Countering False Promises to Improve Learning

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Three years ago, the Washington D.C. School District added twenty days to the school calendar on thirteen campuses at a cost of $7.5 million per year. The idea was that students in these struggling schools would benefit from having more time to learn over the course of each year. As a result, test scores would improve and the schools would become more successful. Yet, three years later, there is little evidence of any academic improvement. Attendance rates remain low and reports of teacher burnout have grown. Now, a decision has been made to discontinue the extended school year and to reallocate a major portion of the funds freed up by the elimination of the extended year to purchase technology (Stein, 2019).

Ironically, American schools and school districts spend billions of dollars each year to purchase technology for classroom use. The idea has been that technology would make learning more engaging, provide more flexibility, and lead to better learning outcomes. Yet, studies documenting the impact of introducing technology, including 1-to-1 computer initiatives, into American classrooms have found little proof that the expense and effort has made a difference in student performance (Lettvin, South, & Stevens, 2016).

Equally disappointing is an even more recent study conducted by professors at Harvard University and the University of Maryland that sought to determine if the introduction of higher quality textbooks and associated curriculum would improve learning outcomes. The study involved students in 6,000 schools and 1,200 teachers in six states and focused on mathematics achievement. Their conclusion was that textbook choices do not appear to improve student achievement, at least given the level of professional development and curriculum usage among the schools and teachers they studied (Blazar, Kane, Staiger, Goldhaber, Hitch, Kurlaender, Heller, Polikoff, Carrell, Harris, & Holden, 2019).

These are disappointing outcomes, especially for those who have invested heavily with hopes of improving student achievement. Sadly, these are but three of what could be a much longer list of initiatives intended to change learning outcomes, but were found not to deliver on the promise. And even though these are recent examples, the problem is not new.

The reasons why the initiatives have been unsuccessful are relatively obvious and well documented. The research of Hattie, Marzano, Petty and others points to an important and inescapable conclusion: Unless we change the learning experience and shift the relationship students have with learning, we can hardly expect to see changes in learning outcomes. A longer school year by itself tends not to work because students who are not engaged or finding success are not helped by increased exposure to the same experience. Technology that is used to shift current practices and experiences from paper to digital without changing the fundamental learning experience holds little hope to improve learning. And, new textbooks inserted in traditional lessons and class experiences hold little potential to transform learning experiences.

What really influences learning outcomes is more fundamental and depends less on structures and resources than on learning relationships and experiences. This statement is not to imply that structures and resources do not matter. They can offer expanded and enhanced opportunities, but they have not been shown to be strong drivers of learning.

So what are more effective drivers of learning? Let’s consider five of the most powerful strategies that have a strong base of research and experiential support.

First, shift the experience of students from being passive listeners and responders to adult talk and direction to becoming active participants in their learning with adult guidance, coaching, and encouragement.

Second, encourage students to invest in their learning by providing frequent, authentic choices about what and how they will learn. Provide support to them to set goals for their learning rather than providing students with goals set on their behalf.

Third, focus on the purpose and benefits of learning rather than treating the experience as a compliance activity in service of vague, far into the future benefits. Purpose is the strongest driver of learning in life. We might as well leverage it.

Fourth, invite students to monitor their progress rather than expecting them to consistently default to the judgment of adults. Seeing progress can be a great encourager of hope for success and a builder of confidence and motivation.

Fifth, focus attention on building learning skills over superficial information and content. Development of skills directly benefits the learner, while information and content are often seen by students as serving the agenda of adults. Further, it is learning skills that will prepare students for life success, not simple recall of names, dates, and events. Academic content needs to be the context for learning skills, not the opposite.

To be clear, this argument is not against providing time, technology, and tools for learning that is rich, varied, and accessible. Rather, it is a reminder that learners and their learning experiences matter most when it comes to improving learning outcomes. We need to advocate for and commit to resources and structures to assist learning, but we must be careful not to confuse them with what matters most.

Resources:
Blazar, D., Kane, T. J., Staiger, D., Goldhaber, D., Hitch, R., Kurlaender, M., Heller, B., Polikoff, M., Carrell, S., Harris, D., Holden, K. L. (2019, March). Learning by the book: Comparing math achievement growth by textbook in six common core states. Retrieved from https://cepr.harvard.edu/files/cepr/files/cepr-curriculum-report_learning-by-the-book.pdf

Lettvin, E., South, J. & Stevens, K. (2016, March 18). Idea to retire: Technology alone can improve student learning. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2016/03/18/idea-to-retire-technology-alone-can-improve-student-learning-3/

Stein, P. (2019, February 1). District eliminates extended school year, invests more in classroom technology. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/district-eliminates-extended-school-year-invests-more-in-classroom-technology/2019/02/21/e9478500-3484-11e9-a400-e481bf264fdc_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fa77ccacaf83

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