‘Common sense’ is failing us

mctestWhich is a better way to prepare for this week’s Psych test?

  1. Dedicate three solid hours to reviewing the textbook, notes, and practice questions, as well as quizzing yourself with flashcards.
  2. Spend 30 minutes writing a test for yourself over the content. Take a nap, eat a snack, do your math homework. A few hours later, take the test and grade it. Repeat the next day — spending less than three hours in all.

Most students choose A — the intensive, focused, cramming method. Intuitively it makes sense. Repetition makes us feel like we know the material, and the intensity of the studying makes the subject feel coherent.

B is a much better choice. According to Make it Stick, the best book I’ve seen on how to learn, interleaving different subjects (and giving your brain time to process information during a nap) is far superior to cramming.

But it doesn’t feel better, which brings me to one of the critical issues in education.

Effective learning strategies and effective teaching strategies are not intuitive — they do not fit our idea of common sense — so we waste a lot of time and money pursuing the wrong “common sense” solutions.

The worst offender is our idea that if kids don’t know basic facts, we should spend more time drilling basic facts.

Consider elementary students who are reading in class for two hours. What will happen if they take a break for 20 minutes to play Guitar Hero or swing on the playground? Studies have found they actually perform better on tests of retention — despite less time spent reading.

Or consider high school history students who must learn the facts about World War II for a high-stakes state test. Most of us — teachers, parents and students alike — would say these students will perform best if they take notes, read and review the critical facts.

But recent research by John Saye (Auburn) shows that these students will perform better even on basic tests of factual knowledge if their teacher uses an inquiry-based approach. So they would be better off debating whether the U.S. should have entered the war prior to Pearl Harbor than studying a timeline — and they’d have more fun, too.

This week’s news reveals that Kindergarten has become the “new 1st grade.” We want kids to read by 3rd grade, so we think it makes sense to start instructing them earlier. What could possibly go wrong?

Again, common sense is failing us. There is no evidence that this will benefit children in the long run — and growing evidence that it will harm them. A 2013 review of empirical evidence across 54 countries found that children who learn to read earlier (age 5 instead of 7) have a temporary advantage, but no lasting benefit.

“Early reading only resulted in short term educational success and long-term it was associated with lower educational achievement and worse teenage and adult adjustment,” the author concluded. (www.rosejourn.com)

We have a problem in our education system with an over-reliance on common sense. We need to start approaching our problems with a scientist’s skepticism — and we need to craft teaching and learning strategies based on research rather than hunches.