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The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony With Your Brain
Date Reviewed: September 16, 2015
This book is meant to be put into someone’s hands in the months before they begin college, but it also serves as a useful tool for anyone contemplating returning to school after time away – adults getting ready to begin seminary, for example, after years in first or second careers – or for anyone wishing to become a “life-long learner,” whether in formal academic circles or in private life. Written in accessible language and peppered with illustrative examples, this slim volume blends common sense – such as eat a healthy, balanced diet, make time for regular exercise, get enough sleep, don’t cram – with a wide array of insights from neuroscience research and learning theory of the last fifteen years. Both authors have extensive experience and publications focused on the integration of cognitive research, biology, and learner-centered teaching: Doyle at Ferris State University and Zakrajsek in the Department of Family Medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The topics covered in the eight main chapters focus on learning and: sleep, exercise, the use of multiple senses, discovering and utilizing patterns, memory, “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets, and paying attention. Each chapter quickly sets forth recent pertinent research, then concludes with five to ten summary points. Much of the material in the early chapters confirms common sense: getting enough sleep and exercising regularly are necessary for both learning and memory. The brain needs “down” time to process new information. Because sleep and exercise are so foundational for learning, these topics pop up repeatedly in subsequent chapters, especially in the discussions of memory and paying attention.
The discussions in chapters 4 through 8 take up facets of cognitive and learning research that move beyond common sense. Where two or more senses are put to use both learning and memory increase: for example, listening and reading, or reading aloud, or sight and touch. Even studying near the scent of roses has a positive impact. Elaboration is another key: the more routes one takes to the goal – such as via concept maps or annotating the pages of books – the stronger the learning. One chapter describes many ways of discerning patterns and “chunking” blocks of information to help make learning easier and faster. The chapter on memory reminds us that cramming is not nearly as effective as “distributed practice,” processing material in smaller bites over a longer period of time, which gives the brain time – it needs at least an hour – to do its work. This means that taking classes back-to-back, with little or no break in between, is nearly always a bad idea, especially in regard to the material in the first class. Resting between classes or learning activities, as well as taking short naps and breaks, daydreaming, or going for a walk or run, turn out to be essential for effective learning.
Many students are told in elementary school how smart they are, as if learning is a fixed attribute, rather than being praised for the hard work they are doing, which affirms their learning as a process of steady “growth.” As a result, they often have difficult transitions in middle school and beyond, where the material demands more and more effort. Long-term success is a result of steady work and effective learning strategies, not intelligence.
The New Science of Learning’s extensive use of citations provides lots of trails to follow if the reader is inclined to go deeper, but also makes the book choppier and less engaging than if the authors had rephrased the information in their own words. But this is a minor quibble. I plan to give a copy of this book to my son, who will start college next year, as well as my daughter, a high school sophomore, mostly because I learned so much about how to learn that I wish I had known long ago.
Teach students where they are! This forthright adage is deceptively difficult. The question becomes – where are they in proximity to my own location? In other words, what does it mean for the effectiveness of my teaching if the cost of locating my students is heart wrenching? I am invested in ...
Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates
Date Reviewed: July 15, 2015
Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, by Richard Arum, professor in the Department of Sociology at NYU and senior fellow at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Josipa Roska, associate professor of sociology and education and associate director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education at the University of Virginia, is the much-anticipated sequel to the authors’ celebrated, often cited, and hotly debated Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011), which documented in great detail the academic gains – and stagnation – of some 2,300 students of traditional college age enrolled at a range of 4-year college and universities. In the 2011 report, students were measured on gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and other “higher level” skills taught at college, and the results were not encouraging. The most often-cited findings included: 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college; and 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college. The main culprit for students’ lack of academic progress, the authors claimed, is lack of rigor, particularly with respect to critical reading and analytical writing.
