I did not grow up on a farm, so I’m constantly marveling at how different my kids’ childhood is from mine. It’s like they are growing up in another country.

Kids learn by disintermediating adults
We typically hear about disintermediation when we talk about the Internet. For example, the online travel industry disintermediated travel agents and now we book travel directly with airlines.

The next wave of education will disintermediate teachers. Because schools occupy similar territory today that travel agencies occupied in 1998.

I remember that all my interactions with nature were mediated by an adult. The camp counselor who taught us how to build a fire. The biology teacher who told us how to dissect a frog. I was so rarely left to my own devices in nature, yet I’ve always known I loved nature.

My kids go out to our forest and do whatever they want. Sometimes I am close by, sometimes they go alone. Either way, though, I find myself thinking about un-mediated learning experiences, those where the child works directly to discover things on his own. Those are the experiences that are so fulfilling to their self-esteem.

And all this thinking made me do some research about what learning experience are most effective. And telling kids what to learn doesn’t work, because everyone learns whatever is most meaningful in the moment.

Lecturing doesn’t work.
Kids retain the most knowledge by doing rather than listening. Which means that lecturing is one of the most ineffective ways to convey information.

A study from the National Training Laboratories in 2000 found that only about 5 percent of the information delivered through lecture was retained. Compare that with retention rates at 50 percent for discussion groups and 70 percent for practice-by-doing. Even higher, at 80 percent, was retention by students teaching others.

However, it’s unclear how to let middle school and high school kids do hands-on learning in a classroom situation. And it’s even more difficult to approach that problem when you consider that kids learn best when they choose what to learn. Self-directed hands-on learning? That means outside the traditional classroom. There simply aren’t enough resources in a school to allow one teacher to handle even 20 kids learning like this simultaneously.

Telling kids how to live doesn’t work. 
Doing hands-on learning for big life decisions is a little more difficult. It’s important, for example, to make sure both parties give consent before sex, but lecturing to kids about the importance of this is making little practical impact on college campuses.

However the axiom “show don’t tell” seems to apply well when it comes to learning how to make important life choices. It turns out that the MTV’s teen mom reality shows have done more to decrease teen birth rates than decades of federal policy. Because the shows are engaging and they tell a story instead of lecturing to kids.

These finding shouldn’t surprise us because adults learn from stories, not lectures as well. Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, is a compendium of research (and stories) of why successful changes in consumer habits come from memorable tales.

Bottom line: Kids and adults learn fastest from similar methods, and neither learn best when they are locked up for lectures, eight hours a day.

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25 replies
  1. Jenna Bourgeois
    Jenna Bourgeois says:

    if there was one thing I learned from the one class that I took in education, it was regarding individual learning styles. There are seven I believe. I learn by listening (auditory) and you are correct that this may be a small percentage of the population. Hand me a book, and I just won’t get it or remember it. Others learn mechanically as you described, by doing it.

    • jayson
      jayson says:

      Not to mention that some learning styles work well on some people on some days while others work well at other times.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      I strongly suspect that the theory of learning is not that simple – partially because as mentioned previously different people have different preferred ways to retain information. But I also suspect that lectures and practical learning teach different things. Lets take knitting: a lecture on knitting is borderline useless, taking the two needles in your own hands is what gets you there. On the other hand – there is no practical equivalent to quantum mechanics (yeah, nobody needs quantum mechanics, right? except for the moment you switch on your computer and respond to this email by saying nobody except for those building the computer needs to know it…..).

      Lecture is not solely sitting there and waiting until it ends – it should and has to include, note taking, reading up before and after, looking for additional material to study what was covered in the lecture. So, overall retention is low for only listening but if you consider a lecture as part of a whole it is actually much more efficient.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        And lecture can be a lot like a conversation. You just have to wait for your turn to talk.

        It’s a bad conversation when there is no place for questions, challenging assumptions, back-and-forth. Like this blog post could be counted as a good lecture. The writer says something. Then it’s the community’s turn to comment and challenge and ask questions (of each other and the writer).

