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Learning Requires...

Learning Requires Family

By Alejandro Gibes de Gac

Not long after graduating from college, I joined Teach for America and became a first grade teacher in Philadelphia’s most impoverished barrio. In my students, I saw myself; and in their parents, I recognized my own. The connection was deeper than even our shared language, complexion, and experience of poverty. My students’ parents gazed at their children with the same unconditional love, unbridled optimism, and unwavering commitment with which my parents gazed at me. The same eyes with which my sister looks at my newborn niece. And yet my new school—and, more broadly, our system—seemed to approach these parents as liabilities rather than assets. The more deeply I became involved with education, I realized that instead of proactively inviting families into the learning process, schools serving low-income communities tend to focus inwardly and exclusively on classroom instruction.

Picture a child’s time as an orange. Their classroom experience—just 25 percent of their waking hours—is a small wedge from which the education sector is fixated on squeezing more and more juice. So I became interested in the complementary question: How can we juice the rest of the orange?

That has meant figuring out how we could enlist the single greatest—but most underutilized—natural resource in education: parents’ love for their children. Parents across the socioeconomic spectrum want the best learning outcomes for their kids; low-income parents often just need more guidance to juice the orange.

Growing up, I witnessed firsthand the lengths to which parents will go to offer their children a brighter future. In 1973, my father was imprisoned in his native Chile for writing a play that protested the country’s dictatorial leadership. After years of torture, he made it out alive. He was luckier than many; even luckier, he met my mother while living in exile in Paris. My mother is from Puerto Rico, the youngest of 12, and the first in her family to go to college. Though it meant giving up their own dreams, my parents immigrated to the U.S. so that my sister and I could have better educational opportunities. It is the kind of sacrifice that only a parent would make.

My mother and father may sound erudite the way I describe them; however, my teachers all too often perceived them as pushy immigrants with broken English. They failed to see in low-income parents the very same love, commitment, and potential easily recognized—and celebrated—in higher-income parents.

Over the last decade, college-educated parents have quadrupled their investment of time and money in their children; parents without a college degree have only modestly increased their investment. These mothers and fathers want the best for their children, and they are capable of being effective advocates; however, they often need extra guidance to help break the cycle of intergenerational wealth inequality. Harvard University economist Raj Chetty's research has found that the best predictor of a child's educational success is not the quality of their school but, rather, their parents’ income. To me, this means that classroom intervention without family engagement just isn’t enough. And the data bears me out: Fourth grade literacy rates in America have not budged in 25 years—and the achievement gap remains unmitigated—despite trillions invested in classroom intervention.

In 2011, I decided it was time for the education sector to finally try parent engagement in a systematic, outcome-oriented way. I founded Springboard Collaborative the next year to close the literacy gap by bridging the distance between home and school. Our primary goal is simple: We coach teachers and family members to help their children read on grade level.

There is no smaller classroom than a family’s living room, and there is no better way to personalize instruction than through a parent. What could be more personal than a parent and child sharing a book at bedtime? By training parents and teachers to collaborate in pre-K through third grade, Springboard puts kids on a path that closes the reading achievement gap by fourth grade. In a nation where you can draw a straight line from fourth grade reading scores to incarcerations rates, this changes lives.

Since its initial launch in Philadelphia, Springboard has grown its reach from 40 students to nearly 10,000 and has expanded to 12 additional cities. In schools that struggle to get 20 percent of parents to report-card conferences, our weekly family workshops average 91 percent attendance.

We’re off to a good start but have bigger dreams. Springboard will help 100,000 students reach reading goals and 30,000 students read on grade level by 2023. To do that, we are innovating to grow our impact exponentially. We developed a franchising model that trains others to use Springboard’s playbook. We also launched an app that helps families cultivate home reading habits. Finally, we are distilling the best practices from our programs and weaving them into a framework for embedding parent engagement into the school day, school year, and, ultimately, school culture.

