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How Broken is Education?

When I started my research into education and learning many years ago, I wanted to know what we know about learning, and how well the educational establishment uses that knowledge to help students learn. I initially worked in higher education and worked to introduce, even a little bit of effective learning practice into teaching and learning in higher education. As time went on, I began to realize that the same lack of learning was taking place in our primary and secondary learning institutions as well. There is an entrenched philosophy in education that almost rejects any hint of evidence when it comes to learning, and clings to practices that can, at best, be called the art of teaching.

Education is all about teaching. It is all about teachers. It is all about technique. And it is all about the transmission of information. Education is not about learning. Education is not about learners. Education is not about how people learn. And education is not about the reception and incorporation of knowledge.

Education focuses on the wrong end of teaching and learning.

As many in the teaching profession will tell you, teaching is an art – and I completely agree!

However, learning is not an art! There are well-founded scientific principles that underlie learning, and teaching is not based on them at all.

My students and I have, for many years now, looked at the parts of education, and tried to tease out the underlying learning principles – and we can’t. What is the learning principle that underlies grades, closed book exams, blocked learning times, sitting at desks (or tables), conformity, school uniforms, rejection of mistakes, passive lectures… And the list goes on and on. All things that take up great amounts of time and resources in education are only peripherally related to learning. Whereas, the real, scientifically evidenced principles of learning are all but ignored!

Last week, I wrote about different learning techniques, as outlined in Dunlosky’s 2013 paper. I have reproduced them in the table below. Last week, I was talking to a school principal, and he hadn’t heard of any of the most effective techniques! I imagine that most of you will have only heard of those techniques that cluster at the bottom (low utility) end of the list. It could be that the ones near the top are recent developments in learning, after all, the testing effect (practice testing) was initially talked about only about 100 years ago, while distributed practice for more effective learning was written about by Ebbinghaus in the 1860s – far to new to have been adopted by educators.

High Utility

Practice testing

Self-testing or taking practice tests on material to be learned

Distributed (‘spaced’) practice

Implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time

Moderate Utility

Elaborative interrogation

Generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true


Explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem-solving

Interleaved practice

Implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session

Low Utility


Writing summaries (of various lengths) of to-be-learned texts


Marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading

Keyword mnemonic

Using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials

Imagery used for text learning

Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening


Restudying text material again after an initial reading

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