        Most lectures are bad conversation and are very ineffective for learning because the student-to-teacher ratio is way out of balance so there can’t be anything more than just the teacher talking. There is no exploring of the subject while the “expert” is in the room.

        I’ve never been in a quantum mechanics class. I imagine that you have to be super smart to make the cut. Normally that means smaller class size so you can ask questions and explore.

        • caro
          caro says:

          It’s as simple as passive vs active learning. Even studying for a test, you have to work on recalling the information rather than simply reading to succeed.

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          Actually I don’t think you have to be supersmart for quantum mechanics (at least not for the basics) but you have to use something which is less and less valued nowadays: abstract thinking. Being able to work, imagine and develop your thought in a framework you cannot “touch” or see. You can see the effects of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity but you need to step out of your tangible daily life experience world to understand it.

          P.S. GPS only works because we apply a relativistic correction – my standard example to those who say that nobody needs physics :-)

  2. Susan Raber
    Susan Raber says:

    I did grow up on a farm, and spent hours tromping in the woods – me, my dog, and a machete for brambles and snakes. I wish my kids could have that, but we’ve managed to still live like hillbillies in the middle of a middle class suburb.

    Some people get cranky about older kids being ‘in charge’ of younger kids, but mine learned so much more about how to do things – from household chores to cooking to math – by helping their younger siblings. Our core teaching method with just about any task has been to demonstrate it, assist while the kids try it, then supervise from a distance until they’ve demonstrated mastery. I don’t see any lectures in there anywhere.

  3. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I think that sometime between my grandparents’ generation (growing up in the 1920s-30s) and now, we intermediated adults into kids’ lives. Listening to Grandma and others of her generation talk about their childhoods, they were pretty much left to “go out to the forest and do whatever they want.” Grandma used to tell a great story about how she taught herself how to drive. She just went out to Dad’s car and figured it out, clutch and all, because there were no automatics in 1929. And you didn’t need a driver’s license then, especially out in the country where they lived. She wanted to go into town, she needed to drive to do it, so she figured out how to drive. She was full of stories like that — she lived life as it came and followed her interests as they arose.

    Somewhere after WWII parents started hovering over their children like they were made out of bone china.

    • jayson
      jayson says:

      That was before the urban criminalization of unsupervised outdoor play.

      I hypothesize that some of this cultural shift has to do with a lower fertility rate. Eg. it’s easier to mollycoddle one child than five.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I think there’s a reason for the criminalization. It stopped being safe for the kids. Reasonable or not, the danger of kids being kidnapped, hurt, etc. was in the forefront of everyone’s minds. Parents were spending too much time outside the home and communities were not as tight knit as before.

        I wouldn’t let my children run around comfortably if I didn’t know my neighbors.

        Maybe we can go back to the time of our grandparents (and when I was a kid) by crafting environments that aid this kind of parenting (get to know the neighbors, make the effort of forming a real community, keep the place safe, etc.).

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Jim, I think about that all the time — how the further back in time you go, the more freedom the kids have.

      I don’t think we are fundamentally very different today. We just know more about what makes people thrive. And it turns out that giving kids the freedom is what makes them thrive.


  4. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    If there is an 80% retention rate with teaching others, it seems the role of classroom teacher/student is backwards. A classroom teacher should have students gather information on their own in effort to teach the teacher. Let someone teach you, give the gift of 80%.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      When I was going through 7-9th grade in Mexico the school I was attending was trying out a new thing for teaching kids. It wasn’t across all classes (sadly as it made History and math and grammar impossibly boring).

      For most of the sciences everyone was in charge of researching a topic to teach the class. We missed the point often and were too nervous to lose points in bad presentation. But we knew the topic up and down. That’s how I realized I had bulimia without having to ever get a diagnosis. Because I became an expert in bulimia so I could teach my class about it.

      It was in my late teens and I was in high school when it was very evident to me that I had bulimia.

      It was also very easy to craft a plan to “fix myself” and give myself boundaries to not cross. I didn’t want to alert my parents. I didn’t want to bring grief and cause them more stress. I didn’t want the attention on me to be honest.