In short, Springboard wants family involvement to be the new normal in learning. And when it is, our country will be raising a fully literate, upwardly mobile generation. That is the promise that brought my family to America, and it is a promise we can fulfill for millions more.

Alejandro Gibes de Gac is CEO and founder of Springboard Collaborative.

Learning Requires Remembering

By Pooja K. Agarwal

When you walk into my classroom on a Monday morning, you’ll see students hard at work. Silent, heads down, writing furiously, concentrating. Are they taking an exam? Quite the contrary.

On the very first day of the semester, I explain to my students at the Berklee College of Music that in my psychology class, there are no midterm exams, final exams, or papers. Immediately, they’re sold. But when I tell students they’ll be practicing their knowledge in our class, I always get blank looks. What do you mean, “practicing our knowledge?”

Of course, musicians know they have to practice their instruments—from voice and piano to guitar or saxophone—in order to learn and improve. They spend hours taking lessons, practicing independently, and performing every week. For musicians, practicing is like breathing: automatic and necessary. As musicians have known since the advent of music, when you practice what you know, you know it better. After the initial confusion, my students catch on that practicing their knowledge works the same way as practicing their instruments.

In my classroom, Monday mornings are an opportunity for students to practice their knowledge. For example, students respond to the following questions:

  • What’s one thing you learned about neuroscience last week? Why is it memorable?
  • A few weeks ago, we talked about strategies to avoid “choking under pressure,” or performing poorly under stress. What is one of those strategies? Have you used it before? Did it work?
  • Design an experiment related to your own life. What would be your independent variables (what you would manipulate or compare) and your dependent variables (what you would ultimately measure)?
  • Should humans conduct research on animals? Why or why not?

As a cognitive scientist, I practice what I preach. There are two specific research-based strategies I use in my classroom every day: retrieval practice and spacing.

In responding to these questions, my students engage in retrieval practice. When they retrieve their knowledge—that is, when they think back and pull information out of their heads—their long-term learning increases. More than 100 years of research demonstrates that retrieval practice is a powerful strategy to boost learning for all ages and in varied content areas (including math, science, and the humanities).

When we mentally travel back and have to remember something we learned, we might struggle a little bit. For example, what’s the name of the first president of the United States? That’s easy, but do you know the name of the fourth president of the United States? (Try to retrieve first, before you Google the answer.) The mental struggle you may have experienced is what scientists call a desirable difficulty. Struggling is good for learning, and yet we have a tendency to jump in during the learning process when a student seems stumped. In my classroom, I’m comfortable with silence. If students are struggling to remember something, that’s a good thing.

To further increase my students’ learning, I ask them to retrieve concepts they learned a while back—a strategy called spacing. When I ask my students to retrieve something they learned in class last week, they give me the classic “deer in the headlights” look. I smile, and I reassure them that this is how learning works. When they first encounter spacing, they are a bit embarrassed by what they have forgotten from the previous week. But pretty soon, they’re fascinated by what they do and don’t remember. “Gee, I remember more than I thought!” Or “How could I have forgotten that?” Spacing is like returning to a foreign country after 10 years and picking up the language more quickly than you expected—or performing a song you haven’t played in a long time, yet it feels like second nature.

Just like a weekly meeting with co-workers, I could start class by reviewing the “minutes” with my students: “OK, everyone, here’s what we discussed last time.” Instead, I combine retrieval practice and spacing in my classroom (and in meetings) by simply asking, “What did we discuss last time?” By switching from reviewing to retrieving, I no longer have to rehash or reteach content that was learned and quickly forgotten.

Zoom out with me for a moment. In one semester, I spend about 45 hours with my students. What do I want them to learn? Actually, I feel there’s a more critical question at stake: What do I want them to remember?

For me, what’s the value of learning without remembering? We remember life experiences from high school or college—a favorite professor, time spent with friends, the stress of exams—but we don’t (and won’t) remember every detail from every class. Don’t we want students to walk away from 12 years, 16 years, or 20-plus years of education having remembered at least a little bit of what they spent their time learning?

