In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve explores how creating desirable learning difficulties can enhance and promote student learning.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:15 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For the last 35 years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. In each of the coming episodes, I’ll explore my thoughts and my learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:39 Desirable learning difficulties to increase learning. A podcast on the Train Ugly website lead me to an exploration of measuring student performance versus measuring student learning. I found an article by Elizabeth and Robert Bjork titled “Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning”. This was a new insight for me — looking at labeling the difference between performance and learning. Here’s how the Bjork’s defined it: “Performance is what we can observe and measure during instruction or training. Learning is the more or less permanent change that occurs in knowledge or understanding and that’s the target of instruction. But learning is something we must try to infer and the current performance can be a highly unreliable index of whether or not learning has occurred”. As I dug deeper, it was identified in these terms: sometimes when I’m practicing I can become frustrated, I can become exhausted and during practice I’m not seeing a positive result in performance during the practice time.
Steve: 02:42 That can be frustrating and cause me to put less effort into my practice. It reminds me of the current work I’m doing, trying to learn German using the Duolingo app. And it’s very interesting because at the times that I am frustrated, I’ve made several attempts to respond and my attempts have not been correct. That’s exactly when the app shoots a message out to me that says “remember making mistakes is a good way to learn”. It’s encouraging me to keep practicing even though I’m not seeing a quick change or improvement in my performance. Reversely, we can sometimes be fooled because our practice is leading to an improvement in our immediate performance. But that performance improvement doesn’t have a long term carry over. As I was listening to the Train Ugly website, they laid out a great example of the basketball player who stays after practice and shoots 50 foul shots and finds that his or her performance during those 50 shots standing on the foul line is improving.
Steve: 04:32 And so they’re encouraged to keep up that practice only to have the problem identified later that their actual performance of foul shooting in a game had not improved. It’s the same as the student who studies for a test by cramming the night before the exam. The student gets a good score on the exam and is encouraged to continue the practice of cramming only to find out down the road that that time invested in learning for the test got a performance but did not get true long term learning to occur. This insight regarding performance and learning is important to me because I have been focusing on identifying – on clearly identifying, teaching, rehearsing, coaching, the most appropriate student production behaviors. In other words, it’s what students do that produces the learning. So it’s critical that that student – the time and energy is invested in the most important learning production behaviors.
Steve: 06:05 In my past work, I’ve described this struggle as teachers being overly focused on teaching versus being focused on learning. And I described that as the fact that teaching could be neat, orderly, sequential, managed and documented, while learning was often messy, spontaneous irregular, non-linear and complex. I now have a new insight that the element that I’ve been identifying as teachers being overly focused on teaching is that the teacher was getting the feedback from student performance that, mistakenly, the learning had occurred. And so the teacher feeling the pressure of the curriculum and the amount to cover, would take the results of students’ performance as an indicator that I could go on to the next concept. That also lead teachers to create activities for students to set up a learning processes that help the students speed their way to an improved performance.
Steve: 07:40 And that process of speeding to improved performance may actually have interfered in the student needing to take on the messy irregular, non-linear, work of learning. I’ve described that in other podcasts and blogs as teachers needing to get students to engaged in complexity. And it’s in the complexity that the student is more likely to generate a true learning outcome. Where the teachers work to simplify the process, can speed students to the performance outcome. This reminds me of a term that I frequently heard people use when looking at what’s happening in between a teacher and students in the classroom. It’s not uncommon to hear the phrase that “who’s working the hardest is learning the most”. This was illustrated in the article by the Bjork’s that I read where they gave an example of a study that was done where students needed to recognize the styles of different artists.
Steve: 09:07 And if in the presentation they were presented with more than one artist work at a time, it lead to greater learning than if they looked at just the examples of the one artist. Now, if the teacher did the work of having them look at the one artist work, it would be faster for the student to identify the pattern in that author’s work. And so that identification of that pattern would appear as a performance. But when the initial task was made more difficult by mixing the different artists for study at the same time, it led to increased learning, lasting learning for the student. In a similar example, when students are asked to recall information from the past, to go back and look up and find information, rather than the teacher presenting them with that information, the studies again, identify greater student learning.
Steve: 10:34 If thinking about this in the process, the teacher is noticing that it takes a longer time to get to the performance improvement, which I believe teachers filling the time press go to teaching strategies that get that quicker performance. And I’ve been in high school classes where I’ve had students get frustrated when the teacher is requiring them to do the work because the student isn’t recognizing that that’s what’s going to produce the long term learning. They have a sense that it’s the teacher’s responsibility to present them with this knowledge that they need rather than the student rather than the student having to go digging for it. So it’s just becoming increasingly clear to me that we need to spend time teaching students how true learning happens and where they want to expend their energy and effort.