      I wonder what could’ve happened to me if I didn’t know a thing about eating disorders and if I didn’t know how to research and put together a plan to get myself eating again. It wasn’t typical of my culture to seek counseling so I wouldn’t have taken that approach. I wouldn’t have known that chipping teeth and periods stopping altogether and an irregular heart rate are signs of things going very far. Alternating starving with bingeing and purging and being constantly so cold that my nails were always purple, were screaming details that I needed help stat. But there was no one around to notice or help because everyone assumed I was just a kid passing through the school year. Maybe my parents were just nomadic field workers. Who knew? I didn’t speak English well the first year and even after that I was so painfully shy.
      People were shocked when I told them I was a US national.

      I could’ve shown up with bruises to school and no one would notice or care probably.

      Becoming the expert on a topic and being responsible to teach a classroom of 30 kids not only is the best way to learn something but it probably saved my life too.

    • caro
      caro says:

      Indeed. That also made me think that classrooms of mixed levels and ages, with kids helping other kids would be really effective.

  5. redrock
    redrock says:

    yep, this is the dirty little secret of those who teach more advance materials: let me teach this other class this year so I can finally learn the material and am forced to sit down and really work on it, no more excuses.

  6. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    As most know here, lecture classes rarely happen anymore except at the high school and college level. Elementary schools moved mostly away from the squadron of desks the teacher stands in front of and toward groups of desks the teacher buzzes among. The goal is to increase interaction among the children – the educational version of the intermediation described here. I would have hated it, because I recall the best part of grade school being the anonymity of the lecture class. I could read anything I wanted inside my textbook, as long as I dedicated the required 5% of my brain to being able to answer questions. Getting lost in the shuffle was always a good thing.

    In college, I found lecture classes frustrating when I was interested in the material but had trouble paying attention. I gravitated towards subjects and institutions with smaller classes with more dialogue. But I still disagree about the inefficiency of lectures. I’ve taken classes at more than ten universities, and have found big lectures require and create an ancillary educational support system. An experienced and expert college lecturer can be truly fascinating by himself, but a big lecture is never the entirety of the process.

    Moving up to the higher grades and college, you might have 40 kids in a lecture in high school, or hundreds in college. There is simply no way to manage the transmission of information in a classroom setting other than the lecture hall for this many students. Following the math given here, 200 students times 5% retention is still a net of 10 full student equivalents for one lecturer by himself, which would be sufficient on its own.

    The transmission, however, is increased through labs, office hours with teaching assistants, or study groups, which are all essentially discussion groups. Let’s add up and call it an uneven (some kids get more, some less) 60% for the lecture / lab method, or 120 full student equivalents. This is achieved with 1/4 of a professor and 2 FT TAs (assume 200 broken into 10 groups, TAs doing 5 groups each). If that’s the efficiency, it’s an excellent rate for the investment. At a smaller college, with lecture classes down to 40 students, the prof could handle labs by himself or with one PT TA.

    It’s a nice thought to have each one of 200 students should bring his own presentation to class, teach the others, and reach 80% retention, but it would take more class periods than are available in a four year undergraduate education. Then recall that each of the other 199 students would sit through that period with even less successful transmission than would be received from a professional lecturer, because of the relative ignorance of his peers. It would be a net loss in efficiency.

    Children may have an easier time learning things for themselves, but the number of things a child can reinvent individually is limited. Humanity has developed persistent culture, transmitted via books, university lectures, and other durable methods, to increase the amount an individual may learn beyond that which he may experience on his own. Cavemen had to lose their store of knowledge generation after generation, but we don’t. I am content to see other parents sentence their children to perpetual reinvention of wheels through pursuit of anti-institutional dogma, because it will give my literate, numerate children a comparative advantage.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Anti-institutional dogma? How can that even be a thing? One can be anti-whatever and not be dogmatic. Dogma is for religion.

      These debates about what kids should or should not learn, or how they should or shouldn’t learn is just another way to put everyone in a box.

