How Do People Learn?
Here at the Mastery School of Hawken, we believe that schools should build around the discoveries and insights of cognitive neuroscience rather than the inherited traditions of the factory model of the 19th century.
The fact is that today, we simply know more about how people learn than we ever have before. The Mastery School of Hawken is rare in its commitment to use this new knowledge for the benefit of students.
You’ll see this commitment in how we employ the methodology of the Korda Institute for Teaching and the ways we’ve designed our days, semesters, and program elements. It’s why we do away with grades and use Mastery Credits instead.
The Mastery School puts research into practice, which, it turns out, makes school a whole lot more fun and purposeful.
Start with Strengths
Here’s a sad fact: “In 2016, nearly two-thirds of college students reported ‘overwhelming anxiety,’ up from 50 percent just five years earlier, according to the National College Health Assessment” (Flannery).
We can point to a whole host of potential sources for this phenomenon, but clearly one is how schools often function in students’ lives.
And how couldn’t it be?
Much of school focuses on deficits — what students don’t know, what they can’t do, what they need to fix — and, so is it any wonder that many end their high school educations convinced that they’re not ready for the world that awaits them?
Research points us in a different direction.
Learning endures when students are emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually engaged and when they feel safe, seen, and supported. Students who build on strengths rather than focusing on deficits end up with deeper and more enduring learning. (Lopez and Louis).
And this isn’t just about making teens feel better about themselves (though that is a noble and necessary goal as well). It’s that when we start with strengths, students are more capable of improving what needs improving.
At the Mastery School, we put these insights into practice in our various programmatic elements, including Wayfinding. We offer an individualized journey that allows students to weave their strengths into and work on their growing edges throughout their educational experiences.
Neuroscience and Real World Learning
“The brain becomes what it does,” says Dr. Lou E Whitaker, life-long educator and researcher. It turns out that the brain is malleable. It has what the scientists call “neuroplasticity.”
“Just as hedges are pruned to cut off errant shoots that don’t communicate with many neighboring leaves, the brain prunes its own inactive cells…By the time we enter adolescence, our brain has chosen most of the final neurons it will keep throughout our adult life based on which cells are used and which are not” (Willis and Willis).
What kind of education inspires the most neural growth? The answer: Real World Problem Solving. Just ask researcher Vasanth Sarathy.
Mastery vs The Assembly Line
The best learning experiences often use the oldest teaching method: apprenticeship. It’s how learning happens in the animal kingdom and how human beings learned before the industrial model that put kids in rows, preparing for tests distantly removed from the world.
Mastery-Based education returns the ancient model to school where trusted adults help students work towards mastery of specific skills, knowledge and habits described in the Mastery Standards.
We’ve known for decades that this model encourages deeper, more enduring learning. Now, we’re building a school that puts that insight into practice.
It would be interesting and discouraging to spend a year counting how many essays, tests, and projects get stuffed into the backpack the moment after the student scans for the letter grade.
No wonder so many students have a hard time transferring lessons learned from one task to another. We teach them that learning ends at the B+.
Research tells us that a key element of deep and enduring learning is reflection.
Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, allows students — and all of us, really — to “understand how we best learn and develop skills to think about, connect with, and evaluate our learning and interactions each day” (Poth).
“When children are born, their brains aren’t fully formed. The brain creates a large [number] of synapses, or neural links, between cells. During adolescence these synapses get cut back, or pruned: The brain eliminates the connections that aren’t important. One way the brain determines what’s important and what’s not is through real-world experiences and how frequently synapses are used, which is why independence is crucial for development.”Nancy Keates
“Learners will be more motivated to learn, will engage more deeply with the material, and will remember it longer if it feels personally relevant to them.”Julia Hayden Galindo
“Often, students spend way too much time studying and being tested on things that are only peripheral to the main goals of the unit, without focusing on the big picture or long-term goals. For instance, some teachers quiz students on facts but fail to show them the big picture of why they need to know the facts; sometimes teachers spend so much time teaching a particular skill that they forget to convey to the students how to apply this skill to the real world.”Denise Pope
“In research with experts who were asked to verbalize their thinking as they worked, it was revealed that they monitored their own understanding carefully, making note of when additional information was required for understanding, whether new information was consistent with what they already knew, and what analogies could be drawn that would advance their understanding. These meta-cognitive monitoring activities are an important component of what is called adaptive expertise.”National Research Council
“Strengths-based models embody a student-centered form of education with the primary goal of transforming students into confident, efficacious, lifelong learners whose work is infused with a sense of purpose.”Shane J. Lopez and Michelle C. Louis