Real Learning: the Future of American Boarding and Private Schools

Real Learning: the Future of American Boarding and Private SchoolsIf you’re a parent considering private school for your student; if you’re a teacher, or administrator, in an independent school thinking about the future of independent education; asking, what will private schools look like; what will private schools teach; how will private schools differentiate themselves from improved public schools, I suggest you begin, or prime your thinking, by reading Benedict Carey’s, How We Learn.

While reading How We Learn, I thought to myself “Damn, Carey’s laying out the future of American private education right here.”

Carey’s book is not the world’s most fluid read. But, it is a good layman’s read in terms of elucidating the current state of brain science — how people best learn, retain, recall, and master school, and life, lessons. If you think about the future of American schooling, you begin asking yourself while reading Carey, ‘why aren’t we thinking of schools and education in terms of what we know about how our brains, learn, process, remember, and recall information — in short, what we know about how our brains build a knowledge base?’

Suffice to say, that, while high stakes testing has a role in learning and recalling information, it isn’t the only, or the best way, to learn and recall. Most importantly, an almost singular reliance on high stakes testing fails to take advantage of how the human brain best learns, processes, retains, and recalls information.

In Carey, you can see the alternatives to high stakes testing in how humans learn. And, by extension, I think you can glimpse the future of American boarding and private schools.

How We Learn

Real learning can lift and solidify the place America’s independent and boarding schools making them a great alternative to high stakes testing driving education.

Real learning — remembering, recalling, and using knowledge requires time, practice recalling, practice using, forgetting, changes of setting, changes and changes in schedule when rehearsing and recalling. Real learning, reminds me (a little bit) of John Saxon’s math program (imperfect as it was) with all it’s emphasis on practice and circling back on earlier lessons but with the added understanding and nuance of environment and additional factors (and maybe smaller problem sets).

Carey takes readers through the current models and understandings of how our minds learn and process information. Then, he throws in the twists that make them more effective.

Vary your study and practice environment. Music, light, colors can help improve your study effectiveness. How much could a simple change in venue aid recall? …A simple change in venue improved retrieval strength (memory) by 40 percent,. Or, as the author put it, the experiment “showed strong recall improvements with variation of environmental context.”(p. 62)

Space things out. Distribute your study and learning time. There’s no debate that spaced study improves one’s learning and recall. We all know cramming for an exam has it’s limits…science can document these limits.

It turns out that researchers have an idea of the optimal spacing between studying and exam.

Not knowing produces retrieval practice. Testing is retrieval practice. And, getting something wrong on a practice test is good for you.

“…if you’re using the test only for measurement, like some physical education push-up contest, you fail to see it as an added workout- itself making the contestants’ memory muscles stronger.”(p. 93)

“…in some circumstances, unsuccessful retrieval attempts- i.e. wrong answers- aren’t merely random failures. Rather the attempts themselves alter how we think about, and store, the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple choice, we learn from answering incorrectly- especially when given the correct answer soon afterward.
…guessing wrongly increases a person’s likelihood of nailing that question, or a related one on, on a later test.”(p. 95)

It’s not the test, it’s retrieval practice.

Carey also covers the roles and benefits of Incubation; Becoming stuck and unstuck; Diversion. Percolation, and Mixing Things Up in our learning.

Our brains run, like some programs on your smartphone, in the background and this background processing, as we suspected intuitively, is amazingly important in learning and recall.

Who hasn’t walked away from a problem — stuck — only to have an ‘aha moment’ in a completely different setting?

From a school standpoint, what would incorporating Carey’s suggestions require?

Time and flexibility. Time to spread out learning. Time to do things differently. Time experiment to see what ways best help one’s learning.

Flexible time is something you don’t often have when the high stakes test is coming on like a freight train.

So what does this understanding of learning and retaining mean for independent schools?

I think the answer is simple and blunt.

Independent schools don’t have to teach to particular tests as rites of promotion. Independent schools have control of their time, schedules, curricula, approaches, settings, and philosophies. Independent schools have the ability to focus on real learning, retention, and knowledge over time.

Independent, boarding and day, schools can foster and cultivate, in students, a deep, thorough understanding of how to study that provides their students with foundations from which they can approach and work with any subject matter.

Questions for Parents and Educators

Keeping with current non-fiction convention, Carey provides a list of tools for students and parents. In this case, Carey creates and answers questions posed by a hypothetical reader — laying out the framework how some of his counter conventional wisdom suggestions might work in real life and providing a nice starting point for teachers and parents.

  • Can “freeing the inner slacker” really be called a legitimate learning strategy?
  • How important is routine when it comes to learning? For example, is it important to have a dedicated study area?
  • How does sleep affect learning?
  • Is there an optimal amount of time to study or practice?
  • Is cramming a bad idea?
  • How much does quizzing oneself, like with flashcards, help?
  • How much does it help to review notes from a class or lesson?

There’s so much concern that social media and smartphones and all manner of electronic gadgets are interfering with learning and even changing the way people think. Is this merited? Is distraction always bad?

  • Is the any effective strategy for improving performance on longer-term creative projects?
  • What’s the most common reason for bombing a test after what felt like careful preparation?
  • Is it best to practice one skill at time until it becomes automatic, or to work on many things at once?

Final Thoughts

I must confess, as much as I like, and get, Carey’s suggestions, as I teacher, I find myself thinking, ‘but, how, or could, some of these approaches work with students who don’t yet have a basic routine down?’ I don’t think they could, or, maybe, if you used them in controlled sparing doses. I still think that every student needs the benefit of established habit, and routine, before any of us go flexing and adjusting the routine for improvement’s sake.

I also think it’s important to note, that Carey isn’t advocating a free form, free for all. He’s advocating extending one’s discipline to finding, and figuring out, what works best for each individual. No matter what, learning begins with bearing down- with practice and discipline- and getting one’s work done. Then, you adjust your approaches to make learning as effective as possible.

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

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