Building Content-Centric Learning
Lately I’ve had dozens of emails asking questions about how to teach “how to do school.” One of the most common ones I get is the classic question: Why is education so hard? Because it’s education, that’s why. I say that as someone who, every year, spends hours arguing with my wife why there is no way we can move to Denmark. Apparently, that’s just the country where going to school is easy because, well, it just is.
Addressing the problem of kids not doing school by either reframing it or, as an alternative, focusing on how to make it easier. That’s one idea that comes up in a new study from The UK and the U.S. that could have a huge impact on improving the way kids learn—namely, by changing how kids learn. Researchers from Nuffield College, Oxford, found that the best way to boost achievement in reading is to “deprogram” kids from the idea that reading is somehow difficult. Don’t make them hear about how hard it is to read. Tell them that reading is easy. They’ll learn to read, right? Of course they will.
Not so fast. In a landmark 1979 study on what they called the “ability to read” and “its effects” on children’s academic success, the same two teachers ran the classroom. The subjects were both encouraged to make sure all their sentences were complete sentences, that they left unnecessary spaces between words, and that they listened carefully to what the teacher was saying. Eventually, children who were being trained in attention and punctuation began to associate their ability to read with good grades, and their ability to read with less-promising ones (a kind of non-teaching learning theory) began to become less important. The kids seemed to get it.
Two other recent studies, one from 2012 and another from 2015, found that the more “task-centered” a classroom is, the easier it is for kids to learn. When teachers introduce many tasks to their lessons, the kids get good at completing the tasks rather than learning about them. This is hardly intuitive: For several hundred years, education has been about teaching kids to master the curriculum, followed by sitting in class and working at their desks. With the advent of neuroscience, this is no longer enough.
If the kid learns to play a violin or use Photoshop on his computer or learn to read a story, it’s difficult to see the skills he learned moving him into the next step. They can be applied to all sorts of other tasks. As Laurie Feinberg of Columbia University’s Teachers College, author of The Content Mind: Being Fully Social, says, “If a given skill is used in multiple contexts, it’s much more likely that it can be brought into the next context.”
But the content of the task is what’s most important. “I don’t know anyone who says, ‘Oh, but my thinking skills are bad,’” said Pam Harlowe of Beacon Hill Community College in Boston, a social-psychological teacher who has studied teenagers and their learning. “Even the textbook teachers don’t believe that, it’s too heavy-handed. The parents tell us what our children need is attention.”
So how do you teach kids to become more “content-centered?” By sitting down with them and asking them questions. Like how to make basic things easier to learn.
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For many kids, say the teachers, “teachers” and “jobs” are opposed to one another. Students have no concept of how to go about making a job attractive to them or how to structure a learning process to appeal to them. With career skills and ambitions, they have limited ideas about what they want to do or what makes a job seem appealing. In the workplace, there is more trust in each person’s beliefs and desires. It’s not that “opposites attract,” but that opposite-minded people are better at dealing with what they don’t know.
The idea is to strip away the “I” and work with the kids’ thoughts and feelings. Ask them, “What do you think would be appealing to you? What would really make you happy?” The ideas they come up with are better, in terms of rigor and interest, than the ideas they come up with by rote.
Working with kids’ thoughts is very different from “te