Steve: 11:50 So far, I’ve been looking at three different strategies that we as coaches and teacher leaders and looking at our work in PLCs, might consider building into our practices to increase learning rather than our focus on performance. The first one is varying the conditions of practice. If we go back to the foul shooter example in basketball, rather than standing on the line, taking 50 foul shots in a row, coaches switched to blowing the whistle at anytime during practice and sending a player over to the foul line to quickly take two shots and move on. Notice that that second strategy much more resembles what’s likely to happen in a game. In a game when a player catches an elbow in the head and goes to the foul line to take two shots, they don’t do a 10 warmups to get to their shooting, which is what’s happening when they’re taking those 50 practice shots in a row.
Steve: 13:16 If you think about this from instruction, I’m recalling working with a group of teachers, who when they looked at the results of a standardized math test, their students had taken, identified an area where their students didn’t perform well and further study led them to realize that the way the problem was presented differed from the way they were presenting the problem in their instructional time and practice time with students. And so the quick response of the teachers was that they were going to change their classroom practice to align more closely with the way the problems were being presented in the test. And I knew at that time that that wasn’t the direction to take because in my head, what I’m thinking of is they’re liable to change the test again. And what I was realizing was that students should be presented with the problem as many different ways as possible because that’s what would lead to students being successful in learning rather than in performance.
Steve: 14:31 Another spot to consider is spacing study or practice sessions. This is a biggie for me in the identification that we really have a structure in too many of our schools today that convinces students that cramming for a test is a positive strategy and it keeps being reinforced because the student is getting that immediate good test result but not the longterm impact of learning. I’ve done some work many years back where I identified that most high school freshmen really did not know how to put a study plan together, how to look forward and identify when a given test on a chapter or unit was going to occur and how to work backwards to do a distributed layout of studying, which was much more likely to get to the learning that the student needed to experience.
Steve: 15:43 I really sense that we’ve got to figure out a place and a time for us as educators to stop and teach a study and practice set of strategies for students. Again, I see the system working against that. I’m working with schools now that are in a standards based learning process and they’re still carrying an eligibility for athletes at the school that says teachers have to have a grade turned in each week. And that is pressing the teacher to be measuring a performance quickly in order to record a grade rather than to be able to identify that the student is struggling through a month long practice on several different skills and strategies that are gonna lead to long term learning but do not give a good short term measure. My thought in my head is we really need to switch to a process where that eligibility thing is based more on our students engaging in the right practice activities for learning just the way we want them to be engaged in the right practice activities in their extra curricular program.
Steve: 17:17 The last piece that was presented by the Bjork’s is looking at the difference between interleaving versus block instruction. They identify block instruction as a practice sequence in which individuals rehearsed the same skill repeatedly. And random practice is defined as a practice in which individuals perform a number of skills in a random order and thus avoid and minimize consecutive repetitions of a single skill. This one is really connecting with me in the work that I’m doing on my Duolingo language app. Within any 10 minute practice session, I find that I’m practicing approaching the vocabulary in several different directions, one after the other. And I’m realizing the difference between that and when I studied German as a language in high school and college. The tendency was for my practice activity to be repetitive of the same skill over and over and over.
Steve: 18:48 I’m thinking how often that occurs in the work we’re giving students to do in school where following a teacher presentation, the student is asked to practice that skill that was just presented in isolation rather than being mixed with previous learning. It really aligns with the example that I gave earlier regarding studying the artist. Our tendency is to study that isolated block practice rather than being random or “interleaving” as the term that the Bjork’s use. I’m glad to have this insight for myself regarding the difference between learning and performance. As I look at coaching teachers who frequently present the problem of their students not having a lasting learning. I’ve been working recently in vertical PLCs and I think that’s a powerful place where I can bring this conversation to the forefront when teachers are raising the fact that students are missing skill-sets that the previous year’s teacher is convinced were mastered. I’m recalling a conversation with a kindergarten and first grade PLC where they were in a debate as to whether the “bossy E” was a first grade skill or a kindergarten skill.
Steve: 20:49 For all my secondary folks, the “bossy E” is the silent E on the end that generates a long vowel sound. The debate was going back and forth and then one of the kindergarten teachers shared that she was sure it was a kindergarten skill because her students mastered it at which point a small laughter broke out from the first grade first grade teachers. And if you think that through, I’m sure what happened was that there was a solid block practice rehearsal and student performance showed that that learning was present. I know that I’ve been in too many secondary classrooms where in a 90 minute block class, I’ve seen students reviewing and studying the first 45 minutes and then taking a test in the second 45 minutes. The teachers and the students are leaving with a performance outcome that they probably mistakenly are counting as a learning outcome. I’m wondering if too often we aren’t even making the same mistake in our work in professional development with teachers where we’re presenting a strategy or process for teachers to be using with students and we’re presenting it in a simplified version missing the need for the teacher to work in the complexity of adding that strategy to his or her practice in a way that will have the greatest impact on student learning. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. Thanks for listening.
Steve [Outro]: 22:58 Thanks for listening folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.