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The Way We Learn

Why does media coverage of school reform consistently ignore research into how people learn? How do you improve learning if you never talk about how learning happens?

Media articles and discussions of education endlessly rehash the same tired issues, often reducing them to simplistic debates between false dichotomies: either national standards or local control; either charter schools or traditional public schools; either more testing or less testing; either closing down failing schools or giving them more money. Frequently, the focus is a single issue: poverty, higher standards, teacher accountability, unions, longer school years and days. All of these issues are both complex and important, but they need to be discussed in a context of how children learn.

Last month, during a debate between NYU professor of education Diane Ravitch and education consultant Jessica Levin about public versus for-profit schools, there was a moment when the perspective of neuroscientists might have moved the debate in some interesting new directions. At one point, Ravitch and Levin seemed to agree: Charter schools and public schools don't get different results. Referring to voucher, charter and public schools, Ravitch said, "All three sectors get the same [poor] results on tests."

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Here was a moment to probe more deeply into the reason for these identical results, to move the debate in a new direction, to consider that perhaps we are dealing with a more fundamental problem than whether schools are public or corporate. Perhaps our assumptions about how kids learn — the assumptions on which educators have designed school practices, structures and policies for hundreds of years — are incompatible with how the brain learns.

Learning outcomes are the same regardless of "sector" because the basic assumptions about learning are the same in each. Here are just three of many such assumptions:

1.) Kids learn by reading and listening — by being told things — so students sit in classrooms all day reading and listening to teachers talk.

2.) Most brains are the same, so classes meet for about the same number of minutes and the same number of days, and students are expected to move through the curriculum at the same speed. Students take pretty much the same courses — math, English, science, history, foreign language — and have the same course loads.

3.) Those who can't keep up are damaged in some way (LD, ADD, ADHD, oppositional) and are culled into separate rooms with specialists.

Researchers (like Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, University of Southern California, and Kurt Fischer, Harvard) suggest that these assumptions about learning are wrong. Individual brains vary every bit as much as DNA or fingerprints. Different people with their different brains perceive the world differently. They approach problems differently and take different paths when trying to solve problems. They have different mixtures of cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and, not surprisingly, people tend to lead with their strengths. The sheer range of differences beggars notions of standardized education and standardized testing.

Why does media coverage of school reform consistently ignore research into how people learn? How do you improve learning if you never talk about how learning happens?

Research also suggests a need to rethink the cornerstone of schooling: most educators assume that telling, teaching and learning are synonyms ("I taught them this last semester." "They learned this last week." "I keep telling them this."). They aren't synonyms. Learning isn't the result of "putting" what we have been told into memory boxes — so that we "have" it. Rather than recalling and reciting, learning involves building new neural networks that constantly fall apart and need to be rebuilt. Learning addition means creating a neural network for addition. This process is hard work that requires considerable effort from the learner. Teachers can't do this work for students. Rather than factories for teaching, we need to create environments that support learning.

Why maintain a system and structures that reflect faulty notions of learning and brain function? Why cling to notions of "normal" and learning disabled? Why recreate essentially the same school with different names — public, private, charter, independent, magnet — and then waste time debating the merits of each when, in fact, the fundamental problem is replicated in each?

And why do the media remain ignorant of or deaf to the voices of researchers who might help educators, parents and (perhaps even) politicians move toward more productive, successful school designs? Motivation, funding, accountability, standards, assessments, teacher quality, instructional methods, drop-out rates, parental support, poverty and racism present daunting problems, and we will continue to fail to solve them until we consider them in the context of the biology and psychology of learning — especially when the insights from these fields support what many teachers have already discovered, on their own, from their experiences in classrooms with students. The brain and traditional school design are incompatible. If the media want meaningful discussion about school reform, they need to expand their perspective.


This program aired on December 2, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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