How do you get learning to stick? That is the question on the minds of a number of educators I have visited with over the past few weeks…and an emerging body of educational research. Recently as I have worked with schools and educators, the term ‘sticky learning’ has surfaced on more than one occasion, along with a number of suggestions for making learning endure beyond the end of the school day.
‘Seemingly’ Less-Structured Activities
I was in an elementary school classroom last week where students were using cardboard, Play-do, and recyclables to make 3D maps of the geographical features of Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Kids worked in groups to cut up toilet paper rolls for trees, used Play-do or blue frosting to mark bodies of water, and even created animals out of bottle caps and pipe cleaners. To help other students decode and navigate the features of their maps, each group also created a map key.
When I asked the teacher about the activity, she said simply… “There is a lot of important content in this unit. We want to make sure they learn it, and don’t forget it. We want it to stick.” But this activity seemed to go well beyond content mastery. I couldn’t help but notice that as these kids created their 3D landscapes, there was a significant amount of application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creativity required.
Research published in a recent issue of Frontiers supports this type of approach. Jane Barker and four other researchers examined a variety of structured and less-structured learning environments. Their findings suggest that students who spend more time in seemingly less-structured activities allow students to develop self-direction and better executive functioning (Barker et al., 2014).
To me, the key seems to be this notion of ‘seemingly’ less-structure activities. This is not some ‘Lord of the Flies’ approach to learning where we dump materials in the center of the room and turn our students loose. This teacher clearly knew what she wanted her students to be able to do. But to the students, the perception was that they had an extensive amount of control and choice over what materials they used and how they put them to use. Instead of quizzes and flashcards, their teacher made the content ‘stick’ by tying it to a design challenge that included a few clearly articulated expectations and parameters.
‘Getting Out of the Way’ of Student Learning
Another classroom I visited suggested the need for teachers to ‘get out of the way’ of student learning as often as possible. A couple of days ago, I watched a middle-schooler grow increasingly frustrated with a math problem she was working on. The teacher noticed this and came to her side. I fully expected him to coach the student through the problem using some form of algorithm or something similar. Instead, he asked the student to think out-loud a bit with him about what she had tried. He listened patiently, and when the student was finished, asked her why that didn’t seem to work and what else she could try.
She came up with a couple alternatives, and began trying those approaches out. Eventually, she worked out the problem. After several minutes of students in the class going through this laborious struggle, the teacher presented them with a formula and asked them how it related to the problems they were trying to solve.
When I asked the teacher about it later on, I expressed a concern with how long the process took for the students to work it all out. He admitted that it would be much faster and less frustrating to just provide an algorithm or formula on the front end of the activity, but commented that he really wanted to develop kids who can think and solve problems, not kids who can plug numbers into formulas.
Effective teachers seem to do a great job using questions, rather than answers, to help students walk the fragile line between exploration and challenge. They make learning “desirably difficult” (Roediger & Pyc, 2012). Studies in high-poverty schools, for example, find that teachers of successful students ask five times as many higher-order thinking questions than less effective teachers (Taylor et al., 2003). They also find that effective teachers are much more likely to encourage collaborative discussions amongst their students.
An ‘Elementary’ Approach
No one seems to make learning stick better than elementary teachers, and… secondary teachers who adapt an ‘elementary’ approach. Last week I watched a five-year-old struggle with sounds made by some the letters he was looking at. When he came to letter ‘U,’ he paused, sang part of a quick song about Uncle Upton, and pointed to the ceiling before making the “uh” sound. He and his classmates are learning their letters, sounds, and other concepts through a multisensory approach. Students draw the letter, make the sound, sing a song, and act out motions related to the song. As a result, the phonemes stick in their brains and are easily accessed later on.
But when I work with middle school and high school teachers, rarely do I see such an approach. Often, the use of music, movement, and other similar strategies is viewed as too ‘elementary’…in more than one sense of the word. First, multimodal instruction is perceived as being too basic or simplistic for more complex content and concepts. Second, it is often viewed as something babyish and better fitting in classrooms of younger students.
I find it interesting, though, that the teachers who scoff at getting students out of their chairs, singing, and dancing about molecular properties often seem to be the same teachers who complain that their students don’t seem to retain what is taught.
In the few secondary classes where I do see multimodality being employed, students seem to move faster through the required content allowing time for deeper learning activities. This makes sense. Research repeatedly points towards the need to use movement, music, and other forms of multisensory instruction in order to give students’ brains a chance to do and experience learning (Ostroff, 2012).
So just how do we get learning to stick? Research and classroom practice offer up a number of different suggestions. But the consensus (and key) seems to be to use a variety of approaches…all of which tend to look a bit different than the learning that you or I likely experienced as students. The bottom line—maybe instead of giving students information and things to do, we should explore ways to help students do and experience the information. Only then will student learning endure. Only then will content and concepts really ‘stick’ with our students.
Barker, J. E., Semenov, A. D., Michaelson, L., Provan, L. S., Snyder, H. R., & Munakata, Y. (2014). Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Name: Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 593.
Ostroff, W. L. (2012). Understanding how young children learn: bringing the science of child development to the classroom. Ascd.
Roediger III, H. L., & Pyc, M. A. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1(4), 242-248.
Steinwald, M., Harding, M. A., & Piacentini, R. V. (2014). Multisensory Engagement with Real Nature Relevant to Real Life. The Multisensory Museum: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Touch, Sound, Smell, Memory, and Space, 45.
Taylor, B. M., Pearson, P. D., Peterson, D. S., & Rodriguez, M. C. (2003). Reading growth in high-poverty classrooms: The influence of teacher practices that encourage cognitive engagement in literacy learning. The Elementary School Journal, 3-28.