12/22/2014 08:32 am ET Updated Feb 20, 2015

Learning from the Cognitive Science of Make It Stick

It was a canny move by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel to intersperse warnings against "confirmation bias" throughout their excellent Make It Stick. Although we educators in the progressive tradition(s) will stress their evidence that explains the failure of test-driven reform, true believers in output-driven reform will see the book as arguing for their latest spin -- that the key to school improvement is "tests worth teaching to."

Brown, Roediger and McDaniel make an excellent case that various progressive-type pedagogies have run afoul of some contemporary cognitive science. It is no criticism of their scholarship to say, however, that many of their insights have long ago been incorporated into the progressive-style professional development that was once routinely offered in traditional public schools.

Or, should I say that many of the findings of Make It Stick informed teacher training before they were besieged by the new data-driven approach to pedagogy? And, nowadays, it is advocates for Common Core standards and testing, not its opponents, who dismiss the value of background knowledge.

The problem, in my experience, has been that implementing their strategies is difficult and it is easy to give up on them. But, Brown et. al also articulate proposals that will make professional development more effective.

We who have long seen our purpose as helping students to "learn how to learn" certainly welcome Brown et. al's recommendation to teach students how their minds work and how to study. We accept the evidence that argues against "learning styles," while embracing "multiple intelligences." Certainly, we have no problem with the cognitive scientists' critiques of lecture, and we welcome their affirmations of peer instruction, group learning, active learning, analysis, synthesis, and problem solving.

We educators who admire the progressive tradition (while recognizing its flaws) have long seen the great value of the "growth mindset" of Carol Dweck. And, the American Federation of Teachers' American Educator has long showcased the cognitive research of Dan Willingham, as well as the case that lower skilled learners need more than "minimally directed instruction." Although there is some debate over the use of the word "grit," and the tone of the discussion over the need to nurture "delayed gratification," it has typically been the advocates of test-driven accountability, not classroom teachers, who deemphasize the role of the socio-emotional components of learning.

For nearly five decades, my teachers and colleagues have warned of the dangers of "cramming" and "massed" or focused and repetitive practice. Like Brown et. al, my college teachers advocated for "spaced" and "interleaved" practice, urging us to tackle challenges early, to draft writing assignments early and then put them away so we could "sleep on it" before drawing final conclusions.

Like most teachers, Brown, Roediger and McDaniel argue that we should help students push themselves and embrace learning challenges. My colleagues have always agreed with them that "easier isn't better." On the other hand, teachers' hands have often been tied by bureaucracy. We seek rigor but we don't want to be called on the carpet if our classes' grades are too low. In my experience, teachers agree with Brown et. al on embracing "desirable difficulties" and a reasonable amount of pushing students beyond their comfort levels, but we want to avoid "the Memo," which was my schools' name for the ubiquitous tool for pressuring teachers to "pass students on."

Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel implicitly question the old ideal of schools without grades, curriculum standards, and tests, and there is no point in arguing over that long deceased vision, In doing so, however, I believe they illustrate the way their possible confirmation biases clash with mine. They argue against rereading as a study method. But, I certainly learned much more from my second reading of Make It Stick. They make a great case against the mindless rereading of textbooks in order to prepare for tests. I doubt they intend to argue against rereading as a step in producing lifelong learners who revere and enjoy the written word in order to master prose and literature.

Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel make a great case for forcing learners to practice "retrieval" skills. They argue for quizzes and other graded and ungraded assessments to help students draw from long term memory and to engage in "reflection" on the learning process. They don't argue that testing is the only way to help calibrate students' judgments, but they seem to believe it is one necessary tool that should be used frequently and, preferably, with some stakes attached. I see nothing in Make It Stick, however, that proves that testing is more effective in actual classrooms than Socratic questioning, rigorous discussion, and writing to learn. While the book makes a great case for assessments as one valuable tool, I worry about the dangers inherent in testing, even when the stakes are low.

Consequently, I'm not persuaded that retrieval of information and the generation of concepts require us to go down the objective testing road, with its inherent dangers of reducing the seamless web of knowledge and learning to the quest for "right" answers. But, then again, my sense is that Brown et. al are closer to my position, worrying about the stakes on tests, than that of accountability-driven reformers.

Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel often fall back on life and death situations, arguing that they illustrate why it is necessary for pilots, doctors, and others who must make split second decisions to undergo the rigor of objective testing during their training. As a historian whose life is not on the line when practicing my profession, however, I am skeptical of that rationale, as well as the need for testing to deter the "hindsight bias," (which we condemn as "presentism.") Historians agree that people seeking to understand the world "hunger for narrative." We don't doubt that people have a tendency toward "imagination inflation," prompting humans to misremember events. Our answer, however, is the clash of narratives, not quizzes that tend to have objectively correct answers.

While appreciating the criticism of standardized testing being used as a "dipstick rather than a tool" for learning, I wish Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel had gone further. Reformers have used bubble-in accountability as club rather than a measurement. Too many accountability-driven reformers will see their criticism of "the illusions of knowing," which can be countered by testing, as evidence that they remain justified in using data-driven accountability as a weapon against the soft-hearted teachers. On the other hand, they wrote an objective, scholarly book; I don't know that it is fair to demand that they weigh in all on aspects of the contemporary edu-political battles.

I learned a great deal from Make It Stick. This was especially true after rereading it, studying key passages, discussing its methodology, and retrieving its evidence and logic to generate this post. Its authors may disagree, but I don't see a fundamental difference between their narrative and mine except in terms of one or two issues. I don't see testing as a priority for many types of teaching and learning. I see more danger in testing, even when stakes are low. And, on a minor point, I also see this new book as building on the research which influenced the education experts who helped teach me how to teach.

Fundamentally, my disagreement with Brown, Roediger and McDaniel seems to come down to this. I tested and graded students because it was part of my job. I have always incorporated much of Brown et. al's wisdom into my teaching, and now I am borrowing several of their new recommendations for my current classes. My priority is fighting the abuses of standardized testing. They seek to counter multiple choice testing with multiple types of assessments. That is not a disagreement worth fighting over, however, even though high stakes testing and the standardization wrought by corporate reform are.