Better Learners

Most of the debate around education reform tends to criticize the learning model in place. It is often accused of being outdated and based upon the needs of society during the industrial revolution. While intellectually seductive, it is not realistic from a political standpoint or feasible from an economic one to propose that we dismantle the architecture in place. Most importantly, it is unnecessarily one-sided. In education, as in economics, there is supply and demand. Calls for reform tend to focus only on the supply side of this equation: the distribution of knowledge by schools, teachers, and tutors.

As a society, we put much effort into optimizing this side of the equation. Families relocate to neighborhoods with reputable public schools or make economic sacrifices to send students to private schools, often hiring private tutors on top of this. These efforts focus on improving the quality of educational “input” — or “supply,” to use economic terms. Our implicit hope is that the better the supply, the better the outcome (a student’s education). To be sure, exceptional output requires exceptional input. Indeed, in recent years, schools and teachers have begun to incorporate breakthroughs in neuroscience into their pedagogy and curricula. This brings an understanding of the neurological variation inherent to any classroom, and the limits such heterogeneity imposes. This knowledge can help tailor lessons and instructional methods, to the extent that these interventions are uniformly positive. While these and other steps can be taken to improve the supply side of the educational equation, optimal learning outcomes are achieved only when we pair good teaching with an effective learner. That is, we need to address demand as well as supply.

Success in developing better learners should not be defined through standardized tests, but rather by the degree to which we develop students’ cognition and metacognition: their ability to learn and self-monitor their learning for life.

The “demand” side of the educational equation represents learning — the effectiveness and independence with which a student processes and absorbs taught material. Learning is dependent on the strength of a student’s cognitive skills and how these skills interact. Every student’s brain is wired differently, and therefore each student learns differently. Each has a unique learning style, determined in part by the inevitable gaps or relative weaknesses in their cognitive skills. As a result, our brains develop automatic mechanisms to compensate, taking advantage of our personal cognitive strengths to mitigate the inevitable weaknesses. Yet, some cognitive skill weaknesses can sabotage the entire leaning process for a student while disrupting the classroom environment.

The degree to which we can compensate for a weakness depends on how heavily the weak skill is tasked, exactly how weak the skill is, and the extent to which other skills depend on it. For example, attention, working memory, and processing speed are all essential for directing information to appropriate parts of the brain. If any of these skills are weak, the learning process can be sabotaged and a student may visibly struggle, or more insidiously, their struggle may not even be evident.