      I encourage freethinking in my house, we don’t even know the way to the box here.

      I don’t think it’s fair to make assumptions about how your children will be better than any other child. Unless you have invented a time machine and gone into the future? If so… please tell me where to put my money.

      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        I come here for the hyperbole. That’s what keeps PT’s place from devolving into a tedious humblebragging tournament.

    • jayson
      jayson says:

      Since transmission of knowledge through a lecture can easily be done by vidoes or simply a printed piece of paper. The I happily report that, by your metrics, everyone should know everything by now simply by the existence of the internet and it’s frictionless transmission of information.

      The vast majority of information inside a person is duplicated in particular and by necessity that information coming from institutions is particularly common. I would assume your children would enjoy more of a comparitive advantage by having a alternative perspective.

  7. redrock
    redrock says:

    well said! One thing which helps studying and clarifying your thought is often to try to explain your understanding to a fellow classmate – does not have to be a lecture style endeavour. I established a new graduate student seminar this year – 15 minutes to talk only (condense your thoughts to essential ideas) and no power point slides – just a blackboard (take out the ppt crutch and the horrible bullet style lists which put you to sleep in 2 seconds flat.) It was great to see how students developed great talks and gained a lot of confidence in sharing their ideas.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I have no problem with lectures. At present, I am not concerned with education outside of k-12. In k-12 you have to learn what they tell you, or at least fake it and take tests to measure your memorization skills. College is different in that you are free to make decisions about what class you want to take and even which professor, if that’s an option, you want to learn from. I don’t think you can compare those two adequately, because they are not the same thing.

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        LOVE the photo!

        I found that, unless you were creating an independent study type degree, college was still extremely restrictive with requirements and class schedule restraints. And if you throw in “no classes before 10am”–forget about it!

  8. MBL
    MBL says:

    We just re-watched all of Firefly and Serenity. In a flashback they showed a young River in a class and she was trying to correct the mis-informed teacher (Cam from Bones.) They cut to one of the scientists observing her brainwaves who intoned “She’s having a nightmare.” So sad, 500 years from now school will still suck!

  9. Mark Lang
    Mark Lang says:

    Your comments about the lecture not working are right on, but you are actually getting to something more important. The best way for kids to learn is to pursue things that interest them in their own way. This is the essence of inquiry-based learning. The reality is that, today and in the future, people will learn more things in their lives this way than through any formal education program. So school really should change to prepare kids to learn very effectively in this way.

    When you say this will not work in a conventional classroom, that is true. However, it can be very effective in a reinvented school setting where students own their learning and teachers are facilitators. A small team of teachers, perhaps with some aids, can handle a pretty large group of students very effectively because their role is different. The kids do most of the research themselves and even help each other learn. They are so motivated that they accomplish more than you would expect. Teachers only need to guide them from time to time when they get stuck or frustrated. The availability of the Internet and things like Maker Rooms gives plenty of opportunity for kids to find things that interest them and explore, although at least older kids will probably go into their communities for much of their research. In practice, one does not really turn kids completely lose. Teachers play a key role in shaping broad directions and open-ended projects for kids that will interest them. But it is always done in a manner that reaches the kids where they are and keeps them engaged.

    Think about this. Problems with dropouts and discipline go away because kids own their own learning. Further, because they are taking initiative, researching, and developing their own solutions, they are learning problem solving skills that are in demand in today’s economy. Those serious issues that traditional schools, even with technology, have not been able to solve are dealt with naturally in this new learning environment. Kid are excited about learning, and teachers are happy because kids are learning. The few schools doing something like this have even shown that students do well on the dreaded exams without focusing on them.

    There is very little doubt that something like this will be the future of public education. The challenge is for current educators to open their minds to this complete reinvention of what “school” is all about. You have to stop thinking about the compliant environment where a lone teacher tries to get 20-30 kids to “learn” certain material and be open to a completely new vision that is dynamic, exciting, and open ended. A focus on learning replaces a focus on schooling. There is more about this kind of environment at lventure.org if anyone is interested.

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