John Jensen: Permanent Learning is Possible, and We Know How

by John Jensen, Ph.D.

In Beverly Hills Cop, Axel Foley, played by Eddie Murphy, stuffs a banana into the tailpipe of the car of the two policemen assigned to make sure he leaves town.  He drives off and their car stops.  A banana halts a multi-thousand dollar system designed to move people efficiently.

John Jensen, Ph.D.

A system is an intricate array of details working in harmony with a larger structure that sustains them.  We think of systems as resilient because they cope successfully with  challenging conditions. But when parts depend on other parts, a single one failing can stop the whole thing.  When a two-dollar rubber belt under the hood breaks, the whole engine quits. We constantly look for the breakdowns in our systems, and fix the details that caused them.

Education comprises a hierarchical system extending from the micro (one child thinking one thought) up to the formal structure of U.S. society with its Congressional appropriations and Department of Education.  Somewhere along it should be points where interventions can enhance its operation. Where do we aim?

Top-down approaches are popular these days  for structural  rather than educational reasons. “The top” is where money is controlled and employees’ actions can be redirected even though a channeling effect occurs by starting here. People may do their job in ways drifting far from their ostensible educational purpose. We’ve watched billions spent and armies of people marshaled into changes that have produced mediocre fruits.

We might be more likely to find the game-changer at the micro end of the system where a key detail could make a disproportionate difference.  For example, with firearms, a quantum leap up from muzzle-loaders came with development of the cartridge and of rifling instead of a smooth barrel. Improvement of the auto (top speed now challenging the sound barrier) has been by incremental changes in details: gasoline for fuel, ball bearings, gaskets, cylinders, and so on. In education we would like to identify the detail that ramps up performance, the banana removed from the tailpipe that enables the whole system to take off.

So where at the simple level is a glitch we might change cheaply and easily? One is sandwiched right next to students’ very thought processes. We give them a thought today and tomorrow it’s gone!

The problem is not peripheral, accidental, nor occasional. We can hardly get more basic than a pattern replicated daily coast to coast undermining the very essence of education. We exerted effort yesterday to plant a thought and today it has already disappeared. Imagine the progress possible if we could alter that, if we could reliably teach them something today and tomorrow they still have it. Such a change could be transforming. If we could learn how to lengthen for just a day the otherwise self-extinguishing knowledge that flows through their attention,  we might be able to  extrapolate how to extend it for two days, and from two days to a week, a week to a month, and a month to a year.  Students able to assimilate learning would make quantum gains rapidly. The more they retained about what they already knew, the more readily they could integrate new ideas.

Granted that some may not regard this as a problem. We see what we want.  Henry Ford, asked why he didn’t have more car colors, replied, “People can have any color they want, as long as it’s black.”  We could similarly define top auto speed of 20 m.p.h. as no problem—unless we say it is.  And children forgetting most of what crosses their mind (and teachers constantly re-teaching it) is no problem–unless we say it is.  What’s the rush, after all?   If you want to teach children at 20 m.p.h. and your district agrees, case closed.

Our freedom even to deny that a problem exists is the reason why we desperately need imagination.  We must at least conceive the problem and a direction for a solution.  Consider that in the Middle Ages, people could have built a hang glider with materials available then, so why wasn’t it done?  It wasn’t done because someone had to recognize the possibility and have a clue about how to build one. And why aren’t people interested today in stretching how deeply and quickly children can master substantial knowledge?  Why isn’t it important to push that boundary?

To be honest, I don’t know. Maybe the reason is inability to picture it as possible.  Maybe it’s  having no clue for how to go about it.  Maybe it’s decades of attention channeled in the standard track, like a horse with blinders.  But regardless of why the issue is ignored, the embarrassment is that we already know how to do it.  It has been understood for decades but not utilized.

Any conscious adult uses the standard means to carry knowledge one day to another—for work, for learning, to get a driver’s license. We rehearse what we want to call up. Later we demonstrate that we have learned it by calling it up again. We demonstrate it later by doing it earlier.  We do the same thing beforehand but in a rough, primitive, and clunky form; then smooth it out by doing it more.

The way you learn to explain the Civil War is by explaining it.  You learn to ski by skiing. You learn to play a musical instrument by playing it.  You learn to do mathematics by doing mathematics. You begin with basics grasped approximately and do them at the level you understand. Then you repeat them while adding more variables and nuances, a fundamental  pattern applying to all learning, K-12.  Do it first simply.  Hold onto that much and add to it.  Do it again. Hold onto that much. Do it again.  Add to it.  Save. Add. Save. Add.

If I have overlooked some confounding variable contradicting my point above, anyone is welcome to bring a ball peen hammer to my skull.  I am ready for someone to convert me. But so far, I just don’t get where the mystery lies. Is there anything else that will produce the eventual skill than actually doing it?

