Living the science of learning research

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Living the science of learning research

By Dr Nina Hood

When I was an academic, I used to teach several masters courses. Each year, there would always be a few teachers taking my courses who were sceptical about what research could offer them. I’m happy to report that in all cases, by the end of the semester they had changed their tune and had realised that while research can’t tell us everything we want or need to know about education, it can provide useful leads and principles to follow, as well as affirming particular strategies or approaches that might already be in use.

While I don’t generally need too much convincing to engage with research, I still delight when I find research findings aligning with what’s playing out in practice. Recently, I’ve experienced exactly this with the science of learning research. While I regularly write about the science of learning (for example here and here), I’m also currently living the principles derived from it when I do a short, daily speech language therapy session with my son.  Here’s what I’ve found.

Managing the cognitive load

For me, this plays out in multiple ways. Firstly, it’s important to keep the session short. This likely is as much about cognitive load as it is about developmental stage, but it also reflects the second important aspect of cognitive load, and that is making sure we don’t try to cover too much in a single session. Indeed, last week wasn’t that successful and reflecting on why that was, I wondered if I might have been a bit too ambitious. Having scaled back what we were focusing on this week, things are progressing, ironically, more quickly. Thirdly, I chunk the content, using short, targeted activities. And finally, I try to remove extraneous load. That means not using activities that require dexterous fine motor skills when what we’re really focusing on is speech (but also making dedicated time during our sessions to focus on fine motor skills). 

Incorporating lots of retrieval practice and spaced practice

Retrieval practice not only ensures we focus on mastering each speech sound, but also plays an important role in demonstrating that sometimes it takes time to master a new skill and that resilience and perseverance are essential for achieving success. We also return to skills and content we’ve previously covered at different intervals, which helps to reinforce the learning and act as a positive boost by tangibly demonstrating the progress he’s making.

Motivation and success

Sometime days are really hard (for both of us!), and some skills take a long time and huge effort to master. But what I’ve learned is that I need to make sure that in every session he feels a sense of success and accomplishment, because this in turn helps keep the motivation.

The zone of proximal development

This is not strictly from the science of learning literature but hitting the goldilocks spot of challenge is key. I always like to provide an activity that he can easily achieve by himself but also make sure that in each session we’re doing something that challenges him, whilst ensuring there is the appropriate support in place and that he knows that he can always ask for help if something is difficult. Thinking in terms of the ZPD also helps me to recognise when something is just a bit too much of a stretch and that I need to scale it back and add in more scaffolding.

Emotions and learning

There are some days when the sessions just don’t go well. Sometimes it’s possible to intuit why and other days it’s not. On those days when it’s not working, we do as much as we can but also recognise that we can’t force it (and given that we have the flexibility of determining our own timetable, we mix it up, finish early, and return to the learning another day).

Progress comes in fits and starts

With some things we are learning and practicing, mastery comes straight away. With others, it seems like we can go days or weeks with very little progress. But then, one day, suddenly, something will click, and he’s got it. Remembering that while, as Daniel Willingham tells us, our brains are more similar than they are different, this doesn’t mean that we all learn things at the same pace, in the same order, or through the same activities.

While research can’t explain everything, and it certainly can’t tell us exactly what we should be doing in every situation, for me, it offers a myriad of support. It has provided me with a way to take a step back and to achieve some distance from a situation, allowing me to reflect on it slightly more dispassionately. It provides a lens for examining and understanding that is outside of just my own perceptions and personal frame of reference. It is a place to return to for suggestions when things aren’t quite working. It has affirmed some of what we’ve seemingly happened upon intuitively. So, while I’m the first to point out the potential limitations of the science of learning literature, I also am currently living how powerful the underpinning principles are for supporting many different kinds of learning.


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.

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