Aspiring Adults Adrift tracks the same cohort of undergraduates out into the working world into (what should be) adulthood, and documents their struggles to make the transition to traditional adult roles. The results of this follow-up study are no more inspiring: 24 percent of graduates living at home with their parents; 74 percent of graduates receiving financial support (in some cases quite substantial) from their families; and 23 percent of graduates in the labor market who are unemployed or underemployed. Despite these discouraging findings, however, the authors report that these graduates are quite optimistic about their futures, 95 percent of them reporting that they expect their lives to be better than their parents. The authors set out to determine what accounts for this optimism.
One compelling argument put forward by Arum and Roksa is a theory given recent prominence by social psychologist Jeffrey Arnett in his notion of “emerging adulthood,” a new demographic identified as the period between eighteen and twenty-five years of age, a period of “self discovery” and “self exploration” during which adolescence is extended; a period in which these aspiring college-educated young adults struggle with identity exploration, instability, and self-focus, often do not live independently, are un- or underemployed, and do not have the income to be financially self-sufficient.
Arum and Roksa put the blame, fairly or unfairly, largely on institutions of higher education, and their commitment to “promoting a personnel perspective that celebrate(s) self-exploration and social well-being” (11) – put more bluntly, that caters to the ethos of consumer society, and a broader “cultural adoption of a therapeutic ethic” (9): “both the students and institutions have put such a high focus on social engagement as a key component of higher education that the students have come to believe that it’s those skills and networks that are going to be critically important for their lifelong success.” The evidence, however, suggests otherwise; that the emphasis on social “engagement” at the expense of academic rigor is not achieving these results. “Widespread cultural commitment to consumer choice and individual rights, self-fulfillment and sociability, and well-being and a broader therapeutic ethic leave little room for students or schools to embrace programs that promote academic rigor” (136). It is, the authors contend, ultimately a mutually-reinforcing race to the bottom: “This may reflect the self-centered nature of emerging adulthood,” they write, “or the education system’s decreasing emphasis on preparing individuals for participating in a democratic society. Whatever the underlying causes of this tendency, colleges could adopt a more productive role in the development of values and dispositions for greater engagement with the world at large” (113). In essence, the responsibility is ours, as educators, to reject consumer satisfaction as “a worthy aim for colleges and universities” and “do more to help students develop the attitudes and dispositions they need to reach their aspirations” (134). Wherever the solutions lie to the oft-cited “crisis in higher education,” the authors of Aspiring Adults Adrift have once again contributed significantly to the centrality of educator-led reform.
An Illinois Sampler: Teaching and Research on the Prairie
Date Reviewed: June 16, 2015
While this book is dedicated to students, chapters showcase the dedication of professors to providing effective learning formats in diverse fields. An Illinois Sampler: Teaching and Research on the Prairie highlights teaching methods at the University of Illinois that can be applied elsewhere. It would be an excellent book for a new professor, including one looking for field opportunities for their students. The nineteen chapters are very short, but in essence provide quickly consumable case studies of everything from inmate education and research abroad to flipped classrooms and the standard lecture format. It would work well for a small group discussion of education students who could read it together while in session. Topics for small group discussion could include holistic education, teaching from the sciences and humanities, and student-centered learning.
Higher education administrators might also appreciate an overview of some of the programs at the University of Illinois. However, these chapters are just glimpses of the authors’ insights; some readers might need to pursue further research. Examples like Rosu’s highlights of the iFoundry program created by the engineering faculty and Denofrio-Corrales and Lu’s innovative Chemistry and Biology of Everyday Life (CBEL) course structure organize around students’ interests. Precisely how they do it could be the theme for another book. Instead of a recipe, we are given a taste of the passion and flavor of University of Illinois teaching practices.
This book is dedicated to students. The authors capture a learning environment that alumni and current students can be proud of, but the Illinois Sampler shows that across the spectrum, the professors dedicate their work to their students. In pages of reflection by faculty in the humanities and sciences serving traditional and nontraditional students, teaching with traditional and nontraditional methods, An Illinois Sampler teaches what it means to teach: It is a statistics professor trying to make numbers lead to a better quality of life. It is a lecturer uncovering the living complexity of once simple fairy tales. It is an education behind bars professor who liberates minds. It is the professor learning from collaboration with their students, and reigniting a teaching passion for and by them.
