Blog: The Educated Reporter

Covering Education Like a Science Writer

Benedict Carey of the New York Times speaks to EWA members at Stanford University on, Nov. 18, 2014. (EWA/Emily Richmond)

New York Times science writer Benedict Carey studied what cognitive psychologists have figured out for his book “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why it Happens.”

Neuroscientists are studying the biology of the brain and it’s likely that important research will eventually result, “but they’re still in the weeds,” Carey told reporters gathered for an Education Writers Association seminar at Stanford University. “All the action in learning science is in cognitive psychology.”

A federal What Works Clearinghouse study guide taps current research. (On a related note, the National Academies of Science is about to revisit its seminal 1999 report, “How People Learn”). “It’s ready – there is a full course to be taught in this,” Carey said during his presentation at the November EWA event.

The challenge for reporters is “figuring out the crap from the good stuff,” Carey said.

“We all get dreamy when we think about improving education,” he said, citing films like “Stand and Deliver,” “To Sir with Love,” or “Freedom Writers.”

Carey recommended going straight to the source for information, but said to expect scientists to be wary that their work might be hyped beyond all recognition by journalists.

His go-to experts include Dan Willingham of the University of Virginia. “He’s a good guy and he bites,” said Carey – in other words, a straight-shooter. That’s what you need, Carey said, someone to tell you how solid the research is. Other recommendations included Hal Pashler at the University of California San Diego; Elizabeth BjorkRobert Bjork, and Phil Kellman at the University of California Los Angeles; and University of South Florida professor Doug Rohrer. “They know this science,” he said.

And what is the science saying?

What the psychologists discovered is that the brain “is kind of stupid,” Carey said. “You can tell it you have to learn something by Friday and it can’t do it, yet you can remember whole scenes from ‘(The) Godfather.’”

In short, he said, “Your brain doesn’t listen to what you’re saying. It’s watching what you do.”

Tasks that tickle more than one center in the brain, including social interactions or physical motions, tend to stick. That preference for diverse experiences helps explain why learning things over time works better than cramming for a test the night before you take it.

Mixing it up makes it memorable

Teachers should vary math exercises, mixing proportion problems with graphing problems, for instance, rather than practicing the same type of math problem repeatedly, small-scale studies show.

Carey laid out the findings of one eight-class study focused on how kids learn math. Homework for four different math skills was assigned two ways. One assignment gave blocks of similar problems – think of the old chapter test with standard summary questions. The second assignment required several different skills.

On a follow-up test, the mixed method of studying won hands down: 77 percent correct vs. 38 percent for skills learned by repetitive practice. This technique is known as “interleaving”. Remember the word – it appears bound for future education jargon glory.

Testing can also be teaching

Imagine being given the biology final exam the first day of class as a pretest. Now think of how different the note-taking, studying and reports would be, knowing exactly what the instructor wanted.

This flips traditional class style on its head, but Carey said the science is solid. “Testing is a very strong form of study,” he said. “It’s a very powerful learning tool.”

Learning or going through the motions?

“This is the assumption we make about what learning looks like,” Carey said, describing a person sitting silently, half hidden behind piles of books, staring intently at page after page soaking in the information.

Such motionless concentration is actually counterproductive, but that’s what we all were taught is the best way to retain knowledge, he said. “It’s simply not true.”  

His advice is to take breaks, get up and move around while studying. “When you do that, you’re thinking about it more, and thinking about it is an act. It is a physical, mental act that reinforces the learning,” Carey said.

The takeaway: “It’s not about isolating the learning from everything you do in your life, it’s integrating it in.” 

Looking forward

“Teachers and schools already have some innovations in place,” Carey said. Some echo concepts seen before. “The science is moving fast. Universities are starting to get involved,” he said.

As ideas gain traction, moving to scale and into classrooms will have their own hurdles to cross. “Implementation gets so far away from inspiration,” he said. “All this stuff is going to be beaten around by the usual agendas of education. But those are stories, too.”

It all points to the role of reporters as gatekeepers, keeping eyes open for the spin and checking for the science.