Learning requires remembering, and the way I see it, learning is remembering. Each week, my students aren’t writing furiously on an exam to prove what they’ve learned. They are retrieving to see what they know and to remember what they know. On Monday mornings, my students are practicing their knowledge, as simply as practicing their instrument.

Pooja K. Agarwal is a cognitive scientist, assistant professor at the Berklee College of Music, and author of Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. Voices: Learning Requires Remembering

Learning Requires Desire

By Liz Beigle-Bryant

 

Seven years ago, I was laid off from my job as an administrative assistant at a major technology corporation. I was 55 years old.

While there, I learned to administer multiple team intranet sites through a then-new software platform that helps teams collaborate. After losing my job, I realized a lot of people would hire me if I specialized in knowing how to customize intranet sites and pages, so I decided to learn how to do that. Then, I realized I needed to learn other skills to support the collaboration software, so I decided to learn the principles of user design and how to code.

When I told my family what I was going to do to find a new job, they thought I was crazy. Nobody would hire someone my age to work with some kind of specialized technology or software, they told me. But I was determined to do it anyway. There’s an old saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I promised myself I’d turn that on its head.

After all, this was not a new endeavor for me: I’m a lifelong learner. I learn new things not because other people are telling me to learn them, but because I want to. It’s an internal drive. I'm motivated to do it—and I’m motivated to follow through.

I taught myself the software program and the coding online. I found a website that offers lessons in bite-sized pieces, which allowed me to learn a little bit at a time and build on it. I didn’t have to spend two hours in a classroom. I didn’t even have to spend 40 minutes online. I could learn something new in five minutes, 10 minutes, or even two minutes. I’m comfortable with this way of learning. I learn visually and take notes, old-school style, because it helps me remember. Learning online or through the new educational services on the web really opens up the world.

This desire for learning began when I was young. I was bullied as a kid. My favorite place became the library and books became my friends. It was natural for me to go learn something new. I came from a family without much money, and the only way that I could learn to do something was to find free access. As online learning became more popular and the internet became part of our everyday lives, I found I could access more learning tools for free.

In high school, the counselors discouraged me from studying computers in college, so I went to UC-Irvine and majored in art, with a minor in biology. When I got out, I worked for aerospace and petroleum companies drafting technical illustrations, publications, and engineering diagrams. When engineering software became the industry norm, I couldn’t afford to buy it or take the expensive courses to learn it. I started volunteering at work to learn word processing, spreadsheets, and desktop publishing on a PC. This allowed me to transition to work as an administrative assistant. I continued to volunteer for any project that would let me learn new productivity software throughout the early 1990s.

After taking a long break to raise my son, I had to reenter the job market in the early 2000s, so I retrained myself by reading time management books to improve scheduling and meetings for executives and teams, and went to work as an administrative assistant. I learned a lot about strong collaboration, communication, and following through on tasks. It’s amazing how many soft skills, such as working well with people, are actually needed in a job.

For each of the different jobs I had, I needed new skills. And learning new skills helped me gain the confidence that I could do it again. In today’s marketplace, you have to always be willing to make changes and find the inner strength to do it. Continuing to learn is one way to give yourself that strength.

Within a month of learning web coding in 2012, I received an offer from a local company to be a specialist for the collaboration software I first worked with seven years ago. It’s my dream job, and the trajectory of my life has totally changed.

I now realize I want to be an engineer, that I have always wanted to be an engineer. I work with policies, procedures, and processes, and thinking through risks and what could go wrong, so a process engineer makes the most sense so that I can continue to move up within my company. It seems kind of crazy to want to do that at age 60, but it would be so much fun. I’m capable of learning a new trade—and I’ve done it a number of times—so I can do it again. And I will.

When I think about all the different things that I can do, it makes me happy. It gives me hope. It’s important to keep learning because it keeps you energized, keeps you engaged with living, and helps you grow. You also discover new things about yourself. The biggest gift you can give yourself is to learn new things.

Liz Beigle-Bryant lives in the Seattle region.

How the Brain Learns