This book acts as a sampler in its composition, moving from highlights in music to math to literature to science to dance. Unconventionally juxtaposed, one discipline does not outweigh the other. Everyone will be able to find something appealing in it because of the broad inclusion, and, readers will gain knowledge from perspectives across disciplines. It should also be noted that contributors “vary not only by expertise but also in age, gender, nationality, career stage, and even their position in the academic hierarchy” (ix). The real success of this book is the variety. An Illinois Sampler is both a recommended read and endeavor.
Changing Minds and Brains: The Legacy of Reuven Feuerstein Higher Thinking and Cognition Through Mediated Learning
Date Reviewed: May 15, 2015
Until his death at ninety-three in 2014, Reuven Feuerstein was a leader in the fields of cognitive development, cognitive assessment, and education. His theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability through the application of mediated learning experience (MLE) is widely applied in the context of educational and personal remediation for children and adolescents (but also adults) with deep learning disabilities as well as those with cognitive and affective impairments. “Much of Feuerstein’s professional life was spent – working with children and youth who were culturally different or culturally deprived – in Feuerstein’s own terms. These clinical experiences led him to focus on the developmental consequences of sociocultural disadvantage and atypical development” (xiii).
The essays in this book were chosen to reveal the evolution of the theory of mediated learning as developed by Reuven Feuerstein. The objectives of the book, according to the editors, are to expose readers to the writings of Feuerstein, to show the organic nature of the theory he developed and its implications for humankind, and to highlight the influence of Judaic culture in the formation and development of the theory (xxiii).
MLE is defined as “the interposition out of initiated, intelligent, goal-oriented individuals who interpose themselves between the world of stimuli impinging on the [learner] and interpret what one is supposed to see; not only this, but the mediator must be interested in and concerned with certain elements that the [learner] has to learn” (5). The goal of mediated learning is change, primarily change in the ways in which individuals approach learning and problem-solving situations (xiii).
Feuerstein claims there are two main theories that explain the modalities by which individuals learn and develop; one is through direct exposure where no awareness and consciousness is needed, primarily emphasized by behaviorists, and the second, postulated by Piaget, conceives learning as a sole product of the maturational process which makes the interaction with stimuli possible, according to the age and the maturational level of the brain. Feuerstein did not think these two theoretical perspectives really explained the way human intelligence develops. He proposed a third way, which requires the function of the human mediator, hence, his theory of Mediated Learning Experiences (19).
The majority of the book reviews the theory and methodology of MLE in great detail and deep explication. Chapters 1 through 8 will be of interest to those desiring to understand the theory and practice of MLE and its application to situations of remediation and work with particular populations.
Chapter 1 reviews the development of the concept of modifiability and how MLE’s foundational concept differs from Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and its assumptions. Chapter 2 describes the universal parameters and relevance of MLE and addresses why many do not receive adequate mediation. An important treatment in this chapter is Feuerstein’s differentiation between cultural differences and cultural deprivation in terms of the theory and its application.
Chapters 3 to 5 review MLE in greater depth, considering its application in education and other contexts, and review the concepts of the nature of change, behavior, and structural cognition related to mediated learning. Chapter 5 reviews more contemporary and emerging sources in behavioral and scientific fields that support and validate the theory and practice of MLE.
The later chapters of the book are of more specific relevance and interest to the readers of this journal. Chapter 6 describes Feuerstein’s search, in his later years, for the genesis and the development of spirituality (morality, ethics, religious belief) in the material and structural aspects of role development and cognition. Chapter 9 provides a very helpful review of how three pedagogies of questioning – Socratic dialogue, collaborative learning, and Talmudic pedagogy – are applied to mediated learning. Chapter 10 brings MLB into the modern context of digital communication and rapidly available information through technology. It provides a very challenging and articulate treatment of the implications of the changing nature of epistemology and pedagogy in the digital age.
While MLE tends to be a pedagogy applied to remediation with particular populations, understanding its theoretical basis for understanding cognition is of great value to any educator. In this volume, the later chapters reviewing cognition and spirituality and pedagogy related to the epistemology and cognition in the digital age are well worth reading.