Does Science Hold the Solution to Education’s Woes?

It is a common sight at secondary schools as well as colleges and universities: students studiously highlighting textbook passages in neon ink in preparation for an upcoming exam. Later they go back and reread the text they’ve highlighted, hoping that doing so will prepare them for their upcoming test.

Yet study after study has shown that this method is one of the least effective ways for students to absorb and recall content they’ve covered in class, writes Daniel T. Willingham, a noted authority on neuroscience as it applies to education. Instead, students would do better by quizzing themselves and each other. A recent study found that students who read the text only once recalled information culled from it at least 50% better than students who read and reread the same material on at least four separate occasions. Results like these have researchers scratching their heads and wondering why, in the face of all the evidence, teachers persist in encouraging their students to utilize this and other equally ineffective studying techniques.

Some say that this is just a a symptom of how academic institutions fail to take into account scientific knowledge of how the mind takes in and processes information when designing their courses and academic materials. There’s also a reluctance to let go of conventional wisdom that often guides decisions in the academic sphere — even if that wisdom has been proven faulty.

For example, a common misconception is that teaching content is less important than teaching critical thinking skills or problem-solving strategies. Scientists have also long known that kids must be explicitly taught the connections between letters and sounds and that they benefit most when such instruction is planned and explicit. Yet some reading programs, even those used in large school districts, teach this information only if an instructor sees the need.

The temptation to blame teachers for being moribund in their thinking and for failing to keep up to date on scientific developments must be overwhelming. Still, those who indulge in this kind of blame game tend to set aside that even without the added responsibility, the profession is already time-consuming. In addition, sorting out what constitutes solid science and what is nothing more than quackery might be difficult for those not familiar with the language of academic research. There’s a lot of money to be made from having the solution to whatever ails the education system today, so companies who are peddling their own version of the cure spend a lot of money lobbying school districts and governments, and counting on their scientific ignorance not to be able to tell if what’s being sold is the educational equivalent of snake oil.

How are educators supposed to know which practices to use? An institution that vets research and summarizes it for educators could solve the problem. Medicine provides a precedent. Practicing physicians do not have the time to keep up with the tens of thousands of research articles published annually that might suggest a change in treatment. Instead they rely on reputable summaries of research, published annually, that draw conclusions as to whether the accumulated evidence merits a change in medical practice. Teachers have nothing like these authoritative reviews. They are on their own.