If you agree that there is not, let me suggest a shorthand way of describing it. It’s called practice.  “Practice makes perfect,” remember?  Skill development is in proportion to the quantity and quality of practice. And we practice knowledge by expressing it.  Later we will be called on to demonstrate what we know, so in practice, we demonstrate at first haltingly what we know piece by incremental piece. We add all our pieces of apprehended learning into a comprehensive field that hangs together in our mind.

If we don’t do this, we don’t achieve the field. No practice = no skill development.  Nearly all students receive grossly inadequate practice for the learning expected of them, and many get none at all—even while adults wonder, “Why aren’t these kids learning?”  The reason they don’t is that the instructional design engulfing them does not proportion class time use for the assimilation of knowledge.

Teachers interested in change would want to know how to redesign class time.  For this, it’s important to understand the necessity of a match between goal and method.  You may want to get across thirty points of knowledge today, but the goal works only if your methods match it: “Yes, I can get thirty points started into everyone’s permanent learning today, and with proper followup can guarantee that they reach that level with it. And I can do the same tomorrow and the next day.”  Method and goal coincide.

But your self-talk may go like this: “I want to get thirty points of knowledge across, so I’ll present them, and the children will do the best they can. But I know in my heart that some will understand few points, some will grasp most, but only a small number will actually retain them permanently. I need to count on other teachers later to reinforce  these ideas.”  The match between goal and method?  Poor.

A third scenario. “I want to get thirty points across, but realistically twenty is the best they can do day by day and still make them permanent, so I’m cutting back my presentations to twenty.” How is the match?  Excellent.  Goal and method align. The teacher proportions the bite of knowledge to what followup can reasonably handle.  But only twenty points a day? Why be so stingy? The governing criteria are first the resolve to achieve permanent learning, and second, accepting its discipline of method.

To really have a goal (and not just smoke-and-mirrors window-dressing), you use the goal as a criterion for what you choose to do. Here, by designing permanent learning, we determine the optimum pace.  The faster ideas reach the “permanent” end of the pipeline, the faster we can insert fresh ones into its beginning. The pipeline itself remains valid as long as we use outcomes as our standard. When our emphasis instead is on certain pace of required input, the more we present that students cannot master, the more we reduce instruction merely to familiarization, and the less that marginal students actually learn.

Instruction time is no longer apportioned so students assimilate what they receive, both students and teachers fall under pressure they have no means of meeting, and “covering” materials determines pacing. It’s like obliging students to eat their lunch in five minutes but because they can’t, concluding that we must stuff food into their mouths. They either throw up or rebel, because eating doesn’t work that way.

Comparably, people don’t assimilate ideas by facing an unending stream of them. Teachers sabotage such required pacing anyway by the use of “review questions for the test” that years back would have been regarded as teacher-complicit cheating.  Review questions acknowledge that learning to that point has been tenuous, for familiarity instead of mastery, and now faced with an impending test, teachers must settle on a few important things.

So first we choose to teach anything at all for permanent learning.  Once applying this purpose to all our students, and grasping the methods that accomplish it, we can expand the quantity we raise to that standard. Next we choose to teach that way from Day One rather than just in the last two weeks of the term.  Currently the system does not oblige teachers to teach for permanent learning, and it fails to distinguish the methods that bring it about. Teachers present, re-present, involve, circle back, assign homework, and so on, in a manner that structurally produces long-term learning only for some students and some ideas, not all for all.

To appreciate how easy permanent learning can be, we examine teachers’ personal experience: “You learn a subject by teaching it.” We can recast this slightly as “To the extent that teachers make knowledge understandable to someone else, they enhance their own understanding.”  Stated as talking time, we find that  for students to learn as well as teachers do, they must explain their learning as much as teachers do. If the teacher talks for fifteen minutes explaining a lesson, students need to take turns in pairs for thirty minutes, each spending fifteen minutes expressing what the teacher explained.  Once they can explain the material correctly, their route to permanent mastery is clear: Do the same with chunks of increasing size until they can explain the whole course beginning to end.  To breed the next generation of great teachers, saturate their school years with joy communicating to peers their mastery of one subject after another.

Some might object that this won’t work because students are not disciplined enough to work together. To the contrary, this is easy to arrange, and students cooperate because they enjoy the activity. I explain how to go about it in my books (noted below), proofs of which I can send to anyone interested.

This is our banana-level detail: students explaining their learning to each other.  The social aspect reinforces its significance, the explanatory aspect broadens their understanding, and the repetitive aspect deepens their assimilation.  Cause and effect. Ease of design. No cost. No mystery. No excuse.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request: jjensen@gci.net

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net.