Conference Summary: THE SCIENCE OF TEACHING DURING A PANDEMIC

I am a lucky fellow: I got to attend the online conference “THE SCIENCE OF TEACHING DURING A PANDEMIC: Creating Motivated, Focused, Active, Autonomous Learners” organized by Learning & the Brain . I’ll start with an admission: I loved going to academic conferences, and I hope to get to travel to in-person conferences again someday. An all day virtual conference didn’t appeal to me, but the line up of speakers at this conference was too good to pass up. This conference turned me into a believer: I think I may have learned more at this one day virtual conference than I have at multi-day in person conferences. I expect it would have been even more powerful in person, but Zooming in to these talks was unexpectedly effective and fun. I’m a believer, and I hope the virtual format allows more people to attend conferences like this one. 

This blog post is an attempt at a summary of the conference highlights for me, and I’m sharing it in case it’s useful for someone who isn’t as lucky as I am and couldn’t attend this conference. For those of you who want the complete summary, here are my notes (warning: I editorialize!) 

8:00 Keynote: Uncommon Sense Teaching: Keeping Students Focused, Motivated, and Engaged in the Classroom and Online – B. Oakley

  • I’m cautious whenever anyone in education/teaching research tries to use brain research (there are SO MANY examples of overgeneralizations of brain research in education advice) but Dr. Oakley is definitely the real deal. She uses brain research cautiously and precisely, as far as I can tell. 
  • Her “Neuron as space alien” idea is super cute and useful. 
  • The discussion of Dopamine’s role in learning was new to me. Dopamine allows the stimulus response conditioning (positive reinforcement). Parent excitement can be a reward for a baby – dopamine allows that reward system to work. You only get a dopamine hit if learners don’t EXPECT the rewards. No dopamine increase for an expected reward (related to the mouse research on latent learning?). An unexpected reward = dopamine boost which strengthens the connection (long term potentiation?) This finding may have implications for how we use rewards, etc. for student motivation (I’m interested in thinking about how this connects with the advice in Peps Mccrea’s new book Motivated Teaching). 

9:10 Keynote: How Learning Happens in the Classroom and Online – Paul A. Kirschner

  • Dr. Kirschner is a “pull no punches” kind of writer/speaker, and I’m excited to hear his clear, direct advice. He helped me before with a learning equation
  • “Please close your WMDs – weapons of mass distraction” 
  • Dr. Kirschner discussed research about “Advance organizers” – I’m interested in checking that research to see what might be useful for teachers in my district. 
  • He asked a tough question:
    • What’s the most powerful influence on learning?
  1. The teacher
  2. The teaching method
  3. Student prior knowledge
  4. Learner motivation
  • The answer to this question (3! Prior knowledge!) relates to Assimilation/Subsumption theory: new information is linked and assimilated into already existing knowledge. Meaningful learning = constructing meaning from new information (Connections to constructivism! Dewey!) Learning depends on information processing.
  • Then we got to go on a great, concise tour of learning/memory theories: Information processing (Atkinson and Shiffrin), Baddeley (Central executive, PL and VSS), Sweller Cognitive Load theory, Pavio Dual Coding theory, Mayer’s cog theory of multimedia 

10:20 Option 5 (K-12): The Future of Technology and Assessment in Schools – Christodoulou

  • Dr. Christodoulou just published a book about technology and teaching. I haven’t read it yet so I was especially excited to get a preview.
  • In her book, she tries to figure out what these terms/ideas actually mean: personalization, online content, active learning, screen based learning. I loved how she talked about these issues. She imagined a “contiuuum” for each idea and described the ends of each continuum. The bottom end = “not effective for learning” and the top end = “Effective for learning.”
    • Personalization: not effective end = learning style. Effective end = adaptive learning
    • Online content: not effective end = “you don’t need to teach anything that you can google”, Effective end = Multimedia learning (Mayer’s principles) 
    • Active learning: Not effective end = “learn by doing” (what students are THINKING about is the important thing, not what they are physically doing). Effective end: learn by quizzing
    • Screen based learning: less effective = all purpose devices (can be really distracting). More effective: dumber devices (using app blockers) (e.g. one laptop per child didn’t work)
  • I love this approach. Talking about the continuum instead of binary right/wrong ideas is much more useful and realistic
  • She also talked about the Comparative Judgment technique. This was a great reminder of something I learned about a while ago, and I was so motivated that I signed up for one of her free Comparative Judgment webinars and I’m trying to figure out how this idea might be useful with some social studies assessments in my district.  

11:50 Keynote Option 1: Helping Kids Teach Themselves) Willingham

  • I think Dr. Willingham is one of the best science communicators out there, and I appreciate all his work trying to clearly summarize what psychology research can tell us about teaching and learning. He’s great. 
  • In this talk, he synthesized research about why students procrastinate, how to use research about selective attention, studying methods, and checks for understanding/questioning techniques to overcome procrastination and other learning obstacles.
  • Overall: he may be our best “research summarizer” in education. We need more of this kind of overall synthesis and then we need to act on it. When we want to try something new, we shouldn’t start from the beginning. We need solid ground to stand on.

1:00 Option 5 (All Grades): Embedded Formative Assessments in Schools: Using Strategies that Drive Student Motivation, Self-Regulation, and Learning – Dylan Wiliam

  • Dylan Wiliam is so good at starting with clear definitions and working from there to logical conclusions based on research. 
  • If we define earning as a change in long term memory (makes sense!) then we have to remember that this is a LONG term process. If we forget it in a week, it wasn’t learning. We should reserve the word learning for a relatively long term change in LTM. 
  • Teaching takes place in time, learning takes place over time
  • I love this definition of assessment: a device for drawing inferences or conclusions. That definition clarifies some muddy waters (like the horribly abused terms formative and summative assessment!) 
  • Love this quote: “The only important thing about feedback is what students do with it.”
  • “None of Hattie’s effect sizes make any sense”  – damn! Shots fired!

There were many other talks I would have loved to hear: Steve Chew! David Daniel! James Lang! Richard Mayer! It was a great conference, and if anyone wants to talk about any of these ideas, please holler! 

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