The Promise of Habit-Based Learning

21st November 2022

Cheery Monday Greetings to our Learning How to Learners!

It’s worth sending an unusual, “Cheery Monday” greetings this holiday week (at least it’s a holiday in the US!) with this morning’s publication of Barb & Terry’s essay “The Promise of Habit-Based Learning” in the journal Law & Liberty.  This essay turns the lens of neuroscience onto math education, showing how long-derided “rote” learning is actually extremely sophisticated, and  has an important place in education.  Here is the introduction to the piece:

“Education is a vital discipline, but something has gone awry. For example, over the past decades, the U.S. has dropped to the bottom of international rankings for developed countries in math. This decline has coincided with education reform, a shift that has emphasized understanding and downplayed practice. Could something that sounds so sensible have possibly been responsible for the drop?…

“The brain has two major learning systems. One is based on practice, and leads to fast, automatic behavior. This system is not accessible by conscious thought and is the source of intuition. The second system is based on deliberate thought—it is slow but flexible. You are consciously aware and can verbalize what you have learned. These two systems are roughly analogous to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s “thinking, fast and slow.”

“Students need both fast and slow systems to learn well. Yet over the past fifty years, education, and math education in particular, has dismissed the importance of fast automaticity in learning—insisting instead that students can always look up whatever they need to know, and that drill equates to kill. But focusing primarily on slow, flexible thinking, appealing as it may be, is akin to asking a sprinter to run faster by hopping on only one leg.

“As management consultant Peter Drucker has noted: ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ The culture of modern, Western approaches to teaching has long held that chasing after fluency kills student interest and creativity. Thus, although achieving fluency has now been written into current standards for teaching math, these standards are often minimized or ignored in actual practice by teachers.  After all, for close to fifty years, fluency, especially in math, has been de-emphasized and even ridiculed by educational leaders.”

There is more–much more, especially involving the support of neurally diverse students.  Read the whole thing!

The Gates Foundation turns its total educational focus to math education

Focus is definitely becoming more intense on the failures of mathematics education in the US. This article by Jay Caspian Kang in The New Yorker: “What Do We Really Know About Teaching Kids Math?” describes how the “field of math education is cluttered with bad and untested ideas. The Gates Foundation is spending more than a billion dollars to try to find a way forward.”  

Key graf: ““Math is unique because there is a right answer, and I think that politicizes it, somehow,” Hughes [the Gates Foundation’s director of K-12 education], said. “In other subjects, there may be different answers or you can have a multiplicity of interpretations. Math has a right answer; there are multiple ways to get there, but there is a right answer. We believe it’s important for kids to get to that right answer… This stands in opposition to much of the progressive push in math education…”

Birthdays & Thanksgiving

Every once in a while, Thanksgiving, which always falls on the third Thursday of November, happens to be on November 24th.  And indeed, on that day back in 1955, Barb’s mother spent all day cooking Thanksgiving dinner. She never got to eat it, though, because the cooking was the final straw that tipped her into the trip to the hospital. The result was Barb’s cheerful, if squealing, arrival into the world. So this Thursday is a special, true “double” birthday for Barb!  

And in a complete non-sequitur, enjoy seeing how the Vietnamese treasure learning with Barb’s segment on Vietnam Television Channel

Have a happy Thanksgiving week in Learning How to Learn!

Barb, Terry, and the entire Learning How to Learn team

View more Cheery Friday e-mails >