might interfere with remembering the names learned earlier.
Interference can be overcome through practice as teachers are reminded every year when they learn the names of their new students. Dempster cited studies which show that practice may eliminate retroactive interference, and may even result in some retroactive facilitation of learning.
What are the implications of research about practice, elaborations and interference? Professor Dempster put it this way:
Dempster encouraged educators to look closely at the curriculum and separate "the what from the chaff, so that they can get on with the serious business of effectively teaching the essentials."26
No limit has been found to the mind's capacity to retain memories in long-term storage; they appear to be more or less permanent. We "forget" only because we can't find the cues necessary for retrieving memories; or so the theory goes. Thus, we don't forget the memories themselves; we forget the categories under which they have been filed.
A classic set of experiments conducted in the 1880s identified a "Curve of Forgetting" which revealed that the greatest amount of forgetting occurred during the first hour after learning when 56 percent of learning was lost. Thereafter, forgetting continued, but at a much slower rate. Twenty-five percent of the initial learning remained after six days. These studies were conducted using nonsense syllables; forgetting is slower when information is meaningful to the learner.
Distributed practice can affect the Curve of Forgetting as was demonstrated in a study of long-term memory by H.P. Bahrick:
Psychologists discuss remembering in terms of recognition and recall. The easiest type of memory task is recognition which merely involves identification of events or objects encountered before. This is the type of memory used when answering questions on a multiple-choice test; it's easier to recognize a correct answer than to retrieve it from memory. Recall is the term used to describe the process of retrieving or reconstructing knowledge from memory. This is the process used to answer fill-in-the-blank or essay questions.
If the primary purpose of education is to prepare young people to function effectively in life, then students must be able to transfer school learning to life outside the classroom. Consequently, transfer of learning has become a major issue among educators. The transfer process begins any time we learn something new as the mind relates new experience to previous experience. Such transfer is enhanced if connections between previous learning and new knowledge are made clear. The NRC's report, How People Learn, advises teachers to always strive to connect new learning to what students already know and, in the process, attempt to clear up any misconceptions arising from earlier incomplete understandings.
While research suggests that the transfer of school learning outside the classroom is not easily achieved, transfer appears to be facilitated if certain conditions have been satisfied. For example, it helps if concepts are abstracted. Although specific details are necessary for understanding any concept, transfer is enhanced if concepts are generalized into principles that transcend the details of a specific context. According to the NRC report, "The transfer literature suggests that the most effective transfer may come from a balance of specific examples and general principles, not from either one alone."
Transfer appears to be enhanced if knowledge is presented in more than one context. "With multiple contexts, students are more likely to abstract the relevant features of concepts and develop a more flexible representation of knowledge." In teaching world studies, student exposure to multiple contexts can be achieved by considering important concepts at several points in the historical narrative, an approach suggested earlier for achieving distributed practice to promote learning.
Research also suggests that transfer is facilitated when students focus on essential knowledge allowing the time necessary for new learning to be absorbed. The NRC report states, "Curricula that emphasize an excessively broad range of subjects run the risk of developing disconnected rather than connected knowledge...Attempts to cover too many topics too quickly may hinder learning and subsequent transfer because students learn only isolated sets of facts that are not organized and connected."28
The preceding review of research about learning can be summarized as follows.
1) Learning occurs best when new knowledge is meaningful.
2) The ability to acquire and retain knowledge is enhanced when it
3) Learning transfer is facilitated when
Where do we go from here?
Of what use is this hard-won scientific knowledge about learning and thinking? An analogy might provide a useful conceptual framework for considering this question. Education can be seen as an uncharted road through a churning swamp of warring educational philosophies, partisan politics, reform fads, conflicting imperatives, unrealistic expectations and incessant demands. Despite the fact that no road map exists, students and teachers travel down this road together with considerable goodwill every day.
Doesn't learning research provide us with the road map we need? Unfortunately, no. As discussed earlier, research has limitations; it can only supply clues about educational practice, not answers. Answers are supplied by fallible humans who are frequently mistaken as were the left brain/right brain theorists. Furthermore, research is incomplete. What we know about learning is far less than what we don't know. For these reasons, research supplies only informational and cautionary signs along the road: "slow down," "bump," "form one lane," "construction ahead." Still, such advice from our helpful friends in the research community is far from trivial. Some of their road signs have the force of law, and we ignore them at our peril.
Is there no hope, then, of ever finding a useful road map to carry us safely through the murky education swamp? Perhaps hope does exist, and maybe we caught a glimpse of it earlier when The Christian Science Monitor advised school superintendents "to consult broadly with teachers before launching a new program." As the Monitor rightly assumed, teachers have relevant knowledge about what works because they have been down the road. Perhaps these experienced travelers, like mariners of old, can share their knowledge of the uncharted territory and piece together a useful map to guide us on our journey.
*The Education Week report observed,"the promise of neuroscience research...has not translated into clear guidelines for instructional practice."