Brain-Based Learning

4 Steps to Build Schoolwide Capacity in the Science of Learning

The science of learning encompasses findings in several fields, and these steps help demystify it and encourage gradual adoption—one strategy at a time.

September 22, 2022
Dan Mitchell / Ikon Images

A 2019 survey found that over 75 percent of teachers polled voiced belief in disproven strategies that directly contradict what we know about learning, while a more recent EdWeek survey found that six out of 10 elementary teachers are still using debunked literacy strategies.

As schools grapple with the dawning realization that what we know about how students learn has changed—and thus how we teach probably needs to evolve as a result—how should we approach the science of learning?

Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in how findings from science can inform classroom practice, with the growing application of increasingly popular strategies like retrieval and spaced practice. But ultimately—though the majority of these scientific findings are not brand-new—widespread adoption is still slow-moving, and many of these ideas are only just now making their way into teacher training programs.

Simply put, most educators did not learn this stuff in school.

It’s no surprise that some teachers can be justifiably daunted by the science of learning, which has evolved into a catch-all umbrella term, encompassing findings made in the fields of cognitive science, neurology, psychology, and other related disciplines; there’s a lot to cover. When boiled down to a strategy-of-the-week approach, the concepts can become gimmicky—yet another instructional fad that soon will pass. But top-down introductions or mandates from well-meaning administrators do nothing to allay these concerns.

Several Bronx high schools have spent the last several years exploring a different way: helping teachers improve their instruction by focusing on small moves that tap into these research-backed concepts. Schools formed instructional leadership teams, or ILTs: small groups of veteran teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators. During weekly meetings, these teams engage in a four-step process to support the slow but steady adoption of the science of learning—one common strategy at a time.

1. Study the Science

When team members understand why a strategy works, they are much more likely to incorporate it into their instructional practice.

As a first step, ILT members devoted several months to studying concepts within the science of learning. Instead of briefly focusing on one specific strategy to implement, members of the team took the time to better understand the cognitive science behind what makes strategies effective.

In the Bronx, several primers formed the basis for various teams’ explorations, including Deans for Impact’s 2015 brief on the science of learning and Barak Rosenshine’s 2012 article on the principles of instruction. Regardless of what resource is used, the first, and longest, step is to study the cognitive science aspect, or the “why.”

As part of this investigation, the teachers began experimenting with new techniques in their classroom, sharing their challenges and successes each week with their colleagues at the meetings. They recorded their discussions on “rolling agendas”—running Google Docs where they could record their conversations each week in real time.

2. Break Down One Strategy Into Component Parts

When the team feels ready, teachers identify one strategy to practice implementing across all of their classes. In doing so, they work to break down the strategy into its component parts and attempt to implement each part with fidelity.

“Feeling ready” is an intentionally fuzzy metric. Some teams may be inspired by their discoveries and quickly identify a strategy they want to develop schoolwide. Others—especially if these ideas are brand-new to them—may be more cautious. What is crucial here is that ILT members recognize their role as both instructional leaders and open-minded experimenters looking into how these ideas will work for their school community.

At the Bronx’s High School for Violin and Dance, for example, their ILT identified the mini-quiz strategy as a common practice they wanted to support throughout the school. Mini-quizzes are a form of retrieval practice where teachers devote the first 5 minutes of class time toward asking students a short series of questions. Deceptively simple retrieval strategies like these have proven to significantly improve retention of learned content.

The ILT started by analyzing and breaking down the mini-quizzes’ basic characteristics:

  • Since the goal was to support retention rather than hold students accountable, the quizzes would not be graded, which lowered the stakes.
  • At least one question would need to be about something learned that week, another about something learned last unit, and another from earlier in the year.
  • There could be no more than five questions, and the quiz should take no more than 5 minutes.

3. Test-Drive the Strategy

With the strategy identified and broken down into its component parts and characteristics, members next attempted to implement the strategy into their own classrooms with fidelity. Team members often found this to be an important step, as a new strategy never goes quite as originally intended.

In the case of the mini-quiz pilot, five questions in 5 minutes proved to be too much, so team members shortened the length to between three and four questions maximum. They also limited the quizzes to no more than twice per week.

During this step, team members observed each other to see the strategy in action. Visiting colleagues’ classrooms helped establish a sense of openness and shared purpose among the team. Although hearing feedback from a colleague about how they thought the pilot was going could be helpful, seeing it for oneself proved to be far more beneficial and supportive of the entire team’s test-drive of the plan.

4. Scale the Practice

Once members felt comfortable understanding the components of the strategy and how to implement it in their own classrooms, the ILT brought it to the wider faculty.

Successful ILTs did not rush this step but instead followed a version of steps one through three with the larger faculty. Team members first devoted faculty meeting time to sharing their own discoveries about the science of learning and then introduced the chosen strategy and its component parts in later sessions. Over the next few weeks, ILT members facilitated breakout conversations and inter-classroom visitations to support their colleagues and share how things were going.

For many ILTs, this was a real shift from how they were accustomed to supporting their colleagues. Remember, the purpose here is to support peers in learning and implementing a strategy that science has already proven works. This is less an inquiry into what might work for students than into how to implement a strategy we know works.

That is a subtle but important shift. It frees faculties from creating hypotheses and collecting data to prove a theory and instead allows them to focus on a proven pedagogical technique. I’ve found that nothing kills enthusiasm for a new instructional idea quicker than giving teachers a spreadsheet to track progress. Instead, student impact is measured anecdotally, as recorded at teacher meetings.

Because many of these concepts are new to so many of us, adapting our teaching takes time. The four steps used by the Bronx ILTs don’t offer a quick fix, but they do represent an authentic means of supporting an entire school’s faculty to grow in the science of learning.

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  • Administration & Leadership
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  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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